Power to condemn, power to condone7 min read

The world of Emptiness is not some world without crying and without laughing. Emptiness in the tears themselves, Emptiness in the smiles themselves—this is the real Emptiness. Then the phrase is turned round: ‘Emptiness is not different from form’ When with all my might I plunge what is called my self into the heart of Kannon Bodhisattva and in that heart become completely naughted, then the laughter and weeping called form can for the first time have a meaning. Only as Emptiness have the forms their great meaning.

‘Now, just for today let me try.’ And then at the time when I wanted to burst forth like a thunderstorm, when I wanted to rage with the anger erupting in me, ‘just for today’ —and somehow I realized this blazing up for what it is, something which is blazing up, and then there was a taste of the state of liberation. That I was enabled to speak for that moment with the ill-feeling vanished from my heart was no power of mine. It is the power of Kannon. Through Kannon’s grace there comes a breath from the absolute: Emptiness is no different from form.

Form and Emptiness cannot be separated however much one tries, and the life in which they are reconciled, the life of Kannon, is expressed in the next two phrases: ‘form is Emptiness, Emptiness is form’. Form here stands for all five skandha-aggregates. The power which simply negates them is, ‘form is Emptiness’. It is not only illusory clinging which is negated; the real Emptiness is negation of what is called Buddha also. The power of the negation begins with the five aggregates but goes on to negate all. Only thus is the world of supreme wisdom and light hinted at. It breaks the illusory clinging to self and goes on to negate even the Buddha form If it stops short at the Buddha form, it is not Emptiness. ‘Form is Emptiness’ points to the state of ultimate negation. Only when there is that absolute negation the next phrase be manifest—‘Emptiness is form’; the affirmation of all conditions. Because there is Emptiness there can be form; therein is manifested the compassion of Kannon.

It is to be noted carefully that in this Sutra the phrase ‘form is Emptiness’ comes first, and ‘Emptiness is form’ comes afterwards. In the Diamond Sutra similarly the world of negation comes first and only then the world of affirmation. It is after absolute negation that the so-called world of unconditional affirmation appears. The first phrase, form is Emptiness, means ‘this will not do, and that will not do’ and never gives assent. Then comes ‘this will do, and that also will do’, which is the world of Emptiness is form, of affirmation of everything just as it is. First the power to condemn and then the power to let be, but these powers to condemn and to condone are never separate from each other.

On each side of holy Shaka is an attendant: one riding a lion, with a sword, who is the Bodhisattva of wisdom, and the other on a gentle white elephant with a lotus, the Bodhisattva of compassion. They express the Shaka in the middle. Holy Shaka is the power which when it is time not to allow will refuse to allow and refuse to allow and always refuse, with the sword of negation. Yet he also has the power of infinite forgiveness. The power of tolerance and the power of negation are not separate, and Shaka symbolizes the human life in which these two are merged. When we prostrate ourselves even a little before holy Kannon, there comes first ‘form is Emptiness’. When we come to see in serenity how our delusions do not amount to a self, that is form is Emptiness. This not amounting to a self is the so-called discarding of selfhood. It is the world of Emptiness, absolute selfnegation, absolute throwing away of self. And at the bottom of that negation of self is experienced the world of holy Kannon—who however deep our sins will never turn away—the world of profound affirmation, the world of permission. Kannon at the time of condemnation will condemn and condemn without any limit, and at the time of condoning will pardon and pardon without any limit, and this is the Bodhisattva Kannon.

I remember how I felt when I was forty-four and my old Zen teacher died. When I was young I used to be scolded by both my parents and my teacher, but now my parents had come to praise me up and never scolded me any more. It was only the teacher who still had a harsh word for me, and when he died an inexpressible loneliness came over me.

Four years previously I had gone back to my home town, and I used to act as his assistant. At that time I was fairly full of myself: quite a name in Buddhist scholarship, they said, and then I had been a professor here and a headmaster there—oh, I was pretty well satisfied with myself when I came home. I was one of those men of elevated views. I came home with the conviction that my wisdom was very far-seeing. But the teacher still saw me as the same runny-nosed youngster as before. Every day I used to scrub the floor, and the teacher would come up behind me: ‘Look at that! What sort of cleaning is that supposed to be? All black-and-white patches like a picture or something. The number-one boy ought to be able to make a better job of the cleaning than that!’ Another time when I was supposed to have made a reply in the wrong tone: ‘If you still don’t know how to answer properly, your spiritual training doesn’t amount to much, does it!’ I was scolded over everything.

I remember one day an old lady came to the temple and told us she had brought the girl along with her. On asking how old the latter might be, she said: ‘Oh, she’s sixty!’ Certainly, to an old lady of eighty, the daughter of sixty is still a girl. In spite of all the wrinkles, a girl is a girl; whatever the age may be, a girl is still a girl. In the same way, to the teacher I was still a little boy. However distinguished a countenance I had put on, however many professorships I might have held, that was nothing to the teacher. I might feel myself a man of elevated views, but the teacher’s comment was: ‘If you still don’t know how to answer properly, your spiritual training doesn’t amount to much. Do some self-examination!’

Sometimes I used to feel: “Why doesn’t the old man let up a bit, yes, let up a bit, just a bit, damn it! But when he died, I had that unutterable loneliness. Now there are many to praise, but the teacher who was really kind to me, who used to hide his tears of love under his scoldings, is dead. And I am alone.

Holy Kannon is one who looks on all as his children, and shows compassion to all, whatever they may do. We have to face the fact of our illusions. We must realize our clinging attachment to the five skandha-aggregates for what it is. In this, he negates and negates. But when we come to realize we are nothing at all, then we have an experience of the sublime world of Kannon which embraces all in an infinite forgiveness. In the Bodhisattva the world of Emptiness and the world of form are not two; form is Emptiness, Emptiness is form—in these words the Buddha speaks of the state of the Bodhisattva Kannon.

In the Genjokoan book of Shobogenzo it is written: ‘In the feeling of inadequacy of body and mind the dharma is fulfilled; know also that in the feeling that the dharma has been fulfilled by body and mind, there is yet something lacking.’ When we come to know of Buddhism, to feel that it is well, that all is at peace, to set ourselves down in a state of so-called satori, means there is as yet no real understanding of Buddhism. If we are really receptive to Buddhism, there is always the feeling of not enough, not enough; limitless endeavour and striving continued age after age, that must be the spirit of Mahayana. There is no feeling of completion. Not enough and still not enough—gradually self is negated and the world of liberation reveals itself.

by Abbot Obora of the Soto Zen sect