Categories
Kusen

313. The Snake of Emptiness

The first Zen book I ever bought was D T Suzuki’s The Zen Doctrine of No Mind. (I bought it for the title.) It’s an unfortunate title because there isn’t actually a Zen doctrine of no mind. The position which Zen, and buddhism in general takes, is that the mind or the self, as all things, is neither existent or non-existent, but empty. 

Nagarjuna described trying to understand emptiness as, ‘like trying to pick up a poisonous snake’ and it’s interesting to speculate why he chose that particular analogy rather than something else; for instance, trying to pick up a partially burning piece of wood.

He possibly chose the snake analogy because his name, or the first part of it, ‘Naga’ refers to the mythical snake beings who were the custodians of the prajnaparamita sutras that the King of the Nagas allegedly gave to Nagarjuna. The prajnaparamita sutras focus on emptiness, compassion and expedient means. Nagarjuna picked up the sutras, not the King.

So how do you pick up a snake? Well obviously you don’t pick it up from the head. But neither do you pick it up from the tail, as it can still bite you. You’re supposed to pick it up from its centre,  without hesitation. 

You grasp the snake without reaching for it through the blur of the self and you grasp it in its centre.

And why would you pick up a poisonous snake? You don’t pick it up and then carry it about with you for the rest of your life. You pick it up in order to place it where it belongs, so you can forget about it and just live your life. 

Likewise, with practice, we cannot grasp it with the head. We cannot grasp practice with the imagined opposite of the head – the objective world. We can only grasp practice through our center; our heart. Grasp and then ungrasp. 

Categories
Kusen

312. Emptiness and Fullness

The buddha said that the cause of our suffering is ‘clinging’ and ‘grasping’; attachment and aversion.

In order for clinging to be possible, we require a belief in two things: first, a belief in a persisting self; a ‘grasper’ as it were, and second, a belief that the objects of our perception and imagination are persisting and real; something which can be ‘grasped’.

In order to dislodge both of these beliefs, buddhists say that everything is ‘empty’. 

In a sense we are prisoners of our evolution – we’re still ‘monkeys’ reaching for imaginary fruit from the tree of illusion. But sometimes we can live differently, without this fundamental duality of ‘grasper’ and ‘thing to be grasped’, or of ‘self’ and ‘world’. That is the function of emptiness.

Emptiness is often represented by the metaphor of a mirror – images in a mirror – but more frequently by the metaphor of a dream. That is to say, our experience is not an illusion; there is not just nothingness, but our experience can’t be grasped.

And precisely because it cannot be grasped, it can be fully lived.

Categories
Kusen

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.

Categories
Kusen

300. Faith

Master Hongzhi’s Practice instructions.  Number 9: The Misunderstanding of Many Lifetimes

‘Emptiness is without characteristics. Illumination has no emotional afflictions.

With piercing, quietly profound radiance, it mysteriously eliminates all scars. Thus, one can know one; thus the self is completed. We all have the clear, wondrously bright field from the beginning. Many lifetimes of misunderstanding come only from distrust, hindrance and screens of confusion that we create in a scenario of isolation. With boundless wisdom journey beyond this, forgetting accomplishments. Straightforwardly abandon stratagems and take on responsibility. Having turned yourself around, accepting your situation, if you set foot on the path, spiritual energy will marvellously transport you. Contact phenomena will total sincerity. Not a single atom of dust is outside yourself.’

For practice the most important thing is faith. Not belief, faith.

Specifically, faith in two things.

Firstly that when we read descriptions of practice such as this, no matter how apparently fantastical they first appear, we should understand them as a sincere attempt by a practitioner, a practitioner like ourselves, to express their actual experience.

Second, that the actual experience that this practitioner has had is experience which is also available to us. What we should not do is make the language of description literal. We should not for instance, think that we must experience the bright field that Master Hongzhi talks about and if we can’t experience that, our practice is worth nothing.

We need to understand that the experience that Master Hongzhi and other practitioners write about in their own way is available to everyone, but the experience of each person will be different, and hence the expression. Master Hongzhi  experienced a bright field. Other  people might experience a profound connectedness, or a great, luminous silence, or a sense of a dynamic interconnected body. If you wait impatiently for the bright field to appear, you will remain in darkness forever.

We are always striving to express our experience in language, but we must understand that our language and the language of all our teachers is descriptive language, and hence, to a greater or lesser extent, unique. It is not telling us what we should experience. Each experience is another brushstroke in creation.

Categories
Kusen

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.

Categories
Kusen

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.

Categories
Kusen

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.

Categories
Kusen

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?

Categories
Kusen

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.

Categories
Kusen

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?