137 – The Beauty of Nothing

Is nothing something? What happens when we do nothing? In this podcast episode, I will share my thoughts on the concept of nothingness and the beauty of nothing. I will also discuss the koan “every day is a good day”.

Koan Discussed: Every Day is A Good Day

Koan Shared: Joshu’s Mu

Transcript:

Hello, and welcome to another episode of the Secular Buddhism Podcast. This is episode number 137. I am your host, Noah Rasheta, and today I’m going to talk about the beauty of nothing. As always, keep in mind, you don’t need to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist. You can use what you learn to be a better whatever you already are. If you’re new to the podcast, check out episodes one through five or visit secularbuddhism.com and click on start here, which will give you access to those episodes one through five, where they’re easy to find. If you’re looking for an online community to practice with and interact with, consider becoming a supporter of the podcast by visiting secularbuddhism.com and clicking on the top link that says, “Join our online community on Patreon.”

In the last podcast episode, I shared a koan that goes like this. Unman said, “I do not ask you about 15 days ago, but what about 15 days hence? Come, say a word about this”. Since none of the monks answered, he answered for them, “Every day is a good day.” The “every day is a good day” koan is a koan that I’ve enjoyed. In fact, I have it written in Japanese on a poster board on my wall, “every day is a good day,” and this has been a way of thinking, a concept if we want to call it that, that I like to keep at the forefront of my mind. When I’m experiencing what I would consider to be a good day, maybe a bad day for someone else or what I consider to be a bad day for me, is certainly a good day for someone else.

And the idea that every day is a good day, because it’s always based on perspective and place and time, has been helpful for me to I think have a more skillful view of what good means and the idea of what a day is. So I wanted to share some of the thoughts that came from the Patreon community. Duchenne says, “I can’t escape thinking that hope is at the center of this koan as well as the irrelevance of the past and the future. However, I don’t commonly see hope as a big part of Buddhism in general. Hope seems judgmental and perhaps leads to dissatisfaction about the way things are.” I want to share a couple thoughts about this in terms of the notion of hope.

In Buddhism, I like to remind people that the Buddhist view is always pertaining to the present moment. So when we approach concepts like hope, like hopelessness specifically, it’s always pertaining to the present moment. So the idea isn’t that I shouldn’t have hope for things in the future. The idea is that if I can experience hopelessness in the present moment, what I’m experiencing is a moment of not needing things to be any different than how they are, which, if you think about it, when we talk about the definition of suffering, the moment we want things to be other than how they are, we experience suffering. Now, there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s okay to experience suffering. It’s unavoidable, in fact. We’re going to experience this feeling in times the moment we want things to be other than how they are.

So what we can do in the present moment, if I realize that for this one single moment, I don’t need anything to be other than how it is, I’m experiencing hopelessness. But I know hopelessness has a bad rap, a bad connotation in our way of thinking in our society, and it’s a little strange to tell someone that you’re aspiring for hopelessness. But remember, it’s not in the future. You see this even in Buddhist thought like in the Metta prayer, where you say, “May you be happy. May you be free from suffering. May you be at peace.” That expression implies a wish that I have for you in the future, but as far as the practice goes, what I’m doing when I’m trying to experience hopelessness, it’s right now in this present moment, it’s the radical acceptance of how things are.

I’ll elaborate on that just a little bit more, but first I want to share Robert’s thoughts. He says, “Thanks for the episode. The koan makes me think of two things. One, there’s no such thing as a bad day, because even if you’re having a bad day, billions of others might be having a good one. And two, time is a concept. Its existence relies on humans believing in it. There are no good or bad days because, beyond our perception, there are no days.” Now, I like that he brings awareness to this idea of time. If I say, “Every day is a good day,” yeah, the idea of a day is something that is a concept. We distinguish what a day is based on the rotation of the sun. We’ve decided that’s it. But where do you draw that line? What if it was 25 hours in the day and on the 25th hour there’s this great thing that happened? How do you define what makes a day good and what makes a day bad?

