KOTOHA・ENGLISH by Stephen Earle No2
But for the vacuum of space, there would be no current reality.
for the words of human language, there would be no life of man.
This ascertainment is the first step to realizing freedom.
Thus reads the preface to Seimei no Genri, ‘The Principle of Life,’ written and published in 1957 by Odano Sanae. With this opening, the first lines from her ever to appear in print, Odano makes plain in just so many words the principle tenets of her approach to the questions of life and language. Not only does she capture here the essence of her original insight but she also lays the ground for the entire subsequent body of her work.
So tenuous is the notion of a ‘real world’. All of the is’es—the objects—of that world are preceded by one big is not, the emptiness of space. That void is the prerequisite condition upon which our surroundings, and even our physical being, draw occupancy. And thus, as precondition to form, emptiness, to paraphrase Odano, is the ultimate is.
This ‘fact’ has perplexing consequences. Emptiness, we would assume, since it cannot be counted—nor is it composed, as is the case with infinity, of distinct, even if innumerable, units—has a numerical value of zero. Yet in adding to it, unlike the zero in conventional number theory, this zero always retains its original value: The objects of reality do not replace, or even displace emptiness, rather they borrow upon it. And since the reality that borrows upon this zero value is innumerable, the zero is larger in capacity than the largest natural number—larger even than the sum of all natural numbers.
Consider likewise the other numerical processes of subtraction, multiplication, and division: When brought to bear on the zero value, these also have no effect. Rather, it seems, numerical process occurs within the context of this value, and because it is context, it alone among numerical values can never be added, subtracted, multiplied, or divided. Immutable and indestructible, the zero that is nothing, we must thus conclude, is of an order apart from that of all other integers.
What is emptiness? Our attempts to describe it invariably produce statements in the negative: We cannot say what it is, only what it is not. Nor can we list any discernible qualities: It has, for example, neither mass, shape, color, nor texture. And yet, conversely, as the abstract background against which these qualities show, this mass-less shape-less color-less texture-less non-substance is what ascribes mass, shape, color, and texture to that of substance.
THE PHYSICAL QUALITIES OF EMPTINESS
In the mid 1950’s Odano-sensei, in her pursuit of further insight into the nature of her unusual 1949 experience, once made an appointment with an elite Japanese physicist just to ask, what are the properties of a vacuum? Over his indignation—for he was not given, this prominent professor let it be known, to wasting valuable time on ‘useless’ questions—she was condescendingly allowed the admission that, to his knowledge, vacuums have only two properties of scientific value: The first, zero humidity; a vacuum is completely dry. And the second, that what all vacuums do contain, and what even the densest insulation has been unable to eliminate, is electromagnetic energy. Emptiness, he said, is overflowing with electromagnetic waves. The moment one is eliminated, another one appears in its place.
If impatient with the question, the man was even less prepared for the enthusiasm elicited by his response. Curtly, he refused to engage Odano further.
Suffering the indignity yet ever hopeful that she might sometime in the future be allowed to pursue the discussion to its natural conclusion, Odano quietly returned home. Her only mistake—she had exercised propriety and afforded him all due respect—had been to assume that,
as a man of science, this professor must surely share her curiosity and passion for deciphering the natural order. The professor on the other hand, in the interest of his valuable time, relinquished a more valuable and rare opportunity to test his knowledge against insights from beyond the limits of physical science. The incident belongs to a larger collection of disappointments suffered by Odano in her encounters with ‘important’ persons and orthodox learning.
Odano’s question was neither idle nor conceptual but as it related to immediate human existence. And as she had already established through direct experience during her encounter with the ‘second reality’ that this state was absolutely dry—there was no range or variation in temperature—and that its fabric was a function of uninhibited electromagnetic light-energy, she had, in the corroboration of these observations by expert opinion, good reason to be excited. Enduring the rebuff, she gladly appropriated the physicist’s remarks and incorporated them into her assessment and description of the 1949 event.
THE NATURE OF REALITY
The plasticity of emptiness also mediates change, and—as goes the adage, tried and true—the only constant in the real world is that everything changes. Nothing within the confines of space remains the same, which is to say that the emptiness of space allows for the occurrence of the phenomenal world over the course of time: ‘Real’ by definition means occurring in space and time; ‘reality’ is a continuum of local events.
