God made everything out of nothing, but the nothingness shows through. - Paul Valéry
I love this quotation, a good thing, since it greets me from my desktop every day. I put it on my blog site a while back and a “gadget” on my home page to take me to the blog. That seems to remember only this one saying, like a Zen koan repeated again and again.
The quote reminds me of the talks my father, Irving Fiske (writer, playwright, inventor, co-creator of Quarry Hill, Vermont's oldest alternative community, and "anti-guru"), presented each week in the mid-1960s at our storefront, the Gallery Gwen, on 4th Street in New York's East Village. (Or as Irving, scorning the "realtor's name" for the place, called it, the Lower East Side.) He loved speaking to groups, and he was good at it: vastly well read, vividly aware of the mood in the room, and funny as hell.
He was not, as some have said he must be, long-winded, though the talks could go on for a while including questions and discussion, or boring. He was not a tedious old man – he was about the same age I am now, come to think of it, 62. That did not seem old as he embodied it.
He looked well at that age, if a bit rotund; he was dignified, with wild white hair and a golden and silver mustache – he looked like, and sometimes people thought he was, Albert Einstein. They were both Pisceans, a fact that pleased Irving, whose minor at Cornell had been physics. He spoke about the connections between philosophy, poetry, religion, physics, psychology, and cosmology, among other things.
Irving was good at bringing into the room a sense that each person present was perfect and beautiful, and more – that each was in touch with all transcendent human experience, that of the Sufis, Buddhists, Hindus; the core of Christianity; the central warmth and love of learning, of the word and the Word, in Judaism. We read about – and Irving, sometimes with my assistance (I could remember quotations verbatim), spoke of – philosophical thought, of science and how it explains so much of the world. He liked to talk about the relationship between physics, in particular, and the religious/philosophical/spiritual experience that joins so many mystics and visionaries of this earth.
He would take the thought that all of us are Buddhas who are perhaps not yet awakened, go around the universe with it, and bring it back into the room full of people. They, or some of them at least, would often be aware of their own value for the first time – or the idea that it was not just all right to have fun, it might very well be one of the reasons they were here. It was a chance to see and to feel –to “get” the non-conceptual concept that each was born complete and in a state of “sweet delight,” capable of experiencing both the joyous nothingness of Zen Master Dogen and poet William Blake’s sensual human fire.
As I recall, Irv spoke on Wednesday or Thursday, and on Friday he would often bring a carload of people to Vermont. They came to visit our "country estate,” as Irving called it, and were sometimes dismayed to discover it was (however lovely) an old hill farm without plumbing or real running water.
I was always much more bothered by the reactions of the visitors to our tarpaper outhouse than Irving was. Those who were able to deal with using an outhouse for three days, might, Irving would say, stay “forever.” Some stayed for, at least, a very long time. One man we met through the Gallery chose to come back to die here.
“The nothingness shows through.” I’d have liked to be able to show that quote to Irving. Since he died in 1990, this is a bit tricky, but one may hope he experienced something like this, the nothingness on the other side of everything, as he "passed away," as people say so carefully of death (even "Long Island Medium" Theresa Caputo is oddly cautious about saying "he died.") I have a sense that he had that universal awakening experience many times. Whether it always lasted, I don’t know (it seems to me that it’s possible to have mini-Satoris which last for a time and disappear-- though they never disappear entirely). I know he would have comprehended what Valéry was trying to convey, though Irving wouldn’t have bothered to allude to an external God.
I am not uncomfortable with the word God, as many people are. It seems to me to be the same thing whether Christian Traherne speaks of being "clothed with the heavens and crowned with the stars," or Mahayanist Milarepa sings one of his hundred thousand songs. At the very core and heart, one finds … what one finds. I have had the sense of encountering light, radiance, and joyful wisdom in all people and all existence. For someone else, there may be something else. Yet, may not all the experiences be based in the same thing?
“God appears and God is light to those poor souls who dwell in Night/ But does a human form display/ to those who dwell in realms of Day,” Blake says.
For his part, Valéry appears to be speaking of Sunyata, the Zen concept of "emptiness." No bleak or existential emptiness-- an open, smooth emptiness, as in still water or open sky. Looking for a long time into running water over stones or at a flower or a blade of grass like Whitman, one sees the form-- and the form is perfect, as evolution made it. But looking longer, one may see the “nothingness showing through.” The cells, the atoms, and beyond the smallest form… that something else, that nothingness, emptiness, is there: Sunyata in a wild flower.
Taking the time to pay attention, I am deeply appreciative of the beauty of this autumn. It is the first real autumn of my home --Vermont's-- gathering recovery from Tropical Storm Irene. (Things were still a bit torn up last year.)
According to an article in the local paper, various phenomena arisingfrom the storm and its floods has affected the sugar maples and the colors we are accustomed to seeing in New Eng land, especially Vermont. Climate change apparently has reached a point at which the first truly intense frost may no longer reliably arrive before the leaves fall. Those cold nights bring out the color, since the trees then stop making chlorophyll.
I need to look up a source for this, but have heard and read it several times: in eighty or a hundred years, we may have no more sugar maple trees in Vermont and New Hampshire due to global warming. I live in Central Vermont. Though I don't expect to be around when the maple trees are gone, it matters to me and to all New Englanders. And others, I hope.
All things are impermanent, as the Buddha said, and as Buddhists strive to remember. It is not hard for us, in Vermont, to realize the truth of this after the last year. We're recovering, but permanency has flown like the wild geese, security vanished like the blown dandelion seeds of last spring, and a sense of safety that we had here in the heart of these seemingly everlasting hills may have gone forever.
Yet Vermont is rising from its many difficulties with determination and insistence on its own way of being. Calvin Coolidge perhaps had this quality in mind when he said that “If ever the spirit of liberty should vanish from the rest of the Union, it could be restored by the generous share held by the people in this brave little State of Vermont.”
The hills are still here, the trees are still beautiful, and if we look after the wonderful and special place in which we are fortunate enough to live, perhaps our children and grandchildren will be able to enjoy its glory too. If all the maples are gone, it won' t be the same-- and so we all must work for any possibility of their being preserved, locally and globally. If they vanish, though, I am sure that another tree of some kind will rise here because Vermont endures. In the emptiness, in the transience, the beauty of created form flows on and on through the Green Mountains, and through the moment we are in… this moment, this second, Valery’s nothingness can be seen.
Yes, this is something people have said before, but it’s different when one actually experiences it.
In whatever way one can, through meditation or simply walking every day through nature, it is worth looking for. The experience of nothingness in everything, of form in the formless and formlessness in form, will never leave you. As one Zen master, I think, said, it will be “one quarter turn of the head” away, and always available. All we need to do, as Aldous Huxley said, is wake up.