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  • Suñña at the Bone:Emily Dickinson’s Theravadin Romanticism
  • Adam Katz

A narrow Fellow in the GrassOccasionally rides—You may have met him? Did you notHis notice instant is—

The Grass divides as with a Comb—A spotted Shaft is seen,And then it closes at your FeetAnd opens further on—

He likes a Boggy Acre—A Floor too cool for Corn—But when a Boy and BarefootI more than once at Noon

Have passed I thought a Whip LashUnbraiding in the SunWhen stooping to secure itIt wrinkled And was gone—

Several of Nature’s PeopleI know and they know meI feel for them a transportOf Cordiality

But never met this FellowAttended or aloneWithout a tighter BreathingAnd Zero at the Bone.1

Via the Arabic word cipher, the English word “zero” comes straight from the Sanskrit word shunya (empty). In Pali, the early Buddhist liturgical language, it is suñña. This poem’s story recalls the common Buddhist simile where a rope is mistaken for a snake in the dim light. There is nothing in the rope that should be feared as a snake, and likewise there is ultimately nothing in the five aggregates—basically, everything—that [End Page 111] can be regarded as atman (soul, self). So the aggregates are empty of self: anatta, in Pali. This is the doctrine of emptiness. Fallaciously imputing selfhood to the inherently selfless flux of the aggregates is a major source of suffering, so realizing emptiness brings liberation, just as investigating the rope and finding it empty of snakehood liberates one from fright.

Recognizing that the rope is a rope and not a snake is a simile for realizing emptiness. Likewise, in the poem, recognizing that the snake is a snake and not a “Whip Lash / Unbraiding in the Sun” catapults the speaker into a sublime experience of “Zero at the Bone.” This last line may be a metaphor for being chilled to the bone, but the absence of a subject for zero to modify and the sonic and aesthetic overload in an otherwise mostly matter-of-fact nature poem suggest that the sudden recognition of the snake scares us out of ourselves, empties us out, providing a Romantic corollary for Buddhist emptiness.

In the Buddhist simile and in the poem, the correction of faulty recognition precipitates the realization of emptiness. But in the simile, what is primarily important is that the rope is recognized as not a snake. One Tibetan text says that substantial progress can be made by, as it were, mistaking the rope for a vine, just so the scary snake perception is cleared away.2 A slightly later Tibetan text says that, simile aside, recognizing that the rope is not a snake and not even a vine but precisely a rope is merely a matter of “conventional valid cognition,” which stops far short of liberating insight into the selflessness of phenomena as such.3 Believing the rope really is a rope is the same as, in the simile, mistaking the rope for a snake, because in both cases it is a matter of perceiving substantiality where there is impermanence. By contrast, Dickinson’s poem emphasizes neither clearing up a particularly pernicious and persistent misconception about existence nor replacing this misconception with complete insight; rather, the poem emphasizes “conventional valid cognition” itself as a vehicle for sublime transcendence. The ecstatic experience of “Zero at the Bone” requires that the snake be accurately recognized as a snake.

This “conventional valid cognition” is technically compatible with complete insight into the selflessness of phenomena as such, and it is certainly possible that the speaker experiences zeroness due to an optical illusion or hallucination or dream rather than recognizing a real snake, but the poem does not highlight either of these possibilities. It emphasizes recognitional accuracy, and being thrown from the quotidian as a result. This is quite different from the lesson of the Buddhist simile, where, again, the emphasis is on what is not there, specifically selfhood, rather than on what is there in its precise distinctness from other things. In this regard the poem is, however, eminently compatible...


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pp. 111-119
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