A clearing in forest, a batch of light bathing the bare patch of grass.
You find places like that, scattered here and there in the woods, existing without any good reason to. They’re just there, open spaces. Fields, groves, and meadows.
They’re decent impromptu pastures for rabbits and deer, since they’re usually overflowing with tall, gently swaying blades of grass. Of course the lounging herbivores attract predators to the clearing as well; the wolf, fox, coyote, lynx, and, yes, human.
All these animals come and go through the clearing, and the seasons pass through it too. Sometimes, frost seems to cover the world, and the clearing glimmers in the morning light. Day and night waltz through it as well. Deneb, 3,000 light years away, finds its light striking the ground without leaving a mark.
Someone might even settle there for awhile—maybe a whole family—building a small cottage in the woods, far away from the madness of the world. They plant crops in the spring, and harvest them in the fall. Each morning they venture into the wilderness to fish, check traps, hunt and gather berries.
The kids grow up and move away. Years pass, and then one of the parents passes too, and then the other. The kids come home and gather up their parents’ things. Really, they’re gathering memories. Each shovel, bowl, and fishing pole is imprinted with the lives lived around them.
They take it all way, and then the cottage stands vacant. Ten years. Twenty. Fifty. A hundred. Eventually, it’s no longer there at all, each fiber has immersed itself in the soil.
Seasons keep passing, day and night keep waltzing. The wind keeps rustling through, caressing every inch of green.
We’re like this clearing. So much changes throughout our lives, and so many thoughts and people pass through our space, but the space itself seems to just be. Zuochan (Zazen) is a way of life that invites us to be aware of this bright, spacious aspect of ourselves and its relationship to everything we experience.
These words are like rabbits hopping through, a wandering thought the shadow of a hawk. The clearing is our True Person, who we are before we’re shaped into someone else. Who we are prior to analysis, prior to judgments, opinions and conditioning.
It’s direct, undivided, pristine awareness. That’s one way to interpret it anyway, there are others.
Heidegger called this awareness lichtung, which basically mean a light clearing. It isn’t just an open space, it’s an illuminated space. The Chinese translation is 森林中的空地, which basically means, “In the center of the forest, a clear open space.” Kongdi (open space) can also be translated as empty field, which is coincidentally a subject that Hongzhi—a renowned Caodong teacher—wrote about often.
I wouldn’t mention any of that at all, but finding the little ways that East and West come to the same conclusions is a passion of mine. It’s important to note that, for Heidegger, this bright field wasn’t anything absolute. For a lot of ancient Chan philosophers, it was.
The difference is in their scope. For Heidegger, these clearings could shrink and widen, but they were still isolated, stuck in the forest. In Chan, the clearing is ultimately boundless. Because, what is the forest but a clearing with a bunch of trees growing out of it?
However you choose to work with this clearing is up to you, I’m not gonna recommend one of those two views over the other. Either way, the methodology is the same.
Our minds are this clearing, our anger, sadness, fear, and jealousy are like the hungry coyote passing through, looking for rabbits. The clearing doesn’t belong to the coyote, because the coyote doesn’t take the clearing with it when it leaves. The coyote doesn’t belong to the clearing, because if it did, it wouldn’t be able to come and go freely.
If we can train ourselves to have this kind of relationship with our suffering, then we’re on our way to the good life. Anger, fear, sadness, yearning, tiredness, self-doubt—these are all little forest dwellers just passing through.
If we can see that, then we can see that the rabbit isn’t good and the fox isn’t bad. They’re just beings, living and dying, coming and going according to their Being, their nature. Happiness grazes on what’s present; unhappiness hunts happiness. Our only issue is the belief that we belong to our feelings, or that they ultimately belong to us.
The fox belongs to the hunt, the rabbit to the graze. Their natures will always send them in and out of our clearing. If we can see that, then we can stop trying to chase after them or run from them. We’re no longer fixated on what appears in the clearing, we’re aware of the clearing itself as well.
It’s only natural for us to pay more attention to the foreground than the background, but it’s the background that gives everything context. Suffering is a moment out of context, a moment of forgetfulness and wavering attention.
The core of Mahayana Buddhism says that there’s no real division between the foreground and background, they’re always connected. If there’s one, there’s always the other. When we sit, eventually our perception of the foreground being separate might disappear. Since foreground and background are connected, then when the foreground vanishes, the background vanishes as well.
I’m not saying we go temporarily unconscious, it’s just that the way we view our experience shifts in that moment.
This no-foreground, no-background is the true background of our lives. The sense of a boundless clearing that includes both thickets and open spaces. That’s sudden enlightenment, silent illumination.
But we can’t eat words. Until we’ve seen that boundless clearing, then it’s unhelpful to ignore our own plot of land by giving up the method and saying, ‘It’s boundless, it’s boundless. I don’t need to do anything.”
Of course we’ve gotta do something. Honestly, tasting that boundless field is secondary. Learning to see our own sunlit space—and to respect others’—is the main concern. To watch the world move through us, to see how our fields and others’ overlap, and to trade this sense of being an isolated witness, for a dynamic withness, that’s the work of the contemplative heart.