The Making of ANATMAN, Part 1: Eternity and Zen

When I was taking Art of the Book, we learned that there are things called ‘artist books.’ Artist books use their format and shape to tell a story, along with the words themselves. That fascinated me. I wanted to do something like that. I began sketching out the idea for an origami artist book in my notes. This project would become “ANATMAN,” a blend of trigonometry, origami, Buddhism, Kabbalah, alchemy, and letterpress printing.

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ANATMAN was the culmination of years of reading and thinking, and in many ways it’s a manifesto for the Occult Triangle Lab, despite only containing 16 words. It contains some of the ideas that have haunted and inspired me since I was a kid, along with the ideas I was beginning to develop in college. To explain the making of ANATMAN, you have to know where it began.

Eternity, Infinity, and Enlightenment

In Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy, there’s a machine called The Total Perspective Vortex. It’s universally recognized as the most horrible torture device in existence. It does one thing:

“When you are put into the Vortex you are given just one momentary glimpse of the entire unimaginable infinity of creation, and somewhere in it there’s a tiny little speck, a microscopic dot on a microscopic dot, which says, ‘You are here.'”

            That stuck with me.

In Hat Full of Sky by Terry Pratchett, there’s a creature called a hiver. It’s an incorporeal mass of sight, smell, hearing, and a thousand other senses, and it rolls through the world incorporating more beings into itself. There’s no way to see it, and no way to kill it. The main character, Tiffany Aching, spends the book trying to find a way to beat it, or run from it, but she meets it in the end, and lets it into her mind. When she does, she realizes that the hiver can sense everything around it with perfect clarity, and can’t stop. This is what it says:

“‘Do you know what it feels like to be aware of every star, every blade of grass? Yes. You do. You call it ‘opening your eyes again.’ But you do it for a moment. We have done it for eternity. No sleep, no rest, just endless… endless experience, endless awareness. Of everything. All the time. How we envy you, envy you! Lucky humans, who can close your minds to the endless deeps of space! [ …] You build little worlds, little stories, little shells around your minds, and that keeps infinity at bay and allows you to wake up in the morning without screaming!'”

           And that stuck with me, too.

I remember looking out the window of my college dorm room at the sun rising. I’d stayed awake all night, working on a paper. It was so cold in the room that I couldn’t feel my fingers or toes, I hadn’t eaten anything, and I hadn’t changed my clothes for two days. I got up from my chair and stood in front of the window, listening to the quiet and watching the light IMG_0762creep over the buildings. It occurred to me that days and nights don’t build walls between you and the past—whether the sun is up or not, there is one continuous hour that stretches out forever, uniting the entire thread of your life. There’s a feeling of disappearing as you realize that you’re stretched from horizon to horizon, from birth to death, and that your life is carried out second by second. This is the same feeling I got when Mr. Powell taught us about Zeno’s Paradox all those years ago: the feeling that eternity is lurking in every nook and cranny, tearing at the seams of my mind. An hour can be an eternity, and standing at that cold window at 5 AM, I understood what hell could feel like.

It seems like the human soul unravels when it’s faced with eternity, and that’s what makes enlightenment so frightening and fascinating: to reconcile with the universe, you have to embrace eternity, the universe, everything, but that risks being destroyed under the sheer immensity of it all. So what kind of person backs away from that, gets so frightened that they put themselves an infinite distance away from enlightenment? How do you live with the ticking clock of death and the weight of eternity?

Zen Buddhism

Zen heavily influenced the project and my thinking about eternity and enlightenment, because Buddhism has a unique answer to the question of how do deal with the self.

Buddhist monks frighten and fascinate me, as I’ve mentioned before, but Zen most of all. Zen monks may ask you who you are. You might say you are a writer, a leader, a woman, a daughter, but they will shake their heads and say “A writer writes, a leader leads, and there are many women and daughters. Who are you when you are not writing or leading? Are you everyone’s daughter?” These are the absurd, silly questions that give Buddhist monks their reputation for being harmless, smiling, wrinkly, bald men. Zen monks are the same people who came up with the famous “What’s the sound of one hand clapping?”

What most people don’t know is that that question, about the clapping, is a koan, a phraseoccult triangle lab mu symbol that monks are supposed to meditate on. How can one hand clap? It is impossible. You’re supposed to give an answer. But you can’t answer. There is no answer, because the question itself is wrong. The lesson, if you can arrive at it through meditation, is that questions can be wrong, not just answers. This idea is called mu. And just like the question of one hand clapping, the question “Who are you?” is equally wrong, because everything you conceive of as “you” is wrong.

This is where Buddhism stop seeming so happy and benevolent.

“You” are an illusion, a pile of hungers screaming to get fed, wrapped in a bundle that’s held together by nothing. Enlightenment is embracing your own annihilation, because the truth is that “you” do not exist. “You” is no-self, no-soul. You are Void, because you are the universe, and the universe is Void. There are no divisions anywhere, no up or down, no day or night, and no division between life and death. When you understand this, and embrace your annihilation, you will understand no-self, which is translated as anatman.

