Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Explaining Emptiness to Jasper, age 15

A hole is an idea. You stick your finger in a ball of dough and sure enough there is something that we call a hole. But is there really a hole? Just as easily we can knead the dough and now there is no hole. Where did it go?

I sit on a tree stump and it becomes a stool. I get up from the stool and once again it is a tree stump. Where did the stool go? Is the tree stump really more that an assemblage of cells, that in a given configuration, and not used as a stool, is called a tree stump. And how about the cells? Are they really just a collage of molecules that are a collage of atoms that are… and we could go on and on. So we believe there are things, like a tree stump or even like love, that are just names. But when we look closely at them, the “object” is just a temporary collection of things that may or may not be named.

Hence we say, “no eyes, no ears, no nose…” We think an eye has eyeness within it. Yet when we dissect it we just see cells which, when dissected, are this and that and finally nothing. The eye is our story.

Two of my colleagues died last week. They were each a collection of foreign and residential matter. And that matter was a collection of smaller matter. And my colleagues, Ken and Ann, were not even a fixed collection, but rather they were continually changing and continually exchanging matter with the universe. They were empty of Ken and Ann, and yet we loved them dearly as Ken and Ann, and though they were forever changing, we could pick them out in a line up. Assemblages take on meaning. We love them. We suffer because we believe they are permanent and unchanging.

I imagine a reproduction of the Mona Lisa lying on a road. Cars pass over it and start obscuring the image. At one point the Mona Lisa leaves the reproduction and just becomes a scrap of paper. At a later point it becomes a bunch of cells. And then it mixes with the dirt and grows into a wild flower. Where did Mona Lisa go?

The Hsin Hsin Ming tells us to not lose ourselves in emptiness. When Ken knocks on my office door I answer it and invite him in. I don’t look at him and say, “Oh, you are no thing.” And yet, now, he does not knock on my door. Someday there will be no remnant of Ken. Like an ice cube set on a hot sidewalk, we don’t need to attach to it. We say, “Here today, gone tomorrow.“ And we can still treasure the ice cube in this very moment, recognizing its refreshing coolness and also its transient nature.

As William Blake wrote,

“He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy
He who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternities sunrise”

The Sidewalk

I tried (and failed) to convince my students that it was better to be able to appreciate a sidewalk than to own a yacht. With the sidewalk t...