Abbot’s Journal Vol 61, October 12, 2007

by Norman Fischer | October 12, 2007 at 3:08 PM

Muir Beach

… emptiness teachings of Ashta hard for people to appreciate. It’s pleasant to think of emptiness (sunyatta) as interconnection. Then emptiness means we belong to everything, which is a comfort. But emptiness as void, as illusion, as nothing’srealinthewaywethinkitis is less comforting – or so it seems. Why not take delight in disappearing? “Gone” is only a disaster in terms of our being here – as we believe. So there is no “gone.” Just as there is no “emptiness.” Emptiness and goneness are just projections of our fear. And to really and truly disappear may be quite delightful.

I’m thinking of this in relation to Gil’s (Smolin) funeral last week (or whenever it was) walking up the hill to the burial site, with Julie, Gil’s wife, and talking about the Mahayana (and Zen) teaching of “no coming no going.” In a sense, I told her, Gil, the actual Gil, was never really here: which you suddenly appreciate when he’s “gone,” that is, when you recognize how uncanny “gone” is. He’d been gone every day – to work, to the store, to the next room. And what’s the difference now? Before he wasn’t gone because he was always there, in mind. And now? Just as much in mind as before, possibly more. This is hard to appreciate, but Julie said she did understand it (and I could see, in the look of her, that she did, that she was liberated by the knowing), couldn’t explain or conceptualize it, but understood. And of course would quickly forget, would lose, just as you fleetingly understand and lose track of the emptiness teachings.

Kaz wants to translate emptiness as “boundlessness” which may be ok for the Chinese, which renders sunyatta as “ku,” or “sky,” which connotes an empty boundlessness. But in Sanskrit sunyatta does mean emptiness (like a gourd, which is hollow inside) and “boundless” is a word that is synonymous.

Beautiful sunny day, dry, golden Marin hills, putting Gil’s pine box in the ground, saying a prayer. Funny, Gil was a Brooklyn Jewish boy, quick, intelligent, witty, shifty. Julie and her family are Minnesota Norwegians, without a hint of irony, stoic and upright. They’re the ones left now. Eulogies in the ceremony were very good. I didn’t know Gil had been so active in eye care in India for leprosy-sufferers. And that he’d seen from that experience that poverty-stricken Indian villagers, even when ill, are happier than wealthy educated San Franciscans. That was when he’d begun his spiritual practice. At the reception someone told me that whenever people went to visit Gil, close to the end, when the ALS had pretty much taken everything away, including the power of speech, Gil would always mutter something as the person left. It was impossible to tell what he was saying but the person told me that finally she had figured out what it was: that Gil was saying, to each and every person who’d come, “I love you.”


Norman Fischer