The First Noble Truth of Buddhism is that life is suffering. Impermanence is the only constant. It is called annica. It means that nothing lasts forever, that there is no state of being that can last for an eternity. The desperation for something enduring, whether it’s a sense of self or happiness, is what causes suffering. The search for a way out, a way to become eternal, that is the ultimate path to suffering, because you can never attain it. Trying to become eternal, or immortal, is the farthest distance one can get from enlightenment.

i spent a lot of time reading about Zen, and I thought “What kind of person would choose that path, the one that leads away from enlightenment and annihilation, toward desperation and eternity? What kind of fear or insanity would that take?”

These are the thoughts that went into ANATMAN.

occult triangle lab oroboro

Next up in Part 2: Oroboro and the Qliphoth.


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The Making of ANATMAN, Part 1: Eternity and Zen

Apotheosis and Rule One

When it comes to theoretical mathematicians and Zen Buddhists, I obey Terry Pratchett’s Rule One. As stated in Thief of Time, Rule One is: “Do not act incautiously when confronting a little bald wrinkly smiling man.” As it turns out, wrinkly bald men make up a disproportionate number of history’s half-mad visionaries. Makes sense, I guess. It takes a lifetime to unravel the mysteries of the universe, and enlightenment, truth, and insanity all live in the same neighborhood. The majority of people who visit that neighborhood seem to come back with armfuls of all three, just not in equal quantities. So you get a lot of bald, wrinkly, smiling people speaking very calmly while wearing tea cozies on their heads.

The Bodidharma, the angry, bearded man who founded Zen, is surrounded by tales of random violence, catatonia, and trolling Emperors. John Nash, the mathematician portrayed in A Beautiful Mind, claimed that his schizophrenia allowed him to achieve his fantastic insight into geometry and game theory. Bobby Fischer, chess grandmaster, played some of the deepest games in history, distilling thousands of patterns into beautiful movements, then retreated into hermitage for almost two decades.

Geniuses. Masters. Madmen. Explorers from the farthest regions of experience. Don’t fuck around with them.

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People You Shouldn’t Fuck With: (clockwise, from top left): Kodo Sawaki, Enrico Fermi, Wu Tang Clan

Enlightenment, truth, and insanity all played parts in the creation of the first real project of the Occult Triangle Lab, the origami starburst book, “Apotheosis.” In my stories, drafts, and notes, one of the phrases I use to describe godhood is “A thousand eyes open,” which is a way to express omniscience. Hinduism has a similar idea, with a thousand arms signifying omnipotence. For my next project in Art of the Book, I wanted to make something that expressed omniscience. I found a book about basic origami folds, and began experimenting with starburst books. After playing around with where to put type, I realized that you could cover up some of the words depending on how you folded the starburst. Soon, I started experimenting with words in different places, then mapping the patterns.

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I realized that, if placed correctly, the book would always read “ONE THOUSAND EYES OPEN.” I also cut out and glued a folding paper eye in the center of the book. The end result was that, no matter how you folded or unfolded the book, the eye was watching, and the words stayed the same.

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“Apotheosis” was made from thick, coverweight paper, which is difficult to score, even with a bone folder. You have to hold it like a vise when it bends. As I was folding and measuring the book, I started thinking about perfection, about margins of error, and what it would take for all of the folds to line up exactly. Every time you fold origami, you can see the imperfections starting to surface , the tiny deviations from symmetry.

I think about what my high school science teacher Mr. Powell told us in Chemistry. Mr. Powell was the nerdiest, most sleep-inducing teacher I’d ever had. He looked like Mr. Rogers, and he had exactly three jokes that he would tell each year, like clockwork. But one day, he held up a cheap wooden ruler and stretched his thumb and forefinger across one inch.

He said “If numbers are really infinite, then you would be able to divide this inch into smaller and smaller portions forever. There would be an infinity in this inch.”

Then he widened his fingers so they stretched across two inches.

“That would mean the infinity in two inches would be a larger infinity. How can there be larger and smaller infinities?”

And he just let us think about that.

When you fold origami, your folds are always off. You could bring that error down to a hair’s breadth with practice, maybe even less. You could shave the little imperfections down forever, getting closer and closer to zero. You’ll never make it. You’re whittling down infinities.

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It’s a frightening thing to think that there are infinities in the strands of your hair and the spaces between the treads of tires. What would it be like to look around you and see the world as it is, expanding in all directions, building up from the microscopic and the atomic levels? Or to look at the horizon and see the waves of ultraviolet and infrared light coming off a roiling ball of world-shattering fusion? “Apotheosis” was built around the idea of omniscience, but you can see how omniscience opens the door to terror and insanity. I think anyone who wants to “open their mind to the universe” has to realize the immensity on the other side of that door, then realize that it all exists in the space of one inch.

I ended up on my high school’s Knowledge Bowl team, with Mr. Powell as my coach. I saw him after school for practice every week, and he turned out to have a very wry , sarcastic sense of humor. I started hearing stories about him: he had been offered teaching positions at several universities, and even a job working at NASA, back in the day. He had turned them down to teach science at Mark Morris High School.

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Mr. Powell, circa 2009

Only later did I learn that Mr. Powell’s ruler demonstration was called Zeno’s Paradox, crafted by an ancient Greek, Zeno of Elea, to back up the claim that all change was an illusion.

Only later did I realize that Mr. Powell was a smiling, wrinkly bald man.

Apotheosis and Rule One