“He showed the words “chocolate cake” to a group of Americans and recorded their word associations. “Guilt” was the top response. If that strikes you as unexceptional, consider the response of French eaters to the same prompt: “celebration.”

Michael Pollan

“It is not what you meant to say, but it is what your saying meant.”

Walter M. Miller Jr.

Faith is a continuum, and we each fall on that line where we may. By attempting to rigidly classify ethereal concepts like faith, we end up debating semantics to the point where we entirely miss the obvious – that is, that we are all trying to decipher life’s big mysteries, and we’re each following our own paths of enlightenment.

Dan Brown

Initially I studied Philosophy, because it claimed to give you answers to the meaning of existence, but it didn’t, it was basically a semantics game.

Talulah Riley

A major gap between many people to agree, stems from how  to define some of the most basic terms, such is  the importance of Semantics, and meaning.


Searching for meaning

The structure of concepts

Cognitive semantics has sought to challenge traditional theories in two ways: first, by providing an account of the meaning of sentences by going beyond truth-conditional accounts; and second, by attempting to go beyond accounts of word meaning that appeal to necessary and sufficient conditions. It accomplishes both by examining the structure of concepts.

I will not go too much in depth to the current state of the study of Semantics, since it will be too long, and I am afraid boring to many of the readers, but I will encapsulate some basic concepts, forewarning the reader that Semantics it’s a big field, with many having something to say that is important, but it’s not possible for this post to mention everything.

Frame semantics, developed by Charles J. Fillmore, attempts to explain meaning in terms of their relation to general understanding, not just in the terms laid out by truth-conditional semantics. Fillmore explains meaning in general (including the meaning of lexemes) in terms of “frames”. By “frame” is meant any concept that can only be understood if a larger system of concepts is also understood.

Same Word different frames of reference

First, it has been noted that word meaning is an extension of our bodily and cultural experiences. For example, the notion of restaurant is associated with a series of concepts, like food, service, waiters, tables, and eating. These rich-but-contingent associations cannot be captured by an analysis in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions, yet they still seem to be intimately related to our understanding of “restaurant”.

Cognitive linguistics (CL) an interdisciplinary branch of linguistics, combining knowledge and research from both psychology and linguistics. It describes how language interacts with cognition, how language forms our thoughts, and the evolution of language parallel with the change in the common mindset across time.

What words mean?

Semantics is the study of meaning in language. When one is disagreeing with another person it can sometimes be the case that it is just a matter of semantics.

This means the people disagreeing may have a disagreement only because they ascribe different meaning to a particular word(s). Once a common definition of the word is agreed the disagreement may then be resolved.

A common one between USA and UK citizens is the word socialism. I have often heard USA citizens describe the UK as a socialist country because they have universal healthcare. Meanwhile the UK citizens  don’t consider it a socialist country as we have a capitalist economy and universal healthcare is considered every citizen’s right. To argue it is a socialist country would be a matter of semantics.

She said He said

Misunderstanding as a fact of language.

With all these, by now I figure you are getting the point, language, as in words have a meaning, and it’s variable as to the frame of mind of a particular individual, in relations, to those words, that may hold different values to the other person in an argument.

Rather than blame it on the other person, blame it on the nature of Language!

And on our own frame of reference, in order to organize concepts, and meaning, that by force of a particular frame (our own) will be necessarily different to other people frames, therefore a matter of disagreement, before I used to get frustrated, when someone stubbornly stick to his frame, now day realize my own stubbornness to try to stick to mine!

Recently when I pointed to a fellow blogger, it was useless,  to elucidate the issue a mile long of responses, in the post, where arguing with words and concepts, since the topic is basically inexhaustible, and in my opinion useless to take one approach, or another one, and why wiser individuals, rather remain silent, or call it a Mystery.


And that in itself language wasn’t a reliable tool to capture Truth, and he used as a reply to my point that everything could be explained with a fancy theological word, that I would omit, since it’s no relevant to the point I want to make. So I  mentioned: ‘The word you are using, it’s just that, a word with meanings, and concepts attached to it, that in itself is no proof of it’s validity, although personally, sympathize with what you say.’

Without even thinking  he replied instantly with different words, with a more mundane frame, believing it will make me change my mind, about my skepticism on the value of words, to capture Truth!

I didn’t reply, reasoning he never got the message I was trying to communicate, that basically Truth it’s not an experience we can elaborate with words, where actually Silence, and Contemplation it’s more meaningful..!

