synthetic zero


February 20, 2008

One can say, roughly speaking, that in the West, spirituality is characterized by faith, and in the East, spirituality is characterized by doubt. One could equally well say that Western religions tend to talk in an affirmative sense, whereas in the East, the focus is on what is not the case (that concepts cover the world, that the self or other objects exist on their own terms, etc.) In reality, both approaches can become equivalent if you approach them with the right attitude, but both approaches have flaws when not balanced. That is to say ... "emptiness" in the East is often confused with "nothingness" --- a void --- but in fact what is more precise is to say that emptiness is equivalent to fullness, that is, if you drop the unnecessary add-ons to reality, you will have what is an indescribable fullness, reality as it is, which is both inconceivable and intensely present and vivid and satisfying. Via subtraction, you have everything --- so it's a bit misleading to focus only on subtraction. Western spirituality focuses on that "everything" --- they sing praises to what they term "God", which is described as having many positive qualities. This is, in fact, part of the truth, but it's not the whole truth, because what is left out is both the value of doubt and the problems with conceptual approaches to this fullness, this reality.

The problem with placing faith as the central quality is that the natural habit of organizations is to create exclusive structures, just to protect themselves, to encourage growth. And faith gets coopted by this, it gets confused with belief, and affirmative descriptions of the ground of Being become mixed in with affirmative belief in ideas and assertions. That is to say, affirmative statements about the inconceivable get mixed with statements about the organization. The organization then moves to establish itself as the authority: creating boundaries of membership and exclusion, ideas of infallibility, notions of dogma and truth as opposed to falsehoods and heresy.

But this is an active participation in Original Sin itself, which is not about sex or just about disobeying God --- but in fact is in splitting the world into pieces. The story is about eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil --- that is, eating of the fruit of dualistic thinking. It is interesting that at the core of Western religion is a story that in fact mirrors the central truth of the East: the dualistic thinking is what throws one out of the Garden of Eden. But most do not interpret the story this way --- instead, they actively participate in the very problem illustrated by the story --- dividing the world. By dividing the world, into good and evil, heretic and believer, sanctioned and unsanctioned, they encourage the very thing religion is supposed to help us get beyond. This is perhaps the single greatest sin ever committed by man: the creation of huge edifices intended to celebrate God, which then spread dissension and strife by not only committing but celebrating Original Sin in its most pernicious and damaging form.

The saints, thankfully, mostly escape this trap, in their hearts, if not entirely with their minds: they see with gentler eyes the truth. But, as Simone Weil says, this time requires a new saintliness. But people today seem to still turn to the old saintliness when they see the truth --- it seems to happen, over and over again. Why? They go along with the story these religions put forward: that to be good, one has to participate in the division of the world. One has to cross an exclusive boundary between believer and non-believer, between member and non-member. Once you buy into the idea that such a boundary ought to be crossed, well... time to employ some doubt.

When he became emancipated the sixth patriach received from the fifth patriach the bowl and robe given from the Buddha to his successors, generation after generation.

A monk named E-myo out of envy pursued the patriach to take this great treasure away from him. The sixth patriach placed the bowl and robe on a stone in the road and told E-myo: "These objects just symbolize the faith. There is no use fighting over them. If you desire to take them, take them now."

When E-myo went to move the bowl and robe they were as heavy as mountains. He could not budge them. Trembling for shame he said: "I came wanting the teaching, not the material treasures. Please teach me."

The sixth patriach said: "When you do not think good and when you do not think not-good, what is your true self?"

At these words E-myo was illumined. Perspiration broke out all over his body. He cried and bowed, saying: "You have given me the secret words and meanings. Is there yet a deeper part of the teaching?"

The sixth patriach replied: "What I have told you is no secret at all. When you realize your true self the secret belongs to you."

E-myo said: "I was under the fifth patriach for many years but could not realize my true self until now. Through your teaching I find the source. A person drinks water and knows himself whether it is cold or warm. May I call you my teacher?"

The sixth patriach replied: "We studied together under the fifth patriach. Call him your teacher, but just treasure what you have attained."


February 9, 2008

I've recently begun thinking about the inevitability of my death ... I am 42 years old, and I am in mostly quite good health, and I feel energetic and youthful. Nevertheless I've been thinking about death, the fact that I don't have unlimited time. The prospect of my death doesn't disturb me, in the sense that I certainly accept it; but I feel there are things I'd like to do, or set up, so to speak, before I die.

One of my math professors at Harvard was Andrew Gleason: he taught the Math 25 course, which my freshman year was probably the hardest, most intense math course available to undergraduates (it was so hard that half the students who tried to take it bailed out after a couple of weeks because the problems sets were so difficult --- those who remained were students who were among the most talented in the country. I literally spent 5-6 hours straight on every problem set, three times a week, often staying up late into the night to complete them). He used to say: Never underestimate the trivial. What he meant by that was the things we think of as the most obvious, the most trivial, often reveal intricacies and depths when we closely examine them, and they're all the more difficult to uncover because they seem so trivial, so "obvious". I've written about this before, but I wanted to expand on the idea. The ideas we take most for granted: they form the background of our everyday thinking --- those are the ones we don't even think to question, we aren't conscious of them. For example, people debate whether or not God exists but neglect to even ask what the question means: what is God? What could that word refer to? People talk about religion as though it were a matter of belief, or interpreting texts, or this or that cartoon concept about what may or may not happen after we die, etc... but what if none of that were truly relevant to what we call spirituality, and something radically different were at stake? Or to take a simpler case: in mathematics, a huge advance was made when Lobachevsky, for example, questioned whether we could think of a geometry in which there were more than one line parallel to a given line intersecting a point outside that line. Einstein questioned whether or not space and time could mix, and then asked whether or not they could bend. And so on. There's so much we never think to question which, upon closer examination, reveal vast possibilities.

February 8, 2008

Despite my general interest in Henry Miller as a sort of literary character, and as Anaïs Nin's lover, I haven't read very much of him before, but I read a bit of Sexus tonight. This stood out for me: "A great work of art, if it accomplishes anything, serves to remind us, or let us say to set us dreaming, of all that is fluid and intangible. Which is to say, the universe. It cannot be understood; it can only be accepted or rejected. If accepted we are revitalized; if rejected we are diminished. Whatever it purports to be it is not: it is always something more for which the last word will never be said... If we accepted ourselves as completely, the work of art, in fact the whole world of art, would die of malnutrition." But really, that's the thing: we don't accept ourselves as completely as that. We don't even realize that who we are isn't actually separate from the universe... so there is still a place for art: the place of reminding us of that vivid direct life which we could be living instead of making or reading or encountering art.

I think of myself in some sense as trying to build artwork (systems) that people can live in. That's what I really want to do with my life, if I have an ambition. Not intermediating between myself and life, or others, but actually building things that are, like architecture, lived realities, lived artwork. It is a dream. I approximate this dream to the extent I can. But if I could really build systems that people inhabit, I would wish them to become transparent, to the extent possible, and help people inhabit not just the system/artwork but who they always already are.