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Today I am writing this column with my Sailor 1911 fountain pen. Its name commemorates the origin of the Sailor Pen Company, which was founded in 1911 by Mr. Kyugoro Sakata of Hiroshima, Japan. Having learned about fountain pens from a British sailor, Mr. Sakata started his own company, naming it after his source of inspiration. My Sailor 1911 is plum-colored and sports a gold-plated nib, from which the black ink flows freely. A gift from my wife, it is a pleasure to use and a handsome object in its own right.

Yet my pen is also a composite thing, and when I take it apart to clean it, I see that it consists of four principal components: nib, cartridge, cap, and barrel. Were I to take those components themselves apart, I would discover that my fountain pen, which feels so stable in my hand, is actually an impermanent aggregate, to which the concept “fountain pen” has been applied. And though it appears independent, it is really a locus of interdependent causes and conditions, including the manufacturers who produced its resin, metal, and ink, the craftsman who assembled it, and of course Mr. Sakata himself. Far from being a separate entity, my pen might better be seen as an event in the ever-changing web of life. For all its beauty and functionality, it is void of solidity or intrinsic existence.

That is no small discovery. And were I to continue my investigation, examining my Sailor 1911 under an electron microsope, I would see that my so-called fountain pen is mostly energy and formless space. I would recognize the formlessness—or what Zen teachings call “emptiness”beneath the form. Through direct experience, I would have verified the core teaching of the Heart Sutra, which is chanted daily in Zen monasteries. “Form is no other than emptiness,” that sutra informs us, “emptiness no other than form”. A pen is indeed a pen, but it is also not a pen. And what is true of fountain pens is true of all phenomena, ourselves included.

To examine the world and the self in this fashion might seem a rather negative, if not destructive, enterprise, but in practice it is quite the opposite. It is as nurturing as it is liberating. In his book A New Earth, Eckhart Tolle explains:

Once you realize and accept that all structures (forms) are unstable, even the seemingly solid material ones, peace arises within you. This is because the recognition of the impermanence of all forms awakens you to the dimension of the formless within yourself, that which is beyond death.*

In Zen teachings, what Tolle describes as the “dimension of the formless” is usually called the “absolute” dimension. It is contrasted with the “relative” dimension, where a pen is a pen and a post is a post. In Zen training we are enjoined to see all things, including our bodies, thoughts, and feelings, from both perspectives. We cultivate a kind of double vision, seeing the changing and the changeless, the relative and the absolute, as two sides of a single coin. By so doing, we loosen our anxious attachments to things and thoughts and feelings, having recognized that ultimately there is nothing solid to be attached to, or any need to be attached. And if peace arises, as it often does, it is because at long last we are seeing things as they are.

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*Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth (Penguin, 2005), 81.

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