The Ruth Ozeki Koans: Form and Emptiness, Time and Being
In this evening’s Monday Meditation and Talk, a week before Ruth Ozeki joins us in our Luminaries Series, we review and talk about her work.
In Ruth Ozeki’s The Book of Form and Emptiness, narrated by an omniscient being called “the Book,” Benny is a troubled 15 year-old boy who begins to hear voices following the tragic death of his father and emotional struggles of his mother. After an act of violence in school, he is sent for a time to a psychiatric hospital. There he meets another teenager, Alice, aka “the Aleph”, who seditiously writes messages on slips of paper and hands them out to the residents of the ward:
Put your shoe on the table; ask it what it wants from you.
Face a blank wall; pretend the wall is a mirror.
Pretend you are very old; move at half speed.
Walk like you’re happy; change directions.
Be a pussy, purr; lick your beautiful fur.
Do everything backward.Lie on your back on the floor and listen; feel free to sing along.
For passing around these koan-like instructions, the Aleph is kicked out of the children’s wing and sent up to the high-security adult’s ward.
Benny fakes a note to skip school for some weeks, and is befriended by the Aleph’s associate, the Bottleman, an aged, drunken and homeless wanderer, who rolls around in his wheelchair serving as kind of poet Zen master. The B-man takes Benny to the Book Bindery, a deserted part of the basement in the public library.
“The Bindery contains everything,” the Bottleman said. “Anything is possible,” and now Benny understood. The Bindery was primordial, a place of vast, boundless silence that contained all sound, and emptiness that contained all form. Benny had never heard such silence before. Never felt such imminence. He shivered.
After a contentious election and violent demonstration that Benny gets swept up in, late one night he seeks shelter in the library’s Bindery. Somehow, that night, Benny experiences a kind of spiritual awakening, guided by The Book:
The Bindery was our access [the Book narrates], the point in space that contains all other points, and that night you were a boy unbound, a tiny astronaut, taking your first leap into an infinite and unknowable universe. For the first time you could hear the voices of the things you’ve been hearing for so long, all the clamorous matter vying for your attention…
How impossible it is to put into words this infinitude of the Unbound! In a single instant, we witnessed constellations on the brink of constellating, assemblages in flux…We perceived the dynamic flow of vibrant matter, materializing as a marble or a baseball bat, a sneaker of a story, a jazz riff or a viral contagion, an ovum or an antique spoon…
All these things you saw and felt at once. How is that possible? Because in the Bindery, where phenomena are still Unbound, stories have not yet learned to behave in a linear fashion…