Is it 10 good things and two bad things? Is it 12 bad things and one good thing? What would make it good or bad? And then you have to break it down from there. Well, then, is it by hour? What would make every hour as a good hour or every minute is a good minute, every second as a good second, right? Where do we draw that line? Because, again, the emphasis from the Buddhist perspective is always pertaining to the present moment and any moment can be a good moment if I just bring awareness to it and mindfulness to the moment. Because, if you’ll recall, the very definition of mindfulness is the non-judgmental observation of the present moment. So if I’m observing the present moment with non-judgment, it’s not good or bad, it’s just the moment that is and in doing so, yeah, I could say every moment is a good moment, but that’s the koan, right? Because who says what’s good? Who’s to say what’s good and what’s bad?

Which brings me to Heather’s thoughts, who says, “This koan about good days and bad days brought a few interesting things to my thoughts today. First, it made me think of the parable about the two neighbors who, whenever something happened to his neighbor, such as the horse running away, or his son being pardoned from joining the army because of breaking his leg, the neighbor simply replied, ‘Who knows what is good and what is bad?’ It is through this story that we realize that not everything is as it seems at first so it’s not wise to label things as good or bad. Also, we should take into consideration of what is good for one person may be bad for another. Finally, most of what I’ve been learning about Buddhism,” and she says, “I’m fairly new to the practice, emphasizes being present in the moment, not dwelling on the past or worrying about the future. So perhaps this question, isn’t really a question at all. It’s a reminder that we should be here in the present moment, fully awakened.”

And I wanted to share my thoughts on building on Heather’s thoughts here, the concept of the present moment, because yes, from the Buddhist perspective, again, it’s always anchored in the present moment. So if that’s the case and I’m anchored in the present moment, a concept like “every day is a good day,” again, I’d have to go to, what about this moment? And if this moment is good or bad, well, what about the next moment? And if that moment is good or bad, well, what about the next moment? And because we can’t pause time, we’re stuck with this constant observation that the meaning I’m giving to a moment is just that, it’s the meaning I’m giving to it and the moment I’ve done that it’s gone and I’m onto the next moment and onto the next moment. So when I start to see it in light of trying to be in the present moment, suddenly all of these other concepts that you’ll encounter in Buddhism, make more sense.

Again, going back to the concept of hopelessness, well, sure, if I’m hopeless in this moment, what about the next moment? Oh well, that one I’m hopeful. Well, then what about the next one? Oh, maybe that one I’m hopeless. What if you’re switching back and forth literally moment to moment in half a second increments or something? So, because there’s no fixed time, everything’s always changing, notions like this start to make more sense in terms of the present moment. So those were just some of the thoughts I wanted to share regarding the “every day is a good day” koan.

And I want to tie this into the topic that I wanted to share today, the beauty of nothing. Now, this is just a stream of thoughts that I wanted to share with you, but the concept of nothingness in Buddhism is that, first, you would have to entertain the question, is nothing something? Because if you have an answer to that question and you tell me what nothing is, well, then now nothing is something, right? The idea that you have about what nothing is that is something. It’s a concept and it’s an idea. So the idea of nothingness from the Buddhist perspective is quite fascinating because it puts you in this world of non-duality again, which is, is nothing something? And I would argue that it is. So then there’s no such thing as nothingness. Nothingness is somethingness. And that’s pretty interesting to think about.

So one thing I wanted to share, where this starts to apply a little bit more in our day to day experience is the practice of trying to do nothing. I just got off the phone not long ago with a podcast listener who’s a patron and wanted to discuss this concept of nothingness. And we had a really fun conversation around this and talked about some of the ways that this concept of nothingness can be beneficial in day to day life. So I wanted to share some of those thoughts with you. And the first was, the question, well, how do we even practice nothingness? Because if I’m thinking I’m trying to make time for nothing and there was a podcast episode about this, Making Time For Nothing, that’s why I wanted to bring this up.

