Monthly Archives: February 2013

Making Something out of Nothing

The other morning I was walking across the footbridge at Dowling Hall and noticed the beautiful sunrise after a snowy day.


Breaks the ice

Birds chirping


 This week was encapsulated by nothing. Not the absence of any cohesive structure, but actually nothing. At first I was skeptical of how nothing (無) could be something to be desired. Professor Inouye talked about how noh actors, like those in Atsumori, try to gain hana, whereby they spellbind their audiences without moving (Lecture, 2/13/13). By doing nothing, they captivate the audience in an intimate, shared moment. I did not fully understand the power of this connection until reading Thomas Merton. He simplifies the concept of nothingness by saying that, “the zero [he] speak[s] of is not a mathematical symbol. It is the infinite—a storehouse or womb (Garbha) of all possible good or values” (Merton, 107). Thus, nothing is everything and everything is nothing. When people approach a new situation with nothing—no preconceived notions or expectations—they are able to take in everything around them. As Inouye put it, when you sit with the same people at lunch every day, you have something, but branching out with nothing might be more beneficial. When we all share nothing, it leaves us open to everything. (Lecture, 2/13/13). I initially had trouble grasping this concept, since I approached nothingness like a child would—with an image of eternal darkness following the end of the world. I do not think I can fully embrace true nothingness just yet, but I am getting closer. To me, nothingness involves emptying your mind to be filled by the world around you; it’s letting yourself be at your most vulnerable to outside influence and fully accepting other people and the natural world. If that is true, we can write our most vivid weekly poems when we are tuned in to nothing.

~Ezra Dunkle-Polier

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Dry Winter Air

Awake in the middle of the night on Monday with a bloody nose, standing by the nightlight in the bathroom.

Eyes, cold and red

A dim light in the wall

darkness outside

I get the idea of Nothingness and Something when applied to making friends and not needing any more. But it’s a misleading reduction. They say extroversion and charisma are things that people “have” or “haven’t,” but I’m not sure that’s the truth. I think we’re all just mired by our own compulsions. Look at Atsumori- Taira admits to being as deep in sin as “the sea by a rocky shore” (Atsumori, 69) while Kumagai is so wrapped in remorse he lives as an ascetic. But when the both of them stop being overcome with these preoccupations, they are “re-born together.” (Atsumori, 73) And I truly believe it’s no different with the people you meet every day. Remember in Middle and High school, how you could go to class and be self-conscious *all day* about a blemish or stain on your shirt, or some mistake you made in class? The truth is everyone felt like that. And there are two ways to get over it- 1) point out other people’s shortcomings and put them on the defensive or 2)get over it. What weirds me out about Japanese culture is that the emphasis seems to be on option (1). As you say in E & F, “there are no excuses for doing things the wrong way.” (Inouye, 64) But then you say that “kata becomes a counterbalance to evanescence.” (Inouye, 65) But isn’t this MORE than a counterbalance? In Atsumori it’s a direct conflict! Kata  demands that the two BE preoccupied with their duties, but the story reaches its climax when kata falls to the wayside. Do the Japanese *like* when kata is overcome by evanescence?

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Week 4 : Nothingness

Week 4: Nothingness

By Songwha Choi

On Friday evening, when I was on my way to a friend’s house to have a dinner, I saw a bright crescent moon in the night sky.


Winter night sky—

A crescent moon

Emitting light


The fourth week, we mainly discussed value of nothingness which is one of the elements of evanescence. Generally, people have a negative view of nothing (Lecture 11/02). In modern times, we live in a materialistic world, so we try to get something as much as possible. However, materialism devastates the human emotions. When we end up fail to get something, we can easily feel the futility of life. On the other hand, emptiness can be everything. Nothing is all space, all wisdom, and free (Inouye 20). When we dismiss all our obsessions, we can have a real freedom. Thomas Merton and two main characters in Atsumori suggest that how nothingness is valuable in our lives.  

Thomas Merton had lived nothingness. He had learned the value of emptiness by pioneering dialogue with the Japanese writer D.T Suzuki. He did not speak because he was trying to empty his mind through meditation. By doing so, he wanted to accept to other people’s view. For this reason, he could learn many different countries’ cultural and religious thoughts. If your mind is full of something, something else cannot enter it (Inouye 22). He truly had known the real meaning of nothingness.

