Monday, May 7, 2012

Vastness and Voidness

Scott Bradley


Blyth (Zen in English Literature) contrasts the two poems offered up to the 5th Patriarch of Zen Buddhism as proof of a true understanding of Zen in such a way that only now have I come to appreciate something of their differences. The story is a famous one and I won't repeat it here. The 'winner' was the 6th and final Patriarch.

Here is the first poem as translated by Blyth:
The body is the Tree of Salvation
The mind is a clear mirror.
Incessantly wipe and clean it!
Let no dust fall on it!
The 5th Patriarch thought this poem worthy of having incense burned before it; but it still did not reveal a thorough understanding of Zen. I think most of us can understand how this is the case if only because it reveals a belief that one must somehow labor to 'be saved'. It emphasizes the religious side of Zen.

Here is the second poem:
Salvation is nothing like a tree,
Nor a clear mirror;
Essentially, not a 'thing' exists;
What is there then for dust to fall on?
Although it may be that one must 'workout his salvation', that salvation consists in realizing that there was never anyone to save. It may be necessary to clean one's mirror in order to realize there is no mirror to clean, but it is this conclusion that is the essence of Zen, not the cleaning.

I think that philosophical Daoism would completely agree with the 5th Patriarch's criticism of the first poem and praise of the second. Only the Daoist comes to what may seem to be the exact opposite conclusion regarding what this tells us of the nature of Reality. As one Zhuangzian commentator has said, Buddhism believes in the Void (Emptiness), while Daoism believes in Vastness. How then, he asks, could they ever be reconciled? I think they cannot be reconciled for the simple fact that they are the same.

Vastness and Voidness are, in my opinion, subjective experiences in that they represent experiences of Reality and not Reality itself. Daoism affirms all things, while Buddhism negates them, but the affirmation is also a negation and the negation an affirmation. Vastness embraces all things, but no thing can retain its discreet identity within that embrace. Voidness negates all things, but their negation is consequent to their participation in Voidness.

These are, of course, just words, and ones I am not qualified to discuss. But perhaps they might serve to illustrate how we need not cling to any one concept as if it truly represented Reality.

You can check out Scott's other miscellaneous writings here.

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