The Infinite Wall

I - only I - the Nothing and the Infinite in one. Climbing the infinite wall.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

The Infinite Wall

I've been asked why I call my blog The Infinite Wall. The reasons are several fold, and the first thing I want you to do before I start explaining is to conjure up an image: You are in a landscape taken from a classic Chinese painting, with parabolic mountains, trees and not the least fog and clouds. Ahead of you is something that looks like a cliff wall on one of those parabolic mountains, except it keeps going on and on into the sky - and an ominous shadow on the third layer of thin clouds above you somehow tells you that this wall never stops rising. It is an infinite wall.

Some of you know I climb, and may have guessed that this wall represents and poses a challenge, a challenge which is intimidating, yet tempting to take on and promising the kind of joy only challenges can bring, but then yet again ultmately promising failure, since no amount of climbing can get you to the top of an infinite wall. Unless, of course, you are following mathematician Rudy Rucker through the White Light, halving the time taken to climb a unit for each unit climbed. But I am giving away too much too soon.

I am a mathematician, and mathematics fascinates me not just in terms of proofs and research, but also in a recreational way. I love to see the ideas I know from my profession used playfully, in stories, philosophy, poetry and paradox. So when you know me from the angle of mathematics, the wall fades into grey slate (or concrete) and becomes merely the outer wall of Hilbert's hotel (surely a worthy item for Math Fiction).

But neither climbing nor mathematics are the origin of the infinite wall. Its origins are hidden within the strange recesses of Eastern mysticism, ch'an (zen) Buddhism. Bodhidharma is said to have gazed at a cave wall for nine years. Though said to be historical fact, I prefer to think of the wall gazing as an enlightenment metaphor. Any physical wall then becomes representative of the obstacles to enlightenment - obstacles that are perhaps identical to enlightenment itself. But the metaphor as metaphor for enlightenment becomes more transparent if we view the wall as being infinite. For in the tradition of instant enlightenment you are equally far away from enlightenment regardless of your practice; when you climb an infinite wall in discrete steps, only an instant and infinite jump can bring you to the top, regardless of how high you have climbed. When the wall is infinite, we see non-paradoxically that though practice does not bring you closer to the goal, it nevertheless has merit in lifting you higher off the ground.

So how do you scale this infinite metaphor, this wall? And why should you bother? These questions go together, in the spirit of not separating the goal and the road taken to get there. To answer the latter first: there is no should; you either choose to start climbing or you don't. If you climb because you somehow feel obligated to do so, you are better off doing something else you would enjoy more in our Chinese landscape, like going fishing. I bet there are wondrous carp in the ponds that are bound to inhabit a Chinese landscape.

Imagine the top of this infinite cliff. That is: Cliff's foot, lots of fog, more fog, ... fog fog fog in a double infinity ... some more fog, above the clouds, and there you are at the top of the infinite cliff wall. It's not very special, is it? Aside from the view, of course. It's solid ground. Rock. Just like at the top of any mortal cliff. There is no difference. What differs is not the top, but the stretch between it and the bottom. It's this stretch which comprises the infinity that makes the top special. The goal - the top - is nothing without the means, the wall itself.

Maybe some of you will now mutter something about "infinite fog" and "mystical mumbo-jumbo". You are more right than you think, but the infinite fog is not an indictment of the infinite wall, but part of what makes it interesting: you are never really able to see the whole wall as you climb, something the infinite layers of fog ensure in the metaphor and time and the limits of the mind itself ensures in concrete life itself, which is in the end what this is all about. Life, as seen through the eyes of a single man who loves his mathematics, climbing and meditation. Life, as seen through the eyes of a concrete man who has a family he dotes on - a beautiful wife and two daughters who consider pink to be the prettiest colour and "princess" to be the highest honorary title - a job, a loan and a slightly crooked index finger too often forced into the service of typing in a search for perfection.

2 Comments:

  • At 2:24 PM, Blogger David Hermanson said…

    I wonder if it is possible for a Westerner to consider Bodhidharma's staring at a cave wall without thinking also of Plato's cave. The notion of thought itself as being always partial and in some sense, un-seeing seems so like your description of an infinite wall. But, at the same time, it would seem that Plato seeks to conquer the wall, or in his own terms, illumen the cavern that is human space. Does Plato's wall take us to a different place than Bodhidharma's?

     
  • At 12:35 AM, Blogger Solan said…

    I too wonder ... to what extent were Greek philosophy and buddhist ideas intertwined? The Buddha statues we see are basically a greek heritage, and we also know buddhists sent their missionairies to the west.

    So the caves and walls may be shared, and even older than both in sharing a common history.

    But there is a major difference between Buddha/Bodhidharma and Plato: The concrete and the universal.

    Plato was a champion of the Universal, of the Idea, of Thought.

    The B's were champions of no-Thought, of absence of "essence" (absence of universality), of going beyond ideas.

     

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