Shunya

The truth about the world, he said, is that anything is possible.  Had you not seen it all from birth and bled it of its strangeness it would appear to you for what it is, a hat trick in a medicine show, a fevered dream, a trance bepopulate with chimeras having neither analogue nor precedent, an itinerant carnival, a migratory tentshow whose ultimate destination after many a pitch in many a muddled field is unspeakable and calamitous beyond reckoning.

The universe is no narrow thing and the order within it is not constrained by any latitude in its conception to repeat what exists in one part in any other part.  Even in this world more things exist without our knowledge than with it and the order in creation which you see is that which you have put there, like a string in a maze, so that you shall not lose your way. For existence has its own order and that no man’s mind can compass, that mind itself being but a fact among others.

     – Cormac McCarthy

 What is it the lurks beneath the apparent facade of everyday experience?  Are there terrors that dwell in the mountainous regions of dark matter?  Or is there a beneficent, all-loving God who has our best interests close at hand?  Upon looking inward, is there nothing beneath the unfolding of phenomena?  A cavernous void with no fixities?  These questions catalyze our inquiry, prompting our exploration of the world.

Searching for certainty, we may attempt to describe this reality and discover an island in a perpetually roiling sea.  In setting these limits, we also attempt to distill their essence into systems we create.  Thought builds a temple with the graven image of the symbol.

Global religion and philosophy have attempted to smooth the contours of the world, totalizing it and advocating for their own justifications.  Some religious movements and practitioners claim their personal holy book as the sole source of revealed truth.  Initiation into these schools of thought may amount to little more than absorption and regurgitation of doctrine. However, throughout their histories, many of these disciplines have had works that attempt to look seriously into the limitations of their own beliefs.  Some seekers have had experiences that diffuse reality beyond the grasp of human understanding.  Rather than aborting this procedure, and attempting to find an unassailable position for thought,  they follow this radiant outflow to its terminus.  They join with the rippling swells of the cosmos.

In Buddhism, this aconceptual experience of reality is termed shunya, which is translated as emptiness or voidness.  This points us towards an iconoclastic strain of feeling that prompts a complete revolution in our understanding of reality.  Through our questioning, and in the fruition of our meditative practice, we may come to feel this firsthand.  It is described and experienced as the total unfolding of the universe moment by moment, without any form of conceptual or experiential restraint.

This can completely change our philosophizing, denying the all-encompassing reach of human reason.  Reality undulates, unfettered by how the human mind carves up its experience.  It severs the necessity of our concepts and embraces the ambiguous.  Importantly, it also turns our lives, language, and experience inside out.  Our words and actions do not denote a separate abstract self or reality.  They become part of the original creation itself.  In the immeasurable and empty center of zero, existence spills into actuality, united by the circle’s never-ending line.  

In Red Pine’s commentary on the Heart Sutra, he describes the line in which Avalokiteshvara, Boddhisattva of Compassion, perceives the emptiness of all things:

Here, Avalokiteshvara looks at the skandhas and sees that they are empty, or shunya.  The Sanskrit word shunya means ‘hollow,’ ‘void,’ or ‘zero.’  What is hollow, void, or zero is the existence of a self.  But if there is no self-existence, there is is also no non-existence.  According to Mahayana Buddhism, this is the second greatest of all delusions, the belief that nothing exists.  Emptiness does not mean nothingness.  It simply means the absence of the erroneous distinctions that divide one entity from another, one being from another being, one thought from another thought.  Emptiness is not nothing, it’s everything, everything at once.  This is what Avalokiteshvara sees. 

 Emptiness also has parallels across many different religions.  Meister Eckhart, a Christian mystic, describes human concepts as being unable to measure up to God.  The graces of God become their own kind of language:

I can briefly summarize this copious introduction by saying that God’s speaking to us is nothing else but God’s becoming known to us through his gifts (gifts and inspirations, either of nature or of grace) that raise us up and irradiate our minds by his light.  This is utterance, speech and word in the most proper and pleasing sense; its exterior utterance, speech and word does not measure up to it.  (Classics of Western Spirituality, 115).  