The value of Parables,  Metaphors and Symbols

The word parable comes from the Greek παραβολή (parabolē), meaning “comparison, illustration, analogy.”[5] It was the name given by Greek rhetoricians to an illustration in the form of a brief fictional narrative.

Parables are often used to explore ethical concepts in spiritual texts. The Bible contains numerous parables in the Gospels section of the New Testament (Jesus’ parables). These are believed by some scholars (such as John P. Meier) to have been inspired by mashalim, a form of Hebrew comparison. Parables also appear in Islam. In Sufi tradition, parables are used for imparting lessons and values. And in General, they are common to Sacred texts to diverse Religions, some today named as Mythologies, however possessing pedagogic qualities to explain meaning, or moral as a noun, through a story.

Jesus Carried up to a Pinnacle of the Temple (Jésus porté sur le pinacle du Temple)

A metaphor is a figure of speech that directly refers to one thing by mentioning another for rhetorical effect. It may provide clarity or identify hidden similarities between two ideas. Antithesis, hyperbole, metonymy and simile are all types of metaphor.

Aristotle said in his work the Rhetoric that metaphors make learning pleasant; “To learn easily is naturally pleasant to all people, and words signify something, so whatever words create knowledge in us are the pleasantest.

Sonja Foss characterizes metaphors as being “non-literal comparisons in which a word or phrase from one domain of experience is applied to another domain”.[ She argues that since reality is mediated by the language we use to describe it, the metaphors we use shape the world and our interactions to it.

Gustav_Klimt Danae

Jung distinguished between a symbol and a sign. Insignia on uniforms, for instance, are not symbols but signs that identify the wearer. In dealing with unconscious material (dreams, fantasies, etc.) the images can be interpreted semiotically, as symptomatic signs pointing to known or knowable facts, or symbolically, as expressing something essentially unknown.

The interpretation of the cross as a symbol of divine love is semiotic, because “divine love” describes the fact to be expressed better and more aptly than a cross, which can have many other meanings. On the other hand, an interpretation of the cross is symbolic when it puts the cross beyond all conceivable explanations, regarding it as expressing an as yet unknown and incomprehensible fact of a mystical or transcendent, i.e., psychological, nature, which simply finds itself most appropriately represented in the cross. [Ibid., par. 815.]

Whether something is interpreted as a symbol or a sign depends mainly on the attitude of the observer. Jung linked the semiotic and symbolic approaches, respectively, to the causal and final points of view. He acknowledged the importance of both.

Psychic development cannot be accomplished by intention, and will alone; it needs the attraction of the symbol, whose value quantum exceeds that of the cause. But the formation of a symbol cannot take place until the mind has dwelt long enough on the elementary facts, that is to say until the inner, or outer necessities of the life-process, have brought about a transformation of energy. [“On Psychic Energy,” CW 8, par. 47.]

The symbolic attitude is at bottom constructive, in that it gives priority to understanding the meaning, or purpose of psychological phenomena, rather than seeking a reductive explanation.


Direct Transmission of Wisdom

Śākyamuni Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama) transmits direct prajña (wisdom) to the disciple Mahākāśyapa. In the original Chinese, the story is Niān huá wéi xiào (拈華微笑, literally “Pick up flower, subtle smile”)

In the story, Śākyamuni gives a wordless sermon to his disciples (sangha) by holding up a  flower. No one in the audience understands the Flower Sermon except Mahākāśyapa, who smiles. Within Zen, the Flower Sermon communicates the ineffable nature of tathātā (suchness) and Mahākāśyapa’s smile signifies the direct transmission of wisdom without words. Śākyamuni affirmed this by saying:

I possess the true Dharma eye, the marvelous mind of Nirvana, the true form of the formless, the subtle [D]harma [G]ate that does not rest on words or letters but is a special transmission outside of the scriptures. This I entrust to Mahākāśyapa.

Carl Jung and Kerényi demonstrate a possible in intent between the Flower Sermon and the Eleusinian Mysteries:

One day the Buddha silently held up a flower before the assembled throng of his disciples. This was the famous “Flower Sermon.” Formally speaking, much the same thing happened in Eleusis when a mown ear of grain was silently shown. Even if our interpretation of this symbol is erroneous, the fact remains that a mown ear was shown in the course of the mysteries and that this kind of “wordless sermon” was the sole form of instruction in Eleusis which we may assume with certainty.

