This is a rhetorical question, intended to make you think, not to produce an answer. Simply answering yes or no kills the question, and ends the internal dialog it was intended to create.
In the Rinzai Zen tradition (see Flexible Focus #19: Path to the Eureka Moment), any answer to the question is likely to be rejected by the Zen Master, who looks into the heart and mind of the student for the flash of true understanding, and has no time for schoolboy cleverness.
In fact there is no answer to the question, only continuous engagement with the question itself, do you look at the sky?
In looking at the sky, what do you see? The easy answer is to list common objects you might see above you, clouds, birds, the sun, the moon, an occasional airplane.
Look further, think more deeply, and you might remember that at night you also see stars, and occasional heavenly phenomena such as a comet or aurora borealis, night lights. Perhaps a UFO?
Stay with the question and you may begin to see with the mind’s eye, through understanding, that in fact you see nothing, and at the same time you see everything. The sky contains it all. It is the canvas on which the entire universe is written.
The principle of 空 (kū)
One of the core concepts of Buddhism is the principle of 空 (kū), which is often translated as emptiness.
However, to anyone familiar with either Buddhism or Japanese culture, this word has far greater significance. The character also has the meaning of sky, space, and of emptiness in the sense of infinite potential. Hence 空 (kū) is used to refer to the universe itself, from which all things emerge and to which all things return.
In English the word emptiness has the meaning of nothingness, or a Void. Hence, in Western painting artists typically fill the entire canvas with color or objects, to fill up the empty space.
Not so in Chinese and Japanese art, where space is an integral part of the painting. The concept of space being real is central to oriental philosophy and aesthetics, and has also influenced Western artists and musicians from Cézanne to Miles Davis.
In fact, the concept of negative space is a core concept in Gestalt perception, and the ability to see space is used by photographers, designers, and artists alike.
I suspect that the first people in the West who encountered Buddhism and introduced it to the West were not only prejudiced by their own Euro-centric cultural viewpoint, but very likely had an agenda based on their belief in the cultural superiority of Christianity over Buddhism. It could be that the limited and negatively nuanced translation of such concepts was due to ignorance and limited knowledge. Don’t underestimate the power of a man on a mission.
空 (kū) and the Mandala Chart
The Mandala Chart in its most basic form is like a hybrid lens which can scan panoramically both as a telescope and as a microscope. The simpler way of saying this is the art of flexible focus.
Flexible Focus can be used to explore the universe and see patterns in space by imposing the framework of the 8 x 8 or 64 frames of the Mandala Chart. This is a technique used by artists and photographers alike, to frame space, capture interesting details, and highlight textures and relationships.
Moreover, by using Mandala Chart templates, we can achieve even sharper focus on a problem or topic, and this enables the process of engagement (see Flexible Focus #12: The 8 Frames of Life: Business, and the Mandala on Opportunities for Engagement).
The Mandala itself is like a canvas on which you can paint your own vision for engagement, or select the elements from infinite potential with which you wish to engage. Whether you select positive elements or negative elements, it will take you right there. This is why some people see enemies hiding around every corner, and others see the world as a series of synergistic opportunities.
Do you look at the sky? Of course you do. But what you see there, in effect 空 (kū) is up to you. We just need to become more skilled at the art of seeing.
The art of looking at space
Once you recognize that space is not empty, but a real entity that surrounds us like water surrounds fish, then we can begin to find ways to navigate it. The key is to develop an interest in space, to kindle your curiosity about it.
Here are some questions which can help you get started, which are framed on the downloadable PDF Mandala Chart LOOKING AT SPACE.
- How can we bring negative space into our lives in a positive way?
- Rather than focusing on hard and fixed objects, develop the ability to look at things on their soft edges.
- Appreciate art and music for how they give shape and substance to space.
- Become more aware of relationships and how things are joined together.
- Get off of your merry-go-round of activity and find some breathing space in your life.
- Occasionally look at the sky with the eyes of an artist, and notice how it constantly changes.
- Develop a Taoistic appreciation for space as infinite potential.
- Empty your cup, and approach things and people with a beginner’s mind.
Think about how your preconceptions and prejudices limit your mind and predetermine your possibilities.
Get to know the Mandala Chart not just as a concept, but as a tool to open the doors of perception and help you master the art of flexible focus in your daily life.
Take a second look. The sky is not empty.
—William Reed specializes in applying practical wisdom from Japanese and Asian culture to solving the problems of modern business and living. He is the author of the Flexible Focus column on Active Garage, the syndicated column Creative Career Path and the book A Zoom Lens for Your life. William is also a Representative Director and Co-Founder of EMC QUEST Corporation, which provides Coaching for Communication and Change, World Class Speaking™, and Accelerated Action with GOALSCAPE™.