Wrestling with Nothingness

The intuition of nonexistence, which I wrote about recently, continues. It has a definite Buddhist flavor, as in these lines from Ryōkan (1758–1831), a Zen Buddhist poet and hermit.*

This is an old truth; don’t think it was discovered recently.
“I want this, I want that”
Is nothing but foolishness.
I’ll tell you a secret:
All things are impermanent.

But given my bi-spirituality, I acknowledge a Christian aspect as well. Zen and Christianity come together in the religious experience of the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, who, through his writings, was my spiritual guide for many of my younger years, and who in the latter part of his life studied and wrote about the Zen experience. Here is a statement from an interview with Brother Paul Quenon, a Trappist who studied under Merton at Gethsemani Abbey.

[Merton and I] were talking about prayer and that prayer is like a struggle with God. It’s like Jacob struggling with the angel in the night, and when you’re encountering God God is not a thing, and so God is more like nothing, so when you enter into the depth of prayer it’s like entering into nothingness.

Wrestling with nothingness seems to be a good description of where the intuition leads me. If I possessed the kind of theistic faith that sustained Merton, I might be able to frame the intuition as apophatic mysticism. When I am just coming out of the experience, I can sense how easily my perception of it could be changed by such faith. But while I don’t rule faith out on a priori grounds, each time I consider it I see that the world makes less, not more, sense from the perspective of theism. And so I wrestle, trying to come to terms with the experience, learning to accept the unacceptable and to allow this reality to shape my remaining time.

For without God, emptiness is truly empty. In Buddhist thought, the term “voidness” is not always reframed as “plenitude”: sometimes it is permitted to mean what it says, and that’s how I must use it now. This all seems most ironic to me, that a man who is grasped by the moral vision of the Hebrew prophets and Jesus comes, as he approaches the end of his life, to this Buddhist-like experience of voidness, of emptiness — without even the escape hatch of a substantialist interpretation of the doctrine of Buddha-nature, sometimes used to pretend that emptiness isn’t really empty.

Ryōkan again:

The village has disappeared in the evening mist
And the path is hard to follow.
Walking through the pines,
I return to my lonely hut.

When I was young, the Catholic Church was my village. (See “The Making of a Quaker Atheist.”) Leaving there discouraged, I found this poor heart-hut at hand and stayed here, thinking that it would be but a temporary shelter. It became my base for exploration. After wandering about and staying awhile among other communities, I discovered the Quaker village, and it is there that I continue to visit when I leave my inner hermitage. But that village, too, is swallowed by mist at the end of the day, and I see no path elsewhere. In the obscurity of age, I return to my lonely self. I will visit the village again, but I understand now that this temporary hut is my spiritual home. And I am beginning to understand that no one lives here. But if that truly is the case, I wish I could learn it fully while no one is still someone.

When you encounter those who are wicked, unrighteous, foolish, dim-witted, deformed, vicious, chronically ill, lonely, unfortunate, or disabled, you should think: “How can I save them?” And even if there is nothing you can do, at least you must not indulge in feelings of arrogance, superiority, derision, scorn, or abhorrence, but should immediately manifest sympathy and compassion. If you fail to do so, you should feel ashamed and deeply reproach yourself: “How far I have strayed from the Way! How can I betray the old sages? I take these words as an admonition to myself.” — Ryōkan

In the physical house in which I bide my time, there is a beautiful, although damaged, Buddhist shrine, in which reside images of the Buddha, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, and Thích Quảng Đức (who immolated himself in Saigon when I was 13 years old). For a couple of years, the shrine, facing a space too small for sitting meditation, has been closed. The shrine is something like my heart: beautiful, intricate, Bodhisattva-harboring; broken, misoriented, latched. Today, I think I will turn both of us around and open the doors.

*Note: passages from Ryōkan are from “Zen Poetics of Ryokan” by Meng-hu, reprinted at The Hermitary.
[Related post: “I Know What It’s Like to Be Dead”]

3 thoughts on “Wrestling with Nothingness

  1. “And I am beginning to understand that no one lives here. But if that truly is the case, I wish I could learn it fully while no one is still someone.”

    Thank you, Friend. Your sharing is helpful to me.

    Blessed Be,

  2. Some of your most powerful writing ever, I think. Just spare enough. But I have to ask my kind of question: How will you or the villagers know when your hut has been reoriented and unlatched? What will we experience?

  3. I hope that we will see growth in detachment and compassion, along the lines of Ryokan’s exhortation, but I am hesitant to attempt prediction, concerned that it may be a form of interference. And the experience itself, much more than its possible effects, draws my focus: I want to be open to and “stayed in” that, and as the doors continue to open, what will come will come. So for now, at least, I am heeding the teaching of the magian moose Bullwinkle: “Wait and see!”

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