266. This Dynamic Space

Emptiness isn’t a description of how the world is; it’s a description of a way of seeing and being, paradigmatically when we are meditating.

In the original Pali, it just meant absence. “This place is empty of elephants” just meant that no elephants are here, but the meaning changed with the Mahayana.

In the Heart Sutra, we chant “form is emptiness, emptiness is form”, “form” being the first of the five skandhas, but in the earliest of the prajnaparamita sutras, the formulation is different:

Form is not wisdom (prajna) and wisdom is not form.
Just as with feeling, perception, will and consciousness.
They are not wisdom and wisdom is not in them.
Wisdom is like space…

The Heart Sutra

This is probably the origin of the widespread use of space/ the sky as a metaphor for emptiness, the dharmakaya, and lots more besides.

Space is “empty” because we can’t say that it either exists or doesn’t exist, and thus it becomes the exemplar of a new definition of emptiness, one where all the familiar dualities, good/bad, samsara/nirvana, delusion/enlightenment are “empty” because everything is “empty”. That is, everything arises within dependent origination.

The translation choice of “emptiness” for sunyata is unfortunate, as it suggests vacuity, nothingness, and ignores the connotations of the space metaphor: openness, freedom, brightness.

How is this relevant to our practice?

It seems to me that space/emptiness/prajna is a good description of our experience in zazen. When we are sitting, we don’t feel we are something solid, like a block of flesh, we feel spacious. It is as if we are hanging in space. In our breathing, we are, as it were, making this space dynamic: it is moving within us. Except, our actual experience isn’t of an outside and an inside, but an interrelation of the two, our airway the connecting channel between two oceans.


265. Thrown Upwards

There are many visual metaphors in Zen which appear to be about reflection: the moon in water, the moon in a dewdrop, and the mirror. The crucial thing is not to see them dualistically: there isn’t a moon up in the sky; there isn’t a true person whose reflection in the mirror is false.

If we can see in this way, then we can see how the images are illuminating emptiness: it isn’t that a particular feature within the reflection is an illusion. Rather, it’s an illusion to regard that feature as being separate.

It is also helpful to see these metaphors as having a dual function: they both explain and describe zazen.

Sometimes we are like a mountain. Sometimes we are hanging in space. Sometimes we are a small bird, thrown upwards into the bright air.


228. No primordial emptiness

Dogen described zazen as ‘dropping off body and mind’. In other words, as thoughts, feelings and sensations arise, and we realise we’re holding on to them, we let them go. That’s it.

After a while, we may start to feel a remarkable steadiness, coupled with a sense of great spaciousness, like a mountain, like the sky.

And we may imagine that dropping off body and mind is just a preliminary to this state, which we can let go. And we might further imagine that thoughts, feelings and sensations are just momentary obstructions to this state, like clouds. But that would be a fundamental error.

Just as there is no original language, there is no primordial Emptiness. It does not underlie or precede form. Emptiness and form arrive together.

The clouds bring the sky.


208. Just like space

“The Buddha’s true body is just like space.

Manifesting its form according to circumstances,

It is like the moon in water”

So what is this ‘just like space’?

The Indians and Chinese didn’t have our modern idea of Newtonian space.

For them, space meant emptiness.

So, when we come into this room and sit, is the space less than before we enter, or not?

If less, where does the space go?

If not, where does the space go?


199. Do not stagnate in Emptiness

At the end of the Heart Sutra we chant Gya tei Gya tei…. – which means together we go beyond, across the river, to the far Shore. The far shore in this context means Nirvana.

What we need to understand is that zazen is the entire ground; this shore, the far shore, the ground beneath the river.

Therefore do not stagnate in emptiness. Wear neither the mask of the self nor the mask of false equanimity. Just allow everything to flood through you, like light.


186. Form is emptiness

We chant form is emptiness, emptiness is form, but what is Emptiness?

In English emptiness is quite abstract. In Japanese the ideogram for emptiness is ku, which also means sky. That’s the thing about a pictorial language: the ‘concrete’ and the ‘abstract’ are fused, or, better, one is wearing the face and the other is wearing the mask, and they switch, but they always come together. That’s hard for us to understand. But if we can’t get out of the hidden bias of English and richocet between the concrete and the abstract, it’s impossible for us to understand Buddhism.

Without space, how can the heart open?


157. Expedient Means

In Buddhism, the teachings are often referred to as ‘expedient means‘. One might imagine, wrongly, that you are being told something helpful and partially true today, in order to be told something wholly true tomorrow.

They are expedient because they help us escape from the truth/falsehood dichotomy, which lies atop our alive expression like a collapsed tombstone.

It is as if, in a dream, you picture yourself in a tiny windowless room, alone except for a doll, endlessly repeating the same nonsense. Which do you kill: the doll or the room?


156. Undisplaced

The most common metaphors in Buddhism revolve around space. Enlightenment is compared to space. Likewise the teachings. Likewise the Dharmakaya, the universal body of Buddha. It is important that we understand what is meant by space. For us it implies vacuity, or absence. This is not at all how space is used in Buddhism.

Its use is more akin to brightness, or liberation, and the closest analogy is with water. Just as the fish does not realise he is in the ocean, the bird does not realise he is ‘in’ space. But there is a critical difference. If an object is placed in water, the water is displaced. If an object is placed in space the space is not displaced. Because space is everywhere, there is nowhere for it to be displaced to.

When we come into this room and sit, space is undiminished. And this place where we are sitting now contains both ‘us’ and ‘space’. If we examine our actual experience carefully, we can see this to be true.

So each ‘thing’ is both itself and space, both particular and universal, and one does not obstruct the other. We can in this way understand what Fujita means when he talks about practice as being ‘one piece Zen’.


138. What is emptiness

Each time we sit, we chant the Heart Sutra: Form is Emptiness, Emptiness is Form. But what do we mean by Emptiness?

The meaning has changed over time. In the original teachings, the word simply meant absence. If the room was empty of elephants, that just meant there were no elephants there. The concept wasn’t central, because anatta – No Self – was emphasised. The person was ’empty’ of a self.

In due course, in the Mahayana, all things were seen as being empty of a ‘self’ – an immutable essence – and hence the world was empty: interdependent, dynamic, connected, whole.

But the original meaning of absence, voidness, vacuity has always lingered.

So when the Chinese started using the term, they equated it with Suchness. They said that it meant empty of delusion. And Dogen said it was prajna – before thinking. Hence Emptiness is that felt inexpressible wholeness which is there prior to thinking, which is always there, before the mind tries to amputate a self from the body of the world.


132. The Flowers of Emptiness

The flowers of emptiness have five petals: compassion, expression, gratitude, love and generosity. But where do they open?

My first teacher, Nancy Amphoux, said that zazen was like a huge underground river. I imagined a large river, underneath the desert of the self, pushing up flowers through the bitter earth.

She asked a person, ” Is Bodhidharma here, or not?”. The person said “not”. She struck him. She asked again, “Is Bodhidharma here, or not?”. The person said “he is here”. She struck him.

The cancer in her bones latterly made sitting impossible, so she would do prostrations instead. We traditionally make prostrations to our teacher, whether our teacher is here or there, here or gone. All our teachers. Even though there are mountains and rivers between us. Even if there is life and death between us. Between us.

Alive or dead? Alive or dead? Answer! Answer!

Where do the flowers open? Answer! Answer!