 Rather than a basis in despair, emptiness is the fertile loam in which always begins.  It indicates that which has no name and perpetually overflows all our limitations, leading us towards the limitless.  I will explore this experience from two poles.  The first is how meditation and emptiness alters the human experience and enactment of language.  When language no longer denotes a stable reality, it liberates our actions to be truly situational and all-embracing.  It also releases us from accepting any conclusions to our inevitable and often necessary world-building.  Secondly, I will describe what happens once emptiness breaks down this linguistic experience of the world, which puts us more in touch with flowing truth.  The universe can then be said to not only be empty of any overarching concept or principle, but also empty of any constant form.  As said in the Heart Sutra, form is emptiness, emptiness is form.


 

One possible way of looking at the human process of conceptualization is that we partly operate on abstraction.  We create increasingly elaborate conceptual frameworks that we use to navigate and survive.  It does not appear that humans could do without these concepts.  They allow us to make useful distinctions between what is safe and dangerous, communicate this to others, and extrapolate from past experience.  Tempering these experiences into memories, we continually update our working models of the world.  These frameworks are what we constantly reference in our day to day life as something unremittingly existent or “real”, overlooking their largely provisional nature.  We can witness ourselves while we meditate as we incessantly label all experience.

We run into problems when we attempt to take these temporary frameworks and turn them into something static.  Some philosophical, scientific, and religious models encourage us to do just this: to passively accept the results of their search for truth as somehow given, omniscient, or permanent.  Concepts, while extremely practical and sometimes effective, seem to operate contingently and without the necessity to make them into eternal law.  Abstractions are a double-edged sword, screening out even as they allow us the ability to think.  The experience of emptiness seems to disclose something beyond thought that is always unfinished and processual.

In understanding the moment to moment arising of experience, we can see how concepts and frameworks remain incomplete.  Thought reflects on our perception of the past, and remains bound to it.  Conceptualization cannot remain in tandem with the speed of present experience.  This is increasingly realized during meditation as we attune ourselves to life’s constant development.  It always remains possible that the present negates all our old maps, and our understanding of things changes completely, making everything unrecognizable.

An excellent example of using language to express its limitations and point beyond itself can be found in Eihei Dogen’s Mountains and Waters Sutra:

Even if you have an eye to see mountains as grass, trees, earth, rocks, or walls, do not be confused or swayed by it; this is not complete realization.  Even if there is a moment when you view mountains as the seven treasures’ splendor, this is not returning to the source.  Even if you understand mountains as the realm where all buddhas practice, this understanding is not something to be attached to.  Even if you have the highest understanding of mountains as all buddhas’ wondrous characteristics, the truth is not only this.  These are conditioned views.  This is not the understanding of buddha ancestors, but merely looking through a bamboo pipe at the corner of the sky.

Robert K.C. Forman, mystic and religious professor, has an extremely interesting account of how this use of language “deconstructs” our habitual modes of conceptualizing:

. . . I have linked up a perceptual object with a phrase or word in an automatic or habitual way.  This process is well documented.  When we encounter the same thing over and over again, we tend to pigeonhole it without looking at it in detail.  These are perceptual ‘automatisms.’  They allow us to save psychic time and energy and ‘see’ only what we generally need to see.  The categories in whose terms we ‘see’ with, our automatizations, are determined by our set, concepts, context, needs, etc.  On the other hand, some language serves to undo such automatized connections between words and perceptions . . . Sundering perceptual automatizations help us deconstruct perceptual experiences . . . Taking such expressions seriously, the key process in mysticism seems not like the horse of language pulling the cart of experience, but rather more like unhitching the experience-cart from the language-horse.  Mystical experiences don’t result from a process of building or constructing mystical experience, we’ve suggested, but rather from an un-constructing of language and belief.  It seems to result from something like a releasing of experience from language.  Some forms of mysticism, in other words, should be seen as decontextualized. (Mysticism, Mind, Consciousness, 98-99).

This realization allows us to reflect on our use of theorizing, in which categories remain subject to change.  Possibly seeing through the screen of words allows us to notice how they contrive human action.  They can prevent us from acknowledging the enormous diversity all around and within us.