Śākyamuni gives a wordless sermon to his disciples (sangha) by holding up a white flower. No one in the audience understands the Flower Sermon except Mahākāśyapa


About theburningheart

This entry was posted in Buddhism, Critical Thinking, Cultural Attitudes, Education, Human Nature, Knowledge, Language, Metaphors, Mythology, Parables, Subjective, Symbology, Symbols, True Teaching, Uncategorized, Wisdom and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. James McEwan says:

    I believe that the meaning of life is to appreciate the greatest gift that natures has given us.
    Some men it appears believe that the meaning of life is for selfish self satisfaction at all cost, regardless.
    just my opinion, and thought that helps me grow.

  2. Excellent article! This is an important idea in a shrinking world, and something my mom always emphasized while working as a translator.

    I’ve always thought that we construct an underlying, reflexive but still symbolic reality from our senses. But we then hang meanings upon that framework, and mostly through language. Speaking more than one language, the meaning part sometimes becomes apparent when attempting to translate from one language (and its cultural context) into another. Working to interpret some song lyrics from Japanese into English, I once came to the conclusion that in the particular case, it really couldn’t be done with any authenticity to the original. There were just too many socially loaded or implied values and images contained within the words, and they varied tremendously between the two languages.

    In that regard, the wordless sermon may serve at least to unload some of those socially-defined meanings from our experience. But it seems to me that whether or not that better reflects an “authentic reality” rather depends upon the semantics of what constitutes “reality”. Consider that people may be willing even to die for the meanings bound to words and symbols, and the personal reality of an imagery to the one who experiences it becomes apparent.

    • theburningheart says:

      As the German say we all posses our cultural, weltanschauung, and I will add also, a personal view of things, with our own subtle frame of reference, language it’s a great tool, but imperfect to achieve understanding, and agreement, and as you mention even translation of a song, can be very difficult, since our particular language it’s loaded with our own social, and historical baggage, which of course it’s different.
      Like translating poetry to a different language, it’s extremely difficult, and requires a skill also as a poet, to come close to the original, to provide a similitude of emotion, feelings, and depth.
      Now, teaching Wisdom, goes way beyond words, since it’s an experiential state of Being, rather than a concept to grasp with mind, as for example being in love, sure, we can understand the idea, but we can’t experience the love, or sorrow, that a particular person is feeling, but our own.

      Thank you for your great comment. 🙂

  3. Hariod Brawn says:

    If there is a Truth (your word), does consciousness know (i.e. apprehend) it directly, or does it know itself firstly, thereupon consciousness reflexing to it in subsequent perception/memory/thought etc?

    • theburningheart says:

      Well, it’s not as simple as that, first you got to differentiate thought, or mind as the capacity of self reflection, and what we describe as our daily state of being conscious, or awake to the World we awake to everyday derived from our physical senses, and our talking mind, like chattering monkey mind, who makes us aware of what we experience, and try to make sense of the whole thing. .
      Notice that when we go to sleep we experience a different state of being, where our sense of who we are on the dream, not necessarily correspond to our awareness of who we are in daytime, neither the events during the dream have the logic, or congruence we experience on daily life.
      Going mad, describe an individual whose reasoning doesn’t go along to our perceived reality, and therefore we consider it as a pathological decease of the mind.
      In our materialistic view of existence, we do not ascribe existence for anything outside the physical, like a doctor will tell you: ‘Well his craziness comes from the chemical misfiring of his neurons, and that’s why he is crazy.’ Or some logical similar statement, based on medical research. And in my view why despite our advance in many medical fields, mental disorders seem to be on the rise, rather than declining, since curing the body, without curing the individual soul, that by the way according to science do not exist, well..!

      My point is yes, Wisdom, and enlightenment are existing states, dimension of our inner realities, within Human nature, but that we have to realize through a practice, or a Spiritual method individually, and are not achieved by reasoning, or thinking, but as by the opening of the Heart, like loving, rather than to a process of conceptual thinking.
      Meanwhile when in our daily life we awake, to the light, it dispel our illusion of dreaming.

      Mystics say that life is a dream, and when we die we awaken.

      But it is also possible to “die before you die” and awaken in the dream of life. Not only is it possible, it is the very purpose of life. It is achieved when one becomes conscious of the soul, and understands with the clear light of pure awareness that one is now as one ever was and always will be..

