Ikkyu, “this boat is and is not”

The water holds a heavy light, but you have finally found a bit more control, a bit more calm, and now you’re rowing in the shade.

That’s when your teacher speaks: “This boat is and is not. When it sinks both disappear.”

You chew on this for a second before you almost snap. Your mind screams. “COOL TELL ME AGAIN HOW THIS BOAT ISN’T BECAUSE MY ROWING SUCKS. TELL ME WE’LL BOTH DIE. I’M ABOUT TO JAM THIS OAR INTO YOUR SKULL.”

But then you remember your training, for better or worse. If it sounds like a koan, treat it like one:

Ikkyu (tr. Stephen Berg)

this boat is and is not
when it sinks both disappear

If the boat sinks, the occupants die. The antecedent of “both,” though, is the question of the boat’s existence. “Both” refers to the disappearance of “this boat is” and the disappearance of “[this boat] is not.”

Your teacher calls your attention to how possibility is itself possible. If you didn’t see or experience the boat in any way—if it were completely submerged—then what it does in a number of experiences wouldn’t even be imagined. Nor would experiences where the boat’s presence could make a difference be possible.

I suspect I’ve said something indirectly about being taken for granted. People completely unaware of you in the way they were unaware of that boat have closed off what is even possible. Their loss is different from a felt absence, a world holding a blank space where one might fill it or did fill it. The felt absence acknowledges possibility, but this loss is in a way total. Awareness communicates with being—the boat needed to be apprehended in some way to create the possibility of its being and not being. Without it, their lives are cloistered, dull to being taken anywhere different. If this is true for a boat, how much truer is it for a person?

None of this is to say you should jam yourself into all situations or everyone else’s space. But I know I’ve said something useful for those of us dealing with intentional neglect, where a lack of acknowledgement and abandonment are ways people hold power over others. Somehow, you’ve got to learn to take pride in your specific work, which is very much warranted. You’re rowing a boat, after all, keeping a realm of possibility afloat and at least two people alive.

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