`Emptiness' has its true connotations in the process of [liberation], and it would be a mistake to regard it as a purely intellectual concept, or to make it into a thing, and give it an ontological meaning. The relative nothing cannot be [changed] into an absolute nothing, into the non-existence of everything, or denial of all reality and of all being. Nor does `emptiness' mean the completely indeterminate, the purely potential, which can become everything without being anything None of all this is intended here. Nor has the word any physical significance, like the atomic void empty space or a vacuum. It is a purely soteriological term [dealing with liberation from suffering]. The moment it is detached from its practical basis it becomes a travesty of itself. In so far as there are any parallels in the West, they must be sought among the mystical contemplatives. As a practical term `emptiness' means the complete [penetration] of this world by the exercise of wisdom, leading to the complete emancipation from it. Meditation on `emptiness' serves the purpose of helping us to [release] this world by removing the ignorance which binds us to it. The manifold meanings of the term can therefore be explained only in so far as they unfold themselves in the actual process of transcending the world through wisdom.
A professor from America was visiting Japan to learn about Oriental philosophy. He was a learned fellow who had traveled the world collecting information about different religions for his studies, earning a reputation as a comparative religions expert. During his travels, the professor heard about a Zen Roshi in the mountains who was thought to be enlightened. The professor had met many Roshis on his travels but had so far been unimpressed. Each one he met knew less than he about the history, tradition, philosophy and practices of Buddhism and Zen. He was irritated by their desire to engage him in koan study. Koans are riddles such as "what is the sound of one hand clapping?," which Zen teachers use to shake up the thinking of their students. "Why don't they say what they mean!" the professor often complained. "Meeting a truly enlightened teacher will help me get past all this foolishness," he thought.
So into the mountains he journeyed for many days asking directions as he went. Finally he found the Roshi's monastery. He knocked and a student answered. Upon hearing his request to see the Roshi, he welcomed the professor in and led him to the Roshi's room where he was meditating quietly. The professor removed his shoes and sat on the floor before the Roshi. The room was neat and the tiled floor was spotless as if it had been scrubbed everyday. The Roshi looked up and asked him what he wanted. The professor said, "I have come here on my travels collecting the wisdom of Buddhism. I have visited many lesser teachers and not gotten satisfactory answers to my questions. Now I come before you to get the real story since I understand you are fully enlightened." The Roshi was quiet for several minutes and continued to meditate. Then he took out a pot of tea from behind him and a bowl. The Roshi picked up the pot and carefully began to pour the tea into the cup with intense concentration. "How pleasant to be offered tea by this great master," thought the professor. Soon the tea was near the top of the bowl and began to spill over the sides. The Roshi continued to pour with the same concentration as before until the pot was empty and tea was all over the floor in front of him. The professor was bewildered and exclaimed, "What are you doing?"
The Roshi looked up at him surprised. "I just showed you the nature of enlightenment. Perhaps your mind like this bowl was too full to accept it."
When I prepare to speak to you Sunday morning, I often ponder the level of fullness of our members and friends as I seek fresh and engaging ways to present ideas that may not be familiar or may be too familiar to be seen in a new way. I remember sitting in church listening to my minister, carefully filtering everything I heard looking for inaccuracies and errors. If I found one or two, more often than not, I would throw out the rest of what the minister had to say that day. I expect I am like many of you who find it difficult to empty my mind so that it can be receptive to being filled with new ideas.
Being empty is not what most of us aspire to. When the stomach is empty, it demands to be fed. When the mind is unoccupied, it often becomes bored and restless. It is engraved in human nature to chase after the pleasant and recoil from the unpleasant. Our grasping and aversive nature leads logically to the idea that more is better than less.
Those who accumulate possessions, prestige and power in our society are celebrated. Most people aspire to own a home and a car, save a nest egg for retirement, educate their children, travel and enjoy the good life. Nothing wrong with that. Many Unitarian Universalists desire to accumulate knowledge by reading ever-larger numbers of great books. Nothing wrong with that. And once they have the knowledge, they would like to hold on to some of it. That's fine too. And in the quiet moments when pausing during the accumulation of wealth and knowledge, many of us want to be entertained and have our emotions stimulated. Okay, why not? Just when a feeling of satiation grows as one surveys one's possessions, knowledge and good feelings, there is something more to accumulate, something more to know, something grander to feel. The cycle continues until we are stuffed but don't even realize we are full because our desire outstrips us. We may be finite creatures but desires are infinite.
