A while back I received a note from my friend the wandering Dharma bum Weasel Tracks. I think of him as an American original. Our own prose Han Shan, with just a dash of Ikkyu into the mix. It was a bit of a ramble, maybe just a bit left field. And shot through with what in Zen we all the “eye.” I really, really liked it. I asked if I could post it. He said let me think about it. I said okay. And after a bit he said go ahead.
Today is June 17
We begin a 9-day Silent Illumination retreat with Zarko in about half an hour. I’ve been working on a long letter to you from the perspective of an ecstatic nihilist. I had much, much more to say, but some of this is in response to stu you wrote and I don’t want it to get stale. As if that’s the worst of it. Sometimes we just have to let out the dogs, y’know?
Some of it is a developing love a air with nothingness. I’ve written a few lines developed from notes taken to relieve my mind in zazen of thoughts that demanded to be entertained and would not shut up until I jotted them down. I named this whimsy Theologia Belarusica. It’s attached. Some of this letter proper is related.
So this is more chaotic and less nished than I like, but it’s time to send it o . Talk to you in 9 days.
Sometime at the beginning of June
I started this before I read your post “On the Nothingness of God.” Parts
of what I have written below were conversations in my head I had with you in my head throughout the day, and sometimes even on the zen seat well before that. I was startled by the title and some of the content of the post, although by now I should suspect in my bones that even atoms themselves are really tiny synchronicities rather than random matter. Dear James—
April 3, 2017
Have you seen The Young Pope? It kept me wondering until the very last episode whether the pope was a cynical manipulator, a marketing genius, a weird inspired saint, or some combination thereof. By the end, all I could eliminate was that he was not completely a spiritual charlatan.
For a cionados of religious manifestation in general, the series is hard-core porn, visually, especially for those with an appreciation for the Catholic side of things and/or Renaissance aesthetics. There’s even some actual, what used to be called soft-core porn, but barely jarring to modern tastes.
But what I want to write about is a particular moment when he describes moments of Gethsemane prayer, demanding of God that He show His existence, and his disappointment at receiving nothing as an answer. The past couple years, I’ve been theologically daydreaming (you collect weird friends) about nothingness, so this set up a certain resonance in my rumination)
The pope obviously expected an answer in a certain form. A pre-imagined epiphany that imitated that of Moses or Mohammed. But what if the silence was itself the answer in the language of God? What if God were screaming to him by the very silence?
Part of the problem is a category error. When you ask, does God exist?, you treat God like any other object in existence. But does the source of existence “exist”? “Yes” or “no” both answer the question correctly (or incorrectly), rendering the question useless in expectation of information.
In my childhood, I sought certainty in resolving the question of the existence of God. Catholicism o ered me certainty, but by the time I was fteen, the logic began to appear frayed. With my very rst trip (God bless Ipomoea!), I turned my mind to that question, and, surprisingly, instantly got an answer! It was “Since God includes everything, He includes His own nonexistence.” The question never bothered me again.
I have heard Buddhists condescendingly correct people for confusing emptiness/shunyata with nothingness. Perhaps such Buddhists are confused about nothingness. In speaking about nothingness, our trail can fork here.
On the one hand, nothingness doesn’t exist. The absence of a thing is a nothing, but if a thing doesn’t exist, there is no nothing to go along with it. If a thing doesn’t exist, there is no nothing that is the negation of the thing except as a concept. There is only the thing. Or not.
Sometimes empty space is used as a physical analogue of nothingness, but empty space does not exist. All physical space is riddled with elds of elementary forces, if not particles as the result of the curdling of those forces.
But there is another way of imagining it. Picture this material world of things and stu happening. Go down to the level of cellular metabolism and activity. The cells and their contents are much more fundamental than our world of stocks and money, jobs and love a airs. Further down the scale of basic reality are simple molecules, where electrical forces hold sway. Keep going downscale and things get more and more basic and simple as we explore atoms and then quarks and electrons. In deeply speculative theories, we get to vibrating strings on really tiny scales. Is there something that can be more basic than that? How about a layer of reality which is so basic it has lost all characteristics and qualities? Being so, this layer would be everywhere, as it could not be con ned to a particular space. It would underlie both the physical existence of material objects and “empty” space
On this other hand, nothingness is held to be the mother of everything. Whether you are a cosmologist contemplating Eruptio Magna or a theologian considering Genesis, creation is ex nihilo. We think of our life as going from nothing to something to nothing, again, but nothingness is a rather pregnant hippo, no?
