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311. The Good Physician

About four hundred years after the Buddha’s death, the buddhist sangha started writing down the sutras which recorded his teachings. Up to then, they had been memorised and transmitted orally.

Writing them down enabled them to be collected together. This was the start of the Abhidharma (‘about the dharma’) literature.

At the start, each buddhist group which compiled that sutra collection, simply prefaced it with an attempt to state buddhist belief. This gradually grew into a distinct literature which attempted to create a consistent set of buddhist beliefs.

As they did this, they had some difficulties. So, for example, if nothing has a self, how can we explain karma? If nirvana and samsara are opposite, then how do they relate to each other? And if they’re the same, then why do they appear so different? Do past and future exist and if they do, in what sense? And so on. 

In these various attempts to create a consistent philosophy, divergences started to occur.  Some groups would affirm something that seemed quite like ‘a self’. Others would say, “Well there’s not a self, but karma is possible because past, present and future all exist together”, and so on.

And so, various different schools appeared. Traditionally, it is said that there were 18 schools, but there were probably many more.

However, the enterprise to create a consistent philosophy was based on a false premise; namely that the Buddha’s teachings were a set of consistent beliefs waiting to be systematised.

The most persistent way of describing the Buddha is as a physician. People would come to him with particular queries, particular distresses, particular sources of puzzlement. These would be specific, and the Buddha would give an answer specific to that person – like a good physician who would not prescribe the same medicine to all his patients, irrespective of the illnesses they had. 

It’s really in this way that we need to understand buddhist language. The essential insight of the Buddha was that we suffer because we cling. We cling to what we have, to what we want, to what we hate, to what we don’t have but fear will be imposed on us, and so on. That’s why we suffer. 

So his language is a provisional, instrumental language; it’s not a philosophy, it’s a strategy to address this basic wound. That’s why there’s apparently inconsistent or incomplete language. That’s why sometimes buddhists talk of ‘no-self’ and other times they talk of ‘buddha-nature’ and other times they talk of ‘emptiness’, or of ‘suchness’. 

They’re a very wide range of languages. But we need to understand these languages in terms of our sickness and our health rather than in terms of ‘literal truth’. A medicine for the person, not a picture of the world.

In our error, it’s as if when ill, a doctor gives us a prescription for medicine, but instead of taking the medicine we take the prescription, keep taking it whether ill or not, and urge others to do the same. 

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310. The direction of practice

One of the most dispiriting things for people starting practice comes from the idea that practice is the gateway to tranquility and peacefulness. Yet when they start it’s as if there’s this crappy person inside their head talking repetitive, bloviating, interpretative nonsense. And always complaining about what’s going on, about not being enlightened, being bored; nonsense really.

As a preliminary, stabilising step it’s important that we get some distance from this crappy person. So we learn equanimity, non-reactivity, mindful awareness and so on. So, as it were, we’re establishing some space around this crappy person.

But the problem is that we’re still within the room of the self. And if we stay with this self centred perspective, we’re likely to see zazen in terms of equanimity or in terms of consciousness. But either way we’re not going to see zazen in terms of connectedness and joy.

So what we require to do is fall out of this room of the self and into the body. And from there we can experience joy, connection, non-duality and so on.

But when we say ‘body’ we don’t mean your picture of the body because then ‘body’ is just another object in your mind. We mean actual alive, vivid embodiment. This vividness can’t be contained within ourselves; it seeps out. So everything (perhaps starting near to us and gradually percolating outwards) loses its picturedness, its conceptuality and acquires vivid embodiment. 

And it’s in this context that we need to see the descriptive language of the Mahayana sutras. They are not describing something fantastical but the actual experience of zazen. But with these familiar constraints of mind and self and consciousness and separation cast off.

Our ways of describing Zazen are limitless and should be understood as being both partial and limitless. Because the point of a community of practitioners is that the expression of the dharma is never closed, never completed.

It’s as if your spine is a cascade of pearls. It’s as if your rib cage is like a weightless basket moving in emptiness. It’s as if your heart inside that basket is a great light, extending everywhere.

