Zero, Emptiness and the Golden Mean of Buddhism…

img_1935The concept of the Golden Mean always crossed my mind when studying Buddhism, but I never heard anyone reference it re: the Middle Path, i.e. madhyamagga, until recently, and while I’m not sure the reference is entirely correct, I do think the possibilities are exciting. In fact the Golden Ratio (a probably more accurate term) is 1.618, “a special number found by dividing a line into two parts so that the longer part divided by the smaller part is also equal to the whole length divided by the longer part”—Wikipedia

This is also the foundation of the famous Fibonacci sequence, ubiquitous as a design principle in nature, and known to humans as early as Plato and Euclid, who was first to define it, and celebrated initially because for some reason it just looks good, or somehow feels right, notwithstanding the fact that it is by definition always a bit eccentric, i.e. off-center…

And in fact the concept of center did not fully even exist at the time, before the invention of zero, so only geometrically as the fixed point of a radius, but not mathematically as a divider and multiplier for ever-increasing levels of exponential counting, literally ‘powers of zero’, or ‘powers of ten’, if you prefer, in addition to forming something of a ‘dead center’ or ‘ground zero’ mathematically, which can be repeated infinitely as decimals for each and every member of the count…

How can either zero or the golden ration affect our lives?

It can affect our lives exactly as prescribed by the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism of course, and especially the Fourth truth which prescribes a ‘Middle Path’ between luxury and poverty, especially the deliberate self-mortifications of the flesh which were so popular in the Fifth century BCE Buddhist Era, and with minor repercussions ever since…

And if that seems a fuzzy picture of an archaic past, then be reminded that I saw it in my own lifetime, in the 1970’s, when my own circle of friends were repeatedly enthralled with the latest fads of spiritual self-improvement, including dietary fasting for fun, not weight-loss, and the worst thing you could accuse anyone of was ‘materialism’…

And the Buddhist duality became even more extreme in the Mahayana era, when the two extremes were further amplified into one of existence versus non-existence, a choice which may be an abstract metaphysical consideration of ontological importance, or it may be one of a more personal nature, especially when times are hard, and some of us begin to wonder if it’s even worth it to continue…

And this was the demographic at year 0, when the greatest population expansion in the history of the world suddenly stalled, for unexplained reasons. And note that this was at the same time as Rome’s ascendance to a position as the most powerful country in the world, in the history of the world, which was likely no coincidence, that the two apparently contradictory world status updates, were simultaneous manifestations…

And this is where we are again today, at the apex of our power and glory as humans, and staring into the vast abyss of emptiness, disbelieving of the cruelty and violence that seems to be our birthright. But the Mahayana Buddhists embraced that emptiness as something important in the nature of realization, if not a full metaphysical principle. Reality is indeed something of an illusion, of no intrinsic nor inherent substance, and that is okay. Life is still worth living, even if our pathetic little ego-selves are not the center of attention, much less the world…

Enter shunya and shunyata

And I don’t think the invention of zero (shunya) and the existential embrace of Emptiness (shunyata) was any accident, because zero is first and foremost a concept, not a number, and it seems to have developed in just that chronological order, first the concept, and then the mathematical place-holder. I hesitate to call it a number, because it really isn’t. Interestingly enough, some alphabets even have a ‘zero-letter’, i.e. a consonant with no sound of its own, and exists only to introduce a vowel sound, since they can’t do that alone, according to the rules of the game…

It’s complicated, and beautiful, the role of zero in our lives and in our science and in our psyches. But here I’ll have to correct a former professor who mistakenly assumed that counting was not possible without zero, at least not beyond the number nine. Obviously he forgot his own Roman numerals, which allowed at least a count up until 3999, or MMMCMXCIX, still much simpler than 3888, or MMMDCCCLXXXVIII, and which obviously could have been extended, if the need and desire were there, and rules could be bent…

Europeans wisely chose the Hindu-Arabic numerals, eventually, a cool thousand years after the others, we so advanced and scientific and hesitant and—racist? Always assuming that West is best? I won’t go there. I’ll just make the point that a decimal system is possible without a zero, something that would be a legitimate question without the Roman example (also notice the role of V, L, and D in the Roman system, i.e. 5, 50 and 500, symbols never doubled or tripled-up, so something of a prototype place-holder themselves)…

And I’ll also make the point that we all need place-holders, i.e. empty spaces in our lives, also, to punctuate periods of activity, which many people assume is the business of life, but which was always an open question in the ancient world, especially India and China. Westerners are lousy at doing nothing. When WE do nothing, it’s the freaking Dark Ages, fer Chrissakes! That’s a joke…

When the East does nothing it’s the golden age of Chinese Taoism and the Golden Age of Indian Buddhism, spending hours in caves, or under trees, cross-legged and still, not hours online, can’t buy a thrill, but you can always buy some time. And I don’t think it matters if we’re talking about dead center or slightly off-kilter. It’s all about that sweet spot, between emptiness and chaos, the Middle Path to sustainable fruition…