In this piece, I want to focus again on the unconscious. It is hard to believe and yet absolutely true that all problems have infinite possibilities but too often we glom onto only a single dimension. Through our meditation practice we have the opportunity to open up to a great spaciousness which includes all dimensions of life, all dimensions of being. This is referred to by 12th century Chinese Zen master Hongzhi as “cultivating the empty field.”
If we allow ourselves to fall into this great spaciousness, we can see the single dimension we are caught on and move beyond it. When this happen the specific thought or feeling becomes absorbed into the field that lies beyond the limitations of our conscious mind. If we open up to this field, the field itself finds a new way to experience and express whatever pattern of awareness we have been caught by. When this happens, we act in a new way. My teacher, Suzuki Roshi, called this taming your horse: “If you want to tame a horse, give it a large pasture,” he said.
We need a conscious mind, an “either/or” mind, a mind that continually has to make choices and narrows its focus to work toward specific goals. But that conscious mind is always resting within what my teacher called “Big Mind”, a mind of “both/and.” Any time we get locked into a single pattern, dimension, or thought, it is possible to return to the awareness that both sides are always true. Whenever we are fixated on a problem, this means we are stuck on one side with a negative relationship with the other side.
When I was very young, my mother had my I.Q. tested and reported to me and to the world that I was a “gifted child.” That may sound wonderful, but it became a pressurized box which I could not get out of. When I was around twelve and I got a bad report card, I decided that I was so unable to live up to the side of being gifted that I would have to kill myself. With the bad report card in my pocket, I rode my bike to a nearby hotel and I ran up the stairs to the top floor. I looked down at the street and quickly changed my mind.
Generally, problems that we are stuck on reflect fixed values we have learned. I had learned that smart people were valuable, and people who were not smart were not valuable, and that to show you were smart you did well in school or whatever you were working on. I carried that with me until I began working with my Zen teacher. Early on, when I complained to him that I wasn’t making any progress in my meditation, he said I would be much better off if I approached my meditation stupidly, rather than trying to accomplish anything. I experienced this as a great relief! I didn’t have to be smart after all!
In my next meditation retreat at San Francisco Zen Center I began to let the tension caused by fixation on achievement go and realized that I could be stupidly gifted or giftedly stupid. Our unconscious mind, or Big Mind, is always ready to show us how to bring things back into balance.
A few years ago, I was supporting a woman named Helen in her Zen practice. Helen came from a family whose core value focused around the importance of working hard. But Helen got so locked into this core value that she developed chronic fatigue syndrome. In a meditation retreat, I helped Helen invite and welcome the part that’s experiencing chronic fatigue. She explored how she could welcome both sides and had and epiphany. “I can do great work and relax deeply,” she exclaimed during a one to one with me. As she continued her meditation practice, gradually she integrated these opposites and her chronic fatigue abated.
Next time you get hung up on a problem in which you want x, but only get y, you might ask yourself how you can make room for both what you want and what you’ve got. Is it possible for you to enjoyably experience these opposites? To do this you need to cultivate a willingness to sit in not knowing with active curiosity. As you do this, you may even begin to appreciate contradiction in your life and in the world around you!
You may discover that you have the ability to shift from one side to the other and appreciate their interplay- stupid and smart, hard work and easy play- letting go of the locks within your conscious mind and opening into the large pasture… the empty field.
You might learn, as I did to be stupid in your studying (engaging totally in the process without worrying about learning anything) and smart in your meditation by carefully assessing at any given moment what approach is helping you move into Big Mind. Through a patient and persistent meditation practice, you can easily become adept at opening up to Hongzhi’s, “Dharma field that is the root source of the ten thousand forms, germinating with unwithered fertility.”
This is my third and last piece on my teacher’s statement, “to get a letter from emptiness is to get a letter from home.”
Last time I sent you a letter from my home, which is also yours, quoting the young Kiowa warriors who went into battle singing, “I live but not forever; Grandmothers, you alone remain forever.”