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309. Non-attachment, Nonseparation

Mahayana Buddhism has two principal pillars: emptiness and compassion

Emptiness is primarily a skillful means to cultivate non-attachment rather than an assertion about the fundamental nature of things. There’s no ‘Emptiness’ lying underneath Form. Emptiness is itself empty

Compassion (feeling-with) is intimately connected with non-separation.

When we say emptiness and compassion, we can equally say non-attachment and non-separation. With regard to the first, it’s no accident that the most common metaphor for our human condition used by Buddhists is the dream. In the dream we cannot say that there is nothing. Our experience is vivid and immediate, yet there is no essence to grasp hold of. Living in this way is not attachment, but neither is it detachment, which would be grasping ourselves.

Cultivating this attitude in our own life and in witnessing the lives of others, we can understand that we are all living within a dream. And so we can cultivate non-attachment for ourselves and compassion for all beings.

When we turn to zazen, it’s true that to steady ourselves, to solidify our practice, we cultivate non-attachment to our thoughts and emotions. But the fundamental practice of zazen is not non-attachment: it’s non-separation. And we achieve this by attempting to practise at a level deeper than that of ordinary perception.

We’re not simply sitting quietly in our familiar world – we are sitting within a new world which is vivid, immediate and momentary. And within which there is no separation between this person and all beings.

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The Gateless Gate, Case 3

The Gateless Gate, Case Three: Chu-Chih raises one finger

The Case

Whenever Chu-Chih (J: Gutei) was asked a question, he simply raised one finger. One day a visitor asked Chu-Chih’s attendant what his master preached. The boy raised a finger. Hearing of this, Chu-Chih cut off the boy’s finger with a knife. As the boy ran from the room, Chu-Chih called to him. When the boy turned his head Chu-Chih raised a finger. The boy was suddenly enlightened.

When Chu-Chih was about to die he said to his assembled monks, “I received this one finger Zen from T’ien-lung. I used it all my life but never used it up.”

Commentary

This is a koan story that is greatly commented on in the Rinzai tradition and the focus of that commentary is usually suchness. When we make a gesture such as raising our finger, we’re not doing it in a symbolic or representative way – it’s just natural. It’s a complete expression of our present state. That perspective is part of a wider discussion within the Zen tradition about the uses and dangers of language.

However, the key to understanding this story is understanding the background detail. Which, given this case also appears as case 19 in the Blue Cliff Record, is available to us. In that background detail, we’re told that prior to his enlightenment, Chu-Chih assiduously practised zazen by himself. One day he was visited by a nun who demanded of him that he say something appropriate but he was unable to do so. And so the nun left. The name of that nun was True Encounter.

Chu-Chih was upset by this. He intended to go and find a master but he heard a voice saying that, in fact, a master would come to him. And several days later that’s exactly what happened. Chu-Chih related the story to this person who in response simply held up one finger. And that resulted in Chu-Chih becoming enlightened.

In his subsequent teaching, was Chu-Chih holding up his own finger? Or was he holding up his master’s finger? And what are we to make of him simply teaching in this one way?

In the incident in question why was it that in this situation the boy was enlightened, but on previous occasions when he witnessed the teaching he was not? And whose finger this time was Chu-Chih holding up? Was it his finger? The boy’s finger? His master’s finger? Or all three? Or something else? Classical Chinese leaves all these interpretations open.

I think this is a teaching about interdependence. So when we lift our finger, or an eyebrow, or our heart – then we are also lifting the fabric of the whole universe – all being, all space, all time – because we’re part of that fabric. The severed finger (whether or not Chu-Chih is holding that finger up and that’s what causes the boy to become enlightened) similarly is not separate from this fabric of being. And is always communicating and expressing: severed or unsevered.

Nothing is severed.

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308. The Posture of Zazen

Most contemporary discourse on meditation talks about it in terms of consciousness: what’s going on in our mind; our thoughts; the intrusiveness and nature of those thoughts; all that sort of stuff. And behind that – but not very far behind – is the idea that meditation has a purpose, which is self development. That idea is wrong.

When asked why Buddhism, throughout its history, has insisted on meditation in the cross-legged position they usually say something like, “Well that was just the position that was comfortable for people in classical India.” Except, it would have been equally comfortable for people then to have meditated standing up, or leaning against a tree, or lying down, or sitting in their easy chair, or whatever.

