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Lions Roar : May 2006
SHAMBHALA SUN MAY 2006 58 perience of enlightenment, which is, more or less, the immediate experiential recognition of emptiness—seeing emptiness with your own eyes. All the things that are said about this in Zen and other forms of Buddhism are extravagant and idealistic. This extravagant idealism is perhaps helpful: it gives us some faith and enthusiasm. After all, if we stick too much to the so-called real world, to being mired in identity and all our emotional and physical problems, that’s no fun, is it? Although all this is taken for granted as life, in fact it is a kind of narrow-minded and naive metaphysical assertion we could do without. On the other hand, to take literally all this talk about enlightenment and emptiness, about becoming omniscient buddhas (omniscience is a key con- cept in the emptiness sutras) may be going too far, especially if it causes us to be frustrated with our progress in practice or to imagine that other people have become enlightened and that we should therefore abrogate our personal responsibility and listen to what they tell us about our lives. Practically speaking, there’s a progression in our appreciation of the emptiness teachings. In Zen practice, we begin with some modest, everyday experience. We sit. We practice zazen. Maybe even one period of sitting is enough. When you sit, something always happens. Maybe you don’t know what, maybe you can- not identify it, or you barely notice it, but something does hap- pen. You can feel that sitting is real, powerful. I travel here and there and sometimes I go into a room in a hotel, or some other institutional setting, maybe with doctors or businesspeople, not faithful sutra-reading Buddhists, and I say, “Breathe and sit up straight and be quiet,” and in a few minutes something happens; something always happens. So there is some experience. What it amounts to is a faint glimmering that the world one has always assumed to be the world, the only world, the whole world and nothing but the world, may not be as it seems. The mind, the self, may not be as it seems. So our appreciation of emptiness begins with something that is really very common. It’s common not so much because sitting is a magical practice but because it really is the nature of the mind to be empty of intrinsicality. So if you give it even a small chance it will sense that, even if only a little bit. The appreciation of emptiness begins there. Then you sit some more and experience it repeatedly. Possibly you sit long sesshins and retreats, experiencing it more deeply and more frequently. Then you hear teachings and reflect on them, and little by little you become more and more convinced that this is really how it is. You may begin to notice—maybe with some frustration—that you persist in giving rise to afflictive emotions anyway, that you persist in seeing being as intrinsic. But still, you are beginning to know better. You are beginning to see how unsuccessful, how painful, that old knee-jerk way of living is. And so in this way you are beginning to train yourself in emptiness. Then you might work directly with afflictive emotions, trying to let go of anger and greed and jealousy and so on, to begin to reduce their grip on you. Meanwhile you continue with your sit- ting and your study of the teachings and the verification of the teachings by your own experience. Someday you may or may not have a powerful experience of seeing directly, immediately, and powerfully that indeed things are empty, that they are like smoke or mist, like space, like the blue sky, like the movie, the dream: free and non-different from yourself. This would be lovely and it is certainly possible. But even if you don’t have an experience like that, you continue to study and learn and experience; you apply the teachings of emptiness, of selflessness, of love and compas- sion, to your daily experience and to your relationships; and you see the results of this: that there is more peace, more affection, more happiness, more clarity in your life. You probably still experience confusion and afflictive emo- tion, but after a while it doesn’t bother you so much. You are not tempted to be caught by it because you know that just leads to suffering and you have gotten over your long-term love affair with suffering. So in this way, little by little, you develop an un- derstanding of and a grounding in emptiness. You don’t need to call it emptiness. In fact, it’s better if you don’t. “Emptiness” is just a word you can repeat to yourself in a blizzard. But you know how things are and you are happy to live in accord with them. ♦