Presentation Details

The Second International Conference on New Directions in the Humanities

Empty Words: Simone Weil, Zen, and the Ordeal of Language

Ann Pirruccello.

Zen Buddhism is often referred to as a tradition that does not rely on words and concepts, yet some of the most compelling aspects of Zen training and culture take the form of words. Koan, poetry, stories, dharma talks, dialogues between teachers and students--traditional Zen is exploding with words; numberless names and phrases and utterances are used to help open the Zen practitioner to life. Words, however, like everything else upon which we might fixate, are empty. There are no 'words' in the sense of something fixed, self-subsisting, and separate. Zen encourages its practitioners to see into this emptiness, and avoid being fixated on and ultimately hamstrung by words. At the same time, an appreciation of the richness of words is taught.
French philosopher Simone Weil was concerned not with the emptiness of words that Zen recognizes, but with empty words. Empty words are those that create shared and personal delusions, such as when a political conflict with no actual objective is whipped up out of thin air. The consequences may be deadly and far reaching, and Weil thought that words played the same role for her contemporaries as Helen of Troy played for the ancient Greeks. (We might ask ourselves if words like 'weapons of mass destruction' do not also resemble that elusive queen.) Weil claims that "if we grasp one of these words, all swollen with blood and tears, and squeeze it, we find it is empty."
This paper is a short piece of comparative philosophy that looks at the ordeal of words in Weil and Zen. The intent is to find resources there to help us discover the ways in which words can be used to delude or clarify our lives, and to hinder or free our action.


Ann Pirruccello  (United States)
Associate Professor
Department of Philosophy
University of San Diego

  • Zen
  • Koan
  • Words
  • Emptiness
Person as Subject
  • Weil, Simone

(30 min. Conference Paper, English)