Considered as emptiness, language becomes part of the ripening of all reality.  The one who comprehends this can use language in a startling and reflective manner, mutating it into new and diverse species.  It can be then used actively as a form of expedient means.  This is where language is changed into different patterns to fit the audience and can best serve the unique needs of each individual’s awakening.

Once a seeker has begin to experience reality in this way, the change in perception can be cataclysmic.  We see language in a different light and become its adept, deploying its capacities without ascribing privileged status to any single thought.  It is equally important to remember not to “get stuck on emptiness” as a concept.  This would hinder the way that emptiness encourages us to examine and render transparent all of thinking.  Once this happens, we no longer depend on habit and abstract conviction.

This removal of linguistic barriers prompts a changed view of the world.  Without stable abstractions to adhere to, the universe becomes a wild place, irreducible to any entity.  Signifiers such as emptiness, the universe, chaos, and God all seem to reveal this radical openness.  In the Zohar, a work of Jewish mysticism, God emerges from the enigmatic Ein Sof, meaning “there is no end.” Ein Sof is the zero through which reality is birthed, the infinite nowhere which is always becoming apparent.  The Tao as the mysterious source of existence has similar connotations.  A passage from the Tao Te Ching reads:

The valley spirit that doesn’t die
We call the dark womb
The dark womb’s mouth
We call the source of Heaven and Earth
As elusive as gossamer silk
And yet it can’t be exhausted

Many of these mystery traditions reference the “bright darkness” about which nothing can ultimately be said.  One description of this reality comes from philosopher Quentin Meillassoux, and his excellent work After Finitude.  His work details what is described as an “absolute that would not be an absolute entity,” or a reality which undermines any sort of stability.  The absolute is the cosmos in its perpetually shifting nature.  He describes this as “hyper-chaos”:

Our task was to uncover an absolute that would not be an absolute entity . . . The only absolute we have managed to rescue from the confrontation would seem to be the very opposite of what is usually understood by that term, which is supposed to provide a foundation for knowledge.  Our absolute, in effect, is nothing other than an extreme form of chaos, a hyper-chaos, for which nothing is or would seem to be, impossible, not even the unthinkable . . . We have succeeded in identifying a primary absolute (Chaos), but contrary to the veracious God, the former would seem to be incapable of guaranteeing the absoluteness of scientific discourse, since, far from guaranteeing order, it guarantees only the possible destruction of every order.

 Hyper-chaos points toward a transmuting, nonlinear cosmos, a chaos not only limited to chaos.    These words that attempt to move beyond themselves draw our attention to a world that is free of these concepts and cannot be fully contained within them.  Certain Zen dialogues seem to reference this, with masters regularly confounding their students’ intellectual expectations.  In the commentary for the following Koan, this is called “intimate talk,” with teachers precisely pointing at the deep, profound, and mysterious reality of which they are a part:

Boshui Benren said to the assembly, ‘Normally we don’t want to confuse descendants by talking about what is before sound and after a phrase.  Why is this so?  Sound is not sound.  Form is not form.’
A monastic said, ‘What is sound that is not sound?’
Boshui said, ‘Can you call it form?’
The monastic said, ‘What is form that is not form?’
Boshui said, ‘Can you call it sound?’
The monastic would not say another word.
Boshui said, ‘Let me say that if you understand this, I will approve that you have entered the place.’ 

It takes time to acclimate to this lack of reliance on systems, symbols, and concepts.  Once we fathom this and harmonize it with our practice, it becomes a fount of inspiration.  Changing states of affairs offer countless ways to partake in what is.  It seems that “there is no end” to the novel and unexpected, in which life  can be felt as a perpetual source of realization.  Experience this infinity for yourself, engaging in the sincere expression of your being beyond all words.

A Hammer to Strike the Earth, A Scream to Rend the Sky

Nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, and even on the Mount, nothing.   – St. John of the Cross 

A monk asked Chao-chou, ‘has the dog buddha nature or not?’
Chao-chou said, ‘Mu.’

