In the art of bonsai, a single tree is supposed to represent the condensed essence of the vast nature. There are five major types of bonsai: pines and oaks (evergreen), other plants (deciduous), flowers, fruits and grass. Find out more.
We reviewed subtraction and condensation so far.
Let’s move on to “absence,” which is an advanced form of subtraction or condensation. Absence is closer to ZERO.
Kare-sansui, or Zen rock garden, lets the infinite beauty of nature emerge by intentionally doing away with green and water, the elements considered to be essential for an authentic garden.
Those elements are crystallized and concentrated in a few stones and small mounds covered with mosses. Because the essential elements of the garden are missing, we can unleash our imagination.
Ryoanji Rock Garden: Image By Cquest – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5
Now try this famous cognitive science experiment.
Norman Slamecka, a widely recognized cognitive scientist, once conducted a famous research by having groups of people memorize pairs of antonyms using flash cards. The first group was given the cards with words printed in full, and the second was given the ones that showed only the first letter of the second word.
Surprisingly enough, the group with the missing letters memorized better than the first group, simply “by forcing their minds to fill in a blank” (Nicholas Carr, The Glass Cage).
The same effect happens with a Kare-sansui garden. Kare-sansui forces visitors’ minds to fill in the blank with their own imagination.
When you unleash your own creativity and imagination to fill the void, what emerges is powerful and abundant.
In the previous chapter we leveraged subtraction to test “more,” or quantitative excessiveness. We now turn to “big,” the excessiveness in size.
Nature is big. And nature is beautiful because it’s magnificent and embracing. If you want to possess the beauty of nature, what would you do?
Images used in this page
Subtraction: Ikebana courtesy of Ikenobo
Condensation: Bonsai “Shinpai” courtesy of © Nippon Bonsai Association, Japan
Absence: Ryoan-ji, by Cquest (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons
Ambiguity: Katsura Rikyu (Katsura Imperial Villa), courtesy of The Imperial Household Agency website
Decay: Noh mask, Uba (a noble old woman). Tokyo National Museum C-155. by Kakidai (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons
What is Zero (kuu), the core tenet of Buddhism?
This website is named zero = abundance. Based on the concept conceived by the ancient Indian philosophers, we believe that zero, or nothingness/emptiness, is not null as it appears, but is actually a boundless source of inspiration, creation, engagement, and ultimately happiness. The ramification of the zero concept was so profound that the Buddhists dedicated themselves for centuries, if not a thousand years, to cement its principle. Eventually, Zen, a school of Buddhism that thrived in Japan during the Middle Ages, crystallized the essence in the form of various arts, most notably the Zen garden. The beauty was so captivating that it influenced modern minimalist arts, design, architecture and even business philosophy around the world.
In Eastern Asia, the concept of zero is expressed using the Chinese character “空,” which is pronounced “Kuu” in Japanese, and means “sky”, “void” or “emptiness.”
Zero (kuu) and Buddhism
The “zero” (or mathematical zero) as we know it today was first developed in India around 650 AD. It was conceived as a placeholder to recognize “nothingness” to perform complex calculations. The original sign for zero, or dots under the numbers, was also called “sunya” — a concept from ancient Indian philosophy to describe “emptiness,” “void,” or “sky.” While mathematical zero emerged as an essential element to advance science in the modern world, “sunya” has always been a major interest of Asian philosophy and religions. Buddhists have especially devoted themselves to pursue the truth of zero.
Buddha, who found the Buddhism in the 5~6th century BCE, used the word “縁起”(engi) to describe the concept of zero. He used “engi” to teach that everything we perceive is established only because it has relative relationships with other elements or factors. He maintained that all the things we believe exist, do not actually exist, if the definition of “existence” requires uniquely definable substantiality permanently. Since everything constantly changes its status, nothing exists. The “me” of today is one day older than the “me” of yesterday. While I may believe I am sitting on a “chair” as I write this, there is no such thing as an absolute “chair,” because your chair cannot be a chair if mine is a chair. If we accept the general notion of “chair” that can be applied to mine and yours alike to avoid that situation, my chair will lose its unique substantiality. Then the word “chair” becomes empty because it fails to capture the essence that constitutes my chair.
Does this mean that everything on Earth is meaningless? No, it’s actually the opposite. because everything can only be defined through its relationships with other elements and factors. “I” can be non-existent at the same time that I am not non-existent. In the world of “engi,” everything we perceive – including words or our ego – can exist without inconsistency no contradiction because we are “empty.”
Keeping true to his engi teachings, Buddha never wrote down his beliefs. (What’s the point of doing so if everything is relative and would eventually change?) His teaching was passed down by his apprentices after he passed away, who gathered to record their dialogues with Buddha.
But keeping up with the teaching that “nothing is absolute and existential” is challenging. After many groups tried hard to practice exactly what they believed Buddha taught, his followers eventually separated into two major groups: one group pursued a strict religious life, and the other group sought ways to practice Buddhism without abandoning social activities such as working and supporting a family.
The Mahayana Buddhism and Zen
The latter group, the Mahayana (it means “great vehicle” in Sanskrit) branch, had a breakthrough in the 2-3 centuries AD with the emergence of a great philosopher called Nagarjuna who established the foundation of the next generation of Mahayana Buddhism . Nagarjuna produced a solid logic system surrounding “空,” one of the most complicated philosophical concepts.
He further developed Buddha’s “engi” concept and found that all the things around us – both tangible and intangible – can be perceived only because of the relative and mutually influencing relationships with other elements and factors. I exist only because my surroundings shape me, but each element that constitutes my surroundings can exist because my presence. And we collectively exist because of mutual relationships. This is the reason why everything is “empty (kuu).” And because all are kuu, they are inherently temporary, and because they are temporary, words and statements are always contingent. And within kuu emerges solid neutrality.
Just as a pencil or a railroad can be considered short or long depending on a perspective, everything we say is relative. In his most well-known work, “Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way”, Nagarjuna stated that “‘kuu’, as taught by Buddha, means a departure from any perspective. In his world of kuu logic, nothing contradicts or conflicts with each other, because no word has absolute materiality. If a word contains no materiality, no words or statements can collide with each other. As a result, we no longer have a need to argue, which was one of the most important teachings of Buddha.
But how do you practice such a complicated concept, when in reality we live in a world where everyone has their own “absolute” perspectives and does not want to compromise? What was the approach taken by Zen, which emerged in China in the 5~6th century as one of the new schools of Mahayana Buddhism?