So I wanna talk about a zazen session I had the other day. Rays of light poured from my head, and I saw all the 10,000 world systems laid out before me.
Nah, not really. It wasn’t that phenomenal, but another understanding of emptiness did click into place.
Emptiness, in a Buddhist context, isn’t a noun; it’s an adjective. Emptiness is flowing. This is ironic since “empty” is listed as an antonym to flowing.
Emptiness isn’t a thing, really, but the way of things. It’s Suchness, the Tao, or the nature of things; the same way that flowing isn’t a thing, it’s the nature of water. “It’s also the nature of water to freeze.” True, but when water freezes, it’s no longer just water, is it? It’s ice. When Buddhas are confused they’re not just Buddhas; they’re sentient beings.
But liquid or solid, confused or not confused, ice is still made of water; sentient beings are still made of potential Buddhahood. When heat melts the ice, it’s just water again. When wisdom and compassion unbind sentient beings, they’re just Buddhas again.
Emptiness is our true nature, the quality of mind that we’re enlightened to. It isn’t an experience of nothingness, and it isn’t some Transcendent Reality separate from day-to-day experience. Though if nothingness or some kinda Transcendent Reality do exist, they also have emptiness as their nature.
It doesn’t negate form. If it did, then saying, “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form,” wouldn’t make any sense because there’d be no form for emptiness to be—there’d just be emptiness and nothing else; though it does negate the accuracy of our perceptions, labels, and concepts.
In day-to-day life, we tend to split everything up into neat little boxes. This is inhale, this is exhale, and this is the space between them. This is a thought, this is the gap between thoughts, and I am the thinker.
We do this to everything. We do it perceptually, at first, then we stick a bunch of labels onto these cookie-cutter perceptions and play with them in our brain sacs—eventually getting all kinds of tangled up in our own narratives. We develop hates, fears, and beliefs that have absolutely nothing to do with how things actually are. In a sense, we make a noose out of concepts and then use it to lynch the universe.
This reality, the world of separation, is a profound misunderstanding.
You can easily spot the empty nature of things while meditating. All you need to do is view inhale, exhale, and the space between them as equal and undifferentiated. I started by being mindful of change in relation to inhale and exhale, paying attention to beginnings and endings.
The inhale begins, is sustained, tapers off, and then ends. The exhale begins, is sustained, tapers off, then ends. Then inhale, then exhale, on and on. Inhale and exhale are interdependent, and when we take them together, we call them the breath.
Then I started paying attention to the beginnings and endings of the gaps between inhale and exhale as well. I realized that these gaps are also part of the breath. Without them, there’d be no space for inhale to give way to exhale and vice versa.
After awhile, the beginnings and endings became interchangeable. The end of the inhale was the beginning of the gap, the end of the gap was the beginning of the exhale. So, really, there weren’t any beginnings or endings, just a continuous flow of becoming.
This became so intimate after awhile that beginnings and endings faded altogether. There were no longer gaps that existed in and of themselves; they were part of the entire breath, the whole process of breathing.
Instead of inhale, space, exhale, space, the breath became inhale-space-exhale-space with the mind—awareness—being the ground that supports it all. Then this gaplessness spread to sounds, tactile sensations, sights, thoughts, etc. My entire experience of the present shifted so that everything took on the quality of water droplets in a flowing river.
Phenomena—sights, sounds, the breath, thoughts—were like reflections and waves in the water. The flowing, the constant motion of the stream was the nature of phenomena—emptiness—and the water itself was the Mind, which is the substance of reality.
This sounds metaphysical or theoretical when you read about it, but it’s actually practical and experiential. It’s a very down-to-earth understanding, even though it sounds like some kinda head-in-the-clouds mumbo jumbo.
In fact, it’s far more pragmatic and grounded than our ordinary, materialistic and divisive views of ourselves and our world. It’s a viewless view that settles all arguments, abates all fears, and instantly wipes out all suffering. Every thought, word, and action we perform becomes a testament to this Right View, a living Dharma, an organic ode to truth.
We come across a lot of unnoticed gaps and spaces in life. Right now, you’re seeing the gaps between words and letters. These gaps are what give the illusion of separation. How often do we pay equal attention to a form and the space in and around the form?
When you look at a cup, do you see the space inside and around the cup? We tend to overlook space, but it’s an integral part of the cup, just as these gaps you’re seeing are integral parts of these words and letters. Without space, the cup loses its functionality and becomes something other than a cup; some kinda cylindrical paperweight. Without gaps, there’d no room for these words to appear on this screen, there’d be no space for the letters to reside in.
If you like, try reading all of this while paying equal attention to the space in and between the words. This is part of a greater view of reality that our brains filter out. Then there’s the space between you and the monitor, the space between each of these thoughts and the consciousness that’s aware of them.
Since these gaps aren’t separate from the things they surround, there really aren’t any authentic gaps or spaces in the known universe. There’s no gap in time that separates this moment from yesterday, from the Big Bang, from the end of time. There’s no gap between now and your birth, your birth and your death, your death and this moment. It’s all connected.
Zen isn’t just a secular relaxation exercise; it’s about the Great Matter—life and death. The goal of practice is to understand life and death, and thus truly live life and cheat death altogether. I know a lot of Western Zennies are foaming at the mouth right now, but that’s what all of this is about, dudes. We learn to cheat death, and then we try to help all beings cheat death as well.
We cheat death by seeing that whether we’re dead or alive, our nature doesn’t change. If I’m alive my nature is emptiness, and my reality is mind-made; if I’m dead my nature is emptiness, and my reality is mind-made. If I’m enlightened, if I’m delusional, if I’m happy or sad, rich or poor… this is it.
Emptiness is like flowing water, but it can also be compared to space. There’s the cup and the space-inside-the-cup (form and emptiness). The space-inside-the-cup is the cup’s true nature. If we smash the cup, do we also smash the space-inside-the-cup? Our first instinct is to say, “No,” but really we do: when we smash the cup, we also smash the space-inside-the-cup, but we don’t smash space in general.
Just because I smash the space-inside-a-cup doesn’t mean that I smash the space-inside-a-bucket or the space-inside-a-word, the space-inside-your-mouth, or outer space. Space is just space, our perceptions and labels are something extra that we add to it. If you can see how this relates to cheating death, then you’re pretty freaking awesome.