It may hard for you to imagine that right in the middle of the confusion and anxiety we are feeling during this time of social unrest, is our quiescent, supportive, and nurturing heart-mind, what Dogen calls “grandmotherly mind.” But whether you can imagine it or not, it is always here at the center of being.
I wonder if you would like to take three breaths right now and settle into it. It is so very, very close… closer even than your own breathing.
Here are three more letters I am sending you from home, the first inspired by Bob Dylan, the second inspired by Basho, and the third by my teacher and my daughter, followed by a poem by Mary Oliver.
First, Bob Dylan:
“My love, she speaks like silence without ideals or violence.
She knows there’s no success like failure and failure is no success at all.”
Last time I talked about staying with my grandmother in her house by the Pacific Ocean.
The first few times I stayed there I had her to myself, but after a while my little sister began staying with us too, and she did all kinds of things to make me mad; things that monopolized my grandmother’s attention.
When my grandmother saw that I was upset, she would take me aside and hold me in her lap close by the bay window in her dining room. “Let’s listen to the ocean, dear,” she would say, giving me a gentle hug and I’d immediately feel safe and calm.
Sometimes, all we need is a very few words or a gentle touch, or even sounds of nature to help us return to our grandmotherly mind, our heart-mind. When we do this, it’s important to do it without expectation. The more we cling to an ideal we have about returning to our own still center, the more internally violent we are and the more we overlook what is here inside of us. Instead, remember that, “there is no success like failure and failure is no success at all.”
If we’re not caught by evaluating our success or failure, it’s pretty easy to act from emptiness, anchored in our mysterious grandmotherly mind or “Don’t know mind.”
Second, a number of Basho’s haiku have called me home over the years, including
rice planting songs
in the innermost part
of the country
… which may call you home as well.
We can imagine Basho in one of his many journeys to the far reaches of Japan hearing the distant singing of farmers in the wilds, as they planted their rice and falling into a deep stillness himself. Every day when we sit in meditation, we are planting seeds in the wilderness, in what is called the tathagatagarbha in Buddhism, the “womb of awakening.”
If we keep planting these seeds day after day, sooner or later one or more will germinate and grow into a vibrant plant. At this time, we may wake up to a deep and timeless stillness. When this happens, we are ready to begin sending letters from home ourselves. We call sometimes call this “dharma transmission” in Zen.
Third is my teacher’s comment when I was trying to choose the best monastery to practice at as I planned a trip to Japan. We were about to drink tea together in his kitchen and I was pausing to choose a cup. He commented, “If you try to find the best cup, you will not appreciate any of them.”
This reminds me of an experience I had with my daughter. When she was about four, she liked to collect rocks of all sizes and shapes during our regular strolls to the lake, including rocks that were nothing more that were nothing special to the discriminating eye. We brought them home in my backpack and she arrayed them on her windowsills and around the room. Her older brother scoffed at the unevenness of her collection, exclaiming, “Erin, some of your so-called rocks are just pieces of cement.”
“I love them all,” she replied.
If you are going to come home, you need to stop evaluating and judging your experience and just be present with and for what is. Then, you may have a sudden realization as I did that morning in my teacher’s kitchen, that whether you travel somewhere or not, your home is always right here.
Finally, here is a poem by Mary Oliver, which I will make a few comments about:
A Letter from Home
She sends me news of blue jays, frost,
Of stars and now the harvest moon
That rides above the stricken hills.
Lightly, she speaks of cold, of pain,
And lists what is already lost.
Here where my life seems hard and slow,
I read of glowing melons piled
Beside the door, and baskets filled
With fennel, rosemary and dill,
While all she could not gather in
Or hid in leaves, grow black and falls.
Here where my life seems hard and strange,
I read her wild excitement when
Stars climb, frost comes, and blue jays sing.
The broken year will make no change
Upon her wise and whirling heart; –
She knows how people always plan
To live their lives, and never do.
She will not tell me if she cries.
