My Airborne Enlightenment

By Laura Sabia

At the end of a very grey morning in London, my return flight to Boston was exceedingly turbulent (I’m terrified of flying) until…


clouds recede. At last-


I was raised with an emphasis on “making my mark” on this world, marching to the (clichéd) ‘beat of my own drum.’ By virtue of this philosophy, I have always tried to see myself as a ‘something’ (or someone) with distinct boundaries and with qualities, opinions, and judgments that were distinctly mine. This week, I have learned that according to the Japanese, my way of life is condemning me to remain in a world of ignorance, suffering and “impenetrable moral darkness.” (Merton, 82) WOOPS! The linked concepts of Sunyata (emptiness) and mu (nothingness) were brought to my attention. As I understand them in the broadest of senses, they are the process of “[seeing] the world for what it is,” (Inouye, 51) and finally experiencing satori (breaking from samsara) that leads to our achievement of Nirvana or ultimate enlightenment. Professor Inouye explains this acceptance of emptiness and subsequent ascension to Nirvana as a sort of ‘breaking down of barriers between discrete things,’ and as a merging of the transcendental world and the world of the here-and-now. (Lecture 2/11) So far, all of this makes sense to me. Realizing emptiness is a kind of relinquishing of your rights to an ego. Merton hits the nail on the head when he writes that “the meaning of life is found in openness to being…” (Merton, 81) As we remain preoccupied with the “stuff” of the world- judgments, opinions, material things, goals, etc., we are limiting ourselves and ultimately forcing ourselves to remain ignorant and closed to life’s fundamental truths. Merton tried to explain the concept of nothingness by citing the double equation of “zero = infinity, and infinity = zero” (Merton, 107) He goes on to further define the “place of zero” as “Emptiness as Being” and the “work which is carried on in the zero=place or infinity” as “Emptiness as Becoming.” (Merton, 110) WHAT? For some reason, I find this way of understanding Sunyata altogether too abstract. I have to work in smaller steps. Perhaps by ‘emptiness as becoming,’ Merton is making a reference to the notion that the importance of grasping and accepting nothingness is in the process, and not so much in Sunyata as an end. This lead me to consider the emphasis the Japanese place on kata and on michi or dō (“ways”) as a way of implementing the strict following of a patterned set of behaviors “to confirm their identity by moving through…Japanese space in formalized ways.” (Inouye, 57) As I have mentioned before this is a way of ordering the chaos presented to us in the idea of constant change. It allows us to open ourselves to the unifying truth that the one thing we all share is emptiness- the pure absence of all judgment, opinion and discord. I’m having some trouble buying this assertion. I find it difficult to fully believe that our individuality is nothing but negative and part of an ignorant experience of the world… Our examination of the Noh Theatre really helped my wrap my head around a concrete example of michi and kata as well as the concept of the space created when the transcendental world and the world of the here-and-now merge. The space of the theatre itself presents us with a live manifestation of a zero place where we suspend our preoccupation with the ego. Inouye describes this eloquently when he writes of the theatre experience as an “aesthetic expression of Buddhist enlightenment [turning] divisiveness into unity and [making] the moment of singularity an eternally reverberating one.” (Inouye, 66)

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