Mu is a hammer to strike the earth and a scream to rend the sky.  It is an open palm, a thunderclap, and a bank of foaming clouds.  Most of all, it is simply MuSimple, direct, and profound, Mu invites the student to fully experience their own existence.  It is not something that can be expressed through familiar territories.  Instead, it distorts and undermines our own certain foundations.

Although it means “no,” or “negation,” Mu resists all of our attempts at easy definition.  Once taken on by a student, the intellect scrabbles for a foothold.  Generating this tension we arrive at the Great Barrier.  The teacher will not let us pass without a reply, and we throw ourselves headlong into Mu’s great ocean. The teacher, understanding what we are attempting to do, summarily rejects all of our answers.

The monk in the koan is ourselves, always grasping at an authoritative interpretation of reality.  Mu only flows through our fingers like sand.  We strain for an answer, the understanding examining the question from every angle, drawing up vast schematics.   The mind seeks its limits in scripture, philosophy, and previous experience, dredging up former skeletons from their graves.

In our practice, we bring a mountain of speculation, hoping to set our lives upon a new system, and fashion a new set of chains to bind ourselves.

In a sense the unlimited assemblage is the impossible.  It takes courage and stubbornness not to go slack.  Everything invites one to drop the substance for the shadow, to forsake the open and impersonal movement of thought for the isolated opinion.  – Georges Bataille

The more the intellect attempts to ground Mu, the more it finds uncertain purchase.  The student has reached a point where they cannot proceed.  The trail veers off in uncertain directions.  We lift our gaze and look upward.  The answer stares us in the eyes, and reaches out its hand to touch our own.

The Mu koan is an embodiment of Zen practice. It doesn’t dwell in bounded concepts but in its very incomprehensibility.  Rather than giving the student a system to assimilate, it draws the seeker deeper into their own lives.  There is no fixed abode, and like life, Mu admits of unparalleled inventiveness.  Rather than parroting old responses, Mu asks us to display a new understanding, rooted in the newness of each moment of experience.  Free from our concepts, we are pulled into each new moment divested of the past.

Eihei Dogen expressed this understanding in one of his discourses on practice-realization. He indicates this using startlingly direct language.

It is not in the realm of ordinary people or sages.  Thus it can neither be measured by the intellect of those who are wise, nor guessed at by the wisdom of those who have knowledge.  Neither can it be discussed by the intellect of those who are beyond wise, nor can it be arrived at by the wisdom of those who have knowledge beyond knowledge.  Rather it is buddha ancestors’ practice-realization, skin, flesh, bones, marrow, eyeball, fist, top of the head, nostril, staff, whisk, leaping away from making.

Mu explicates itself atop mountains, deep in the earth, and everywhere.  It is bound up in all our responses to the questions of life.  The ideas of past and future cannot encapsulate the moment as it swells outward in all directions.  The complex situations of life cannot be done justice by discursive thought.  Mu gestures us towards what Dae Gak has called “the power of possibility in the unknown” :

The nature of all existence is change.  This does not mean change into the familiar, but in spite of the familiar into the unknown.  This is the heart essence of Mu practice.  This is the bone of these Mu ashes left by JoJu for us to investigate, to manifest again and again, and make vibrant and brand new, alive.

As we throw ourselves headlong into Mu, we notice the question becoming more transparent, until that question arises to embrace everything that is.  It is this ambiguity that we carry with us throughout our lives, always unresolved, incessantly questioning, beating like a heart.

Bring this question forward, until doubt infects your whole being, and Mu runs through the veins and arteries of the world.

Nothing to Attain

I have been trying to get back to the local Zen Center every week, after a short hiatus. We do 50 minutes of Zazen (seated meditation), combined with some chanting and Kinhin (walking meditation). After the practice, some of us were talking in the kitchen and a student (I unfortunately can’t remember her name, all credit due to her) asked a pretty insightful question referencing the Heart Sutra and practice in general. This question was along the lines of: “If there is no attainment and nothing to attain, why do we sit?” I think this is a pretty common question that arises as we sit, especially as we continue to grow in our practice and the discursive mind begins to seek answers to questions such as these.

