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The Liberating Joy of Emptiness

Tonen

 

My dear friend Tonen O’Connor gave the talk this morning and here’s my summary of it.  ― Zuiko

As you know, “emptiness” is the word we use to describe the true state of our existence as opposed to our instinctive view of it. In my usual view, I feel quite solid as I sit here, perhaps even a bit more solid than I might wish due to my love of snacks.  You’re there and I’m here.  

However in Buddhism, only something permanent is “real.”

Scientific American article I read recently said that in 80 to 100 days all our cells have been replaced by new ones.  Seeing things this way, the person I call “me” is not permanent at all.  I’m not real in the Buddhist definition of “real.”  What sits here is a temporary coming together of causes and conditions.  Our presence together here is like this, too.  Think of all the things that had to happen for each of us to be here, whether in person or on Zoom. 

If we’re empty, what are we empty of?  That’s the joyful thing.  We’re empty of fixed limitations, and of rigid and immovable barriers that could trap us in a being that couldn’t change.  If we couldn’t change, how could our child-self  become our adult-self?  How could we deal with the ever-changing world we’re in the midst of?

This is why, for me, emptiness is the most positive of the Buddha’s teachings.  Everything definitely exists, but as a stream of interconnected conditions that are brought into being by a whole host of actions on which each new moment of existence depends.  Think of the nerves, muscles, and will involved in the simple act of getting out of bed, making the “sleeping person” into the “ready to feed the cats” person.  Of course, the cats’ presence adds another cause and condition to the moment.

How do we access the liberating joy of emptiness?  I would suggest we substitute another word for “emptiness” – “openness.”  To enjoy our life, we become open to it and to whoever and whatever it entails.  There are lots of words for this kind of life – open-handed, open-hearted, open-minded – in short, open ended.  The doors of our minds and hearts are open to change.

“Yes,” we might think, “but when we’re open, we can get hurt.”  If we’re not open, though, we’re not open to love and friendship.  We can be hurt because we are not yet empty.  We’re not yet empty of a fixed picture of ourselves that constantly craves validation and reinforcement.  To be open is to invite the world in, knowing that we’re strong and flexible enough to be open to what it may bring. 

Emptiness/openness means we are not condemned to forever remain the person we once saw ourselves to be.  A fixed self-view is our greatest enemy.

There is a famous koan collection called Mumonkan (無門関), whose title can be translated as The Not-Gate Gate.  To see the concept of fixed self as an illusion is to go through this gate-without-a-gate and see reality as it is.  In the same way, our entry into this flow of causes and conditions that is our life and all reality is through the not-gate that is not a barrier unless we think it is.

Seng Ts’an, in his poem, “Faith in Mind,” says “The Way is perfect like great space.”  Empty space enables the existence of all things.  It makes the individuality of all things, the possibility of all movement.  Without empty space I can’t bring my palms together in gassho.  I cannot even live. 

So – for me emptiness is the most positive,  most joyful, most empowering of all the Buddha’s teachings.

Tonen O’Connor

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August— Monday Night dharma discussion  7:00 pm to 8:00 pm –on Zoom – email us for the link

August 17 – Introduction to Zazen – 7:30 pm – 9:30 pm – hybrid – please register

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August 28 – Sangha Meeting, following Dharma Talk

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Quote of the week

One Leaf
 
One day in a lecture Suzuki Roshi said, “When you see one leaf falling, you may say, Oh, autumn is here! One leaf is not just one leaf; it means the whole autumn. Here you already understand the all-pervading power of your practice. Your practice covers everything.”

 

Excerpted from:

 

Zen Is Right Here: Teaching Stories and Anecdotes of Shunryu Suzuki, author of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind
by Shunryu Suzuki,
Edited by David Chadwick,
page 18

CEDAR RAPIDS ZEN CENTER 1618 Bever Avenue SE Cedar Rapids, IA