      Thank you for your comment! 🙂

      • Hariod Brawn says:

        Thank you very much for your generous reply. Please allow me to express myself simply:

        You appear to assert that a Truth (as you refer to it) is knowable. My question is, what is it that apprehends this Truth? You seem to be saying this Truth is an ‘existent state’, yet within or of what precisely? Let us leave aside the fallacy of an enduring selfhood and all that for now. Thank you again! 🙂

      • theburningheart says:

        Well, its a long story, however let me say, I have no problems with Theistic, or Non Theistic approaches, and have practiced through my life many methods, so I respect both positions. as a matter of people’s choices guided by their temperaments, or happenstance.
        As Presence, solely the translucently clear, non verbal, apriori knowledge of Being. 🙂

  4. genx66 says:

    Shakespeare said it best in Romeo and Juliet “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other word would smell as sweet.”
    There is at core an essence of a being, and if the words describing are wrong, it doesn’t change the being itself, but only the interpreters understanding of it.

    And then, on philosophy and too much debate, I leave you with my favorite: Wittgenstein proposition 7 Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.

    That is the English translation…perhaps it means something different in native language?

    • theburningheart says:

      Life we live as an experience, then we try to conceptualize it through words, but that’s not life itself, just words that the listener, or the reader has to interpret, and understand or differs according to his own feelings, or experience.
      Yes, silence it’s much better, and sometimes the only way!

      Thank you for commenting, we appreciate it! 🙂

  5. DG MARYOGA says:

    Thank you for such an enlightening,educational article,and for mentioning the Flower Sermon and the Eleusinian Mysteries.Cultural,and cross-cultural Semantics,our personal past experiences, knowledge,perception,observation and so many other brain functions involve and have already influence our communication.Human brain is the most complex structure in the universe,scientists have still a long way to go through the 100 billion neurons with each one of those having about 10,000 connections.Life is a mystery itself,and it is so beautiful alrhough ephemeral.Brilliant article,it does help the evolution of our consciousness.
    Btw,have you read Hariod’s book?I’ve got it in my hands for a couple of years and still “study” it.It’s not a book you read for pleasure …

    • theburningheart says:

      Yes, Science as a great tool,it is but will have it’s hands full trying to decipher the great Mysteries of Existence, and Life represent, as it is they do not even know how Consciousnesses work, and still baffled on it’s effects on Quantum..
      Through my life have studied multiple approaches to Wisdom, it all started at a very early age, when I was first introduced to a catechism classes, and the Mystery captured my imagination right away, later the study of the old Greeks philosophers like Plato, the study of Buddhism, my practice of Yoga, Soto Zen, and many other esoteric, and traditional Ways included the study of the Hesychast and the Philokalia, Aidvaitia Vedanta, Shaivism, Taoism, and Sufism, plus Native American ways of Wisdom, and other less known.
      Wisdom it’s everywhere!
      It’s for us to practice it and Live by it.
      Thank you Doda for your comment! 🙂

      • DG MARYOGA says:

        Thank you for your response;great all the sources,the thinkers and philosophers that determined your life and shaped your thought 🙂

      • theburningheart says:

        Well, just a sample of some of the many things I have studied, and practice, through the years, not to mention life itself, the best teacher!
        Thank you Doda, hope the oncoming Easter celebration in Greece will be a time of inspiration, and reflection, for you, and your loved ones. 🙂

      • DG MARYOGA says:

        It’s obvious,you’re a very learned and knowledgeable person.Yes,Easter is nearing,its transformative power means a lot to me 🙂

  6. I have been living in the Italian speaking part of switzerland for more than 4o years but I am still very much aware of the fact that my culture is different, that I feel different and that this is therefore why I sometimes probably use quite a different language from a person born here.I, also very much like what you write about transmission of wisdom and silence!!
    Thank you very much for this highly interesting post, which i read avec great plesaure.:)
    Best regards Martina

    • theburningheart says:

      Yes, I lived 31 years speaking a foreign tongue , and now writing it. And it’s a trip, constantly learning new things, and trying to see life from a different point of view, like what you German speaking call weltanschauung, a never ending thing!
      And what is more, to see the culture I grew up into a new light..And with different understanding.
      Thank you Martina, for your great comment! 🙂

  7. Words are indeed incapable of describing the fullness of our experiences, yet they are often our only means of connecting with each other to share those divergent experiences.

  8. ASH says:

    Wow. I am SO glad that you introduced yourself to me!

