The Emptiness of Emptiness

‘According with sameness is still not enlightenment.’ (Sandokai – Sekito Kisen)

‘The Buddha… urges Subhuti to look beyond “no perceptions,” lest “no perceptions” become a substitute for his earlier attachment to emptiness. He tells Subhuti to practice the perfection of wisdom, to practice the perfection of forbearance, to practice the perfection of charity. For only in the course of practice do “no perceptions” become the means by which bodhisattvas realize enlightenment and the means by which they teach other beings. Once again, the Buddha reminds Subhuti that freedom from perception by itself liberates no one, whereas those who uphold this teaching join the lineage of teachers of humans and gods that extends throughout the ten directions and the three periods of time. ‘(Commentary on the Diamond Sutra – Red Pine)

Over the Thanksgiving weekend I went down a bit of a rabbit-hole of reading, partly induced by the conversation I had been having with a student about his experience. There was a fairly depressing series of articles about supposedly brilliant, popular teachers, all (and I don’t think this is a co-incidence) white men, who had exhibited some form of unpleasant behaviour that was being called out.

The common thread was how, whatever knowledge or understanding or system was being presented, the liberating potential of non-dual awareness was being tarnished by ego and divisiveness. As one of the authors observed of a renowned teacher (and I don’t think names are necessary here), ‘He’s got a fairly good intellect, but it doesn’t seem to be affected much by great depth of feeling. No matter how great the intellect, as long an ego is present, it will corrupt the thought process,’ going on to say that this teacher ‘… knows about the unknown “intellectually” but he doesn’t appear have allowed himself to go over the edge. If he had, there would be an overwhelming humility.’

Another ‘guru’ I read about was described thus:

‘At worst, when he’s not on the job, he might be your average late-20’s heterosexual male with a huge ego who likes to ham it up on Instagram, smoke cigars, and dress up for Halloween.’

Perhaps the teacher who I have admired the most over my years of training is Shohaku Okumura. I feel fortunate to have sat a number of Genzo-e with him, and hope to continue to do so. Even though he is the pre-eminent Dogen scholar, in the English-speaking world at the very least, there is not an ounce of arrogance about him. I just bought his commentary on the Mountains and Rivers Sutra (from the first Genzo-e I sat), and found this in his introduction:
‘We are very uncertain about almost everything; this uncertainty is a key element of the reality of our life. Actually, this uncertainty is a very important experience of the Buddhist teaching of emptiness. So please be patient. Don’t simply believe and memorize what I am saying.’

I would not say I was close with him at all, but on various occasions have asked for dokusan with him. His words have offered help and advice at different stages of my practice – notably when I was about to ordain as a priest ten years ago, and when I was transitioning out of Zen Center three years ago, worried about the force of money in the marketplace. He suggested that if you are doing something for the sake of the dharma, then there is no need to worry about what money; if you are doing it for the sake of the self, then that is a different story.

Most recently I asked Shohaku about dharma transmission, which would be the next step on my training. While the process is not without its drawbacks (a previous reading jag took me to articles on this site, notably this one, which provide much to think about), there is at least a sense of continuity and accountability; for all that I wonder how to present the teachings, I do trust that they are an amazing distillation of how to manage the struggles of human existence. Anyone can have insight into this, but the training I received made it clear that there is always more work to do on one’s self (such as it is), and this is not just a ‘job.’

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s