Someone asked Hongzhi, “What about the ones who’ve gone?”
Hongzhi said, “White clouds rise to the top of the valleys, blue peaks lean into the empty sky.”
—Hongzhi Zhenjue, PZI Miscellaneous Koans
Sometimes, when speaking about Chan-Zen, I feel that talking in double negatives is more expressive than a declarative statement: “Not two” rather than “one”; “not wrong” rather than “right”; “not one thing” instead of “all things.” Maybe a double negative has a softer edge against the universe. Yet even a softer double-negative does not quite touch the space that is between.
There is a word for “space between” in Japanese—Ma 間. This kanji character suggests sunlight 日 shining through a gateway 門. But Ma is different from ideograms most often associated with shunyata, or emptiness, like Ku 空: the vast openness of the sky, and one of its common usages is, indeed, “sky.” The less commonly used character Ko 虚 connotes a void, or lack of anything at all.
Ma, improperly labeled “negative space” by some writers, is defined by what comes before and what comes after. It is not negative at all—it creates the before and after. The violinist Isaac Stern once said,
Music is the thousandth of a millisecond between one note and another; how you get from one to the other—that’s where the music is.
That is Ma.
David Hinton, in his book Existence: A Story, investigates that space between, in both Chinese landscape painting and poetry. He calls it “Absence.”
Mountains are where Presence burgeons from Absence in its most majestic forms, a cosmology rendered in countless landscape paintings, where Absence appears as vast empty spaces from which Presence emerges in the form of landscape.
I have a friend whose younger brother is going through a series of tough chemotherapy treatments, and they both are searching for that space between. “I really want to get a solid grip on things to make them better,” my friend said, squeezing his hands together. “But somehow that’s like trying to steal my brother’s life from him.” Struggling to express his feeling in words, he says, “I can’t make things better, and trying to do it anyway is not helpful.” What he finds helpful is to “not make his illness wrong,” he says. “That’s where the freedom is.”