Of course, we don’t know but that some inconceivable order of things preceded and caused the Big Bang, and one can say that God made all things from the Word so that we are all made of God. But then there’s the question, Why is there anything at all? Instead of trying to pin down why this particular order of creation was favored over some other, or over absolutely nothing at all, I would o er the simplicity of the principle that Nothing wants to be Everything, and is, was, and will be so, given the in nite possibilities of eternity! Some kind of universal principle of Eros.
All things dance with nothingness, each becoming nothing as a new nothing takes on its karmic form to ash into an existence so brief it never really happened before returning to nothing. Each moment implies the next. A falling-domino e ect without dominoes. Nothingness in this instance appears to approach shunyata
It should be obvious that our problems with Nothing, Something, and Everything are caused by language. Language is quite good at communicating about physical objects, more di cult with common abstractions, and downright misleading with absolute abstractions. I do believe there is some utility in mulling over these things, holding caveats in mind, if only to avoid unconsciously taking these things too seriously. Would you really like to have a beer with Sartre? I mean, more than once?
Even so, Nothing in the quantum world does seem to act as a fertile ground for spontaneous generation, of things coming into being and evaporating back into nothingness, although this is not strictly ex nihilo. Ah! Quantum Physics! What eld of thought can compare to it for demolishing the smug certainty of the physicalist paradigm?
Yet people fear the Nothing, the Abyss, the Void, the extinction they presume comes with death. Logically, extinction is hardly to be feared, as there is no longer an entity to experience anything. The body/mind, of course, is programmed to act to survive at almost the highest priority. The gnawing clench that comes from contemplating one’s nonexistence, however, seems to come from two psychological places: the logical impossibility of a lack of subject in a dualistic frame — “Does Not Compute!” — and loss of control. Both seem like some kind of vertigo. Like the moment right after you dropped a couple of mg of lysergic di — “What have I done‽” Yet most people usually do not fear falling asleep every night.
Perhaps it is true, that Nothing wants to be Everything. Personal void may be a eeting thing, like empty space in a quantum eld. “It is no more remarkable to be born twice as it is to be born once!” Nothingness and being seem rather to be alternate aspects. The Hindus, if I understand it rightly, have a doctrine that ultimate being is Satchitananda — being, awareness, bliss, as inseparable aspects of existence. All things thus are aware, even space. That would render the question of how awareness came about as irrelevant. Consciousness comes and goes, like waking and sleep, but awareness never leaves. All is sentient, even the Nothing.
With sentient void, the question of whether matter can exist independently of awareness becomes moot. Not that the question is settled,
My sitting experience thus far suggests a tickling ecstasy when you take absolutely everything away. I assume there’s a huge, profound, and intense iceberg yet to explore. What will it feel like to become Nothing again? I am certain that I don’t know . . . I think. Perhaps there is some deep, built-in ontological intuition, but I can’t distinguish it from wishful thinking. I deeply admire Buddha’s answer to the question of what becomes of an arhat at death — anything said is incorrect — predating the hippy “Everything you know is wrong” by 2500 years. What I *do* know is that reality keeps proving stranger than I can imagine.
The interplay between the concepts of existence, nothingness, and emptiness — I would say only emptiness is real, although it’s about the unreality of being and nothingness.
We say something exists when we have an experience of it, yet all our objects are internal fabrications elaborated from sensations. It’s almost a copybook exercise to say how these fabrications are illusory or downright delusional. It’s not only all objects that are illusory, it’s the functional idea of “object” itself. As science easily shows, the closer you examine something, the more its chimerical nature is revealed. The closer you look, the more that boundaries turn into gradients, and entities into bunches of relations. So much for the solid reality of existent things.And nothingness, as said above, is only an abstraction. As we distortedly believe in an object’s existence, so we also objectify its lack in our experience of time and space as an entity opposite its existence in an assumed polarity of being and nonbeing. We end up saying things like “This thing exists because its nonexistence doesn’t.” Because we can talk like this, we can think of the absence of a thing as some kind of negative entity.
What does exist, it seems to me, is a roiling ocean of shifting relations in which patterns rise and disappear according to various regularities. Because regularity is a feature of the shifting, we can generalize and predict, and thus making choices is possible. Each moment of this ocean has in nitudes of momenta due to these regularities, which imply a certain state of a airs in the next moment, and which are inherited from the previous moment. However, we only speak of moments — however thin you slice one out of eternity, you can slice it thinner. Even momentary existence is looking rather insubstantial.
It’s like an endless series of falling dominoes, only with just the falling and no dominoes.
We look for meaningful patterns, a bias evolved in our brains for safety and success. Sometimes, we even see meaningfulness in random events.