But if I go into the practice of wanting to do nothing, I’m going to struggle if I really think that nothing is devoid of something. So what that means to me, if I sit here and I think, “Okay, I’m going to do nothing,” what am I actually doing? I’m doing something, I’m thinking of doing nothing, which is something. It’s a lot like the catch-22 that you’re in if you think, “Well, what is the sound of silence?” Well, listen to silence and you’re going to hear something, whether it’s the ringing in your ears or the faraway sounds of cars honking, the idea that there’s always some kind of sound taking place. Even if you just say, “Okay, well, what is the sound or the frequency of the sound of the radiation that comes from the sun and just shoots right through the earth?” We’re experiencing that at any given moment and there’s a sound associated to that.

Whether I can perceive it or not doesn’t matter, but the idea is that there is no such thing as silence, at least for us here in this world. There’s always some form of sound penetrating the earth from the sun or something. And I think this concept with nothingness is the same. So to want to experience nothingness is to experience somethingness. I’m going to experience something by trying to do nothing. And this could be as simple as, okay, I’m going to sit here and do nothing and then I get distracted watching a little ant on the ground and I follow along and watch and realize that in this moment of nothingness, there’s a whole lot of somethingness taking place, where I can hear the rustling of the leaves on the trees outside the window. And in my moment of doing nothing, I observed that there’s a whole lot of something.

And that to me is where this becomes powerful. In my external observation of nothingness, what I observe is a lot of somethingness, but now take this a step further and go inward. In my intent to observe nothingness taking place in me, what I will observe is a whole lot of somethingness. I may be able to observe my heartbeat or the rumbling sounds in my stomach or the sound of breathing or the observation of thoughts that don’t stop. The thoughts are always going, always racing. Even if I have the thought that I’m not having thoughts, that’s a thought. I had the thought of not having thoughts. And that is the dilemma with the concept of nothingness, which is, what makes the idea of nothingness so beautiful is that nothing is actually something, quite a bit of something.

So I was having all these thoughts with the notion of nothing and then I thought I would like to correlate this with a bigger topic in Buddhism, which is the concept of no self or non-self. And I think if I can conclude that nothing is something, and I take that line of thought and apply it to something like the sense of self, now I’m actually onto something pretty fascinating, which is the idea of non-self. Self is nothing from the Buddhist way of thought, which means that self is something. If anything, it’s a concept, it’s an idea, and it’s always changing and it’s always evolving. And one way that I like to think of this is the way that I perceive a rainbow. The other day, my daughter, who’s four, we saw a rainbow and she said, “Can we go to it?” And I had to explain to her, “Well, the rainbow is something that we see, but it’s not actually there. You don’t get to go touch it. The closer you get to it, it disappears because you only see a rainbow, not because it’s there, but it’s based on how we see.”

And now, of course, to a four year old this whole notion is like, “Okay.” That was too much. But it got me thinking. When I perceive a rainbow, the causes and conditions arise and suddenly I perceive the rainbow. I don’t think it’s much different when I perceive the sense of self. The causes and conditions arise, which is that I exist, I’m born, my brain processes thoughts, experiences, feelings, and emotions, and this whole combination of experience that I’m having gives rise to the sensation of a sense of self, very similar to the sensation of, “Oh, there’s a rainbow, something that I can perceive.” Now, I go chasing after it and I’ll never find it. And I think that’s the same dilemma that we’re in with a sense of self, which is what the Buddhist view of non-self is trying to get at.

It’s not that there is no self. It’s that the perception that we have of self is off from what we think that it is. In other words, the sense, myself, is not what I might think that it is. It’s not a permanent thing and it’s not an independent thing. It’s an interdependent, transitory thing that’s always changing the sense of self. And this to me is a fascinating way to look at it. I might think, well, there are aspects of me that seem fixed like my personality, for example. But it’s not that fixed. Many people will encounter some kind of big experience that can change their personality. Just yesterday I was hearing about someone who was saying that a really good friend who had a certain personality and way about him, and he went to rehab because he was dealing with a strong addiction to drinking and smoking and went through this whole program and came out of it and was a different person. His personality had changed.