If the emptiness of space is enigmatic however, the fabric of time is even more so. Where space allows for movement and change, the movement of time is unilateral and one-dimensional. Furthermore, even our words and thoughts, entities that have no concrete form in a spatial context, have duration within the temporal one.
Is time contained in space or is space contained in time? The absurdity of this question implicates both time and space as aspects of a single ball of wax—aspects of, to borrow from the terminology of physics post-Einstein, the same continuum. If that proposition has helped reinvent modern physics, it is old news within the realm of practical experience, for what is everyday life if not the continuum of time and place?
The observation that time-space is the existential condition that allows for reality, however, gives rise to another even stickier question. Are time and space realities? We treat them as real, yet upon closer consideration—and upon subjection to the same criteria we have previously used to define reality—we discover a basic contradiction. The conditions of time and space do not occur as local events: Time and space do not occur within the continuum of time and space.
The awkwardness of this observation indicates a fundamental feature of reality: The real world is self-referential. The universe—an entity that includes both the zero value described earlier and its content, the infinite world of form—because it is singular, exists unconditionally and in reference only to itself. At source, it is a declarative act, and the nature of this act is simultaneously both unified and infinitely complex—as the word universe suggests: From uni, singular, and verse, turn (change); that which is unilaterally turning or changing.
This unity, the singular momentum—momentum without cause; that by which change occurs—is the principle of diversity and the covert order behind overt randomness and entropic chaos. Universals—and time and space are certainly universal—are the adhesion that binds the ball of wax. They constitute a class of remote yet undeniably real values that belong to a domain I will call abstract reality: Abstract because it is the complementary opposite of all that is concrete, and reality because it is the affirmation of all that is real. And while we have yet, in the course of these paragraphs, to even begin to scratch the surface of what this domain is all about, what is poignantly obvious is where it appears: It appears in human language
Only to the extent that they occur as word-events—that is, as they are occurring now in this discussion, as phonetic constructs of human speech and as written constructs of the human hand on paper—do the abstractions of this reality identify themselves within the phenomenal world. The words of language are the phenomenal aspect of abstract meaning: Language occurs on the cusp of the abstract and the phenomenal domains.
Linguistic events are unlike other phonic events—the sound of, say, a passing automobile—or other visual events—the sight of, say, sunlight on fall leaves. Linguistic reality is the reality of meaning. Furthermore, we, as human beings, differ fundamentally from other life forms on planet Earth in that we have a stake in, not only the relative, sensual domain of automobiles and sunlight, but also the abstract domain of ideas.
And not by choice either: Just as we exercise no volition over our birth into the human species, we also have no say regarding our faculty for language, nor can we—any more than we can, short of violent means, indefinitely suspend our breath or heartbeat—unilaterally suspend or terminate this faculty. Language is the stuff of human existence; it defines us both subjectively as individuals and objectively as a species.
Furthermore, if anything other than universal, language could not serve, as it does, as the ground of communication: Only through our mutual inheritance of this linguistic constitution are we able to communicate across time and space. Language, in its communicative capacity, constitutes the warp and woof of culture and civilization: Humanity, to paraphrase Odano’s second premise, is a product of conversation.
The first step toward realizing freedom, Odano succinctly concludes, is to recognize one’s limits in the conditions of human existence. The very notion of freedom places demands on the exercise of our human intellect, and this intellect is conditional—just as physical form is conditional upon the infinite emptiness of space—upon a contextual and universal quality of intelligence, a quality that shows itself within our faculty for language.
Freedom, if it exists and is attainable, we must first recognize, does not exist and is not attainable within the confines of relative time and space. It exists and can be attained only as a function of understanding—not conceptual understanding, but understanding in the original sense of the word, as a vertical alignment with or grounding in the greater natural order. Since that which is universal by definition cannot be local, absolute reality as reflected in the abstract substance of words and meaning is of an order impervious even to the relative transience of life and death.
If language is the source of our humanity, it is also, at the risk of religious connotation, the path to our salvation. The problems currently challenging the future of our species—problems almost invariably created through our own unconscious and irresponsible exercise of that faculty—can only be unraveled by bringing intelligence to bear on them. This discussion is no more nor less than a portal to the greater possibility of what it means to be alive in this volatile moment in human evolution.