Since beginning this ramble over a month ago, I’ve bumped into four instances of related verbalizations. First one, you:
“As Father Merton and the Dalai Lama’s conversation points for us, there are many meanings given to that little word God. For me the fullness of that mystery, and particularly the silence of it, the nothingness of it contains volumes.”
Perhaps you see why I was a bit startled. You go on to give an anecdote about praying with a person. A year or two after joining Running Deer’s medicine society, I told him I felt a bit uncomfortable about praying to the Creator, as I was a nontheist. He said that for him reality was layered like an onion, with realms of being layered above and below us. We can only relate to and communicate with a layer or two above or below. For Running Deer, “the Creator” is all those layers above us responsible for our existence, and it was to that that he o ered prayers and tobacco. I could accept that and had no problems since. But I have become looser in my nontheistic scruples, anyway. When I attend Christian worship, I can whole- heartedly pray to God the Father, to Jesus, to Mary, to all the saints, not to my images of them, but to the spiritual realties behind the images. Whatever they are. Or Not.
Then Brad posted, in a piece titled “Death and Dreaming”:
“There is no God. That’s obvious. And yet, there probably is a God. That’s also obvious.
It’s all about learning how to see it. Once you understand how to see them, certain things become undeniable.
You probably think I’m talking about indoctrination into a belief system. That’s what people usually mean when they say things like this. They mean that if you learn to, for example, believe that the existence of planet Earth is an example of God’s power, you will see God’s handiwork everywhere on Earth.
That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about sitting still for a long, long time, watching your mind and body work, without judging, without trying to make your brain do what you want it to, without trying to understand anything. Gradually a lot of stu starts to become obvious. Including your own inability to ever really understand any of it.”
[. . .]
“In the dream, I was contemplating the nature of death but from the point of view of the dream state, rather than the waking state. As I was waking up, I noticed that the dream world I’d been experiencing started to come apart, to dissolve, and the dream body I was inhabiting also melted away.
And yet I felt that something at my very center remained coherent. It was just moving from
experiencing one kind of world into experiencing another. So the world around me seemed to crumble as I remained intact. Although “I” is probably the wrong word. Most of what the dream “me” would have thought of as himself was vanishing around him (me).
And it occurred to me as that was happening that maybe death is similar. To us, the living, dying people seem to be falling apart while we remain intact. They lose their minds. They say weird stuff. We go, “Awwwww… Poor guy! I’ll miss him!”
But perhaps the dying person sees it differently. Perhaps to such a person, it’s us, the living, who appear to be coming apart, dissolving, while they remain intact and a di erent sort of world begins to appear around them — even as everything they think of as theirs melts away. Maybe there are people back in my dream world having a dream funeral for me.
Of course, that could just be bullshit. Maybe it’s only my own wishful thinking seeping into the dream. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe it was a silly dream, nothing more.”
Whatever the ontological reality, the nature of experience, whether waking or dreaming, both seem to be the nature of a dream. Typically, we only know we have been dreaming by “waking” into a new dream. Dreams have their own rules, which seem to differ, dream by dream. You can fly in some, but not in others. Confuse them, and you may have a rude awakening.
I came across a remarkable video this week by a man named Bill Kurtz, titled “history of the entire world, i guess.” It’s at
Referring to the Big Bang, Bill says (courtesy of Reddit/copypasta):
“A long time ago actually never, also now, nothing is nowhere. When? Never. Makes sense, right? Like I said, it didn’t happen. Nothing was never anywhere. That’s why it’s been everywhere. It’s been so everywhere you don’t even need the where. You don’t even need a when. That’s how every it gets. Forget this. I wanna be something, go somewhere, do something. I want things to change. I want to invent time and space. And I know it’s possible because everything is here and it probably already happened. I just don’t know when to start. And that’s exactly where it started. Whoa. I Paused it. I think there’s a universe now.”
So good to know there’s Others.
Finally, Jung! I rst read “Septem Sermones ad Mortuos” when I rst tried to live in Vermont, in 1967. The place I was living in had strange literature, like Equinox (which gave me a much brighter image of Crowley than later — “Roll Away the Stone” was truly wondrous) and some weird magazine, perhaps *Gnosis*, that had the 7 Sermons. Couldn’t believe it was Jung. With Maggie visiting family in Florida, I tripped around Youtube, and came across the Sermons read by a pleasant female voice. I hadn’t read them since 1967, and, again, I was startled:
“Harken: I begin with nothingness. Nothingness is the same as fullness. In in nity full is no better than empty. Nothingness is both empty and full. As well might ye say anything else of nothingness, as for instance, white is it, or black, or again, it is not, or it is. A thing that is in nite and eternal hath no qualities, since it hath all qualities.
