Research Notes · 05/26/2017

Meditations on the Mother Tongue

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their process for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, An Tran writes about Meditations on the Mother Tongue from C&R Press.



The methodology is simple, but requires technical finesse: Firmly staple an object to the mind, such that it cannot move, and then observe the subsequent results.

Skilled spiritual scientists will note how mental phenomena manifest wildly wherever an object makes contact with the mind—memories, feelings, perceptions, conjectures, and more, all frothing like seafoam to the fore of consciousness. Mining this dataset, the researcher can extrapolate the net of causal forces at play. And this is nothing short of awakening insight.

The stories represent the final conclusions drawn from this researcher’s empirical inquiry. What follows is the raw data collected during my investigations.


Meditation on the Mother Tongue

Again, the noble disciple destroys the taints, attains liberation of the mind, and liberation through wisdom, and in this very life, personally attains understanding and awakening, and dwells having perfectly realized. He knows it as it really is: ‘Birth is ended, the holy life has been established, what was to be done has been done. There will not be another existence.’

— Śakyamuni Buddha. “Discourse on the Coral Tree,” Madhyama-āgama (T026.02). Translator(s): Marcus Bingenheimer, Editor in Chief; Bhikkhu Anālayo and Roderick S. Bucknell, Co-Editors, et al.


My great grandmother’s funeral. An ornate rug of golden silk and dotted with meditation cushions lay in front of her casket. To the right of the casket, her portrait centered on an altar. She’s wearing a traditional silk tunic the color of dried blood. Offerings of white rice in white porcelain bowls, fruit, yellow flowers, burning incense and steaming tea are arranged neatly on the surface. To the casket’s left, a young monk in a brown robe is kneeling over a dark bronze singing bowl large enough for an infant to fit into. He holds a mallet in one hand and the other in prayer at his chest. He strikes the bowl. When it rings, a procession of monks and nuns assemble into rows on the rug and then, in unison, lower their knees to the cushions below. Another ring of the bowl. My family files in behind the monastics. We kneel on the cushions, our palms held together at our foreheads. For three hours, the noble ones chant the Infinite Life Sutra in incomprehensible Sinicized Sanskrit. The incense burns down. The scent of sandalwood fades from the realm of perception. Gray ash dusts the altar.

The next day, we congregate again on the rug. We chant the Rebirth Mantra several times over an hour. We wish for my grandmother’s expedient progress toward nirvana. For weeks, I am trapped in a cycle of shameful thoughts, fretting over my inability to speak my first language any longer. The mind spins through snippets of the Vietnamese I’d heard at the funeral and I begin studying the sequence of sounds, how the verbs act upon objects, how pitch distorts meaning.


Meditation on a Clear Sky

In general, the habitat in which extant populations are found is flooded swamp forest. However, the existence of two recent camera trap photographs and a skin from higher altitude marshes and streams in evergreen forest indicates that future surveys should consider this as another potential habitat to cover.

— Wright, L., Olsson, A. & Kanchanasaka, B. (2008) “A working review of the Hairy-nosed otter (Lutra sumatrana).” IUCN Otter Specialist Group Bulletin, 38 – 59


In order to realize their dreams, the imperialists always depart their homes and quarter themselves on another’s land. And for the occupation’s duration, the imperialist sense of courtesy compels setting the savages straight on how the world is. They say: These animals are real, but those are myth. They say: Our way of divining the rains is science; your way is fantasy. They say: Blue is a completely different color from green.

I wonder what it would have been like, being among those who made first contact with the colonials. Did heaven leap a sudden thirty leagues, now that the grass and sky were different colors?


Meditation on the Skin

What is perception endowed with signs? All perceptions except those of him who is skilled in the inexpressible, of him who has attained the state of signlessness and him who has risen to the summit of existence.

— Asaṅga Bodhisattva. Chapter II, Abhidharma-samuccaya. Translator(s): Walpola Rahula (French, from Sanskrit); Sara Boin-Webb (English, from French)


There exist languages composed of light, rather than sound. A syntax of hue, pattern and luminosity is scrawled across parchments of skin. The native speakers of this language family are the cephalopods—octopus, squid, and cuttlefish.


We too have made grammar of color. We too have imbued skin’s perception with signs.


Meditation on the Rest of the World

Koko’s invention and use [of] sign-like gestures are important for what they appear to reveal about Koko’s language, cognitive abilities, and understanding of her world. These gestures indicate that at some level Koko understands that the gestures she produces can stand for objects or actions. That is, these gestures have a meaning attached to them.

— Bonvillian, J.D. and Patterson, F.G.P. “Sign Language Acquisition and the Development of Meaning in a Lowland Gorilla.” In C. Mandell and A. McCabe (eds.), The Problem of Meaning: Behavioral and Cognitive Perspectives. Amsterdam: Elsevier, 1997.


A case study from a high school psychology textbook. A teenager, deaf the entirety of his life. Though this is his native culture, he has properly conversed with fewer persons than exist cards in a deck. And on one occasion he visits his local zoo and meanders about, eventually coming upon a pen of gorillas. And when he looks into this pen, he sees among the apes a mother beckoning her child to come hither. Beckoning the child in his native language. And he feels less alone.

I think of another barricade of language. I think of all the things I could never tell my own grandmother. I think of how the only animals who understand my words live in another world, the other side of home, the American world with all its white faces and round eyes and signs that don’t need to be sung.


An Tran is a parkour coach, a nationally competitive powerlifter, a software developer, and a writer of fiction and essays. His work has appeared in Southern Humanities Review, Gargoyle Magazine, Carolina Quarterly, Sundog Lit, and elsewhere, and has received a “Notable” distinction from the Best American series, nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and shortlisted for the Million Writers Award. He received his MFA from Queens University of Charlotte and lives in Fairfax, Virginia.