Archive for October, 2009

Zen Koans, a cornerstone of Far Eastern philosophy, by virtue of their paradoxical nature, are not meant to be understood, not in the traditional rational sense. They are meant to illustrate the paradoxical nature of existence, and frequently serve as focal points in zen meditation as tools for the tearing the mind’s attention away from the ordinary, material and mundane. But every once in great a while, an inkling of insight can be grasped from these seemingly nonsensical sayings.

One of the better known Koans refers to “the sound of one hand clapping”;  one of the most esoteric alludes to “your original face before your mother and father were born.” What are considered the best answers to these riddles are generally the most absurd. For example, Q: Does a dog have Buddha nature? A: Woof.

One my favorite Buddhist proverbs states simply: Form is emptiness; emptiness is form. No it’s technically not a riddle, and not exactly a Koan in the strictest sense, but it is nothing if not paradoxical. First and foremost, this statement equates two opposites, form and emptiness, the coincidence or resolution of opposites being fundamental to Buddhist philosophy. Like the black and white swirls of the Yin Yang, form cannot exist without emptiness, light cannot not exist without dark, and joy means nothing without sorrow.

The emptiness of form can be seen even in a common natural feature like river. A running stream of water has a definitive form, but its contents are entirely indefinite, always changing. The water itself is never the same, but the body of water always looks the same. Even in its emptiness, the form remains the same, as the Grand Canyon demonstrates most dramatically.

With a little bit of help from particle physics or molecular biology, we can transfer this analogy over to the human anatomy. Not one of the cells (or atoms) in your body was there in its same place seven years ago, nor will it be there seven years from now. Like the river, the substance comes and goes, but the form remains. You may have gone through some changes, but you always remain the same person.

Contemplating the magnitude of these tiny particles, it’s a also fascinating to consider that as these units that continuously come and go  – the cells, atoms, particles, the substance – are freely exchanged, over time, between individuals. Statistically speaking, we can be fairly certain that in each in every one of our bodies lies at least one atom that was at one time in the body of Adolph Hitler, as well as a few which at one time passed through the body of Joan of Arc.

Facts like these challenge they way we conceive of simple Newtonian concepts like matter and form. And the metaphysical implication – that we are deeply and intrinsically connected, flowing from a single spring – becomes impossible to deny. And there’s another way in which this wise old saying illustrates the interconnectedness of all beings.

Looking at our rudimentary forms, we easily see ourselves as separate, billions of distinct entities. But forms are defined only by their boundaries, where the emptiness ends and the form begins. The emptiness pervades all things, it is singular and all encompassing, the one emptiness that delineates all forms and imparts on them the illusion of separateness. Without this emptiness we would have no form; only from this single emptiness does any form take shape. Again, we recognize the single spring from which we all flow, like the drops in a river, riding the crests and troughs, imaging the conscious experience of life to be ours and ours alone.


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