“ A reporter from a local newspaper came to our house to interview my wife about the Japanese tea ceremony. This report continually asked, “What is the meaning? What for? Why do you do that? What is the purposes for that?” This kind of question was directed at everything in the making tea – at every gesture, every implement. Without thinking or deliberating, my wife finally replied, “No meaning. Meaningless meaning. It is purposeless purpose.” – Gyomay Kubose
Purposeless purpose, Meaningless meaning, what does this mean? I have been finding the syntactical structure a lot lately, effortless, effort, purposeful purposelessness, etc. So I have been thinking about this for a little while now and even though it made an abstract sense when I first read it, I wanted to dig a little deeper. I love the story of the reporter and Sensei Gyomay’s wife. I can see both of them talking past each other. I think there maybe two aspects of meaning and purpose, one a utilitarian aspect and another a more existential or religious aspect.
The reporter, in our above quote seems to me to be trying to understand the utilitarian purpose of each act. It would be similar to a reporter asking a dancer what is the purpose of all those gyrations across the stage when you could simply walk across it. As if the purpose of dancing was simply locomotion, as if the purpose of the tea ceremony was to make a cup of tea., which it is but which it isn’t. A utilitarian perspective, that everything must have a purpose, is binding and stifles creativity, it can’t transcend its objective of “finding purpose” and value is then only found utility.
Is it that we are looking to get past meaning and purpose because meaning or purpose are dualistic? When we get past the conceptual binds of purpose and meaning do we then find being? Is it through the embrace of meaninglessness, tapping into the spontaneous outflow that we are free to experience being? Are Meaning and Being paradoxically within the meaninglessness? D.T. Suzuki wrote that, Maybe then, religion is a way to experience an expansive “being- ess”.“It may sound strange to hear that one can…live in purposelessness. Everything we do in life has a purpose, but in the religious realm we become conscious of realizing purposelessness, meaningless meaning and meaning itself.” allowing us to get past conceptual meaning to experience non-conceptual being-ness? True Being, living in naturalness, is like what Gyomay Sensei writes, “… the flower itself cannot help but bloom as it does – there is no intention,” “When you love you love. There is no purpose. Why do you ask for meaning? Is this spontaneous activity the ground of pure being? Here is something I read regarding this same idea in regards to Amida Buddha from D.T. Suzuki,
“Meaningless meaning is this: there was no telelogical intention on the part of Amida when he made his 48 vows . Everything expressed in them was the spontaneous outflow of his great boundless compassion, he great compassionate heart, embracing everything and extending to the farthest end of the universe.”
Again in the words of Gyomay Sensei, “… the flower itself cannot help but bloom as it does – there is no intention,” “When you love you love. There is no purpose. Why do you ask for meaning? There is just doing, effortless doing. This reminds me of the Chinese Wei wu wei, or action without action, effortless doing. I have heard that the enso of Zen is the representation of wu wei.
Here is the same teaching from the Post Modern composer John Cage but instead to the Tea Ceremony he is applying the same concepts to writing music,
What is the purpose of writing music? One is, of course, not dealing with purposes but dealing with sounds. Or the answer must take the form of a paradox: a purposeful purposeless or a purposeless play. This play, however, is an affirmation of life–not an attempt to bring order out of chaos nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply a way of waking up to the very life we’re living, which is so excellent once one gets one’s mind and one’s desires out of its way and lets it act of its own accord.”
Also in the teaching of Emanuel Kant who believed that the thing that makes beauty, beauty is not purposiveness…but something’s ultimately being without a purpose.
Meaningless meaning makes intuitive sense to me , it is a way to free meaning from the conceptual to the experiential. The experimental is valued over the conceptual, in the Mahayana and I like the way that this idea is applies to the nembutsu by D.T. Suzuki wrote that,
“ Namu-Amida-Butsu” is “meaningless meaning,” and if we try to give it some kind of meaning, or start to think that some significance should exist within it, then the six-syllable Name is no longer one’s own, and floats away up to the highest clouds.”
And as I recently heard in talk given by Dr. Mark Blum, that the illogic of the nembutsu is its logic. So there is something profound in this construction.
May we all embrace the meaningless meaning, the purposeless purpose, the effortless effort and the logic of the illogical.
May it be so,