Absurdity: The ‘Bottomless Pit of Nonsense’


The Zen Master Deshan Xuanjian is remembered, among other things, for his teaching methods.

He would stride the Zendo with a big stick:

If you utter a word I give you thirty blows’, he would bellow, ‘and if you utter not a word, just the same, thirty blows!

[The original Mumonkan had sixty blows, if I recall. I’ll settle for thirty.]

Absurdity: ‘From Surdus-Deaf, Insensible, Untrue, Ridiculously inconsistent with Reason, Logically Contradictory, Foolish, Irrational, Preposterous.’

All pointers that orient in the direction of Shūnyam are unabashedly, in-your-face absurd. [But all absurd pointers don’t get you to Shūnyam].

If you want to get to Shūnyam you begin by cultivating a high-tolerance for all things foolish, an appreciation for sheer nonsense, an acquired facility with the Absurd. And refuse to blink.

Wake up and realize you were never asleep. If you think you have newly woken up, by that very fact, you are still asleep.

It is around 400 BCE. And the groves of Rājagṛiha are alive with the gatherings of the learned, the wise, the charlatans and the hustlers.

Far to the West, Socrates’ new ‘Theory of Forms’ has been getting a lot of attention in the Athens fountain circuit. So here he is sitting alongside the aging Parmenides.

Rightness, Beauty, Goodness. These high and noble things all have their essence in an intangible ideal ‘Form’, the theory said. Behind the veil of everyday blandness lay this epiphany waiting to be had.

[‘Form’: a core term in Classical Logic, later entering all English translations of the Hṛdaya [‘Heart’] Sūtra. The English word ‘Idea’ originates here.]

Perhaps, acknowledges Parmenides. But then what about the ugly, the depraved, the execrable, all around us?

What about, asks Parmenides, ‘The Hair..the Mud..the Dirt‘.

‘Oh, No!’ Socrates quickly replies, ‘They are just the things we see. It would be too absurd to suppose that they have a Form‘.

And why not? Why turn back at the Cliff’s Edge?

When I have reached that point’ replies Socrates, ‘I am driven to retreat, for fear of tumbling into a bottomless pit of nonsense’.

‘That’ replied Parmenides, ‘is because you are still young and Philosophy has not taken hold of you so firmly as I believe it will someday’.

The vicinity of Shūnyam is when: ‘Philosophy..takes hold of you‘. 

[This and all other excerpts from Plato’s Dialogues are from the Hamilton and Cairns, Princeton, ’61 Edition.]

I liked the way Haldane put it:

My own suspicion is that the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose‘.

A vital distinction. As for its path to acceptance:

I suppose the process of acceptance will pass through the usual four stages: a) This is worthless nonsense b) This is an interesting, but perverse, point of view, c) This is true, but quite unimportant, d) I always said so.’