Don’t we all sometimes look in a direction that is not a point on any compass? Don’t we keep drawing the measure of a presence that only incidentally wears assigned locations and identities; and then try to hold onto experiences which only stick around until the moment we reach out to them? What if, before they then slip through our fingers like mist rising off a lake, or ghosts drifting by in the shadows, we offered up our gratitude that they have chosen to visit us at all?
What if we became friends with the lost ones who have no seat at the table? If handled with care, we might discover that we have not been kicked out of the corridors along which they have just swept past.
Do we not sometimes notice that we can only see because something is allowing us to look? That we search for meaning because we believe there is meaning to be found? Through this very searching, do we not find our most loyal companions in this life?
I hope you will excuse me for this preamble, which I include to give me the courage to mention a word that many of us gladly leave behind as soon as we can: “math”. I know people who struggled with math in school and who still feel that they lost that early battle forever, with no possibility of a rematch. But math is just a set of tools that only have value if they illuminate the world in which we actually live.
The positive news is that negative numbers don’t refer to anything we ever encounter in this world. When we refer to debts, deficits, shortfalls, we are stepping into an abstract realm that doesn’t actually exist. Even “zero” needn’t intimidate us. Zero merely provides the platform from which we reach out toward all the things, dimensions, and interactions that comprise our world.
But, what about all the things we want and don’t have? What about the people and things that used to be in our world, and then one day left? Don’t we need negative numbers to testify that something has been subtracted from our mind and heart by their departure?
Actually, absence is not captured by negative numbers. Negative numbers only have a place in an abstract world where anything can be imagined; they have no place in the world where we treasure and lose the things that have worked their way into our hearts. Since negative numbers don’t refer to anything real, does that mean that there is nothing real on the other side of zero?
Perhaps if we peer through the window of “zero”, we can judge for ourselves whether anything is looking back at us? Zero–a perfect circle–suggests the round windows through which we gaze out from our cabins at the ocean on which our ship is sailing. We know we are land animals and not build for life in the depths that lie beneath its surface, but could that unbounded sea still be our truest home?
Tibetan Lama, Tarthang Tulku, has invented a word, “zeroless”, for what lies on the other side of zero. Having a name, seems to give us a destination for which we might set forth; but the unknown realms that we glimpse through the portal of zero don’t show up on any map and cannot be captured within any concept, entity, or net of language. Still, don’t we all sometimes stand before that zero, that harbinger of another realm, and feel that the winds of fortune are blowing out of its hidden domains?
Even if we feel the weight of what has been lost in this world and place it in the stronghold of whatever may lie beyond this one, we hope that there is only the positive to be found on that other side. As we try to barter with that beyond in hopes that something lost will one day wash up on the shore of this or another life, we secretly know that it is only in the unformulated, undifferentiated, dimensionless stirrings of an unknown future that we will find what we hope to reclaim. And perhaps it is not too late. If we understand that whatever arrives here will come from the undifferentiated wholeness on the other side of zero, we will understand why these new arrivals are dressed in garments that are entirely new to us. How else could hope be reborn and thereby give us something fresh, yet familiar, within which to feel a freedom that has never left?
“Structures proclaim substance and thoughts proclaim content, but zerolessness reveals that structure and substance, content and story are on the same level. Nothing underlies appearance, nothing guaranties it, and nothing restricts it. With no surface and no depth, we invariably abide ‘within”. Knowledge is freely available, for there are no hidden places, no obscure corners, nothing ‘outside.” Dynamics of Time and Space, Tarthang Tulku.