As much as I try, some ideas just keep eluding me.
Perhaps I should pay more attention to the frequent cautions in Buddhist and Daoist teachings against trying to put every insight into words. Just this past week I started reading What Makes You Not a Buddhist by the Tibetan lama Dzongar Jamyang Kyentse, who by the way made the delightful movie The Cup, which I’ve discussed at the end of another blog post.
At the outset of this book, Kyentse Rinpoche lists what he considers to be four truths shared by all schools of Buddhism. The fourth is that enlightenment is beyond concepts.
So maybe these ideas elude me precisely because they are “ideas,” words. That doesn’t stop me, like so many other would-be practitioners of Buddhadharma, from time and again working to find the deepest meaning of an idea.
So, the first article I picked from the latest issue of Tricycle magazine is all about the development of the mathematical concept of zero and its relation to the Buddhist teaching of emptiness. Both arose in ancient India using the same Sanskrit word, shunya. Written by C.W. Huntingdon, Jr., the article is titled “The Invention of Nothing.”
One of Huntingdon’s quotes set me off on one of my word journeys.
As a mathematical concept, zero locates the interface between absence and presence, and in this respect it defies the law of noncontradiction, which states that contradictory propositions cannot both be true in the same sense at the same time. Considered to be one of the “laws of thought” and a cornerstone of reason, the law of noncontradiction finds its classical source in Aristotle’s metaphysics.
Nothing like waving a red flag in front of my inner Thomist bull.
In the first place, it’s not apparent to me that being the location of the “interface” between two propositions is the same as saying that they’re both “true in the same sense at the same time.” Yet, I still started thinking about the question of how absence and presence are contradictory. In one of the first blog posts here I talked a lot about presence, and went back to it a few years ago. In both posts I recalled how my high school Latin teacher would do roll call. When he called our names, we answered adsum, I am here. In my later post I talked about absum (I am away) as the opposite of adsum. Actually, the opposite response is silence. If one is not here/present, one doesn’t respond.
That silence is what “zero” is about. No sound is here. That’s far enough for me today with absence, presence, and the law of noncontradiction.
In my earlier posts I also mentioned Joan Halifax’s pithy description of grief as being pregnant with absence. The person who is not here is inside me, and they’re not nothing.
More importantly, this struggle with elusive ideas leads me to understand better what Dorothee Solle meant when she listed “stupidly” as one way to respond to questions about suffering when such questions cannot be asked or answered in scientific language. Sometimes in the face of an idea as difficult as “suffering,” all we can do is just give it a name or repeat the obvious. Describing the operation of naming or repeating as blöde, Soelle writes,
I’m using the word blöde (‘stupidly’) first in its older sense, namely, ‘feebly,’ for our feeble eyes are not capable of seeing what we are speaking about. Then, too, I’m using the word in its current sense, because repetition of sentences we neither understand nor think through is a sign of stupidity.”
Sometimes writers try to present ineffability (not being able to put ideas into words) as some kind of higher truth. Some Buddhists call “the emptiness of emptiness” the ultimate truth as distinguished from conventional truth. I’m with German Lutheran theologian Soelle. At this point just talk stupidly. It’s feeble, but it works.