Daily Archives: April 2, 2010

kenosis

Odds are not bad that first glance at this word will make you think of keno, that game where you make bets on up to ten numbers, and then 20 out of a possible 80 are drawn and your payoff depends on how much you bet and on how many numbers. There are a variety of ways to play, but it has one endearing distinction, at least in the way Ontario Lotteries and Gaming does it: if you bet on 10 and you match none at all, you actually win a small amount. The only lottery-type game I know of where you get rewarded for coming up empty!

But once you know that the stress in kenosis is on the second syllable, it moves the word away from keno and sister games and towards metaphysics. Star Wars, for instance. Oh, come on, that’s not forced: tell me you don’t hear Kenobi here. You know, “Old Ben Kenobi,” the crusty hermit who turns out to be – to have been – Obi-Wan Kenobi, the Jedi master. He was a great Jedi, but after he took on the training of a pupil with greater powers, and the pupil turned to the dark side, he voided his membership in the order and took on a much more humble form.

Although Obi-Wan Kenobi was played by Alec Guinness in the original Star Wars trilogy, the name does rather sound Japanese, doesn’t it? And it makes me think how kenosis also has a strong echo of kensho – the goal of Zen Buddhist meditation, the incredible flash of insight wherein one sees the emptiness of all things (or, as they say in Japanese, mu, “nothing”*), with oneself as not separate from all else. But let not “emptiness,” also called “voidness,” mislead you: as Robert Thurman (Buddhist scholar and father not of a mu but of Uma) has said, “voidness does not mean nothingness, but rather that all things lack intrinsic reality, intrinsic objectivity, intrinsic identity or intrinsic referentiality. Lacking such static essence or substance does not make them not exist – it makes them thoroughly relative.” Physics tells use that, physically, we are wave functions; Buddhism essentially agrees.

But kenosis is not a Japanese term, nor a Buddhist one. It is Greek, and it has come into English thanks to a passage in Philippians (one of the letters of Paul in the Bible): ἀλλὰ ἑαυτὸν ἐκένωσεν μορφὴν δούλου λαβών – “but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave” – well, let me give you the whole passage for context: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.” The verb ἐκένωσεν is related to the noun κένωσις, kenosis, which is our word du jour. The idea is that Jesus, though God, let go of Godness to come slum with us – and we, too, should let go, empty ourselves (might as well – you can’t take it with you) to allow the divine to flow through us, like waves of light through – well, not through but in; waves of water are not other than the water, you know. So we come up empty and thus win.

The details and implications of the established Christian presentation of the idea are of course different from those of the Buddhist presentation. But one way or the other, you can see the o in kenosis as not just a hole but a channel, a pipe, a space but perhaps also the lips of the divine (or of mu!) ready to give you one kiss (that flash of kensho) to impart the gnosis, so that you experience the drowning in the sea of all (SOS!) that is actually your victory (Greek nike). Then let you and all be not two – o, be one: kenosis!

*Not a direct translation of sunyata “emptiness”, which in Japanese and Chinese becomes a word (kòng/kuu) that can also refer to an empty room or spare time, both requisites for meditation.