We’ve no reason to think that the cross-legged position was universally comfortable for people. Because if it was, we wouldn’t have meditation instructions by Dogen, for example, which clearly make allowances for people who are incapable of sitting in the full lotus position.

It’s very illuminating to look at the full lotus position as a yoga posture. And if you’ve seen anyone do that, it’s plainly a dynamic posture. The practitioner requires to sit with a tilt on the pelvis, pushing the buttocks out. They’re clearly sitting on their sit bones and they have to get their knees on the ground. And once they manage to do all that, it’s a very dynamic posture: their base chakra (the perineum) is open and in contact with the ground. And there’s a stretch of the whole body between the base chakra and the crown chakra (the fontanelle, at the crown of the head). It feels as if there’s a push coming from the earth, uncompressing the spine, pushing the head upwards.

The only difference between the yoga posture and the customary meditation position is that meditators place a cushion under the pelvis, which makes the posture easier.

It’s also worth noting that in Tantric practices (like the microcosmic orbit in Chinese Tantra) again the cross-legged position is used. The purpose is different: to circulate energy up the back energy channel, then down the front channel. Although it may be of some significance that Bodhidharma, as well as being the founder of Chinese Zen is also (probably apocryphally) the founder of Chinese Tantra, as well as Kung Fu.

The marginalisation of the body in contemporary discourse about meditation is, I think, mistaken. And if that’s so, we’re obliged to look at meditation, not primarily through the lens of consciousness, but as a dynamic interplay between the alive whole body, the dynamic breath and wide and vivid awareness. And within all that, somewhere, is the mind – but it’s no longer of central importance.

And accordingly, whether the mind is busy or quiet, agitated or peaceful, is no longer the most important thing going on in our practice. Put the body in the correct position and it is – we are – naturally activated. The push which rises up, uncompressing our spine, is not something which we’re determining with our will. It’s not something which we’re creating with our voluntary muscles. It’s just something which, as it were, we’re a witness to. 

But not a bystander. 

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307. Dropping off body and mind

Dogen described zazen as ‘dropping off body and mind’. We can assume that both are dropped off at the same time. I’ve often described this as being a letting go of our habitual sense of self, opening into wide spacious awareness. But we can also consider dropping off body and mind in a sequential way. 

Our sense of self is often something like: “I am this mental consciousness located in the brain, which is distinct from the body.” Few people now would explicitly say this, but it doesn’t matter, as it describes how most of us act. Anyway, the idea is obviously dualistic and disembodied.

So we can first drop off the mind by dropping the mind into the body. And we’re only able to do that to the extent that the body is dynamic, alive and joyful. Which is why we place such an emphasis on the posture, because if our posture is right then our body is naturally expressing itself.

So there’s naturally an upward movement of our spine – we don’t require to will it. There’s a natural dropping down of our weight. We’re in a dynamic relationship with heaven and earth.

If we can re-embody our mind, we have our sense of ourselves as this dynamic body (similar to what a baby might experience). And once we’ve done that, then we can drop off the body, because the body experienced in this non conceptual way isn’t separate from everything else. 

We let go of a sharp distinction between this body and the greater body of all being. And that’s easy to do because it’s obvious in our actual experience: there isn’t a clear boundary.

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306. The Wise Doctor

In Chapter three of the Nirvana Sutra, the Buddha tells the story of a foolish king who has a stubborn doctor as his personal physician. This doctor only prescribes milk products as medicine, whatever the illness.

One day, a wise doctor arrives in the kingdom. This doctor has eight different remedies for illness but he hides his knowledge and apprentices himself to the stubborn doctor and thus gains access to the king.

He convinces the king that the stubborn doctor is no good. The king expels the stubborn doctor from the kingdom and makes the wise doctor his physician instead.

The king asks the wise doctor what he would like by way of recompense. The wise doctor says that he would like nothing for himself but he would like the king to make an order saying that the remedy of milk products for illness is absolutely prohibited throughout the kingdom. The king makes the order. 

Sometime later the king becomes ill and the wise doctor prescribes milk as the appropriate remedy.

The king is baffled and furious and asks the wise doctor why he is prescribing milk in view of the milk prohibition. The wise doctor says, in effect, “it all depends on the particular circumstances.”