Now, some of us may not go through something that changes our personality. A big crisis can do it. People who endure some kind of trauma may have a different personality. Most of us will have the same personality that we’ve always had and it will seem like, well, what about that? That’s kind of a permanent thing. But it’s not because, what was your personality before the day you were born? Or the day before you were conceived, or the day after you die? There’s no permanence in there in the same way that, that koan evokes when it says, “What was your face before you were born?” But what I’m trying to get at, I guess, with this line of thought is that even things that may seem fixed and permanent, they aren’t fixed or permanent when it comes to this concept of the sense of self.

And as long as the causes and conditions are there to see the rainbow, you’re going to see the rainbow. So there’s no need to deny what I’m perceiving. I can say, “Well, yeah. I see that rainbow. I totally see it. But I know that it’s not what I would think that it is.” And that to me is where the value comes in this as I think about the sense of self. I have a strong perception of a sense of self, but that doesn’t mean that it’s what I might think it could be. I start to see through that illusion and recognize it’s what I’m seeing that matters, not what’s actually there that matters. It’s because of how I see that I perceive what I’m perceiving.

So another way I wanted to share some thoughts about this idea of hopelessness or really any concept in Buddhism is, if we apply it to the present moment and along the lines of skillful versus unskillful then we have something actually beneficial and useful to work with in our day to day life. And the analogy that I had that popped into my mind was, if I am out on the ocean in a boat and suddenly I realize I’m caught up in a storm and a hurricane, a sense of hopelessness, one would say, “Oh, that means, okay, I’m not going to do anything because I guess I’m just going to die out here.” Well, that’s pretty grim. But the Buddhist view of hopelessness would be, “Okay, I’m recognizing I’m out here in a storm and there is nothing I can do about it. I cannot wish this storm away. I cannot pray it away. I’m caught up in the storm. There’s no denying that.” That’s where acceptance kicks in.

“Okay, if I’m caught in a storm, what can I do?” The moment I accept that I am caught in the storm I can start to be more skillful. “Okay, well, I better bring the sails down.” Or, “I better call an SOS on the radio.” Or, “I better strap myself to the railings of the boat so a wave doesn’t knock me over.” There are a whole bunch of things that you can do, but those things are only going to happen once I recognize this is indeed the situation that I’m in. So the idea of hopelessness in Buddhism is more along those lines. And someone in the Patroon community said she likes the expression wishlist-ness, which I agree. I like that. It’s a moment where I’m experiencing wishlist-ness. I don’t need to spend time wishing that it was any other than how it is.

I’m going to just say, “This is how it is in the present moment and if I’m caught in a storm, in a boat in the ocean, then I’m going to do the things that I know are skillful to do in that moment rather than sit there wishing I wasn’t in the storm,” because no amount of wishing is going to make that storm go away. So that’s along the lines of what I wanted to share in terms of this concept of the beauty of nothing. To me, the beauty of nothing is the recognition that the beauty of nothing is, in fact, the beauty of something. There’s always something. So those were some of the thoughts that I wanted to share. This podcast episode was inspired by a recent phone call conversation like I’d mentioned before and I wanted to just share a bunch of those thoughts.

So I hope you enjoyed this podcast episode. I want to it with another koan that you can think about between now and the next podcast episode. And this is one of those big koans. I would say, perhaps of all the koans, this one is the most famous, at least in Zen circles. And this is the koan called Joshu Mu. So Joshu was a famous Chinese Zen master who lived in Joshu, the province from which he took his name. One day, a troubled monk approached him intending to ask the master for guidance. A dog walked by. The monk asked Joshu, “Has that dog a Buddha nature or not?” The monk had barely completed his question when Joshu shouted, Mu!” That’s the koan. I will explain more about it and share some of my thoughts about it in the next podcast episode. Thanks again for listening. And until next time.

 

About the Author
Noah Rasheta is a Buddhist teacher, lay minister, and author, as well as the host of the podcast Secular Buddhism. He teaches mindfulness and Buddhist philosophy online and in workshops all around the world. He works with others to make the world a better place as he studies, embodies, and teaches the fundamentals of Buddhist philosophy, integrating Buddhist teachings with modern science, humanism, and humor. He lives in Playa del Carmen, Mexico with his wife and three kids.