In Atsumori, Atsumori and Kumagai also follow the value of nothingness in the different way. Even though Atsumori is killed by the Minamoto warrior Kumagai Naozane, he does not resent Kumagai. Atsumori is not a vengeful spirit. In the last part of play, the ghost declares that Kumagai is not his enemy. Atsumori tries to empty his grudge by forgiving Kumagai. His behavior truly shows the nothingness’ beauty. Grudge is not nothingness. Kumagai also tries to atone for his sin, so he becomes a monk and changes his name. He sincerely regrets his previous sin, and he wants to clean his anguish of heart. “Guide us on our passage through this sad world” (Zeami 66). Those two main characters suggest that even though we are suffering from many problems in the world, we can pursue nothingness by cleaning our confused mind.

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Week 4: Nothingness

I was walking to Tisch during sunset and noticed how the snow-covered President’s lawn was sparkling in the fading sunlight.

setting sun
crisp frozen ground
twinkling snow

In class we talked about whether common Japanese practices, such as the Coming of Age Day for young Japanese women, are considered religious even if practitioners don’t realize the religious connotations. In my mind I don’t think it is religious; the Japanese strictly structure their space and choose to blend spiritual beliefs into this space. In order for Buddhism, and animism, to gain followers in Japan, society had to render “abstract, scriptural practice into concrete ritual practice” (Inouye 58). This created events such as the Coming of Age Day as well as art rituals that were “not simply manifestations or symbolic representations or religious belief” but they were rather “intimately associated with the contemplative intuition of a fundamental truth”  (Merton 89). These spiritual values build up to a “fundamental truth” that I think is larger than a single religion. If these rituals were more symbolic then I think it could be considered religious. However since these values and practices permeate every aspect of Japanese life, even the lives of the samurai as seen in Atsumori, they lose the distinct religious qualities as they blend into everything else. Just because some rituals have religious roots and remnants doesn’t make the entire ritual religious. When we bake a cake we no longer refer to the cake as an ‘egg’ or ‘flour’. For that reason I believe that these practices are no longer religious, but simply Japanese.
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Reality and Enlightenment

I did not have a lyrical moment this week

To reach enlightenment from a Buddhist perspective we must become one with both everything and nothing. How is this dichotomy work exactly in the Buddhist mindset? We can reach harmony or oneness with our surroundings through the following of michi or do (the way) (Lecture 2/11). Do is used to break from the cycles of day to day life (also known as samsara) by providing us with the clarity to shatter the illusion of our reality (Inouye 51). Practices like judo or kendo helps us to reach that breaking point where we see the world for what it is (Lecture 2/11). I myself encountered this almost trance-like state last summer when I was cleaning out a neighbor’s pool. By engaging in the repetitive act of dipping the net in the water to skim off leaves, I lost my sense of self and was absorbed in the task, despite its tediousness. By participating in my own form of “the way,” I can draw close the nothingness of enlightenment. What I have trouble understanding is the nature of this “nothingness.” Merton remarks that “zero=infinity, infinity=zero” (Merton 107).  Perhaps nothingness in this sense refers to the innate contradiction of oneness with everything and the “zero point” we talked about in class. We try to fill the hole that makes us whole by, in my opinion at least, losing our sense of self and our tenuous grip on what we perceive to be reality. In the play Atsumori, the monk Kumagai says that “life is a fleeting dream, he only wakes who casts the world aside” (Seami 65). The reality we live in is an illusion created by our minds that we must break free of to reach enlightenment. If life is a dream, what do we wake up to? Nothingness is all that greets us. Buddhist may see this as an enlightening process but frankly, I am a little frightened of that very nothingness they try to attain if it comes at the price of losing one’s identity.

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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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Nothing this week

The idea of nothingness, to be honest, still doesn’t hold much water in my mind.  The thought of, “everything is nothing, nothing is everything” (lecture 2/11) is very hard for me to grasp because it is so contradictory in itself.  I think I began to understand the idea in a sense that if you let everything go you will gain everything, but even as I say that I have no idea what it means.  In Noh theater it is said that, “Noh’s emptiness is that quality of form that allows the possibility of all other forms to come to mind” (Inouye 68).  This is another example that makes no sense to my Westernized mind.  How does being sparse and empty allow for all other things to happen?  Wouldn’t that then fill that emptiness blocking out all other things? This seems lead to you having nothing and everything all at the same time.  However, I don’t think that is possible as they are polar opposites.  The idea of “nothingness” has become a paradoxical puzzle that I can’t seem to figure out.  I believe I understand what it is saying, but I don’t understand what it means.  In Atsumori do the priest and Atsumori achieve peace because they both gave up everything and looked to Buddha for salvation?  The idea that letting past quarrels go to achieve peace makes sense to me, but again “nothingness” is a mystery.

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I was sitting in my room late at night after watching a YouTube clip of the meteor passing over a city in Russia when I looked outside my window to see the night sky.