“This nothingness or fullness we name the PLEROMA. Therein both thinking and being cease, since the eternal and in nite possess no qualities. In it no being is, for he then would be distinct from the pleroma, and would possess qualities which would distinguish him as something distinct from the pleroma.
“In the pleroma there is nothing and everything. It is quite fruitless to think about the pleroma, for this would mean self-dissolution.
“CREATURA is not in the pleroma, but in itself. The pleroma is both beginning and end of created beings. It pervadeth them, as the light of the sun everywhere pervadeth the air. Although the pleroma pervadeth altogether, yet hath created being no share thereof, just as a wholly transparent body becometh neither light nor dark through the light which pervadeth it. We are, however, the pleroma itself, for we are a part of the eternal and in nite. But we have no share thereof, as we are from the pleroma in nitely removed; not spiritually or temporally, but essentially, since we are distinguished from the pleroma in our essence as creatura, which is con ned within time and space.”
I had forgotten what the Sermons were like, but they must have percolated pretty deeply, eh? Feels like the universe is trying to give me flashbacks.
Is it not at least somewhat amusing to see the vast e orts expended to de ne the one, true meaning of the word-name “God”? The precious value of the word-name “God” lies in its indeterminate determinability. As “x” is to algebra, so can “God” be to theology. This is al-Ghibr of statements concerning the realities at the deepest levels of reality, or “ghibberish”.
“God” can take any value. Any rules at all can be assigned to its relations to other values. Then we see what meanings unfold from these operations. Indeterminacy is not chaos, but possibility, as we see what happens when various values collapse indeterminacy into various results.
“God belongs to everybody.” —Alexis Zorba ~~~~~0~~~~~
The Pronouns of God
What is the proper pronoun for God?
“Thou,” I’d bet you say. With a Capital. But the plural “You” is more polite, and maybe more accurate for great Elohim.
Absent the Presence in present moment, is it It, She, or He? They, at once, is complex and simpler. Need God conform to One or Some, None or Many? How about All?
Do you get nervous about I? Who but a mad one wants to own God’s acts? All of them?
Lucky then, for all of us, it is We. Beyond time, beyond number, beyond presence or absence, beyond Wolf or Mouse or Fish or Spore or Grass or Stone, beyond Earth or Star or even Void. We made it up. You want proof? Dig down deep to where the Morning Stars sang together.
On a Rainy Afternoon
– [ ] She looked into the mirror of the Abyss, where all things oat in “Could Be.” She was surprised to be surprised that the Wellspring of All Things looked back at Her to see Itself. The Eye of the Deep knew Her as She knew It. “Far Out!” She said — “The Nothingness Knows!”
– [ ] The God was playing with the Void one day when it stopped raining, and She turned it inside out. She saw with delight it was truly the All.
– [ ] God wanted to create. She took a good look at the void, at the essence of nothingness. She relished her surprise to see it was an out-side, that it was actually a Pleroma, the fullness that includes EVERYTHING! Everything possible or impossible, in a chaos of in nitesimal harmonies. No need to call the numberless beings out of nothingness — they were already there. Like Michaelangelo, She used her Eye as a chisel to see just one of the harmonies, leaving the vastness to be dealt with at another time. Time, She smiled; yes, that would be a good idea.
– [ ] God bethought Herself to start Creation with the simpler components rst, but when She nished the appearances of things and was about to start on the substance and essence of things, She realized the Universe needed nothing more.
This is why subatomic particles are Nothing more than the sum of their qualities, that is, their relationships. Us, too.
– [ ] The Holy One began by snapping her fingers. This sharp sound clove the smallest part of the void in two, so each was a twist opposite the other. Since together, they voided themselves back into Nothing, really, She did not do Something, though all was done, nonetheless. Having done this e ortless splitting and twisting of Nothing a few trillion trillion trillion times, She let the Game begin. But it always added up to Nothing, signifying naught else but Such.
– [ ] After God created the Universe out of Nothing, She wondered if it really came out of Nothing. Could One not say it was made of Her Word, of Her Nature, of Her Will? Then She
remembered, She was really Nothing, too!
– [ ] Once God allowed Anything to come into being from Nothingness, She had to allow Everything to exist. It’s only fair.
– [ ] Again, it was told that when the Deity made the First Thing from the Nothingness, the Nothingness awoke with the raging desire to be Everything! So Creation was e ortless after that.
– [ ] And God said, “Let the World be a Dream, a Story where all manner of phantasms play in a Game of shifting goals and rules. Let Us collaborate in a Grand Tale that starts with the One Thing, and ends with the chilluns jumpin and jivin and getting hep to It their own Oneselves! Only to begin again!”
– [ ] Even God forgets.