Chapter 40: By No Means
“Return is how the Way moves.
Weakness is how the Way works.
Heaven and Earth and the ten thousand things
are born of being.
Being is born of nothing.”
~ Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way, trans. Ursula K. Leguin (Shambhala, Boulder: 2019)
The question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” is often taken as the most fundamental. It has the whiff of the beginning of many an undergraduate philosophy paper: “Down through the ages, the greatest philosophical minds have asked….” Raised by F.W.J. Schelling in the early 19th century, resuscitated to wonder-killingly loquacious lengths by Martin Heidegger in the early 20th, and re-engaged by physicists in the early 21st, the question is pesky. Despite Stephen Hawking’s protestations, reports of the demise of philosophy are greatly exaggerated. Try as they might, Richards Dawkins, Hawking, and the smug set of scientistic thinkers have not advanced the conversation one step beyond Aquinas’ reply to the objection that the world can explain itself when he considers the question of whether God exists in the Summa Theologica. But that is a topic for another day.
But the scientists afflicted with philosophy-envy have a point. Nietzsche smelled something fishy in Western philosophy. “Being,” he remarked, “is a vapor and a fallacy.” Being, in other words, is a meaningless word.
Buddhism and Daoism have a direct and disarming answer to the question in question:
In Western metaphysics (in general), being is taken for granted: the world is made of substances. In Eastern metaphysics (in general), nothing is taken for granted: the world is made of processes. In Buddhism in particular, our language and concepts that divide the world up—being and nothing, self and other, etc.—are regarded as conventions. Wisdom is seeing beyond these conventions, and realizing that the mind’s incessant demand that reality submit to rational justification is the fundamental fallacy. Acknowledging the weakness of the logos allows the Way to work.
Nietzsche thought that it is only as “an aesthetic phenomenon” that the world can be justified, which is to say that it cannot be justified. Christian mystic Meister Eckhart wrote of the “rose that blooms without why.” The Way ways without why, and letting it take you will take away your existential questions. If you surf it, you will look back to shore and laugh at your former self, realizing that asking why there is something rather than nothing is like standing on the beach and asking why people surf.
New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”
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