The narrow purpose of this story is to set up an argument later on in the sutra about buddha nature, but the wider purpose is to say something important about teaching.

The wise doctor is obviously the Buddha. The eight different remedies refer to the noble eightfold path and the milk products remedy which the stubborn doctor always prescribes we can take to be the various doctrines of the self. Just as milk products might look different from each other, but all rely on milk, the doctrines of the various non Buddhist schools may look very different, but they all rely on the assumption of an underlying self. The outlawing of the milk remedy we can equate with the buddha’s teachings on no-self, emptiness and impermanence.

The metaphor of the Buddha as a wise doctor is also the last of the  famous parables of the Lotus Sutra and, arguably, the most important.

We normally think of any spiritual tradition as involving the acceptance of our set of beliefs which we then apply to our lives, regardless of whether the effect is good or bad. The beliefs of that tradition form the structure of our lives. But Buddhism is not like this. It isn’t a system of beliefs about the world. It’s a compassionate strategy to attend effectively to human suffering.

When we try to deal with the sickness of suffering of each being, we can’t unthinkingly prescribe the same doctrinal remedy, because what is medicine for one person may be poison for another. Ideas of no self and how that is expressed might be either very helpful or very harmful for someone whom at this moment is borderline psychotic, for example. It all depends. That’s why “skilful means” is emphasised so much. 

If we read the Pali sutras, two things are evident. One is the Buddha’s refusal to answer abstract questions, such as whether the universe is permanent or impermanent, what happens after death, and so forth. The second is that he is attending to the person in front of him, not simply recapitulating what he has already said.

After the Buddha’s death, there were attempts, with the Abidharma literature, to make his teaching into a coherent philosophy. It was in reaction to this that Nagarjuna emphasised Emptiness and said that Buddhism was the relinquishing of views (ie systems).

Aside from the wise doctor, the other metaphor often used for the Buddha is that of the father, which, I think, emphasises the feelingness rather than the thinkingness of Buddhism. The father, like the doctor, is concerned with care, not belief. But each exemplifies different facets of care: compassion, and love.

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305. The Unpictured Body

In zazen we talk a great deal about the body but what do we mean by ‘body’?

If you ask someone in the West to point to their body, they’re very likely to point to their torso. They’re unlikely to point to their head. Which is unfortunate, because as soon as you state it, it’s obvious: our head is part of our body.

I find that the easiest way to start to enliven the body is through the sensory awareness that we have here: the feeling of our tongue in our mouth; the tension around our eyes; the weight of our jaw; the awareness of the air in our nostrils.

All of that is readily accessible to us in an immediate way that sensory information elsewhere in the body very often isn’t. So if we have a holistic sense of the body as including the head and all the sensory awareness there, then we can see how that sensory awareness can – as it were – gradually seep downwards. To our throat, our torso; all of us, animating and enlivening the whole body.

There’s an additional benefit. We habitually (in the West at least) identify the head with the mind and with the self, so the mind/body split has a physical counterpart and reinforcement  in the head/body split. Reintegrating the head with the rest of the body starts to undo that primary, unconscious split, relocating the mind within the body, and hence changing our sense of both.

And when we do this, our sense of both ‘mind’ and ‘body’ can change. Our mind is no longer necessarily just located within our head. Our body is no longer an object just located in space. And that starts to undo the self/world split which, in my view at least, is essential.

Turning to the breath, everyone is familiar with the instruction that when we feel distracted, we should give our attention to our breath. 

Why is the breath so fundamental to meditation? Perhaps because it is immediate and difficult to objectify, or straightforwardly conceptualise. We cannot help but notice that when our breath changes, our state changes.

We often talk about being aware of the breath as if the breath and the body are two separate facets of experience. But if we pay careful attention we’ll see that our experience of the breath and our experience of the movement within us (when we take an in-breath, for example) is the one movement. And we can focus on the breath or we can focus on the body which is moving, or alternate. But it’s essentially two aspects of the one experience. It is not like wind blowing through the stiff rock of a cave. It is like two beings dancing.

We are not picturing the body from an imaginary, external vantage point. We place our attention whenever we can immediately feel, and gradually widen and deepen that, from the ‘inside’. 

