Chapter 5: Useful Emptiness
“Heaven and earth aren’t humane.
To them the ten thousand things
are straw dogs.
Heaven and earth
Act as a bellows:
Empty yet structured,
it moves, inexhaustibly giving.”
~ Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way, trans. Ursula K. Leguin (Shambhala, Boulder: 2019)
According to legend, shortly before his death St. Thomas Aquinas, architect of the most systematic intellectual edifice of Catholic tradition, the 3,000 page Summa Theologica, was struck by a mystical experience on the proverbial road to Damascus and proclaimed, “All I have written is so much straw.” A great cathedral leveled by a bolt from the blue.
The paradox of mysticism is that it offers a kind of final consolation—a self-authenticating certainty that, amazingly, all really will be and already is well—yet after the rapture recedes, the world seems empty and pointless. Another way of putting this is that mysticism entails a kind of positive nihilism—from the “standpoint” of ecstasis, the revelation that the world has no meaning is a great relief, the search for “meaning” is shown to be fruitless because the world is its own magic. But when the music stops, the silence can feel unbearable, and the questions creep in: “Was it all in my head? Am I crazy? What’s the point, really?” And so on. A new dualism tries to worm its way into the mind—between mystical and mundane, transcendent and immanent, ecstatic and quotidian experience.
“Straw dogs” here refers to disposable objects, to impermanence. Impermanence only seems like a cruel and unfair feature of the universe from the standpoint of a permanent self—puffed up, holding its breath, trying to stop the flow of air, which is just a more concrete word for spirit. Only he who loses his breath will gain it. And losing your breath—emptying yourself—is the only way to receive the gift from the great bellows.
The emptiness of the great bellows is not the cold vacuum of space, not the eternal silence of infinite spaces that fill poor Pascal with dream, but a great cauldron of possibility that bodies the world forth. Would that Job had read the Daodejing. It would have given him a more satisfying answer by showing him the confusion of his question. Perhaps we are to understand his “reward” at the end as a sign that this insight is more valuable than any “straw dogs,” material possessions.
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