By the way

People have a lot to say about silence.  That much is obvious after a week of searching on the term.  At the risk of adding to the cacophony, I do have a footnote and a corollary to add to my last post about “The Silent Caper.”  No promises that there won’t be more to say in the future.  Actually, I do plan to say more, and to do sitting meditation more regularly.  I’ll probably get more out of that than all the reading and scribbling I still have to do.

First, a sad footnote.  As I was walking Sammie on the evening after the last post, I remembered something more about the outdoor showings of movies at the school in Nkubu.  Maybe a year or so after the 77 Sunset Strip event, I was told that there would not be any more for the foreseeable future.  Apparently one of the students had tripped on the wire to the projector and knocked it over, causing irreparable damage.  The school didn’t have enough money to buy a new projector any time soon.

I never heard anything about repercussions for the student who knocked the projector over.  Certainly nothing about making him pay.  The projector probably cost more than his family earned in cash for 2-3 years.  They certainly had no money left over after purchasing clothes, tools, and other necessaries, plus paying taxes and school fees.

Taxes and other monetary impositions were one way the colonial regime had forced local farmers into the cash economy.  Independence had not changed how Kenya was governed.  In fact it had added a new way for farmers to generate cash–selling land to the new indigenous elite.  Even less than five years after independence, the biggest landowner in our area was a government minister in Nairobi, who was from the area. As the Kenyan political scientist Ali Mazrui put it at the time: “African socialism is government of the educated, by the educated, for the educated.”

A footnote to the footnote.  When the Schuylkill River flooded in 2021, I not only lost my car, I lost all my diaries from the time in Kenya.  So I’m not able to give precise dates, much less the year, when we saw the TV episode and when the projector was broken.  In a way not having this information is a kind of silence.

A corollary.  This is for the Buddhists in the audience.  Just as it was proper to call the episode “silent” because there were no words spoken, even though there was background music and many other sounds, the terms “emptiness” and “not self” should not be understood to mean absolute, total absence.  Not “void,” as sunyata is sometimes translated.  When a phenomenon is said to be empty, it is empty of something, not everything.  Usually Buddhist philosophers are talking about the absence of self-subsistence.  “Emptiness” is just another way of expressing the teaching that all phenomenon occur dependent upon other causes and conditions.  As the pre-eminent philosopher of emptiness Nagarjuna says: “I declare emptiness to be dependent origination.”  I can’t resist noting that the use of an abstract noun helps to confuse this point, which Nagarjuna catches in his next sentence: “Emptiness is a dependent concept.” (MMK 24.18)  “Not self” expresses the same mutual connection, with the added advantage of negating the abstract noun “self.”


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