Perhaps it is only in the later years of life we realize just how full we are and begin to let go. Those who have moved here from the North typically shed many possessions, cleaning out their attics and basements of old books, clothing, skis, children's toys, and boxes of junk squirreled away for some forgotten future use. Surprisingly, this emptying can be quite refreshing as the clutter of possessions is reduced. This kind of emptying can give us a taste of the joys of emptiness.
The emptying of the mind may seem much less familiar. Except when one is possessed by one's thoughts.
Have you ever tossed and turned at night worrying about some pending event, worrying about its success or failure? Or lose sleep remembering something you said or did which offended another even though that was not your intention? Or perhaps a shadow lurks in the past that comes to visit you when you are alone, tormenting you over events that are now ancient history. A drinking binge. The spiteful injury of a friend. Not being there when you were needed. A relationship that might have been salvaged. Events long past our ability to act on or repair. Most of us would be quite happy to empty these memories out of our heads and move on in our lives.
This emptying the present of the past is one of the purposes of these Days of Awe, the High Holy Days between Rosh Hashanah past Sunday night and Yom Kippur this coming Wednesday. It is a time to reflect on the mistakes of the past year, make amends and begin again.
An often difficult step of the twelve-step programs to recovery is seeking to make amends for past folly as a way to empty oneself of the poison the memories of these harms bring into our lives and relationships.
The reason putting the past behind us is so hard is because of the way memory functions. Memory works to enhance our ability to survive by remembering the dangers of the past to prevent them from happening again. The intensity of emotion helps bind our memories strongly in our brains. A close call with danger is clearly something we all want to remember so we can keep it from happening again. I'm sure you can remember some kind of trauma such as a car accident that you went over and over again in your head after it happened. The problem is that emotions not only bind our memory but they also get triggered again when the event is recalled. This can set up a cyclical reinforcing pattern which further embeds and strengthens the memory, making letting go of it harder and harder.
This wouldn't be a problem if we could control completely when any thought appears in our brains. We could carefully select only the thoughts we want and suppress the ones we don't want. And fortunately we can do this to some degree using our powers of concentration. The power of concentration is one of the important skills we acquire as children to select one object of attention and ignore everything else.
Unfortunately, this ability is limited. Our minds are terribly unruly. Thoughts often enter our mind uninvited. And if the thought kicks up a few feelings upon entering such as recalling some angry critical words from one's boss during the day as we crawl in bed at night (a very vulnerable time for those sneaky thougths), it may mean difficulty falling asleep, a time when an empty mind is most welcome.
Even though there may be times when we have no control over what appears in our minds, we do have control over what we do with it once it is there.
Working with thoughts is not easy or obvious. The more we dislike a thought, the more it binds into our system because of the emotional energy. The more we attach to a pleasurable experience, the stronger the craving for its repetition. The desire binds it into our system. Habit patterns of eating are the most obvious examples of this.
The choice we have is letting go and being empty when a desire or aversion arises in us.
Learning how to let go isn't very easy, as we are deeply conditioned otherwise. The way I have learned to let go is through the practice of Buddhist mindfulness meditation. I spent nine days this summer at a retreat in Barre, Massachusetts, developing this skill using mindfulness techniques. Central to these practices is opening to emptiness.
The technique we used was observing the mind-body process and recognizing each process as it happened. When breathing in we were aware of the sensations of breathing in and breathing out. When an emotion arose, we would immediately recognize the emotion. If a thought arose we would recognize the type of thought. For the nine days we were scholars of the mind-body process, observing each state of consciousness and understanding what it is. The change in thinking is subtle but very powerful. For example, when I was sitting still and heard a car go by, instead of getting irritated that my peaceful meditation was being disturbed and wishing the road outside was blocked off, I would note the experience of hearing and the reaction of aversion to the noise. When eating the most delicious onion lentil soup I have had in my life, instead of trying to figure out the recipe and hoping for a chance to have seconds, I would note the experience of tasting and smelling and enjoyment, being carefully attentive for a signal from my stomach that I was full.
