[Text revised 10/17/2010. Endnote 6 updated 12/31/2018.]
As he passed me in the hall this afternoon, a colleague said, “You’re always smiling. You must know something I don’t know.” Of course, I’m not always smiling, but I do smile whenever I encounter someone, whether student, staff member, or visitor: in such a place (a school for emotionally disturbed children), they deserve it. And I am genuinely pleased to see them. But I find it ironic that this person who writes knowingly about darkness, depression, and anxiety is perceived as “always smiling,” as if in possession of a happy secret.
What secret might I know? I don’t even know who I am. When I go deeply into myself, I don’t find anyone or anything – which is why I sometimes resist going deep. But the depths are always there, always in the heart of my heart. I may try to repress it, but I can never completely cover the trace of untouchable nothing at the center.
Nothing, void, emptiness, sunyata:1 is this, then, the reality of who and what I am, the truth that the consolations of religion and mysticism tried and failed to cover?2 At the heart of me, at the heart of all things, I am confronted by emptiness: not soul, not Being, not God or godhead, not a “That” or Absolute, not “Reality,” “Truth,” or “Essence,” but the brutal simplicity of sunyata, the radical darkness of void, the pure and pregnant emptiness, perhaps, of the null set.3
Sunyata is unseen, but its trace can be traced, the presence of its absence noted. And then the secret is out: the secret that, as Caputo reminds me, there is no Secret,4 and that, as Zen reminds me, those who sell Secrets are selling water by the river. Once, long before I discovered Derrida, I ran to the river and dipped my cup to steal and still the living water, hoping to learn its secret. But the rushing river took me up and carried me through a floodgate, and there is no going back. That gate is no gate,5 opening to nowhere, and what flows through it is simply water, an inessential essential of an inessential life. Water fills my cup, yes, but the cup is still empty.
A cup of water in the hand; a strawberry on the tongue:
A man pursued by a tiger caught hold of a strong vine and swung himself over a precipice. Above him, the tiger sniffed at him from the edge. Hanging there, clinging to the vine, he looked down and saw another hungry tiger pacing as it looked up at him. Two mice, one black and one white, began gnawing through the vine. Then the man noticed a strawberry growing from the cliff face before him. Reaching out with one hand, he plucked the strawberry and ate it. How sweet it tasted!6
Trembling in terror, he tasted the strawberry, the accidental gift, and then he, the accidental being, continued falling, as he must have, as we all do. Nothing that we are, we yet taste the terrible sweetness of falling. (And are our screams not blessings upon Brother Tiger?)
Does that Zen parable have a moral? Does it recommend, for example, that we doomed beings grab such lifelines and pleasures as we can? Does it offer the strawberry as a symbol of the Secret? Zen should know better than that (but of course there are many Zens). As I read it, the story is tersely descriptive of human experience, akin to haiku. It paints an accurate picture of our lives: the falling through emptiness; the grasping for survival; the horror of certain, painful, and imminent annihilation; the beauty of the transient even in our extremity; even the beauty of our transient extremity. Life as helpless falling, futile grasping, sweet horror.
Christianity would reverse my fall, return me to a fabled prelapsarian happiness, redeem me from fallenness and fallingness. Zen quietly points out that I have never been free of falling and never will be; that falling, the passing of nothing from nothing to nothing, is, in fact, my very life. From this fall there is no redemption, for there is nothing to be found that could be redeemed.
But surely there can be no falling? Nothing is, after all, nothing, not something named “nothing.” And yet I fall. Now, in this moment, I exist, and to exist is to fall. And to grasp. But later my existence itself will not exist, and I know that later arrives in a moment and, in a true existential prolepsis, is now7 – and always has been. This moment (isn’t the phrase itself a futile attempt to grasp the ungraspable?) is past, present, and future, all empty, as I am, void even of voidness, unknown and unknowable. I in/and the moment: sunyata. Even falling is empty.
And yet I cling, trembling, to my vine; the yin-and-yang mice gnaw; the tigers pace; the strawberry is eaten. Although I see that nothing is happening to no one, I wish it would happen less painfully, less horribly, for everyone. Everyone I meet is a falling through void, and the tigers are never sated. So I smile for them all as, sadly, I sow strawberries.
- “Sunyata” is a Buddhist term that can be difficult to define in a few words. The Wikipedia article on it, for whatever it’s worth (I’m not qualified to critique it), can be found here.
- It seems that there’s always (an) essential “Being,” even if, as in Neoplatonic mysticism, it’s “Being beyond being” (hyperessentiality). For a discussion of that issue in this context, see David Loy, “The Deconstruction of Buddhism” and Jacques Derrida, “How to Avoid Speaking: Denials,” both in Coward and Foshay, eds., Derrida and Negative Theology.
- The image of pregnant emptiness is from David Loy, op. cit. On the null set as void, see Frederiek Depoortere, Badiou and Theology.
- In More Radical Hermeneutics, John D. Caputo (echoing Derrida) says more than once that “The secret is, there is no Secret….” On page 1, he writes, “The secret is that there is no Secret, no … access to The Secret, which is what Jacques Derrida means by the absolute secret….” See also the aforementioned essays by Derrida and Loy in Coward and Foshay.
- “The great way has no gate. Those who pass through this gate walk freely between heaven and earth.” – Zen saying.
- I first read a version of the story in Reps and Sengaki, eds., Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, originally published in 1957. In the 1970 printing by Tuttle, the story, called “A Parable,” is found on pp. 38-39. However, I recently came across a version of it in Leo Tolstoy’s Confession (trans. David Patterson, 1983, p. 30). It begins, “There is an old Eastern fable about a traveler who was taken by surprise in the steppes by a raging wild beast. Trying to save himself from the beast, the traveler jumps into a dried-up well; but at the bottom of the well he sees a dragon with its jaws open wide, waiting to devour him.” In that version, the person licks drops of honey from the leaves of the bush — at which “two mice, one black and one white, are gnawing” — to which he is clinging.
- That reminds me of John 4:23, a favorite Quaker verse: “The time is coming and now is….”
The image of the strawberry is from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Garden_strawberry