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In 2001, when I told a very close friend that I had been ordained as a Buddhist priest, he declared: Why do you want to do that? Buddhism is nihilistic! 

(Before I could respond to him, though, I wanted to double-check the definition of the word just to make sure I knew what he meant: Though it can encompass a very deep complex historical philosophy, basically, a nihilist believes life is meaningless and that nothing in the world has real existence.)

Nihilistic? Really? Of course, my delay in answering him defeated the whole purpose of the discussion. Oh well. Now, of course, 19 years later, I can talk more freely with him, but I don’t need to. 

My Zen teacher Yokoyama Roshi has frequently used the definition of “Ku” or “Emptiness” propounded by Russian Buddhism scholar Stcherbatsky to help us understand the nature of existence. One day, after hearing him talk about yet again, finally something hit me: Buddhism doesn’t deny the existence of things; it says there is no static existence. 

Constantly Changing

This is a basic principle of Buddhism. Now, don’t misunderstand. From a physics perspective, things exist, yet everything is constantly changing.

Related to this is: All things are interrelated. 

Yokoyama Roshi also emphasized that existence depends on relationships, connections. A cup of water, for example, relies on the people and materials that went into making the cup. Consider what’s needed to keep humans alive: water, food, air, and all the generations of people before that one human was born.

Now factor in one of those elements – say, water – and what’s needed to keep water around: sun to warm the air that keeps the water a liquid, gravity to keep it (and humans, for that matter) on the earth, etc. So many factors. 

Our existence is defined by connections to so many people, things, places as well. 

So Many Interconnections

For example:

1. I am the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Wong.

2. I am a resident of Washington state. 3. I am a Zen priest.

4. I am a graduate of the University of Washington.

5. I am Asian American.

So many interconnections that it boggles the mind.  

Without descriptions and relationships, there is no way to describe the self. Yet, “I am” exists in a different category.

When we truly understand this, then we understand that every single thing is connected to everything else. This is a basic principle of Buddhism: When we change one thing, everything else changes, too. If we remove one thing from existence, everything changes.  No thing exists by itself. No one exists by himself or herself.  At this time of global crisis, so many people are saying, “We are all in this together.” They may not understand how deep this connection truly is. Do you? 

Diane Wong Roshi


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