The effect of this kind of meditation is to train one to witness the mind-body process as it occurs without becoming captured by it and carried away. When a tight muscle in the shoulder becomes painful, the sensation is noted and the aversive reaction watched. Rather than trying to chase away the pain, it actually becomes the center of attention as the meditator explores the experience of discomfort.
Sounds dreadful, doesn't it? But the experience of emptying the body and mind and resting in the moment is remarkably freeing. The process of observing rather than participating in thoughts, emotions and sensations breaks the cycle of restimulation. Over the nine days, my body relaxed and tension flowed out of my muscles. My mind became quieter and I was able to become much more attentive to what was happening inside me in each moment. Resolutions to difficult problems appeared effortlessly and creative ideas for sermons popped into my head. I felt a delightfully peaceful kind of happiness and a warmth for everyone. Warm feelings for members and friends of this congregation came to me. I felt fully alive and engaged with each moment.
And I felt discomfort, aches and pains and everything else I had experienced outside the retreat. The only difference was the ability to rest in this emptiness of desire and aversion which made the unpleasant much more bearable. And when the unpleasant became too onerous, I could return to the simple practice of concentrating on my breathing sensations to return me to the center and quiet my mind.
The concept of emptiness is somewhat deceptive. One's experiencing continues till death and possibly beyond. Being empty is allowing life to be what it is, a process of coming and going, a constant mixture of the pleasant and unpleasant, sometimes neutral, without identifying this show with the self. Strangely, this kind of emptiness is profoundly satisfying.
One of the blessings of growing old is the loosening of one's grip on the world. Much of what young folks chase after has been seen through as false or unsatisfying. Disease, deterioration and diminished capacity strips away one's identity. The tennis player must lay down the racket. The reader may have to put away the books. The musician may go deaf. As these ways we make our lives meaningful are stripped away, we are emptied. This can be the occasion for despair and depression or a broader opening to life. The great example for our congregation has been Betty Phillipoff who takes each setback in stride, seeking new ways to make the best of what she has left.
There is a much greater purpose to emptiness beyond freeing oneself from the desires, attachments and aversions which make life difficult and unpleasant. The Buddha proposed that in the experiencing of this emptiness, one could be free of the tugs and pushes of the constantly changing world to discover and dwell with the truths which go beyond the world. Emptiness opens the door to a liberating understanding of the nature of existence that frees one from that which makes life difficult.
I mention this more as a proposition than a fact. I'd love to say it was a fact but I have not personally experienced it. The Buddha was a pragmatist. He only taught what he thought would be effective to diminish the suffering in the world and lead people to liberation. And he asked no one to believe anything he said, only to follow his recommended practices which would reveal the teachings directly.
I don't expect any of you to decide to renounce all your worldly possessions and become a renunciant living in a cave at the top of a mountain. Yet these ideas can be quite useful to us. The very idea that complete emptiness could be the most satisfying experience of our lives is quite helpful as we approach our final days. This casts the dying process in a whole new light - as a process of gradual emptying before the great mystery of existence. And also for the young climbing up the ladder of success, the idea of emptiness can cushion their fall from the ladder or encourage their jump off the ladder, suggesting other paths to meaning besides satisfying desires and escaping fears.
The Buddha never held out the hope for a God or deity to rescue us from this life and whisk us off into the clouds on a golden chariot. He didn't recommend devotion to a God as the solution to the difficulties of life. He did speak of the existence of heaven's realms which were very nice but impermanent like everything else in the universe. Even existence in the most wonderful heaven realm will come to an end and lead again to the process of becoming and birth. A key to understanding it all was this experience of emptiness.
So the next time you find yourself yearning for something more, try reframing that thought or feeling in a new way, asking not what outside is needed but what inside is needing and consider if perhaps satisfaction will be found with something less.
I close with some empty verse:
pouring through my fingers
cool, wet, refreshing
the vase is empty,
my hand is empty,
nothing remains but peace.
May we leave empty of any hatred which poisons our spirit
May we leave empty of the torments of years long past
May we leave empty of the longing for desires unfulfilled.
And in the emptiness, may we discover what is left
when grasping, aversion and indifference dissolve away.
What remains is the deep abiding love of which we are made.
Go in Peace
Be at Peace.