A similar question supposedly motivated Eihei Dogen in his own process of inquiry:

As I study both the exoteric and the esoteric schools of Buddhism, they maintain that human beings are endowed with Dharma-nature by birth. If this is the case, why did the Buddhas of all ages – undoubtedly in possession of enlightenment – find it necessary to seek enlightenment and engage in spiritual practice? (Eihei Dogen: Mystical Realist, 22).

This is a profoundly challenging question. If we are the very embodiment of truth and enlightenment is an expression of our original nature why do we sit in Zazen? Is this like the koan where we are polishing a tile to make a mirror?

Let us examine the passage from the Heart Sutra the student is referencing and then I’ll try to give you my understanding of this.

The passage (taken from Red Pine’s translation) is:

No suffering, no source, no relief, no path;
No knowledge, no attainment and non-attainment.
Therefore, Shariputra, without attainment;
Bodhisttavas take refuge in Prajnaparamita
And live without walls of the mind.

The Heart Sutra is an essential Buddhist text that directly inclines us to the heart of truth. This is the truth of our lives, of the present, and of reality. Buddhism is realistic, and derives directly from lived experience. It is a very concrete approach to truth that is not limited to any particular concept or metaphysic. In our meditative practice, the concepts we form about reality begin to fall away, and the immeasurable complexity and richness of the world become starkly apparent. We no longer have to relegate the whole of the world to our opinions about it, and no longer need to take refuge in systems and frameworks of our own devising.

The Heart Sutra is thus a critique of these concepts, and proceeds to negate each in turn. Proceeding through “no eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue, no body and no mind;” and come to “no knowledge, no attainment and no non-attainment.” The present opens, teeming with life.  It becomes clear that reality is unfettered by the symbols we traditionally use to describe that experience. Throughout our practice we begin to see our concepts as fundamentally incomplete. We “live without walls of the mind,” open to the boundless possibilities for action in each moment. A vast field opens up, and we become more flexible and fluid.

The Heart Sutra is thus an antidote to our mind’s constantly seeking security in concepts such as “attainment.” When we say that we will “attain” enlightenment, we divorce ourselves from the present reality. We project enlightenment into a state in the abstract, that will be realized in the future.

Asking what exactly we mean when we use concepts such as englightenment can help us as we look into ourselves.  Taking apart this question and exploring it should be gone into deeply and taken to the end.

At the same time, we will not be able to understand the feelings that gave rise to works such as the Heart Sutra without a regular meditative practice. This is similar to how no amount of reading, writing, and intellectualizing about fitness will make someone a stronger athlete. One must begin by looking into the particulars of their own situation. We sit in order to aid us in this process of inquiry, as sitting is one method that allows us to investigate our reality. This understanding will not be brought into our lives without some kind of practice. An example of this is brought out in Genjokoan:

Mayu, Zen Master Baoche, was fanning himself. A monk approached and said ‘Master, the nature of wind is permanent and there is no place it does not reach. Why, then, do you fan yourself?’
‘Although you understand that the nature of wind is permanent,’ Mayu replied, ‘you do not understand the meaning of its reaching everywhere.’
‘What is the meaning of its reaching everywhere?’ asked the monk.
Mayu just kept fanning himself.
The monk bowed deeply.

The actualization of the buddha dharma, the vital path of its authentic transmission, is like this. If you say that you do not need to fan yourself because the nature of wind is permanent and you can have wind without fanning, you understand neither permanence nor the nature of wind. The nature of wind is permanent; because of that, the wind of the buddha house brings forth the gold of the earth and ripens the cream of the long river.

This passage describes and directly points to actualization and action in the present moment, the becoming-real of the monk’s interaction. In our practice, we bring this understanding and appreciation for action into our lives. Sitting in Zazen helps us to see this with more clarity. It is important to remember that there is “nothing to attain” even as we do our best to practice. In this way we always come back to and appreciate whatever is arising in our lives in the present moment, without arbitrarily separating ourselves in thought. Paradoxically, we attempt to attain something in order to realize there is nothing to attain (in the way we have conceptualized it) and begin to feel the truth of it for ourselves.  Zazen helps us remember the truth of who and what we are.

We embody this understanding, always coming back to the present and caring for this reality. This is the beauty, completeness, and blossoming forth of our own lives.