121. Space in Buddhism

Space is both the trope and reality of Buddhism. It makes possible freedom, expression, experience and unfolding.

When we start to practice, we can’t find space anywhere. Our mind feels like a mass of disgruntled demons, packed into a cellar. One part moves, and the rest move, in reaction.

We might imagine space in Newtonian terms, or as an absence, but that’s not what’s meant.

It is both figurative and real. It is not absence. Even though there are many of us in this room, it is full of space: above our head, in front of our heart, behind us. The space holds us.

This space holds all things. But not as something there before being. If there was no space, there would be no life. If there was no life, then there would be no space. If all the fish go, the ocean vanishes. If all the birds go, the sky collapses.


122. In a Spiritual Practice concerned with Gain

From the perspective of the self, the body and the world are within the mind. In a spiritual practice concerned with gain, even though we try to lever ourself into a different position, our head always gets stuck.

From the perspective of Buddhism, the mind is within the body. The body is within vast space. But if we do not make this vast space real, it is “Buddhism”, and we’re just back to the mind again.

When we closely examine our experience Now, isn’t that experience like space? Likewise the body; balanced in space, like a windchime. When we experience our breath Now isn’t it the dynamic interplay of space ‘outside’ and space ‘inside’? In all these cases, melding, intermingling. They are not the same, and not separate. When we sit down to practice, the space which we occupy doesn’t disappear. When we leave, the space does not reappear.

We carry it with us. And it us.


123. Emperor Wu

When Bodhidharma went to China, according to legend, he met with the Emperor. The meeting is usually recounted in this way:

Emperor Wu said to Bodhidharma ‘I have built hundreds of temples, what is my merit? Bodhidharma answered, ‘no merit’. The Emperor then asked, ‘What is the highest truth?’ Bodhidharma replied ‘Unfathomable emptiness’. The emperor then asked, ‘Who are you?’ Bodhidharma replied, ‘I don’t know’.

So in its usual rendering, the Emperor is portrayed as a self satisfied bumbler, being put right by Bodhidharma, fearlessly speaking truth to power.

But, in classical Chinese it is impossible to say if a sentence is a question or a statement. So we can look at this exchange differently.

The words ‘what’ and ‘who’ are synonymous with suchness, emptiness. So the Emperor is simply living his life as a Buddhist Emperor, acknowledging that his only merit is suchness. And because this merit extends everywhere, it is ‘no merit’.

And the Emperor’s final statement is not ‘who are you?’ but rather You are Who, that is: you are a person of suchness. And Bodhidharma’s response is suchness isn’t our personal possession.

Bodhidharma then left, going to Shaolin temple and sat facing the wall for 9 years.

What wall was he facing?

Whose eyes are seeing that wall?

Who are you?


124. What does Satori mean?

What does satori mean? When the Japanese coined the term, they rolled up into that one word three distinct ideas in Chinese Buddhism about enlightenment.

The first was delusion and enlightenment; that is, through practice, we gain insight into our habitual being pulled this way and that by our desires, our habits, our karma, and when we realise this, we can stop.

The second is awakening. We realise that what we take to be real, our whole conceptual apparatus of self and world, is created by us. It’s like a dream. But we don’t wake up into another reality; we wake up within the dream.

The third and most important is practice realisation. That is, we accept the Buddha’s teachings. We then sincerely practice, and through practice we realise that those teachings are true.

And in this context, what we realise is true, is our ceaseless tendency to fabricate the self, to fabricate a world, to fabricate our lives.

In seeing that, even for just moments we can stop that karmic activity. The problem with satori is we think it’s something else that we can acquire. But the whole point is that it’s not about getting. It’s about not-getting, losing, stopping, desisting.


125. The Karmic Mind

Practice enables us to become aware of the causes of our suffering. When we start sitting we are very aware of thoughts and emotions, and in due course can see this as the manifestation of karmic mind, our personal karmic mind, which has its own way of suffering. It could be anxiety, dissociation, agitation, boredom, fear, it could be many many things.

It is completely understandable that we might want our practice to eradicate this noise, to void the mind. But voiding the mind would be a small practice. It is not our practice; it lacks dignity. It is a miser’s practice.

The ideogram in Chinese for delusion looks like it has little legs. The idea is that delusion is the little legs of our karmic mind. Taking us this way, this way, this way, and this way, ceaselessly.

On top of these little legs is the self. Practice is not to cut off the legs, but to unseat the self.

When seen in this way, the karmic mind is not our possession and is not our burden. It is the expression of the aliveness of everything. We can’t reach that aliveness from a void.

We can’t get to the heart by cutting.


126. Fully Expressing Buddhism

When we are sitting, practicing zazen, in this place, although we do not speak, we are not mute. We are fully expressing Buddhism.

Likewise when we speak from this place.

Likewise when we hear, from this place.

Expression, like love, is like a tiny bird flying from the heart. Much as we try, we cannot preserve it in pictures, or in words, or in stone.

We are not sheltering within a temple of words built long ago called Buddhism.

Indra’s net is the whole network of practitioners now and all times, extended everywhere, everywhere fully expressing illumination. If buddhist expression simply travelled from the past to now, it would illuminate nothing.

The past illuminates the present. The present illuminates the past. The present illuminates the present. Because of this, the stone bird flies everywhere.


127. Kodo Sawaki

Kodo Sawaki said, “I have wasted my whole life in zazen”

Pay attention to his words. He didn’t say he’d wasted his life. He said he’d wasted his whole life.

When we’re on Retreat at Ardfern, the house and the dojo are surrounded by trees, and each of these trees is alive with birds. In each moment, they are completely exerting and expressing themselves. They are, moment to moment, completely pouring out -wasting- their lives. There’s nothing left over.

Once, when we were sitting, there were two bangs on the large glass frontage to the dojo. Two birds had flown straight at us. One, striking the window, had broken his neck. The other, striking the window, had flown away.

Our tragedy as human beings is that we’re not like this. Often, the moment is only half combusted. And sometimes, for each of us, it is as if these half burnt fragments lodge like ash in our throat. We can’t swallow them. We can’t spit them out.

Zazen is like a great fire.


128. No Ocean

In Buddhism the whole universe is sometimes described as an ocean, and each of us, in this Dharma position, as a wave. So when we hear this we make a picture. We see an ocean, full of waves. But this picture of Buddhism is entirely useless. We are not invited to see the wave, but to be the wave.

It is the surging and crashing of this experience now which is our connection with everything. If we wish to eradicate the continuous wave of this experience, there is no ocean, just a picture.


129. Delusion

Delusion isn’t being mistaken about something; the earth being flat, or there being penguins at the North Pole: it is taking experience and using it in creating and maintaining a sense of Self.

Often we experience this as a kind of incessant inner conversation. Whilst we might want it to stop, this too is Self-ing.

We change when we experience it as energetic noise, feeling it in the body. When we experience noise, we can experience silence. When we experience silence, we can experience vast space.


130. Bring Me Your Mind

Artwork by Blair Thomson
Kusen 130 collaboration ‘mountains and waters no.290’ by Blair Thomson

Eko said to Bodhidharma, “My mind is not at peace, please pacify it.”

Bodhidharma said, “Bring me your mind and I will pacify it.”

After a while Eko said, “I have looked everywhere for my mind and I cannot find it.”

Bodhidharma said, “There! I have pacified it.”

In Eko’s question, we might easily pass over the most important word, ‘My.’ ‘My mind’ — but if we don’t pass over it, if we see the fiction of ‘my’ mind, ‘my’ experience. What is there to pacify?

We should be grateful for everything in the flood of experience, because it is that, and that alone, which clarifies the great matter.