No Thing Exists

Observation Point at Zion.
No Thing here today will be there in a geological blink of an eye.

In yesterday’s post, See, I discussed the phrases “Nothing exists” versus “No thing exists”. Let’s recap that discussion from another point of view because this is a fundamental Buddhist/Zen topic.

Think of having heard a Buddhist priest saying, “Everything is an illusion. Nothing exists.” Does the priest mean there are no stars, no Earth, no chair I’m sitting in as I type, no laptop, no Cable One providing my Internet connection, not even me? That’s what I thought the first thousand or so times I heard something like that.

Why would it be said that everything is an illusion, nothing exists? Well, it’s pretty much what the Heart Sutra is about, particularly the line, “Form is emptiness and Emptiness is form”. The Heart Sutra succinctly captures Buddhism – thus “Heart” as in “heart of the matter”, not the organ or Valentine’s Day heart.

But things do exist. When I leave for work in a couple of hours, I need to deal with the traffic on real roads, real traffic lights, real other cars with drivers, and everything else that prevents me from just driving in a straight line to work.

You’re probably thinking, “What a load of crap!” Things are there, but yet that is something Buddhist priests do say. So are they insane, high, scamming us, having fun at our expense … perhaps it’s wishful thinking on their part, as if reciting a mantra, “If I say this enough, I’ll actually believe it”. Perhaps some of them … hahaha. Things obviously exist, so out of the priests who aren’t insane, high, or whatever, they must mean something else, something completely different from our Western frame of mind.

Here’s my real-life version of an old Zen story: The hike to Observation Point (the scene in the photo above) is magical. The heights, the views of Angel’s Landing, the very real dangers, the wildlife, the constant change of it all, the untamable erosion. I said to Rubber Ducky, “I feel the Oneness with this place, nothing matters, things will be what they’ll be, there is no pain.” As I looked around in awe and contentment, my toe kicked a rock in the middle of the trail. I hear Rubber Ducky laughing his ass off – Mack Mack Mack Mack Mack Mack …

The Buddhist monk isn’t saying the Universe is empty but that whatever our brain thinks of, whether my car, Mrs. Hanamoku, or the leftovers from yesterday’s Independence Day celebration, are just snapshots of something I encountered in the past. Like JPG photo files on my iPhone or my laptop, they are just snapshots of scenes from the past, specifically the whatever the “Date Created” says.

These files are encoded on my iPhone and laptop, such as the photo at the top of this post, in no way resemble what is displayed, and even less what was actually there. It doesn’t capture what is behind the things you see in the photo, how things are moving, the sounds, the “Fall-ness” of the time I was there – the cool temperature of the air, the smells. It doesn’t capture that I’m standing very close to the edge of a 2000 foot drop, nor does it capture the spirit of awe I share with the few others there.

Such photos are pitifully inadequate models of what we are seeing. Likewise, my brain holds encoded snapshots of things I recognize that are just encodings in my brain. To be certain, our brain encodings are in most ways magnitudes more sophisticated than the encodings of a JPG file. But still, they are pitifully inadequate models of the what is really there now.

This beautiful scene rendered in the photo above no longer exists. You may be thinking that if you were to go there this coming late October, you could take a photo “exactly” like this. It may even be difficult to differentiate our photos side by side. But by this coming October, tons of the canyon will have eroded away, the trees will be different (although imperceptibly because of the distance), the drama of the wildlife will have a different cast. It may be so crowded there that it could actually be a bit unenjoyable. Do our two photos really represent the same thing?

Everything is an illusion. Nothing exists. Every single thing we think of is just a ghost living only in our brain. The only thing that exists outside of our brain is what is right here, right now. What do you do with this insight? Don’t be the guy who “knows everything”! You know nothing! Do you now know what that means?  Empty your cup! Take off your “black belt”, tie on that old “white belt” you haven’t seen for decades, and ironically sew the knot on permanently.

See

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One of the most frustrating words used in modern Buddhist literature is “see”. For example, “If you see the reality of the Universe, you will know that nothing exists and that all is One.” That is an important statement because it just about defines enlightenment, even though it sounds like esoteric garbage.

So how does one “see” so one could be so lofty too? It’s not just with your eyes for sure, as “see” would normally imply. At the highest state of seeing, it is “without the mind” meaning absolutely no recognition of things, no judgement, no biases, no prejudice, and no expectations. All of those things are based on the pitifully flawed model of the world built from our experiences. Expectations are usually the end product of computations of our mind incorporating the rules of our recognition of things, judgement, biases, and prejudice.

Such interference from our mind obscures and over-simplifies what is right in front of us – like turning a real flesh and blood tiger into a taxidermy piece. As I type this post, I see my laptop and it is there by my understanding of where an object begins and ends – a black, flat thing with a hinge, a screen, and a keyboard.

But I fail to consider the trillion or so circuits all the kind, lovely people at Intel and Micron who built critical parts, all the software and the people who wrote and will support the software, the people who made the raw material, John Von Neumann who inspired the architecture, E.F. Codd who laid down the concepts underlying much of what I do, my work which is a culmination of my decades of experience and interactions with co-workers, customers, and friends who diffused (or exacerbated) stress. I could really go on into infinity well beyond our African ancestors and even well past that with the supernova that fused the gold, platinum, and silver in my laptop. That is my laptop!

That isn’t just a flowery Buddhist way of putting things. That is the reality of my laptop. I too am this laptop. Even after I hand it down to Mrs. Hanamoku, I still am too this laptop, as it wouldn’t have become Mrs. Hanamoku’s at that time otherwise. It will still carry the history of development and demos of software that impacted customers, earned income for myself and my partners/customers.

There was a clue to the theme of this post in the first paragraph, the italicized “nothing“: “If you see the reality of the Universe, you will know that nothing exists and that all is One.”

If we add a single space to that quote, it makes what seems to most a nonsensical statement to something that hopefully makes more sense: “If you see the reality of the Universe, you will know that no thing exists and that all is One.”

No thing exists because the Universe is constantly churning away as the grandest process that it is. Whatever we humans perceive as a “thing” is not much more than a snapshot we took with our iPhone. In fact, the snapshot of the thing we took in our minds is in some ways inferior to a photo.

If you’ve ever walked through somewhere like Bryce Canyon or Zion, you know you can’t come close to capturing its grandeur in a photo or even video. The fullness of such a place while physically immersed into it is lost in a photo and even your own memory. The tenuous paths down steep slopes, the feel of the wind, the excitement of others equally awed, the contrast between your puny body compared to its overwhelming scale. The only way to experience such grandeur is to be there, no camera, no conversation, be there. As Ringo Starr famously said, “Ya gotta be there to be there.” That is seeing.

See that everything in the past, present, and future are intricately connected, there is just a One. In that way, no thing exists! “Things” are constructs of our minds drawing artificial borders in order to carve out a simple piece of the Universe for our worldly purposes. And those “worldly purposes” are those things we do to put food in our mouths and avoid being food ourselves. When you see this, you will see the folly of your Dukkha. The fact that the One actually exists means all is good, there is no need to suffer. Otherwise, there would just be the noise of nothing.

Reverend Dukkha Hanamoku
Ordained Zen Priest of the Order of the Common Area Ponds