The Spaces in Between


I’ve been studying the Zen book The Diamond Sutra with a teacher for the past year (a translation and commentaries by the writer Bill Porter, aka Red Pine). We’re nearing the end, on chapter 26 of 32, and this latest chapter focuses on how one cannot tell a Buddha from outward appearances, even though Buddha is described in terms of 32 attributes. Buddha’s follower Subhuti realizes this, noting that Buddha “cannot be seen by means of the possession of attributes.” Buddha replies with the following:

Who looks for me in form
who seeks me in a voice
indulges in wasted effort
such people see me not

In one sense, the gist of it is that you can’t judge by outward appearances. Simple. But we live in a world of symbols and signs, many of which are manipulated to suggest meaning they may or may not actually have. A reminder of such a simple proposition as this might be a good thing.

Buddha can’t be seen by means of attributes, but the word “Buddha” might be tied to that particular person, or even seen as a deity (or something close). There are other words, though, that can substitute – “Buddhanature” is one such term that Zen texts use, as it refers to something everyone has within them; another might be enlightenment, or even simply one’s true nature.

This reminds me of something the artist Jeff Koons said, that art exists not in an object (or form), but instead art is what happens between the art (in whatever form) and the audience (or viewer, reader). Just because something is, for instance, a painting, a sculpture, a film (different forms), that doesn’t necessarily make it art. Conversely, just because something is an everyday object wouldn’t preclude that from being art.

The distinction between art and everyday objects has been continuously blurred for the past century or so. The standard timeline begins with Marcel Duchamp and his original readymade in 1919. One artist that stands out to me is Felix Gonzalez-Torres, who died of AIDS in 1996 at the age of 38. Some of his installations include items such as wrapped candy or sheets of paper placed in corners of or stacked against the walls of museums or galleries. Patrons are not only welcome to touch the art, but they are also free to take from the pile or stack, which is replenished as it is diminished.

The art is not in the candy, which is factory-made, store-bought candy, or the stacks of paper. The art is in the interaction between the intention of the artist and the willingness on the behalf of the audience to accept the gesture, an acceptance that requires trust in the integrity of the artist. The piles of candy and stacks of paper continue to be maintained by others long after the artist’s death, and the gesture and the intention continue on. (A traveling retrospective of his work was titled “Specific Objects Without Specific Form,” which brings to my mind the idea not to seek enlightenment in form.)

I like the word “poetry,” not as a specific written art form, but instead as a reference to that interaction, that vibration, between artist and audience. I think of the word Zen in similar way, but rather than between an artist and an audience, this takes place between one’s true nature and the wider world. Both “poetry” and “Zen” in this sense, require space to occur. This is perhaps one reason that certain aesthetics are referred to as Zen-like, perhaps certain types of minimalism or modernism, where the space between objects is as important as (or maybe more than) the objects themselves.

A differentiation can be made, though, between poetry and Zen in that poetry (or art) puts something above other things. I once asked a Zen teacher, Elihu Smith, if the Zen sense of losing oneself in a task is akin to what psychologists call “flow.” His response was that flow privileges one task over others whereas Zen does not. Instances of flow often mentioned by psychologists such as Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi (who coined the term) include athletes playing the game they excel at, or an artist at work, while the Zen sense of losing oneself takes place in such tasks as cleaning or cooking a meal – really anything. Zen might resemble art in the Koons sense, or flow in the psychological sense, but both privilege certain objects in certain situations and flow privileges certain tasks, while Zen does not. That would be like seeking Buddha, or one’s nature, in a “form.”

I notice myself searching for something – maybe peace, maybe even my own nature – in different things. Places, possessions, occupations, hobbies, the acceptance of others. All of these in one way or another constitute seeking enlightenment, Buddha, Buddhanature, however you want to phrase it, in form. That is not to say that form isn’t a part of the equation – it is. But searching for Buddha in a form then becoming attached to that form is like the definition of paving the road to hell with good intentions. It is the route, the path that is important, not what the road is made of. It has to be made of something, but what that is specifically isn’t the same for everyone. It is like sticking to painting as the only form of art when painting no longer creates that resonance we call art, or attributing “art” to a painting that simply doesn’t contain it.

Zen being Zen, though, at the same time that form is emptiness and emptiness is form, form is also form and emptiness is also emptiness. There’s a truth and a reality to form; it is a “provisional, worldly truth” rather than an “ultimate, final truth” but still a truth.

I came across an article called “Incompatibility and Mental Fatigue” in the academic journal Environment and Behavior. Incompatibility, defined here, is “a lack of fit between what a person wants to do or is inclined to do and the kinds of activities supported by a setting.” “Mental fatigue,” or a lack of “directed attention capacity,” is one result, and can be indicated by “performance errors, an ability to plan, social incivility, and irritability.”

Activities, inclinations, preferences – these are all manifestations of form of one sort or another. Form is what we have to deal with in the world. Even in the most minimalist setting, form gives shape to negative space. And form is not as random as it might seem. Felix Gonzalez-Torres used the common materials he did for a specific reason in each piece (he specified exactly the candy to use, the paper to use, etc.) While we can’t choose everything we come into contact with on a daily basis, we do need to ensure (to the extent we can) that in some way the “forms” we deal with are not always and constantly incompatible with who we are, that we are able (again, to the extent we can) to reduce the “lack of fit” between who we are, what we are “inclined to do,” and our environment, the forms of our lives.

Chapter 26 ends with a quote from the Chinese Buddhist monk Sheng-yi (1922-2010) – “Form itself contains no suffering. It is attachment that contains suffering.” Those forms that we relate to, that fit with our inclinations as we are today might not always be the forms that support us. Holding tight to forms when they’ve run their course is the definition of attachment; it’s just as important to recognize the forms that we can use now as it is to know when it is time to let go.

Photo from Flickr user NH567.

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