Thursday, September 10, 2015


‘Reality is a question of realizing how real the world is already.’ So wrote the Beat writer Allen Ginsberg [pictured left].

Life is very real. We have our little philosophies and religions and we think we have life explained and understandable, then, wham, reality hits us right in the face with, say, a terminal illness or a death of a close loved one. Here’s a Zen kōan, entitled ‘Nothing Exists’, which illustrates this point.

Yamaoka Tesshu, as a young student of Zen, visited one master after another. He called upon Dokuon of Shōkoku. Desiring to show his attainment, the young student said: ‘The mind, Buddha, and sentient beings, after all, do not exist. The true nature of phenomena is emptiness. There is no realization, no delusion, no sage, no mediocrity. There is no giving and nothing to be received.’

Dokuon, who was smoking quietly, said nothing. Suddenly he whacked Yamaoka with his bamboo pipe. This made the youth quite angry. ‘If nothing exists,’ said Dokuon, ‘where did this anger come from?’

Good question. ‘If nothing exists, where did this anger come from?’

Now, this young student appears not to have understood the Buddhist notion of non-existence. Let’s get this straight. Buddhism does not teach that nothing exists, that is, that there is no existence at all. Think about it. If nothing existed, there would be no one around to make the statement, ‘Nothing exists.’ The statement could not be said at all---but it can be said. (It's a case of 'I philosophize, therefore I am.') The Buddhist notion of non-existence ('emptiness') is this---nothing (that is, no thing) has any intrinsic (that is, separate and independent) existence in and of itself. Everything---that is, every thing---is inconstant, identity-less and conditioned. A thing arises as a result of one or more causes or circumstances and when those causes or circumstances disappear so does the thing. Each thing is a cause of at least one other thing as well as being the effect of some other thing, so a thing is explainable only by reference to one or more other things which themselves are explainable only by reference to one or more other things, and on it goes. For example, a table is made out of wood, metal or other component parts, and it is made by someone. It is not independent of the things that come together to make it up, nor the person who puts those pieces together to form the table. Nothing has any permanent, separate existence in and of itself. This is at least part of what a Buddhist means when he or she refers to things being ‘empty’---they have no separate, independent or permanent existence. Anyway, I digress.

The point is this. The young student thought he would impress Dokuon with his knowledge and wisdom. You see, he thought he had life all figured out. Ha! How wrong he was! He was in for a rude shock. That might have been a damn good thing, for perhaps an experience of instant enlightenment came upon him. Being hit with the Zen master's keisaku (wooden stick) can sometimes help to bring that abut. Yes, perhaps he came to see things-as-they-really-are---for the very first time. Buddhism is very Aristotelian (as opposed to Platonic). At the risk of over-simplification, the essence of Buddhism is – what you see is what you get. That is all there is, but it is more than enough! Things are what they are. Life is not fair. Bad things happen to good people all the time. The innocent suffer. Things just cannot be 'squared up' in the life-to-come. For starters, there is no reliable evidence that there is any life-to-come. We can fairly safely say that this life here is all that there is---but it's more than enough. Make the most of it. I like the late Jackie Gleason's philosophy of life: ‘Just play the melody, live, love, and lose gracefully.’

Japanese formal garden. (Photo taken by the author.)

All too often we utter glib remarks to others who are going through pain or other difficulty or who have suffered bereavement or some other loss---remarks such as, ‘All will be well’, ‘God will look after you’, and ‘Everything happens for a reason’. As I say, we have our little philosophies and religions but when the proverbial shit hits the fan all too often we find that our theories and belief-systems explain very little at all. Part of growing up is to drop our illusions and wake up. Part of waking up is to drop our illusions and grow up. I have found both statements to be true.

When I was at high school I had a French teacher who would often say to us, Je suis un réaliste, or just simply Je suis réaliste (‘I am a realist’). It was clear that he did not believe in God or religion. He was an effective teacher---in terms of producing consistently good academic results in his students over many decades---but he was a bit of a sadist, largely teaching by fear, humiliation and ordeal. Many teachers of that era were sadists. It was considered par for the course. For the most part, things are different now. Now, this was a church school, and once a year the then current moderator of the Presbyterian Church would come to the school and give an address to the students at assembly. One particular year, the moderator was very elderly. Of course, they all appeared elderly to us kids, but this one much more so. This man of the cloth spoke eloquently of a loving God, Jesus, goodness and the life to come. We had a French class shortly after assembly, and I remember our French teacher saying to us, more than once, in the class, Imaginez, ayant toutes ses illusions à cet âge! (‘Imagine, having all his illusions at that age!’). 

That incident occurred some 45 years ago yet I remember it as if it was yesterday. In the ensuing years I would lose all of my illusions—and I don’t regret that at all. Je suis un réaliste ainsi.

‘Reality is a question of realizing how real the world is already.’


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