Additionally, if we can sit in the correct posture, our body is progressively enlivened without conscious effort. If our pelvis is in the right position, our weight dropping down through our sit bones, then we experience an uplift that often feels as if the back of our neck is being stretched and our head is moving upwards. I experience the uplift as originating somewhere in my upper thoracic spine, but you may experience it differently. The key is to experience it, not force it. 

That feeling of uplift is the source of a terrible instruction about tucking your chin in and stretching the back of the neck. It’s terrible because there’s an attempted duplication of something which needs to be non-forced and automatic. If you are sitting correctly, your chin will naturally be slightly tucked in, but you can’t will it, anymore than you can create a joke by forced laughter. 

Your sit bone isn’t a single point, it’s three dimensional, like – say – the elbow, and it’s helpful if you can experience that three dimensionality, that front and back, by touch and movement. And that illustrates a more general point about balance: it is an exquisite aliveness, not a forced absence of movement. We are subtly wobbling around the point of balance, like a tightrope walker.

When you’re sitting correctly – correctly for you – you’ll  also experience a relaxing and widening of the back of the head, specifically around the occipital point, what the Chinese call the Jade Pillow. 

Correct posture also manifests a dynamic relationship with the ground.

Your weight is dropping down into the ground and the ground is pushing up, like two hands pushing gently together. There is something similar, although more subtle, happening with the space around and above us.

When we sit, we are in a dynamic and connected relationship with the environment: through the ground; through the air; through the breath. All of this breaks down the self/world dualism for the benefit of both: the body is no longer spatially imprisoned and disconnected from the world, the world is no longer “out there”, waiting to be done-to, but immediate and alive.

Zazen is not the practice of the self. It is the effort of all beings expressed through this person.

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The Blue Cliff Record, Case 43

The Case:

A monk asked Master Tozan, “When heat and cold come, how can we avoid them?” Tozan said, “Why don’t you go to the place where there is no heat or cold?” The monk asked, “How do I get to that place?” Tozan said, “When it is hot, heat kills the monk. When it’s cold, cold kills the monk.”

Tozan perhaps could have added, zazen kills the monk. And zazen kills zazen.

This koan, which is very well known, is symptomatic of a difficulty in Zen. It isn’t that there isn’t an enormous amount of commentary on this and the other well-known koans. It’s just that a lot of that commentary, to us at least, is grand but empty; sonorous but meaningless. 

And the reason for that is that we fundamentally misunderstand these various Masters. We imagine that Baso, Tozan and all the other great Tang Dynasty Zen monks represent a rupture with Buddhism up to that point. When in fact they copiously quote from sutras and other sources, but they tend to have assumed that their audience was aware of the source. And so, the quote isn’t specifically referenced.

In this case Tozan is directly alluding to a passage which the Buddha talked about our state in meditation where he said: our state of perception is not no-perception. It isn’t disordered perception. And it isn’t ordinary perception. So the question obviously remains: what is it?

After zazen we chant the Heart Sutra, where we refer to the five skandhas. They are form, sensation, perception, mental fabrication and consciousness; they describe the human being. And, as in lots of Buddhist formulations, they build on each other.

Because our society has such a psychological bent we’re inclined to think that non-attachment occurs at the level of the fourth skandha (mental fabrication). So in the case of the monk, for instance, we might imagine that he should say, “Oh I’m sitting zazen. I’m very hot. Oh, I notice that’s making me irritable. I shouldn’t attach to that. I shouldn’t go off into a trail of thoughts and emotions. I shouldn’t love or hate the condition.” And so on. So, we locate non-attachment there. We don’t go off into mental fabrication. Our perception of thoughts, feelings, objects and actions is there, but we try not to do anything with them. This is often how people (mis)understand mindfulness.

Non attachment to our perceptions is helpful as a preliminary practice – one that can go on for years, and which, in some sense, is always with us as our preliminary practice today – because it steadies us. But if we think that’s what zazen is, we’re completely wasting our time. And if I tell other people that’s what zazen is, I’m completely wasting their time.

