by Randall Auxier
A Zen moment. Sometimes, unexpectedly, we see straight through the mundane and into the pure existence of the possibilities that surround it. Somehow, the moment vanishes and its pure being is just there, empty of all you thought it was, but full of nothing else. It isn’t exactly a revelation, or an epiphany, or a visitation. It’s an aperture, the arrival of the already. Or something like that. It has happened to you. It’s not a bad thing, but not exactly good.
There is emptiness in everything: the absence of what was but is no more, the spectral presence of what wasn’t but might have been, the fleeting is-ness of what is but soon won’t be anymore, the haunting intuition of what isn’t surrounding what is, the excruciating quasi-availability of what will be, the tragic barrier between what could be but won’t be. All empty. When we see or hear or feel ourselves, or someone else, or something else, as surrounded and permeated by all these emptinesses, the uncanny sense it makes takes us from behind, from a blind spot in our process of existing. Hard to describe, but common enough.
Crispin Sartwell tells the story of the two tea-masters Rikyū and his teacher Jōō. They are invited to a tea ceremony, and walk together through the market. Jōō notices a vase for sale, especially suited for his own tea ceremonies, but, not being rude, doesn’t stop to buy the vase, nor makes any remark about it. After all, to arrive at someone’s house for tea with a vase in hand is to arrive with a gift for the host. And to remark to one’s student about the desirability of an object is to place an obligation on that student to obtain it, as a gift for oneself. Not appropriate.
The following morning, Jōō sends his servant to purchase the vase, but it is already sold. At that moment, Jōō receives an invitation for tea that day with Rikyū, who wants to show him a newly purchased vase. Surmising what has happened, Jōō arrives and there is the vase, holding exactly two tsubaki flowers, like two friends, adorning the table. The vase had been in perfect condition, but now was damaged. Inquiring, Jōō learns that Rikyū has chipped an ear off the vase with a small hammer. Jōō says:
It is strange that you have chipped an ear off that vase. From the moment I saw the vase yesterday, I have been fascinated by it, and kept thinking that I would use it at my tea ceremony, but only after breaking off an ear. So, before I came this morning I planned to carry out a scheme. Thinking it wouldn’t be very interesting to chip off an ear after discussing the matter with you at the end of the ceremony, I had planned to break off an ear myself at the recess or some such time. (The Art of Living, p. 40)
And so saying, Jōō produces a small hammer from his pocket. There is a lot here, in this Zen moment. The teacher does have the “authority” to chip this vase, but why? Because a vase missing an ear draws from us a sense of its vulnerability, of its relation to a past and a future that includes in incompleteness, and through noticing that missing ear, we become mindful of the emptiness that the vase is, and that surrounds everything.
Socrates said that doing philosophy is practicing for death. He would know, since Athens ordered him to drink the hemlock. Rikyū was also ordered to commit ritual suicide by his master. As was customary, he made up a poem as his last act, an ode to his dagger. In a way, that act was already included in the chipping of the vase. Zen moments aren’t always about death, but they always include it, by implication. Death, especially your own, is something you want to get right, and that requires mindfulness.
In that attitude, I revisited one of my favorite songs, Paul Simon‘s “Homeward Bound.” But now I had new questions. I had always seen in my mind’s eye the endless streams of smokes and magazines, and movies and factories, and the strangers’ faces. I always saw Paul, and sometimes with Artie, as the lonely figures, the poet, the one man band, like flowers in a vase. I never saw myself in the song. I wasn’t far from home, after all. I felt compassion. Paul longed for home. I would too, were I he. But I was quite wrong.
New questions, mindful ones: what is really missing from that meaningless stream of days away from home? Well, back there, back home, back in the past, when music played. Home. So if I’m that singer, my present thought flies from this gloom and foreign land . . . where? Where my love lies waiting. Silently. What? Is she asleep? Something is not right here. There is an ear missing from this vase. I only just noticed it. So I asked my class: “why is she silent?” A pause. My student Jonathan says “she’s dead.” I answer: “What else could it be?” Pause. “That’s why she is lying silently, isn’t it?” My student Alexis says, “I wasn’t ready for that.”
I have just taken my class through a tea ceremony of sorts. I have been (ritually) changing the strings on my favorite guitar while conducting this class –I cant’ serve tea, but over many years I have made a complex and fluid ritual of changing guitar strings. That ritual can be shared, in a way, with others. My life is sacramental, I think, but not so much ritualized. I’m an improviser. So I’m no Rikyū of changing strings; I actually dislike doing it. Yet, I have seen Amy Ray change a guitar string in 45 seconds while continuing to sing, to Emily‘s playing, and without missing a word. That’s more like Rikyū.
Another new question: Why does “Paul” only wish he was going home? Why not just do it? My old answer: “Well, he’s in England, and home is New York, and it’s far away and he has to make a living, and he has to keep his promises.” Right? No. Now I want you to see the chipped ear in this poem, that missing piece. As we know, his love is dead. “Home” is where she is, and she isn’t anywhere. Our singer wishes he was dead. Home. With her. This song is about grief and contemplating suicide. “Paul” has decided not to commit suicide. He must endure. The rest of his life. But now he can’t find his music any more. It’s wherever she is. That’s why his words now echo in all their mediocre meaninglessness, in the wells of silence, one might say. They really always did. Emptiness in harmony. One looks for comfort, no?
Here is a bit of comfort. The song may have started out auto-biographically, but there was no death in Paul Simon’s life during that time that would have placed him in this situation. The song is contrived. But he is a songwriter, after all. This isn’t just about Paul. It’s about anyone. Since that time, when Paul was young, he has lost plenty of people he loved, especially his father, and that loss was already in his song. This isn’t about when you actually happen to experience this kind of grief, it’s about being alive and seeing that it is already there, in the form of emptiness, and the only question is the harmony.
That is why it’s wise to go ahead and knock an ear off that vase now, or write that song about the death of your loved one now. Contrived? Hardly. At least, not more than life itself. The already always arrives.