The experience of emptiness

‘So in Emptiness there is neither form nor sensation, thinking, impulse nor consciousness; no eye, ear, nose, tongue, body nor mind; no form, sound, smell, taste, touch nor object of mind; no element of eye, nor any of the other elements, including that of mind-consciousness. ’

Meditation with the whole body

This is the Emptiness of actual experience, the Emptiness of entering faith and attaining realization, not something just thought about in the head. It is not a concept; the meaning is Emptiness of actual experience. Master Dogen says in his Bendowa classic: ‘All are fully endowed with it, but while there is no practice it is not manifest and while it is not realized there is no attainment.’ All have the potentiality but the fact is that, unless it is practised and realized, it does not become real. Now I set forth the essential points of the practice of Zazen or sitting-in-meditation, strictly following the exposition of Dogen.

The monk must always begin Zazen by sitting in the correct posture. After that he regulates the breath and controls the mind. In the Mahayana there is also a method of observing the breath, whether the breath is long or whether it is short, and that is the Mahayana method of regulating the breath.

If we are going to realize the wisdom of ultimate Emptiness, first we must perform Zazen, and for Zazen we must first sit in the correct posture. In the Zazengi classic the method of regulating the body is explained as control of movement, and the correct posture is a method for controlling bodily movement. Then there is control of breath and control of the mind follows naturally. The so-called fluctuations of the mind are controlled. The essentials of meditating with the whole body are: to control the body, to control the breath and then extend the control to the fluctuations of the mind.

In Hinayana they have meditations of counting the breaths and also meditations on impurity. Either they count their breaths or they meditate on the impurities of this our body. These too are ways, but the Mahayana method is simply to realize, at the time of meditation, that the breath is long or short. To put it more simply: according to the individual, the breath varies, long or short. Well, if long, let it be long, and if short, let it be short; one should just keep up meditation with the whole body on the going out and coming in of the breath. In his explanation, Dogen quotes the words of his own teacher, Master Nyojo. The master said: ‘When the breath comes in it reaches the Tanden [just below the navel], but it does not come from any place so it is neither long nor short. The breath goes out from the Tanden but it does not go to any particular place so it is neither short nor long. ’ When the breath is inhaled it is drawn in down to the Tanden, a little below the navel. But it does not come from any place—the thing is just to feel it drawn down to the Tanden—and there is no point in inquiring where it came from There is no need purposely to make it long or purposely to make it short. If long, let it be long, and if short, then short.

When the breath goes out, it leaves the Tanden, and has no definite place to which it goes. There is no point in working out where it ends up. Let each man leave his breath as it is, long or short, and just keep up with his whole body the meditation on the incoming or outgoing of the breath. There is no question here of trying to meditate with a Koan. It is devoting the whole body to meditation on the breath movement.

Dogen gives precise directions for when wrong and delusive thoughts arise during practice. In his Zazengi, of which there is a copy in his own hand at the Eiheiji temple, he quotes from the older Zazen classic (attributed to Hyakujo):

‘When a thought arises, be awake to it; when you are awake to it, it will disappear. After a long time the associations are destroyed and spontaneously there is a coming to one. This is the secret of Zazen.’

If during the practice of meditation on the incoming and outgoing of the breath, various wrong thoughts and fancies arise, it is not that they are to be checked or suppressed. If we make to stop the movements of the mind, that attempt to stop them is itself a movement. There is no end to it. So it is not trying to stop the wrong thoughts, but being clearly conscious of them. ‘Be awake’ means to act consciously.

For example, I hear different sounds and the mind shifts towards them. Without trying to suppress this shifting of the mind, one should inquire: What is this wrong idea and fancy which has arisen? and so maintain clear consciousness in regard to it. What are all these things I hear? What is this thinking about them? In this way I am clearly conscious in regard to the disturbance of the mind. By doing this, in the end the wrong thoughts and fancies spontaneously vanish. ‘After a long time . . .’ when this meditation is continued not just one or two days but for years and years without a break, ‘the associations are destroyed’. Of the two joined by association, one is subject and the other object; both of them disappear. The subject is the mind, and the going forth to experience is its operation. The object, which is the counterpart to the mind, is in Buddhist terminology called the ‘field’.

To take an example: I hear a sound. The hearer is the subject, my mind. This is a pleasant sound, that is an unpleasant sound—the mind experiences like that. The object is the sound experienced. Similarly, whatever we see, the seer is the subject, the mind, and the seen, whether long or short or square or round or black or white, is the object. The word ‘en’ or association takes in the mind which goes to experience and the field which is the object experienced.

As we continue our meditation, finally the experiencer and experienced disappear. The disappearance of these two correlates is what he means by ‘spontaneously there is a coming to one’. When it is said that meditation has gone into samadhi or has become one, it means a state when these two correlates become a unity.

by Abbot Obora of the Soto Zen sect

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