A city sleeps—

Stars pass over

never to encounter

The idea of nothingness both struck me as calming and confusing. I think a lot of has to do with the disregard of boundaries that we build for ourselves as a society. Professor Inouye drew the example in class that for many of us we only associate with people that make us feel comfortable and complacent (Lecture 2/11). I feel the reason for this is the over exertion of form in our lives, creating delusions and prejudices that prevent us from being permeable and open to opportunities and experiences in life. The idea of nothingness or mu is a large constituent of Zen Buddhism, but you can’t simply embrace nothingness. As Merton aptly puts it, “doctrine was not a doctrine but a way of being in the world”(Merton, 110).  At face value, this is extremely hard for me to understand. Where do you draw the line between knowing and being? I think a lot of has to do with completely relinquishing all that you have been accustomed to and strived to be, which for me is seems to be extremely difficult. I think the idea of the Zen garden that the Professor discussed in class was very interesting. We talked that a Zen garden is both the capability of being a sign and a symbol, because it is interactive (Lecture 2/11).  I feel as if the garden then is a living embodiment of the ever-changing boundary of evanescence and form. Something like the garden is so concrete yet can be regarded as spiritual. The idea that this epitomizes Zen tells me that a lot of what the philosophy has to do with is extinguishing that boundary. I think this also has a lot to do with the customs and culture of the Japanese, as Inouye aptly says that the Japanese, “confirm their status by affirming the visual field properly and appropriately”(Inouye, 57).  This makes me think that nothingness isn’t about absolute nothing, but just relinquishing of all connections and boundaries. We discussed in class that something everyone has in common is nothing (Lecture 2/13). With this being said, if someone relinquishes their boundaries, prejudices and delusions, there is nothing left, and I feel that is what Professor Inouye may have been talking about.

-Krishna Soni

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The Zen Garden (Week 4)

I was walking down Boston ave late Tuesday night in the rainy dark and was not properly dressed for the weather.

wet steps

white noise

headlights race by

After completing this weeks drawing I continued to contemplate the image. For me, the Zen garden is the best representation of Japanese Buddhism by “mixing the transcendental and here-and-now forms” (Lecture 2/11). It’s inherently a very visual representation of faith, a hallmark of Japanese Buddhism. Japanese practice of Buddhism is dominated by visual, practical and ritual elements, rather than doctrinal, and this is very evident in Atsumori, a play (intended to be a visual experience) that revolves around the prayers of a guilty priest. In the case of the garden, the process is just as important, if not more important that the product we used as this weeks drawing image. It is “a way of spiritual experience,” and effectively “transforms art into a contemplative experience” (Merton 89, 90). By blurring the lines between the art, life, and spirituality, the abstract can be rendered concrete and both the here-and-now and the metaphysical can be experienced, or combined. These concepts attached to the garden help me understand Inouye’s statement “it is possible to establish an order that has only tenuous ties to a specific definable metaphysical reality yet still performs the important function of giving form,” an idea I had difficulty wrapping my mind around earlier (Inouye 60). The fact that sand (or potentially gravel in the case of this image) is “the most shapeless of materials,” gives the creation of form even more significance (Inouye, 64). Personally, the image of the Zen garden tied a lot of concepts we’ve discussed in class together.

Nicholas Economos

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By Michael Chu

I was walking to the gym on Sunday night near Halligan when a strong gust of wind blew and carried me along the ice.

A snowy night—
Wind blew
Slid on ice

Nothingness is everything, and everything is nothing (Lecture 2/11). I was at first clueless about Buddhists valuing nothingness because nothingness had a negative connotation to me. Nothingness meant void to me. However, it made more sense to me as nothingness is explained as “the nonlimitation and nondefinition of the infinite” (Merton 85).  I can see why this idea became popular because embracing such boundlessness and ambiguity eliminates separation between objects and allows everything to be connected.  This connection is also seen in the play Atsumori when the priest and the ghost of Atsumori alternate saying, “We heard the singing…””Songs and ballads…””Many voices” “Singing to one measure” (Zeami 65). The border between the two breaks down and expresses nothingness. If only everyone valued the concept of nothingness, it would be easier to connect with strangers because people would not initially put up a border when meeting someone new. Nothingness also lets everything into your mind because “a possession of something will keep all other somethings from coming in” (Merton 109). I realize that because I always hang out with certain friends, I have made it harder for me to connect with others. Perhaps getting out of the comfort zone and embracing the boundlessness of friendship will help me connect with more people. I am starting to appreciate the profoundness of nothingness. If I do ever get to go to Japan one day, I shall test my appreciation of nothingness by going to a Noh theater and see if I would be captivated by an accomplished actor when he is motionless (Inouye 68).

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