I touch the crosses by her name;
I fold the pages as I rise,
And tip the envelope, from which
Drift scraps of borage, woodbine, rue.
This poem seems to be about a couple things:
1. The loss of a loved one and the regret we feel. As I read this poem, I remembered that my teacher died of cancer not too long after he sent me his letter. It makes me wonder, was he ill when he wrote me, as Mary Oliver’s friend was?
2. It is also about the joys of everyday life; appreciation of the simple things in the midst of pain and even imminent death. The simple things- glowing melons piled beside the door, and baskets filled with fennel, rosemary and dill.
Our lives are pretty paired down these days after sheltering in place for more than two months. Maybe we can enjoy the simple things even more when our activities are so limited. It is so simple and so wonderful that I can be with each of you online during this time, that I can be with you just like my teacher was with me even though he was 3000 miles away, sending you a letter from emptiness, sending you a letter from home.
In my next pieces, I want to talk in about my teacher Shunryu Suzuki’s statement, “To get a letter from emptiness is to get a letter from home.” In this first piece I will just focus on the term “empty” which is used in Buddhist teaching quite differently than we normally think about it in the West.
For Buddhists, emptiness has no relation to the depression that many people are experiencing now with both the pandemic and the social chaos swirling around since George Floyd’s murder.
Emptiness means “free of own being.” Everything is empty because absolutely nothing stands alone. Everything we can point to (people, chairs, grass, sky, cars), are merely tentative expressions of one seamless, ever-changing landscape of “interbeing.” When we let go of our fixation on labels, we experience a wonderful interconnectedness. And this feeling of connection to the world around us naturally elicits compassion and love for others who are suffering. Emptiness and compassion are handmaidens in Buddhist teaching because everything we think of as being separate is an expression of the pulsating dance of life.
There are three misunderstandings Westerners often have about emptiness; emotional, ethical and meditative.
Emotional: When we say, “I feel empty,” as I said above, we generally mean that we are feeling lonely, isolated, hopeless, or depressed. We are submerged in an emotional undertow that keeps us from the simple joys of living, which is quite the opposite from Buddhist emptiness. We have lost the resilience that is part and parcel of Zen practice and life.
Ethical: People sometimes have perceptions about spiritual teachers which are fraught with misunderstanding and can be quite dangerous. “So and so lives in the absolute- in emptiness- so his behavior can’t be judged by ordinary standards.” Again, if someone is really acting from emptiness, they feel deeply connected to others and will simply not treat them in a harmful or inhumane manner.
Meditative: Some people have the misconception that in “advanced” meditation we experience an “empty” state of mind in which there are no thoughts. But the teaching is pretty clear about this; we may experience an empty state of mind on occasion when we are meditating with some vigor and determination, but this is temporary and not necessarily even conducive to liberation. The interconnectedness we feel in Buddhist emptiness is present whether the mind is full of thoughts or not.
Is there a word in English that works better that “emptiness” to convey this? The closest two that I can think of are “boundaryless” and “boundlessness” but neither of these exactly fit what Buddhist teachers mean. “Boundarylessness” does not work at all, because boundaries are so important for day to day psychological and spiritual health and “boundlessness” has a somewhat similar connotation.
Why do we teach about “emptiness” at all? The answer is simple. We suffer in large part because we grasp after things thinking that they are fixed, substantial, real, and capable of being possessed. Through our meditation practice we have the opportunity to relax and open into the clarity of connectedness in which we realize that those so-called things are not separate things after all. In a time like this when most people’s emotions are out of whack, we need to be reminded that we are continually supported by the life force that Suzuki refers to as, “being at your mother’s bosom.”
He said, “I do not mean voidness. There is something, but that something is something which is always prepared for taking some particular form.” And another time, speaking of the feeling tone, he offered, “Emptiness is like being at your mother’s bosom and she will take care of you.”
In my next piece, I will move on to discussing the statement itself.
Tim Burkett, Guiding Teacher