Q: Hey Sensei! Hope you are well. I was doing some thinking and curious of your perspective. Do you think it would be fair to say that Zen is essentially Nihilistic? I was doing some reading on Nihilism and felt it was very similar, essentially that nothing matters or more specifically that nothing holds the normative good and bad labels that we assign to things. Getting a cold isn’t bad and winning a race isn’t good. Both just ARE. Just kinda curious if you think there is any distinction I’m missing... not that it matters 😜
A: Ha ha! Interestingly, this was on my mind the other day, for no particular reason as far as I know. And this question has been raised before. It’s another paradox that Zen enjoys embracing: things essentially have no meaning, and they matter deeply. To be more precise, this is not to deny meaning but to recognize that any meaning things have is only for the time being (for as long as that time being is), not lasting and enduring. Realizing that any meaning we assign to things is provisional and subjective allows us to invest ourselves in them in the appropriate measure, not getting overly and hopelessly entangled by them, not standing apart from them, detached, aloof, apathetic. In my experience, not being tethered to or confined by things having some ultimate meaning allows me to give myself to them – and thus to this life and this world – more freely and fully.
The movies Rogue One and Cloverfield (we just watched it this past weekend, which works well for these purposes) come to mind. SPOILER ALERT! In both movies all of the main characters die in the end. In one instance, what happened is connected to a bigger story and thus it has greater meaning; in the other, things just end and we don’t really know what happened afterward or what (if any) difference it all made. Looking at these more closely, I would note that there are moments in each movie when the characters come face-to-face with their slim chance of success and the hopelessness of their endeavors, yet they continue on regardless. While doing so, the impact and repercussions of their actions only have relevance to the moment they are in, and any significance or enduring meaning of these actions depends upon what happens in the next moments as things continue to unfold, not upon the overall goal or over-arching ideal that motivates them. It helps to have such goals as motivation, but whether or not they are achieved does not fundamentally add to or take away from the meaning of what took place (again, any meaning is immediate and inherent), though we tend to view things otherwise as a result of using those goals to frame, provide context for and justify our present actions.
Returning to the present context of Rogue One and Cloverfield, while we assign different degrees of meaning to each based upon their particulars, take away those particulars and at their core they are essentially the same movie: a bunch of stuff happened, people fought against it and tried to get beyond it, everybody died. To pull the lens out further, these are both just movies, fictional stories about fictional happenings. We know this before and after watching them, yet when we give ourselves to them fully while watching them, they become quite real and meaningful...but that meaning endures only as long as we allow it to: “That was great! I have to watch it again!”; “It was pretty good, I enjoyed it.”; “A waste of my time and money...at least the popcorn was good.”
All of this brings to mind a story about the pianist Vladimir Horowitz, who had friends over for dinner and then played his latest composition for them. Afterward, someone commented on how beautiful it was and asked about its significance and meaning. Horowitz returned to the piano and simply played it again.