A teacher used to point out to his pupils that what is already full cannot take in any more. This well-known Zen principle is often illustrated by pouring more tea into a filled cup so that it overflows on to the table and floor. This teacher went on to say that when there is a vacuum in the mind, illumination can come to fill it. The pupils did not understand this but let it go, except for one who persistently asked him what he meant exactly. “How can we make a vacuum in the mind?” he would say, to which the teacher made no reply but sat silent.
After some repetitions of this, the teacher told him, “Well, as you are so keen I’ll give you some private instruction on it, if you’re willing to prepare by purifying yourself,” and he gave him elaborate directions for a daily ritual to be continued for three weeks, after which he was to fast for three days.
When all this had been carried out, the candidate came at dawn to the main hall of the temple as arranged, where he found the teacher standing in full robes and looking enormously impressive. The pupil came forward in awe-struck silence, made his salutations, and stood before him. The teacher crashed the end of his staff on to the wooden floor three times, drew himself up to what seemed more than his normal height, and boomed, “I have something very important to tell you. For this, you have purified yourself and fasted. Now attend carefully: such an opportunity is rare.”
He paused. The pupil waited for him to continue, but the master merely stood like a statue. The disciple began to think, “Why doesn’t he tell me?” Then he thought, “What on earth is going on?” As the silence lengthened, he realized that such thoughts were useless. He waited. Then he stopped waiting, and just stood still. He began to feel a sort of emptiness spreading out within himself. After a little, in that emptiness he caught a glimpse of a clarity and purity that does not have to speak, does not have to breathe, does not have to think. The teacher broke in abruptly, “The interview is finished. Go away.”
In the following months, the emptiness began to return more and more often, bringing with it a kind of coolness and light. Some time afterwards the teacher said to him, “When you are fully expectant for something, and that thing does not come, or comes but is suddenly taken away, there is a vacuum. If you can manage not to fill that vacuum with thoughts of ‘Why isn’t it here?’ or ‘Where has it gone?’ or ‘Why has it turned out like this? What’s happening?’ then in the emptiness you can have a realization.
“It’s the same in worldly life. Suppose you have tried for something and you have worked hard for it, sacrificing yourself for a long time perhaps, even for years, until it has become the whole world to you. Suppose that thing is viciously kicked to pieces in front of your eyes and ceases to exist; it’s completely destroyed by mindless spite.
“Now there’s a vacuum: Now’s the time! If you fill the emptiness with thoughts of resentment and hatred, you’ll make no progress from it. But if you can suddenly realize, ‘Now I’m free of that, free from it all,’ there’ll be an emptiness. From emptiness, spiritual inspiration can come to you. If you do that—and you can do it if you try—you will feel a breath from beyond, giving you new life and new wisdom. Those are the times.
“Of course you must practise steadily and hard in the ordinary way, very hard. But great openings come when your whole universe has suddenly collapsed and there’s an emptiness.