The Perfection of Non-Existence

“It may not be that we don’t have anything to do, or that we’re bored, or that we would rather do it later, but just that we don’t see the point of it all. In our idleness we intuit a cosmic meaninglessness.”

-- Costica Bradatan, “Why Do Anything?”

A Zen master of some renown once attended a ceremony where he was expected to deliver an important speech. One of the attendees, a Zen teacher himself, thought it a good idea to bring along one of his students.

Monks traveled quite a distance to see and listen to this man, for he was truly enlightened, a “first among equals.”

When the moment came, the master rose from his chair, headed over to the dais, looked out at the effulgent crowd, and proceeded to say absolutely nothing before promptly returning to his seat.

This left the student baffled. “Sir, the master didn’t say anything at all!”

“Yes,” said the teacher, smiling. “And what a beautiful speech it was!”

Koans such as this are normally interpreted as the aspiration of Zen to transcend conceptual, logocentric, rationalistic thought. The master’s idea here is that the satori experience is ineffable, wordless. It must be lived and felt, not spoken about or rationalized. The great truth the Zen master wished to impart to his listeners was silence. Anything more than that, to paraphrase Robert Frost, would have seemed too weak to him, or not nearly true enough.

There is another meaning to be mined here, though. The master’s refusal to utter a single word suggests that non-appearance, non-being, pre-natality is somehow “purer” than manifestation or unfolding. To bring something into being, even if it be a single phrase or sentence, is to vitiate it by subjecting it to the forces of time and space (wear and tear: decay), subjecting it to references and signs, of the dissolving effects of interpretation and counter-interpretation. A fall from the state of grace, when insight was untouched – and untouchable – by the greasy hands of mutability and mean motive, of the corrupting influence of culture.

Opting to be mute, the master honors his audience in the highest possible way: by treating them to perfection, that is, to nothing at all. And this is why the wise teacher’s face lit up with a smile, for he knew and understood and felt the beauty and power of this “nothing.”

In an essay many years ago, “Insights in the Middle of Night,” I wondered why the act of bringing something into being is somehow less pure or majestic than the idea which inspires it – why, for instance, the transcription of an illuminating idea always seems to miss the bull’s eye of the original revelation. I concluded the piece with a thought that is central here:

I wonder, too, if the artist has any responsibility to share his insights with the world, or whether he isn’t justified in keeping the wisdom to himself. “I’ve taken in the air of the misty heavens,” the poet could say, “why should I bother to adulterate it and exhale it out as so many imperfect stanzas?” The human tendency, of course, is not to be content with seeing or experiencing something rare or beautiful, but to turn any insight at all into a movie or play or book. It is telling that the philosopher who first argued that the good life consists in contemplation happened never to write anything at all.

What I was wondering back then is whether non-disclosure is not “better,” “purer” than disclosure; whether it is not best for artists and philosophers to follow the Zen master’s lead and choose silence, choose non-appearance.

In a recent, rather stimulating meditation on these ideas, the philosopher Costica Bradatan reminds us that the Gnostics themselves believed the “world came about through a mistake” and that being itself is “a form of degradation.”

Whereas over the millennia western thought has anguished over the God-who-is-absent-in-history (“He doesn’t exist, the bastard” – Samuel Beckett), Gnostic thinking has seen inexistence itself as an attribute of perfection. Bradatan tells us that Basilides, an early figure of Gnosticism, “was a theologian of the ‘nonexistent God’; he referred to God as ‘he who is not,’ as opposed to the maker of the world, trapped in existence and time.” Writes Bradatan,

That which is yet to be born – be it the world, a person, a piece of furniture or a piece of writing like this one – may be nothing, but at this stage it is at its utmost. Its nothingness is fuller and richer than any ordinary existence. To fall into existence is to enter time, and with time comes decay, aging and death.

Rumination along these lines leaves us in a most uncomfortable position. Why bother to do anything, why participate in the cosmic farce which is this life? “It may not be that we don’t have anything to do,” Bradatan observes, “or that we’re bored, or that we would rather do it later, but just that we don’t see the point of it all. In our idleness we intuit a cosmic meaninglessness.”

All of this helps us to understand, as nothing else can, the nature of procrastination. The procrastinator, Bradatan tells us, is a split being, both “contemplator and man of action,” somebody quite aware of the perfection of non-existence, of the beauty of the un-actualized thought or idea on the one hand, but equally aware that living in this world things need to get done, on the other. The procrastinator doesn’t want to amplify the failures of existence, would prefer to stay out of it, but feels she can’t and thus ultimately feels torn apart inside.

Bradatan thinks – and I agree – that we would all be better off having an ongoing, Hamlet-like “to be or not to be?” conversation with ourselves, questioning how much (if anything at all) of creation is actually any good, or if its “goodness” is not merely illusion.


It so happens that a few of the most widely read articles on this website touch on the main theme of this article. In Philosophy and Depression, for instance, I postulate that depression may be “a natural reaction to one’s social surroundings and situation – the healthy suspicion that the life people have actually created, the ‘structure of society,’ is not one worth participating in.”

Carl Jung was of a different mind. Conceding that a “childlike unconsciousness” is alluring to so many, he felt that an individual human life is consummated by letting go of this ‘innocence of Eden,’ by venturing out into the wild of time and space and culture and incurring the wounds of an imperfect world. It is through such a process that consciousness is widened.

If Jung could gather the Zen master, the Gnostics, Bradatan, and me into a room, he would likely tell us the same thing that Harry Haller’s friend Pablo tells him after a long acid trip in Hesse’s novel Steppenwolf. And that is that there is something truly good about being in this play and living through each of its stages, that the secret is to learn to let it all go, to laugh, to relish the fleeting moments.

“I’m bound to say, Harry, you have disappointed me a little,” Pablo says. “You forgot yourself badly…Well, you will do better next time.” And the novel ends with Harry’s sense of being enlightened, of wanting to play this game again and mastering it. “I understood it all,” he says. “I knew that all the hundred thousand pieces of life’s game were in my pocket. A glimpse of its meaning had stirred my reason and I was determined to begin the game afresh. I would sample its tortures once more and shudder again at its senselessness. I would traverse not once more, but often, the hell of my inner being. One day I would be a better hand at the game. One day I would learn how to laugh.”

But the question is, Would those of us gathered before Jung be convinced?