In times of stress, I like to pull out a huge volume of art, Mai-Mai Sze’s classic The Tao of Painting, and dip into its Zen wisdom and gorgeous plates of ancient Chinese art. By chance, I fell upon p. 96 this morning. That inspired the following thought pattern on emptiness:
Gloomy photos of empty streets have become an emblem of this era, when fears of contagion have driven everyone indoors. Emptiness incites melancholy because of what is not there; what can never happen again, the dead. Yet its etymology stems from æmta, an Old English word meaning “leisure”, and the word used to mean “at leisure, unoccupied, also unmarried.” It is only more recently that empty took on the connotation of “lacking, devoid of (specified contents or a specified quality).”*
Reading page 96 of Mai-Mai Sze’s wonderful book, I was reminded why I love her writing–the crisp, economical explanations of difficult concepts–and how empty space may also be a balm to the spirit. As Chinese writers in the Zen tradition have told us, “the spirit is an emptiness ready to receive all things. By stilling the heart, that is, shedding the thoughts and emotions of personal life, an individual can ‘reflect in his heart-mind (hsin) as in a pool or a mirror.’” There is even a word for it in Zen Buddhism, k’ai wu (open-awareness), which means apprehending in the deepest and widest sense. You can see the Chinese appreciation for this way of seeing in paintings like the close-up of a misty sky, shown here.
–from a painting in the Freer Gallery of Art, “Clearing Autumn Skies over Mountains and Valleys”. It is made of ink and color on silk, dates from the Historical Period known as Northern Song dynasty, mid-11th to early 12th century.
–Mai-Mai Sze, The Tao of Painting: A Study of the Ritual Disposition of Chinese Painting, p. 96
May k’ai wu come to all of us, everyone.
Yesterday’s mask production, fyi:
*The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, vol. 1, p. 818