Try A Little Emptiness

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2017-09-06 23:00:00 No comments

Irma's coming, and I'm not sure how much of its impact I'll be feeling directly, so I'm in kind of an existentially uneasy mood. I've prepared as best I can, though, so there's not much I can do except button up when it comes, and wait it out. For the time being I'm going to contemplate the eternal or something vaguely like it.

In the earlier post I talked about the labels falling off of things, which is basically the Buddhist idea of emptiness, a word I hate. Part of why I hate it is because it epitomizes a lot of why Buddhism (and Zen) have ended up in the position of mystic playthings: bad or inadequate translations. A lot of the terminology used when talking about Buddhism in English is like this — it's paraphrasings of paraphrasings.

It's something of a cliché for people to say things like "everything is emptiness"; it brings to mind blank-eyed folks contemplating the essential unreality of things. Something easily laughed at and shoved into a box. It took more than a few teachers to set the record straight about what all this emptiness stuff was about — it means things are originally devoid of labels, of categories, of boundaries.

Labels and categories are things people put on the universe to help make sense of it. But those labels don't exist except in this consensually hallucinatory way. To paraphrase Seung Sahn, the sun doesn't have a little tag hanging off it saying HELLO, MY NAME IS: THE SUN. They're conveniences we use. We also have a hard time remembering that we put them there, and that they don't really exist.

This doesn't mean we should rip the labels off everything and let reality sort itself out. That's essentially the nihilist view, something I admit I entertained a fair amount when I was younger. No more categories! No more boundaries! Let there be epistemological anarchy, and let it begin with ME!

Sad thing is, those kinds of ideas really are intoxicating. It's not altogether wrong to tell yourself the problem with the world is that our ideas about things are getting in the way of the real things themselves. This happens literally every time we walk outside and make unkind assumptions about the guy getting into that car, or coming out of that convenience store. Maybe life would be better if we didn't have those labels.

What I've found, though, is that you can't mandate tearing the labels off things. Then you end up in the awkward and untenable position of trying to strong-arm people into finding wisdom. The most you can do is make a good case for it, and one of the best ways to do that is to start with yourself. If you spend a lot of time looking into these kinds of assumptions, after a while they start to look like the assumptions they really are. Not facts, not certainties. It's best to just create as many opportunities as possible for people to come into this truth on their own.

Consent is only one part of why you want to do that, although it's a big one. Another part of it is just this: Labels may "only" be a human creation, but sometimes they are in fact vitally important. If I label a bottle POISON and a fence DANGER 50,000 VOLTS, sometimes there are really good reasons for doing that. Not all such strictures are indefensible affronts against our free minds. Contexts for labels matter.

I'm going to tie this back into creative work, because it circles something I've mumbled about on and off for some time now. When you put a label on a creative work — mainly a genre, but sometimes also its medium — you set expectations for how to approach it, how to interpret it, what kind of audience is most intended to receive it.

Some of that has started to grow a little more fluid lately. Comics, for instance: they're not just kid stuff anymore, and many people who take literature seriously are starting to take graphic novels seriously. The more that happens, the more people will be inclined to try and produce things worth taking all the more seriously for that venue. Some of that has already happened — look at Osamu Tezuka's MW and Ode To Kirihito (seriously, drop everything and go read them) — but there's still room to improve.

This to me is why this change of appreciation matters. It doesn't just open the doors to allow things that were previously "trash" to be better appreciated as moments in time for a culture, or to allow things once dismissed as curiosities to be seen as maverick brilliance. It also makes it all the easier for creators to feel the work they do in those venues will find not only a good reception, but intelligent interpretation, thoughtful feedback, and a chance at generally being thought of as something others can look to as a good model.

Tags: Buddhism Zen creativity