We might ask ourselves in a moment of contemplation, ‘why is there something, not nothing?’ or ‘why is the cosmos the way it is and not some other way?’
But that’s like asking ‘why does a bee sting you?’ It’s an absurd question because that’s what bees are supposed to do. There is no why. Why implies a reason, and there’s no obligation by the cosmos to answer our queries, no obligation to make sense to us.
It’s related to Shuyata by thinking about it in this way. We have expectations and desires that we want to be met. Safety, security, control, power, truth etc. all through searching for an essence.
Once we let go of our craving (tanhā) and stop twisting reality to fit our expectations, we can then grasp reality as it is. That’s gaccepting reality in it’s Suchness, it’s Tathātā. Reality untarnished by our grasping neediness, our egotistical desire to be right, in control, our fear-based quest for truth and safety.
It’s as if to say ‘This is the way things are. Waters is wet, the sky is blue‘, this is the way reality works. Referring to the way the cosmos works in its order and chaos.
Things fall apart, stars explode, cats are cute, water is wet, this is the reality we have to face. Western philosophy and religion seem to be plagued with asking questions we don’t need the answers too.
It’s saying there is no answer to why, no secret ingredient as I like to put it. The answer is there is no answer. Not having an answer in no way diminishes us or make it impossible to live a good life.
It’s a recognition that reality can’t be grasped conceptually, that the cosmos has its way of operating regardless of what we think about it, the maps we create, the narratives we tell. This is the Two Truth doctrine In Buddhism. There’s the conventional truth of our maps, and the ultimate truth of the reality it describes.
Quest for answers
There is the Flower sermon which is possibly an apocryphal story about the Buddha. In the story, the Buddha gives a wordless sermon to his followers by holding up a white lotus flower. The majority of his audience doesn’t understand, except one monk, Mahākāśyapa, who smiles.
In one respect it signifies the direct transmission of the Buddha’s ideas. Not through the conceptual exchange but an understanding of people who think alike. It demonstrates the ineffable nature of tathātā.
To me, the sermon hits upon a key attitude we have towards our existence. The monks who failed to understand were caught up their expectations, their grasping attachment to solve the riddle. The Buddha was not proposing a problem to be fixed, and conceptual riddle to be solved.
Stop trying to solve the flower, instead enjoy it, marvel in it’s beauty, delicacy and more. That’s the ‘answer’ the Buddha was trying to convey. Put aside your discursive, conceptual, analytical mind and enjoy life, instead of asking foolish questions about it.
Its also expressed in a personal development way. In Vedic tradition it’s expressed as Tat Tvam Asi, ‘Thou art that’, You’re it’. This is it. A way of accepting yourself as you are instead of trying to be someone you’re not. That is be passionately entangled with life, with the moment.
It can work practically too. Instead of trying to change your partner or friend into the person you want them to be, you can be with them as the person they are.
Why do we think such existential questions can be answered? is afar better question and trying to answer it reveals something about our own nature.
Perhaps it is a riddle, but the answer and one Mahākāśyapa understood is that there is no riddle. As Kierkegaard pointed out, ‘life is not a problem to be solved’. To me, it’s an adventure to be lived.
It’s what I’ve also noted in Zen Koans. I have only come across the more popular ones, like, ‘What is the sound of one hand clapping‘ or ‘Who were you before your parents we’re born’. We think they’re questions with clear answers, but that’s erroneous.
They’re riddles deliberately made ambiguous and meaningless. What they reveal is not the answer but our discursive, conceptualising minds that seeks one. It shows that just because can can frame a question doesn’t mean it makes sense. Like we’re being asked to bottle our experiences like a winemaker bottling wine.
If you don’t understand the question, what makes you think you’ll ever understand the answer? Those who failed to understand don’t see that our minds habitually operate in these analytical, conceptual grooves of mental activity. There is no bottle big enough to hold a single moment in its entirety. You can’t capture reality in a conceptual cup.
Without such awareness, life will always be a problem to be solved, and we will perpetually be unsatisfied. To find Tathātā is to stop asking questions that can’t be answered.
Asking questions means you want conceptual answers. Well that won’t work. So the answer is neither, nothing, not applicable, or Mu in Japanese.
It points out that there is a difference between reality and our ideas about reality (Map vs terrain), and our typical reflex desire to think there are the same, The Map is Not the Territory.
Tathātā is saying as I like to put it: ‘these are the rules of the game’ or ‘this is the job’. It’s Nature Going It’s Own Way. In Japanese the phrase. Sonomama そのまま. ‘that’s the way it is.’ or ‘as is’ has the same sentiment. Just like we use “c’est la vie” ‘that’s life, that’s how things happen’.
It’s not that life is unfair, you just don’t know the rules of the game. You and your needs are not the centre of the cosmos, and it’s under no obligation to conform to your expectations.
Once you let go of the neediness for answers, not trying to twists or shape it, you can grasp reality as it is. To sit in the moment and experience, to accept it. Like a meditation, mindful state, being in the present, or a ‘Birdwatcher mind’ as I call it. Buddhism can be described as an Intimacy with reality.
Tathātā like other Buddhist ideas is not an easy idea to grasp because as I have tried to explain above, it’s that very grasping for answers that’s the problem. We fail to see our desires cause us to think, to chop up reality into part. Yet this fragmented reality is not the reality that we face, that reality is an undifferentiated whole, a Cosmology of ‘no things‘.
It’s a state of “as-it-isness,” Avoid our desire to twist reality to fit our conceptions. To experience reality without trying to get it to fit our wants, needs explanations. It’s about being intimate with reality, without trying to change or understand it.
Another word from China is Pu (樸 or 朴,) meaning “unworked wood; inherent quality; simple. Think of it as nature unworked, or shape. A fallen and unhewn branch, a tree in it’s a natural state. That’s is not in any way artificial.
If we were to destroy all the maps, all the ideas about the cosmos, the world would still turn, water would still feel the same, the sky will still keep its colour, that’s Tathātā .
By letting go of our neediness, our craving for answers, for clarity, security, control, power etc we get to experience reality how it is. This is seeing reality unclouded by our conceptual thought, and untarnished by desire. In a way, it’s what Buddhism is all about. The most important endeavour, the path of enlightenment and away from ignorance, illusion and suffering.
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