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what emptiness?

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“Have you had a chance to read Hagakure?” asked the young man who helps pick the videos I watch (and teaches martial arts). He was referring to The book of the samurai, a 17th century collection of reflections in the spirit of ‘Bushido,’ the way of the warrior. Not a book to be read cover to cover, but bits at a time. Today’s lines, opened at random, read as follows:

“Our bodies are given life from the midst of nothingness. Existing where there is nothing is the meaning of the phrase, ‘Form is emptiness.’ That all things are provided for by nothingness is the meaning of the phrase, ‘Emptiness is form.’ One should not think that these two are separate things.”

I recognize the three-word phrases from the Heart (or Wisdom) Sutra, a central text in Buddhism. Many times I’ve chanted it at the monastery without much understanding. When asked, my teachers advised to just say the words, again and again, in Japanese or English, and allow them to permeate my being.

“The absence of anything self-existent is the true nature of all we experience, however distorted that experience might be by the matrix of our mind,” explains Bill Porter. “But it is also the true nature of reality.” 

As long as I reflect on life along these lines, duality reigns: it and me, you and me, my mind and my body, us and them, and so on.

“The word ’emptiness’ does not mean nothingness,” Porter continues, “It is a double negative that stops short of establishing a positive. Emptiness means indivisibility.”

Last week someone new came to sit with us, his first Zen meditation. Afterwards, while washing tea cups, he described trying to go for emptiness. I remember cutting in — clever me– saying something about not trying, to observe thoughts, feelings, or sensations, to witness without doing anything about what he observed. While that model still relies on a separate person-as-observer and a thing-being-observed, to me it seems the way towards indivisibility. By separating my-self from the events I observe, I’m able to transcend duality.

That’s the plan, at least. Until it, too, falls away. I wonder what my teacher would say about all this ruminating … or you, for that matter …

text sources: Wilson, W.S. (1979) (trans). Hagakure: the book fo the samurai by Yamamoto Tsunetomo (1659-1719). Tokyo/New York: Kodansha, p. 70. Red Pine (Bill Porter). (2004). The heart sutra: the womb of the Buddhas. Washington, DC: Shoemaker & Hoard, p. 76. image: Max Stoltenberg.


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