The realization of Nothingness, the seventh jhāna or state of concentration discovered by the Buddha, is very profound. I don’t know exactly how or when Miles ‘got it’; but as soon as I did, I could hear it clearly in his music.
Nothingness is formless, timeless and limitless. It is the absence of, well, everything. One peculiar thing about it is how it undermines the familiar world of form. Once perceiving and realizing Nothingness, you cannot ascribe the same value to form, beingness or thingness.
In fact, you see very clearly that form is empty of value because it is empty of real Being: eternality and unconditioned freedom. In the mind of an artist, this realization is devastating. At first it leads to an outpouring of creative insight as one deconstructs the consensus forms used in one’s art.
But ultimately one comes to see the illusory nature of all form, and that is the death of art. There is no longer any qualitative difference between ‘good’ and ‘bad’, ‘beauty’ and ‘ugliness’. They are all seen as conditioned responses, consensus reality. There is no such thing as an absolute within form, within ordinary being.
Real Being is Nothingness: unconditioned, unlimited, without qualities, without beginning or end. One who realizes this sees clearly that all forms, all artistic values are arbitrary and culturally conditioned. At this point, the only meaningful art is silence, a blank canvas. John Cage got that right before anybody else.
But the realization crept up on Davis. You can hear it sneaking in from the wings on Birth of the Cool and Kind of Blue. By In a Silent Way, it has taken center stage. And on later sides like Live/Evil, Emptiness has become the bandleader, and Davis the sideman.
Coltrane played with Emptiness in A Love Supreme. He let it out of the bag in Ascension. But even with the struggle and primal venting of Interstellar Space, he died before he was able to fully embrace it. He remained wedded to form.
Miles, on the other hand, let the wave hit him and take him all the way. The cover to Doo-Wop, pictured above, reveals his mood just before his death. I know that look; I’ve had it and felt it myself. It means, “This is bullshit. I know it—do you?”
Even a highly realized being finds it difficult to fully let go of the ego. It is especially difficult when one is prominent in some field of endeavor, and others are depending on maintaining that identity.
Miles drifted into drug addiction as an attempt to postpone the ultimate entry into silence and full realization of the Emptiness he had invoked. This is fairly common occurrence in modern times. But he could not stop the corrosive effect of his realization on his ego. He became much less the elder statesman of jazz and more the esoteric realized sage.
There is a lesson in this story, one that was not lost on the great sages of the past. If one is going to approach the ultimate, the unconditioned silence and emptiness, it is best not to have the conflicting interests of a public life or prominent identity. Better to disappear into the forest or monastery, renounce the pretense of ego, give up the conventional roles and expectations of society.
Because once having touched the deathless, the absolute, the real, there is no turning back. The ultimate coda of all tunes is the silence at the end.
The loudest sound in the universe…is silence
— Thelonious Sphere Monk