“We’re going to prove to you that you don’t exist,” the teacher told us with a twinkle in his eye. “At least not in the way that you think you do.”
At a younger age I would have geared up to prove him wrong. But at 34, having just hired my replacement in my company and in so doing unknowingly abdicating the crux of my identity, sitting in lotus position in the main Gompa of the Vajrapani Monastery at the end of a dirt road two hours drive zigzag up a mountain from San Francisco, about 30 minutes beyond where Uber’s maps don’t go, I was open to listening.
“Think about this clothespin,” he said. “It’s a clothespin, plain as day. Nobody would say that it does not exist, right?” The Brit in our group, Amy, caveated to say it was actually a ‘clothespeg’, explaining that she and her brother used to launch them at one another as children. Regardless, everyone agreed the wooden clothes-hanging utensil did, in fact, exist.
“But I simply do this,” he took one of the wooden sticks from the clothespin, hiding the other stick and the still-attached metal spring behind the lectern, “and tell me, what is this now?”
It was a wooden stick, shaped with divots that would enable a clothespin to be formed if joined with an identical mate and fitted spring. But while it still had a hint of clothespin, kind of, I wasn’t sure it would have been any more than a stick from the distance I was sitting, had I not seen it in its previous condition a moment before.
“What about this?” He held up the other side of the clothespin. “Is this a clothespin? Would you be happy to purchase a bag of these?”
No. Just another stick. And a spring.
He prodded, “is the spring a clothespin?”
We shook our heads.
“So a moment ago we all agreed we were looking at a clothespin, and nobody would argue that it did not exist,” he said. “You didn’t have to think about it, or consider it at all. You simply knew innately what it was called, and what it was for. It had ‘CLOTHESPIN’ written all over it, as if its very essence was that of clothespin.
“But now, I only have to look at it a little closer–I have moved my hands and that is all–and now you say it’s no longer a clothespin. Well then, I ask you, what is it?” He held up the two sticks and spring.
Someone answered it was two sticks and a spring.
“Hmm… I think you are right,” he said. “No use to hang clothes.”
He put the sticks next to one another, and wrapped the spring around them to once more create a single object. “And again, what is this?”
A clothespin. Its essence returned as if by magic.
“So this clothespin now exists once more, but a moment ago it did not,” he said. “So now we have agreed that a thing can both exist, and not exist, at the same time. In other words, a thing can be what it is, and also be only its parts, its causes and conditions as one might say, at the same time.
“So what makes this, then, a clothespin?”
Someone said that we labeled it so. Someone else said that it could hang clothes.
“I see,” the teacher said. “So we are saying that there is nothing about this object that makes it internally ‘clothespin’, apart from our giving it a name and a purpose. Is that right?”
He bowed his head. “I would like to suggest to you, humbly, that you exist in the same way, and in only the same way.”
I felt numb.
“I would further suggest,” he continued, gesturing toward Amy. “That it could as easily be called ‘Clothespeg,’ and be used as a projectile, if you so chose.”