The non-attachment which Tozan is referring to is at the level of the earlier skandha ( sensation ). So we’re not saying, “Oh I’m sitting in a room in a blue chair, with the sunlight coming through the window, feeling a bit melancholy, hearing birdsong, having intermittent thoughts about yesterday, practising non-attachment.” No: we are not at the level of perception. We are not sitting in the world constructed and pictured by our mind and culture, yet maintaining detachment from it. We’re at the skandha below that: the skandha of sensation. Obviously, we bounce around through all of them. We can’t stop having thoughts. We can’t stop having thoughts about thoughts. But we can let them go.

So, at the level of the second skandha, we’re feeling, we’re sensing all this activity and expression in ourselves and the world. But we’re not fixing it, we’re not conceptualizing it, we’re not picturing it. We’re not within our familiar world. We’re just feeling what we feel. And when  – as they must – perceptions of objects and thoughts arise,  and thoughts about those thoughts and objects and emotions arise, we have the space of embodiment in which they can come and go freely. Which is why we emphasise the importance of the body so much. If we practice zazen but we’re not embodied, our experience can’t be earthed. There isn’t the spacious container of body, breath and space, there’s just the mind, with an unavoidable focus on and attachment to the level and type of mental charge, which is often accompanied by an acquisitive spirituality, the quest for enlightenment, higher states, evolved consciousness, and the various other bright things in the junk shop of spiritual capitalism.

But it’s important to note that the state that Tozan is referring to isn’t a final state. There isn’t a final state. All five skandhas are empty. We understand that our perceptions are constructions (and doubly so for what we then weave with these perceptions) and hence empty, but the two earlier skandhas, Form and Sensation, are empty too, but in a slightly different way. It’s plain that our sensations are coming and going within this greater body of alive embodiment, and hence are ‘empty‘, but the first skandha, Form, is empty too. How so? Because the body in Zazen, in its spacious, balanced aliveness, is not separate. We do not experience our body as a lump of form, or as a parcel of energy, separate from all beings, but, indeterminately, part. Not as something thought, but as something experienced.

For further information and references on this kusen, please click this link.

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Shinji Shobogenzo, Book 2, Case 91

The case:

One day Dogo asked Sekito, “What is the fundamental principle of Buddhism?” 

Sekito said, “It isn’t obtainable. It isn’t knowable.”

Dogo said, “Is there a more realistic expression?” 

Sekito said, “The wide sky does not hinder the flying white clouds.”

Commentary:

The metaphor of sky (spacious awareness) and clouds (thoughts) is very common in Zen. Originally the meaning was fairly specific: just as the sun may be temporarily obscured by clouds yet we know it’s always there,  likewise, although our mind may be in turmoil, we can sit in confident faith in our intrinsic Buddha Nature.

That came from the East Mountain School of seventh century Zen. But the metaphor gradually changed. Instead of a specific faith in our intrinsic Buddha Nature, the faith became that when we do zazen (no matter how turbulent our mind is) we can always rest within this great expanse of spacious awareness, which does not belong just  to us, but to all beings. Clouds don’t hinder the sky.

In Japanese there’s a play on words, because the word for ‘sky’ and the word for ‘emptiness’ is the same word, ‘ku’.

In his response, Sekito seems to be turning that around by saying that the wide sky doesn’t hinder the clouds. What’s he getting at?

In our normal karmic experience, when thoughts and emotions arise we want to identify them and we want to interpret them. We want to stop them in their tracks, as it were, so we can work out what the thought or the emotion is about. And when we do that, we no longer have clouds (thoughts and feelings) freely coming and going and living their own life. It’s as if we freeze the clouds to scrutinize them, and collapse the sky. We attach to our thoughts. We hinder the clouds.

In zazen we don’t do this, because we drop our tendency to fix, to conceptualise, to like, to dislike, to interpret – all of that. Then the clouds can manifest freely. And when they manifest freely we see, not just that the sky makes the clouds possible, but that the clouds make the sky possible. Without clouds there’s no sky. There’s no emptiness without form.

This apparently simple picture that Sekito paints has a lot packed into it. So it’s urging us not to cast out what we think and feel, what is living through us at each moment, for a picture of quietism and tranquility, as that’s just a more subtle form of attachment.

We just allow this life and this space flooding through us to live.

For further information and references on this kusen, please click this link.