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Yesh and Ayin

or, Being and Nothingness

There is no more fundamental binarism than yesh and ayin, something and nothing. Yesh means, simply, everything that there is. Ayin is Nothing. God is both.

To approach the Divine in yesh, we yearn for God’s love. Like the Sufis, we pine for the Friend; like the Hindus, we envision God in manifold mythologies and forms. To approach the Divine in ayin, we learn to allow thought to cease, and simply open ourselves to the great emptiness which is the true nature of every thing.

Here is Rabbi Arthur Green, in one of his earlier writings, on ayin:

In all change and growth, say the masters, the mysterious ayin is present. There is an ungraspable instant in the midst of all transformation when that which is about to be transformed is no longer that which it had been until that moment, but has not yet emerged as its transformed self; that moment belongs to the ayin within God. Since change and transformation are constant, however, in fact all moments are moments of contact with the ayin, a contact that man is usually too blind to acknowledge. The height of contemplative prayer is seen as such a transforming moment, but one that is marked by awareness. The worshiper is no longer himself, for he is fully absorbed, in that moment, in the Nothingness of divinity. In that moment of absorption the worshiper is transformed: as he continues his verbal prayer, it is no longer he who speaks, but rather the Presence who speaks through him. In that prayerful return to the source, the human being has reached his highest state, becoming nought but the passive instrument for the ever self-proclaiming praise of God. Through his lips the divine word is spoken.

Arthur Green, Your Word is Fire

For those new to Kabbalah, the principle that everything is essentially empty may seem remarkably similar to Buddhism and other contemplative paths. So be it. Ayin is the ultimate Reality of all things. Nothing has separate, real existence.

Ayin, nothingness, is more existent than all the being of the world.

David ben Abraham ha-Lavan, 14th century (Daniel Matt trans.)

In both Buddhist and Kabbalistic cosmologies, a great deal of time is spent explaining how the world seems to exist as it does. For the Kabbalists, this explanation involves the emanation of the ten sefirot: the evolution of God from Nothing. But the Kabbalah, again like Buddhism, emphasizes that this evolution is one of appearance only. It did not happen at some point in time, and now it’s over and the world exists. Time itself is part of the “world” which exists only as illusion. In the Now, in the present moment, where is time?

The Kabbalah also shares with some schools of Buddhism a contemplative inquiry into yesh and ayin. Because it is so beautiful, and similar to the Kabbalistic method, I would like to quote Thich Nhat Hanh’s well-known exposition of the interrelatedness of all things, “Interbeing,” in its entirety. (It was meant to be written on paper, not a computer screen...)

If you are a poet, you will see clearly that there is a cloud floating in this sheet of paper. Without a cloud, there will be no rain; without rain, the trees cannot grow; and without trees, we cannot make paper. The cloud is essential for the paper to exist. If the cloud is not here, the sheet of paper cannot be here either. So we can say that the cloud and the paper inter-are. “Interbeing” is a word that is not in the dictionary yet, but if we combine the prefix “inter-” with the verb “to be,” we have a new verb, “inter-be.” If we look into this sheet of paper even more deeply, we can see the sunshine in it. Without sunshine, the forest cannot grow. In fact, nothing can grow without sunshine. And so, we know that the sunshine is also in this sheet of paper. The paper and the sunshine inter-are. And if we continue to look, we can see the logger who cut the tree and brought it to the mill to be transformed into paper. And we see wheat. We know that the logger cannot exist without his daily bread, and therefore the wheat that became his bread is also in this sheet of paper. The logger’s father and mother are in it too. When we look in this way, we see that without all of these things, this sheet of paper cannot exist. Looking even more deeply, we can see ourselves in this sheet of paper too. This is not difficult to see because when we look at a sheet of paper, it is part of our perception. Your mind is here and mine is also. So we can say that everything is in here with this sheet of paper. We cannot point out one thing that is not here–time, space, the earth, the rain, the minerals in the soil, the sunshine, the cloud, the river, the heat. Everything co-exists within this sheet of paper. That is why I think the word “inter-be” should be in the dictionary. “To be” is to inter-be. We cannot just be by ourselves alone. We have to inter-be with every other thing. This sheet of paper is, because everything else is.

Suppose we try to return one of the elements to its source. Suppose we return the sunshine to the sun. Do you think this sheet of paper will be possible? No, without sunshine nothing else can be. And if we return the logger to his mother, then we have no sheet of paper either. The fact is that this sheet of paper is made up only of “non-paper” elements. And if we return these non-paper elements to their sources, then there can be no paper at all. Without non-paper elements–like mind, logger, sunshine and so on–there will be no paper. As thin as this sheet of paper is, it contains everything in the universe in it.

Thich Nhat Hanh, Peace is Every Step

The critical consequence of Interbeing is that the paper contains everything in the universe, but nothing that it “itself” and not “something else.” Every atom in your being was once inside a star. You are a temporary agglomeration of matter, which is itself a manifestation of energy and which is also almost entirely empty. In fact, the only “thing” which is holding together the bundles of energy and probabilities which comprise your atoms are the laws of physics — in Kabbalistic language, chochmah, the first sefirah after Nothingness.

Chochmah operates on the quantum level, the molecular level, the biological level, the ecosystemic level, the cosmic level — it is, at every stage, the organizing principle of Nothingness. But what is it? Where are the laws of physics written? A seed contains molecules of DNA, so that when the proper conditions are present, an oak tree can be made of soil, water, and sunlight. But where is the DNA of the sun itself “written”?

It is possible to cultivate a mind which is more open to experiencing Nothingness than our ordinary minds. But before we turn to these practices, it is worth remembering that the column of ayin is not preferred to the column of yesh. True, in some Kabbalistic and Hasidic sources, there is a disdain for the world of manifestation. But ultimately, yesh is ayin; samsara is nirvana. The mystic quest culminates not in the experience of Pure Nothingness, but in the return to the world in which the awareness of nothingness is maintained. Especially for the Kabbalists, most of whom were teachers, fathers, and community members, the world of yesh is not something to simply be left behind as we “die before we die” (a Sufi phrase) into an experience of ayin. There is no duality, no difference between yesh and ayin. This moment is God. This really is it.

Most of us simply don’t believe it. We don’t believe that this is really it, and so we imagine that, at some other point, that’s when we’ll get it. Consequently, the mind must be trained to unlearn the habits which block the Divine reality from us. In other traditions, meditation is the primary method of training. In Kabbalah, meditation and prayer are used.

One must meditate profoundly and at length on this thought according to the capacity of apprehension of his brain and thought for as long as possible before he occupies himself with Torah or a commandment, such as putting on the tallit or tefillin. He should also reflect how the light of the blessed En Sof, which encompasses all worlds and pervades all worlds, which is identical with the Higher Will, is clothed in the letters and wisdom of the Torah and in the tzitzit and tefillin, and through his study or donning these latter he draws over himself His blessed light, that is, over the portion of Godliness from above which is within his body, that it may be absorbed and nullified in His blessed light.

Tanya, Likutei Amarim, Chapter 41.

We could repeat these teachings over and over again, but instead–why not take a moment in front of your computer and put these meditations to use? Choose Thich Nhat Hanh or the Tanya, but choose something, because map is not territory, and the recipe is not the meal. You’re not understanding these ideas if you’re just reading them and looking at them intellectually.

Image: Adrenaline by Peter Schwartz