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.”
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.