LEGO: There Are No Cars or Houses

LEGO, the famous toy that kids around the world played with, is a very interesting toy that I grew up with.  In its simpler earlier form, it comprises of identical building blocks, differing only in color and sizes.

The human figures were also modular, meaning that the head-gears, head, upper torso, lower torso were interchangeable. You could have a figure with yellow face and brown hands and any colored legs.  The really adventurous can even swap the limbs, but that would make this article PG-13, so we’ll leave that for another article! 😉

To those who know, LEGO is written LEGO, and not lego, or Lego.  It is officially trademarked as LEGO.  But there is more to the name as well.  According to wikipedia,

The company name Lego was coined by Christiansen from the Danish phrase leg godt, which means “play well”. The name could also be interpreted as “I put together” and “I assemble” in Latin, though this would be a somewhat forced application of the general sense “I collect; I gather; I learn”; the word is most used in the derived sense “I read”. The cognate Greek verb λέγω (lego) also means “gather, pick up”, but this can include constructing a stone wall.[1]

This is very apt in describing the way LEGO is played.  It is meant to be put together or assembled.  It is interesting that while I never knew what LEGO meant in Danish, it didn’t diminish the fun I had in playing with LEGO, the hours I spent assembling the blocks.  It makes me wonder if sometimes, it is so important that we must understand every single
word recited in Buddhist pujas.  After all, not knowing what LEGO really meant still allowed us to have a good time, do we really need to know all the meaning of what we chant, especially when the chanting itself is at times targeted at devotional or tranquility development purposes.  But that is another story altogether … mmm … …

The interesting thing about LEGO struck me awhile back.  Something so obvious staring in my face (yours as well perhaps?) suddenly leapt in my face.  There are really no cars or houses! If you get it already, you can stop reading and go extend this thought / reflection on your day, week and / or life and reflect how there is no intrinsic characteristic in (every)thing!  If you still haven’t get it, read on.

When we build a car with the LEGO blocks, a car appear to exist, albeit a toy car, but still a car!  But when we examine the individual building blocks, there is no “car-ness” in them.  If there were any such “car-ness”, we cannot later disassemble them and build houses with them.

When we build the house, there is also no “house-ness” in the blocks, otherwise we couldn’t use it to build the car we built with earlier or spaceships later on! 😉

This in short, is Emptiness 自性空. The blocks are empty of any intrinsic characteristics, empty of any car-ness or house-ness. The car-ness and house-ness do not exist.

Further, if the individual item has no “anything-ness”, then the combined item also does not have it as well (ie car-ness or house-ness).  What exist is a car and a house that arises dependent on the building blocks.  Yes?  …. No!  Not just that.  It is a car, that arises dependent on the building blocks, our labelling of it as a “car”, our definition and identification of the function of a car etc etc.

This means that while there is no car-ness (before the car is assembled, or even when the car is built!), a “car” arises dependent on many condition.  We say that a “car” do not inherently exist, it exist or arises dependent on conditions.

In short, this is what is meant by Dependent Arising 緣起有.

Ok, let’s recap:

Before the car is built, there is no car-ness.  When the blocks are assembled, a car ‘arises’.  The car arises dependent on many conditions (blocks, our labeling, concept etc). When we later, disassemble the car, there is no more car.  When there are no coming together of such conditions, there is no more a car; there is again no car that can be found.  However, even when the car is built, there is still no car-ness (‘no-car-ness’ == emptiness).  Only a dependent arising car exist.  Emptiness is ‘there’ whilst the dependent arising car exist.  Emptiness in fact, is the dependent-arising-ness!

Hence, dependent arising car is ’empty of car-ness’ (ie empty), the emptiness of car-ness is precisely because the car is dependent arising!  Ergo: 色不亦空、空不亦色,色即是空、空即是色.

The car is not a car, it is just called / labelled a “car”

And finally, reflecting on how the car do not contain any car-ness, but whatever car we can say exist, exists dependent on the conditions, including our labelling of it, as a “car”.  If it was a car, or is known as a “car”, we would not have to further label it “car”.  We would not have to be taught in school “this is a car” or “這是輛車子” or “kore wa kuruma desu”.  It is therefore, not just lacking in any car-ness 性空, it is also not called a “car”, but it is just labelled 唯名 a “car”.

Hence,  together, 緣起性空 性空唯名, dependent arising, empty of intrinsic characteristic; empty of intrinsic characteristic, is only labelled such.

This is the teaching of Emptiness in the Madhyamika school 中觀.

Didn’t know that the Danes were into Buddhism did you?  Maybe
they didn’t know as well! 😉

Hungry for more?  Tuck in for A bowl of Delicious Laksa.