  9. The same words can mean very different things to the same people.
    When you have an editor, editing the text you have written, you will be able to see immediately that they read things that you possibly did not include in your text or understood them in a completely different way.
    The same things without words also mean different experiences for us. I liked the cake comparison. For me any cake is pleasure. I always imagine Latvian style home-made cake. If I see it in a Canadian store, it means, abnormally sweet not eatable thing that looks great, but tastes very bad.
    The Russian psychologist Vladimir Levi did an interesting experiment trying to tie together sounds and imaginative experiences that are perceived visually. There were drawings of 2 animals that do not exist in the real world. One was round and looked very soft and had lovely big eyes and the other was having some kind of sharp huge needle back and ugly evil facial features. He gave 2 versions to choose from: I cannot recall exactly, I read about this some 40 years ago, something like lallapaya and zhuvarugzha (this would sound in Russian like a sharp [zh]), which were also names not existing in reality. The lovely animal was associated with the lovely sounding name lallapaya and sharp needled animal was in 100% cases associated with the sharp sounding name. Basically, we carry some common feeling towards visual and audio experiences. However, when it comes to philosophical explanations of the most important terms, like, meaning and purpose, etc., I would believe we interpret them in a 100% personal way which will involve our personal experience, age and probably everything else we have seen in our life.
    Very thoughtful post! I always enjoy reading things that keep our mind busy.

    • theburningheart says:

      In a way language it’s personal, even if we use it to communicate with everyone, and its made by our accumulated experiences through life, and of course those even if common to many, are personal to each of us, and therefore slightly different, or very different, like in the example of what do you evoke, when you hear the word cake! 🙂
      There’s a lot to talk when it come to language, many things I omitted for the sake of brevity, and to avoid a crammed post, who inevitable leads to boredom, or confusion.
      I may talk in further posts. Like why language was the tool that made us different from animals, and developed our cognitive abilities.

      Thank you Inese, for your fine comment. 🙂

  10. mistermuse says:

    Thank you for this “very thoughtful post” (as Inese Poga rightly called it).

    Because words too often mean what we want them to mean, I think political and ideological differences go far deeper than ‘mere’ semantics. Here we get into the realm of tribalism — a word which has come to the fore lately (as well it should) — because it encapsulates deeply entrenched beliefs and worldviews people are born into, raised with, and/or ‘brainwashed’ into. Such people are not even capable of seeing things from another viewpoint. Would that our differences were confined to “semantics!”

    • theburningheart says:

      Yes, you are absolutely right, but as I explained to Inese, there’s a lot to talk about language, what you say it’s even explained in a parable in the Bible, Bāḇēl) as told in Genesis 11:1-9 is an origin myth meant to explain why the world’s peoples speak different languages.
      And as you mention even if speaking the same language, ideologies, can make things a big problem in reaching understanding, making it a cause riddled with fanaticism, and intolerance towards different ways of thinking.

      Thank you for commenting, we appreciate it. 🙂

  11. Sylvie G says:

    Very interesting post.

  12. JT Twissel says:

    A lot to digest here. It is true – semantics is key to really understanding each other. Love the illustrations too….

  13. I appreciate your work, that it brings me back to Now, to Suchness. Because how quickly I forget.
    These days I hang my hat on yoga, and the chakras. I’m just a beginner, two years of yoga and short guided meditations, and lately chakra work. I’ve finally learned how to take what I learn on the mat, off the mat and into my life.

    • theburningheart says:

      I am glad, most people forget, that the spiritual life it’s just like any other activity, how much time, and effort you give to it, and that’s what you get back from it.
      So Susan, keep the good work! 🙂

  14. I support the family that cares for the children (my grandchildren) my drug addict daughter has abandoned. BIG chunk of my income. Gives me some purpose in life. Is this why I’m still here and survived perilous things ? Was this the plan for me to be the umbrella ? Perhaps.

    • theburningheart says:

      Carl, most of us at certain point in our life, wonder about it, and see a Higher power acting on behalf of us.

      Here are 3 thoughts about the matter:

      “God moves in a mysterious way / His wonders to perform; / He plants His footsteps in the sea / And rides upon the storm.”
      William Cowper

      And in Isaiah 55:8-9. we read:
      “For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
      neither are your ways my ways,”
      declares the Lord.
      “As the heavens are higher than the earth,
      so are my ways higher than your ways
      and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

      “He is God: there is no god other than Him. It is He who knows what is hidden as well as what is in the open, He is the Lord of Mercy, the Giver of Mercy. He is God: there is no god other than Him, the Controller, the Holy One, Source of Peace, Granter of Security, Guardian over all, the Almighty, the Compeller, the Truly Great; God is far above anything they consider to be His partner. He is God: the Creator, the Originator, the Shaper. The best names belong to Him. Everything in the heavens and earth glorifies Him: He is the Almighty, the Wise.”
      [Quran, 59:22-24]

      Thank you for your comment Carl! 🙂

  15. natuurfreak says:

    Een heel tof artikel

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