THE LAW OF NOTHINGNESS
This familiar symbol for Sunyata was made with a single brush stroke by the old zen master Shibayama. It represents a perfect circle, perfection, that is, within the limitations of the always imperfect material world. It conveys the sense of some-thing emanating from no-thing-ness. It represents the vagina, the gateway of birth into manifestation, and also the first moment of the creation of the universe, the big bang, when every thing emerged from the unformed vacuum point. Female precedes male in manifestation just as the x-chromosome precedes the formation of the male y-chromosome in genetic conception.
A popular song a few years ago has the phrase, “Nothing comes from Nothing, Nothing ever will.” In fact, that sums up the history of the Universe, starting with the big bang from a vacuum point and ending in boundless timeless blackness. It also applies to your life and to my life, beginning with a blast in the murky depths of unformed darkness and ultimately ending in the same. In fact, it is not the vacuum that is mysterious. Rather the mystery of life is that there is something! Empires, galaxies, love affairs, languages, people come and go, leaving behind not a trace. There is a lot of comfort in this – whatever we mess up, is erased and forgotten. In the long run, nobody knows or cares. Time heals, then forgives and finally forgets, forgets all. Time gently eases away all pain and joy. And occasional epiphanies punctuate the journey along the way.
Notice that it is the successes in life that most of all need to be erased. Think of the burden of having to exceed your success every day. It is easier to overcome failure than to overcome the limiting forces of success. The way to clear yourself is to center yourself, meditate. Meditating is like washing a blackboard: do not continue writing over the old stale stuff, over and over. Clear the board. Make it new and fresh, a tabula rasa, ‘zen mind, beginner’s mind.’
Every night we go to sleep, we dream a little, and wake up to a new day, fresh and renewed. Earth returns to death and renewal on the winter solstice. Meditation returns us to the source of rejuvenation and creativity. Lifetimes cycle through realms of rebirth. All things begin in the womb of nothingness. Here we experience our greatest epiphanies, like Elijah on the craggy stormy mountain top, hearing the ‘still small voice’ murmuring like a sweet little girl in the heart of the tempest.
Religions are born in the desert where there are no distractions. Lives are permanently altered in periods of silence, moments of letting, listening in awe and reverence to the universe.
Robert Frost has a line, “Home is the place where they have to take you in.” Well, home is your inner quiet center. It is the source of strength, of joy, of health, of creativity, of wisdom, of self-knowledge. It is the place where we are face to face with the immanent, the greatest experience of life. The ancient Hebrews had a word for it, ‘t’shuvah,’ meaning the moment that you raise the thought of returning home. From that moment everything is different!
When we are centered in that quiet empty place, our perceptions are clearest, our hang-ups are diminished and true essences come into focus. Our expressions flow more smoothly. Our creations are most flawless. We experience actionless action, effortless effort. We become willing agents of the Universe in its infinite power and direction.
This empty place is called in the Sanskrit wisdom texts Nirvana and Sunyata. But this empty place is not so quiet after all. Quantum mechanics shows that every point in the vacuum possesses an infinite amount of energy, unmanifest, unformed energy. This universe exploded out of it, and will again, and has done so many times.
This quiet center (any quiet center is the quiet center) is the place of infinite potential. Our modern word ‘power’ comes from the concept of potential. In contrast, we have the concept of kinetic energy. In potentia everything is possible. In the state of maximum kinetic states nothing else is possible, at that moment. We must go back to in potentia to choose a different course. Free will operates in potentia. Determinism has a relentless grip in kinesis. As in cosmology, the parameters are set in a big bang and it is all clockwork, downhill after that. Thank goodness we can go back to that null place and make some other universe. A famous passage in the Bhagavad Gita says “yoga-stah kuru karmani” – established in yoga (union, emptiness), go forth and perform your work. Here is the place where we can achieve ‘effortless effort,’ ‘actionless action,’ and ‘purposeless purpose,’ protected and carried along like a trusting baby, asleep in the lap of its mother.
Emptiness is where we encounter the ritam bhara pragyam, the domain of eternal form. This is a Vedic concept, corresponding to Plato’s field of ideals, Jung’s archetypes, and DeChardin’s noosphere. Timeless forms of aesthetics, ethics, logic, mathematics, and humanity reside here. ‘This world,’ by contrast, is in a restless flux of ever-changing forms and polarities, recognized by Jung in his concept of enantiodromia, the tendency of things to abruptly reverse themselves.
The pinnacle of Vedic thought is the idea that your innermost self (Atman, ever more subtle, ever contracting) is the identical to the entire universe (Brahman, ever expanding, cosmic). We are one, one with everything. To approach the universe, understand it, play with it, produce effects through your pure center. Life becomes active and joyful. Just be centered, then you become nothing / everything. Erwin Schroedinger, the inventor of quantum mechanics, thought this equating of Atman and Brahman to be “the grandest of all thoughts.” It influenced his deepest thinking in his development of quantum mechanics, and even more so in his later work, What is Life?, which eventually lead to the discovery of DNA by Crick and Watson.
Zen epitomizes this power of emptiness by the koan, “Even a good thing is not as good as nothing.”