The Emptiness of Thought

Tanchui once asked Master Farong, “I feel trapped in my life, trapped by these cyclic afflictions. Please, help me break free.”

Farong replied, “Who is binding you?”

After a pause, “No one is binding me.”

“Where are your chains? Where is the cell?”

“There aren’t any shackles, and there isn’t a cell.”

“Then how can you claim to be trapped?”

Tanchui had an Awakening, and decided to become a monk.

Later, Tanchui, said, “Thank you, Master! For the first time in my life, I feel free.”

“Where are the discarded shackles?” Farong replied, “Where is the open cell?”

“There aren’t any discarded shackles, and there isn’t an open cell.”

“Then how can you claim to have been freed?”

With that, Tanchui experienced Complete Enlightenment.

No, that’s not an actual recorded exchange between Tanchui and Nuitou Farong, but most of the recorded interactions in the Transmission of the Lamp are probably fictional too, so I figured I’d throw another one in. 

Farong is one of my favorite teachers, even if he is mostly fictitious. He was the First Patriarch (Patriarchs were also fictional) of the Oxhead Zen (Niutou Chan) school, given Dharma Transmission (originally fictional) by Daoxin, the Fourth Great Zen Patriarch (Also mostly fictional, though he did create the East Mountain Dharma Gate Zen monastery. I’ll write more on the myths and facts of Zen in another entry).

The Oxhead school had a heavy focus on emptiness, more than any other Zen schools did at the time. Oxhead Zennists were criticized by orthodox practitioners like Zongmi for not revering the Precepts, abandoning ceremonies, and refusing to use any kind of skillful means (upaya) in their teachings.

So, obviously I’m gonna dig ’em. If it wasn’t for that one Emperor who wanted to kill all the Buddhists, they might still be around today.

If we could only incorporate one aspect of Sunyata philosophy in our lives, I’d go with the emptiness of concepts, the absence of place. In the story at the beginning, Farong is basically saying, “The view that you’re trapped only exists in your mind; nowhere else.” The same thing goes for the view that we’re free or have been set free. If we think we’re enlightened, then we’re not. If we think we’re not enlightened, then we’re not.

As Farong said, “Enlightenment is no-enlightenment.” If we’re still wrapped up in dualistic thoughts like enlightenment and confusion, then we’re still playing the game, still wrapped up in stories. Enlightenment is the absence of games, it’s the unstoried mind. As long as we’re still playing the game or getting lost in stories, then to some extent, we’re gonna keep being stressed out and keep suffering.

I’ve felt trapped a lot in life. Trapped in jobs, in unrequited loves, in my bad habits and negative self-talk. But that was all in my head. Unless there are literal shackles on my wrists, or unless I’m stuck in a room or cave somewhere, I’m not actually trapped at all—I’m just lost in thought.

When we move concentration from the content of thought to the breath, or attachment/aversion, then the view, “I’m trapped,” goes away, along with all of the anxiety and depression that were bundled up with it. 

How much of the negativity in our lives has been caused by things that have no place? I avoid politics like it’s the plague because it causes so much strife between people. But what is politics? We could travel the world nine times over and never find anything we can point to and say, “That’s politics.”

Politics is just people debating over abstract ideas that have real-world consequences. The same goes for political parties. There’s no such thing as a political party. We can’t find an actual political party anywhere; just people arguing from the same stance, just buildings and paperwork.

There are no nations, just flags, names, and walls. There are no religions, just temples, books, and rituals. There’s no wealth or poverty. There’s no such thing as struggle, or war, or peace—all of those ideas are just images, stories we make up about what’s actually happening.

They’re all just thoughts, abstractions of real-world experiences that we turn around in our minds where they take on lives of their own. 

This wouldn’t be so bad if those thoughts didn’t influence our feelings, goals, perception, and behavior, but they do. Most of all, they tear us away from reality and drag us down rabbit holes. We can spend our whole lives lost in thought, just wandering and wandering.

Thoughts are tools with very specific purposes. They help us achieve goals by thinking outside the box. They help us communicate. Beyond that, they have no value. “Value” and “Valueless” are just thoughts, too, but sometimes it’s best to see through concepts in steps instead of all at once.

Emotions aren’t empty in the way that thoughts are. Even though Tanchui couldn’t point to anything and say, “That’s my bondage,” or, “That’s my freedom,” the emotions were real enough. The anxiety and sorrow were real, and so was the relief. Emotions don’t just live in our minds, we carry them in our bodies as tension and release, as our breath, posture, and heartbeat.

In our minds, we can look at an emotion and say, “That’s sadness, that’s joy, that’s fear,” the same way we can point to a tree and say, “That’s a tree.” The most we can say for something like, “I’m trapped,” or, “I’m free,” is, “That’s a thought.” Thoughts carry our emotions, that means they’re originally empty, the same way a bucket is originally empty. If it wasn’t empty, we couldn’t fill it with water. If thoughts weren’t empty, they couldn’t be filled with feeling.

In the Song of Mind, Farong said, “Don’t destroy the emotions of people; Only teach the cessation of thoughts.”

Emptiness as a philosophy exists to wipe out unskillful views and thoughts; emptiness as a practice (meditation) deals with the remaining stress that caused/was caused by those thoughts. Emptiness as a moral code is just the natural expression of those other things I just said. That’s why the Oxhead school didn’t emphasize Precepts; if a student broke through ignorance, they’d naturally follow the Precepts without effort the same way that grass grows when all of its conditions are met.

Farong compared thoughts to wind and stress to waves. Once the wind stops, the waves naturally even out on their own. What remains is an unshakable joyful tranquility, which is said to be our original mind. The same way that thoughts are originally empty of emotion, the mind is originally empty of stress.

None of this means we have to high-tail it out of society and live on a mountain. It doesn’t mean we can’t still be involved, even with “political” things. It just puts it all into perspective. It helps us to not get sucked into obsessions. It lets us be in the world, but not of the world, not hindered by or thrown around by the world. Just because the earth spins in circles doesn’t mean we have to.

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