Twelve years ago, my son gave me a vintage manual typewriter for my birthday. Black, sleek, and compact, it was manufactured in the 1930s by L.C. Smith and Corona Typewriters, Inc., of Syracuse, New York. All of its forty-seven keys are still intact, including its Shift Key, Shift Lock, Back Space, and Margin Release. Fitted out with a new black ribbon, it can still produce a faint but legible line: The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.
Although I have never used this machine, it occupies a place of honor in my study, a symbol of my vocation and a reminder of family continuity and change. Half a century ago, I wrote my doctoral exams and my doctoral dissertation on my late father’s Royal Empress typewriter. Two decades later, when my son was soon to enter high school, I presented him with my own IBM Selectric, which even then was becoming obsolete. All too soon, that nimble machine gave way to his first personal computer. He is now a journalist by profession and does much of his work on a laptop or mobile device.
My Corona Standard is what Zen teachings call a composite thing. It consists of a multitude of moving parts, nearly all of them visible to the naked eye. Lifting its cover, I can inspect its type bars, type heads, springs, and twin ribbon spools. Turning it over, I can examine its gears, rods, cords, escapement, and walnut-sized bell. Equipped with the appropriate skills and tools, I could dismantle the entire mechanism, part by part. And at some point in the process, this complex, functioning machine would no longer be recognizable or identifiable as a typewriter, a term of convenience for a configuration of component parts. It would be revealed as the temporary aggregate it always was.
In this it is not alone. According to Zen teachings, nearly all of the presumably solid objects we encounter in the course of a day are composite things. At one time, that reality was readily apparent, but as industrial technology has advanced and digital technology has won the day, it has become easy to forget that such common objects as clocks, pens, and flat-screen TVs contain any number of concealed and potentially unstable parts. In the language of Zen, “the self is made up of non-self elements,” whether the self in question be a smartphone, a kitchen stove, a Camry, or a living being. But nowadays, when moving parts have become ever fewer and static parts accessible only to technicians, this dimension of everyday reality often eludes our notice, and the illusions of permanence and solidity are thereby reinforced.
“Form is no other than emptiness, emptiness no other than form”: that well-known observation from the Heart Sutra, a core text for Zen practitioners, enjoins us to realize that the things of this world are neither as permanent nor autonomous as they seem. “Form” in this context refers to the observable, tangible aspect of a given entity—its color, shape, and texture—as viewed from the standpoint of conventional perception. “Emptiness” refers to that object’s impermanent, interdependent nature and its contingent existence in the web of life. According to Zen teachings, there is no form independent of formlessness, and vice versa. As one ancient Zen poem puts it, “fundamentally there is not a single thing.” The seemingly solid things of this world, including my vintage typewriter, are in reality evanescent and insubstantial.
To those with scant interest in metaphysics, these recognitions may be less than compelling. But in fact, the deep realization, in our hearts as well as our minds, that “form is emptiness, emptiness form” bears directly on the ways we view the world and conduct our daily lives. As the Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh has often noted, we suffer not because things are impermanent but because we expect them to be permanent when they are not. By reminding ourselves, periodically if not on a daily basis, that all conditioned forms are on their way toward extinction or transformation, we release ourselves from that habitual expectation. Concurrently, we reintroduce ourselves to the realm of the formless, where so-called “things” are in constant flux, and new forms are continuously being born.
On this bright morning in March, 2017, my Corona Standard rests peacefully on its old-fashioned typing table, evoking the era of Hemingway, Faulkner, and Gertrude Stein. On most days I keep this prized possession covered, but earlier this morning I removed its cover, and now its shiny black surfaces are catching the winter light. At once a repository of historical meanings, social and familial, and an experiment in what the Irish writer John Banville has called the laboratory of the past, it is also a vivid emblem of industrial progress and human possibility, creative freedom and artistic resolve.