Posts Tagged ‘emptiness’

The Four Great Bodhisattva Vows, Rinzai Zen version

If you are a connoisseur of proverbial wisdom, you know which road is paved with good intentions. And if you’ve ever bestowed a well-intentioned gift, only to find it unwanted and unappreciated, you may be forgiven for suspecting that good intentions, especially those that ignore actual conditions and circumstances, may be as unavailing as last year’s New Year’s resolutions.

In the popular imagination, Zen is sometimes viewed as a philosophy of “going with the flow.” Rather than impose our narrow intentions on things as they are, we should relax and let events unfold of their own accord. Such a view is not without a basis in Zen teachings. No less an authority than Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, in his classic Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, asserts that “the true purpose” of Zen is “to see things as they are, to observe things as they are, and to let everything go as it goes.” But in the foundational teachings of the Buddhist tradition, of which Zen is a late flowering, the issue of intentionality plays a pivotal role. “The thought becomes an intention,” the Buddha is reported to have said, “the intention manifests as an action, the action develops into habit, and habit hardens into character. Therefore watch closely the thought and let it spring from concern for all beings.” Far from being extraneous or antithetical, intentions and their manifestation in action, habit, and character lie close to the heart of Zen practice.

As the foregoing statement suggests, awareness of intentions can begin with awareness of our thoughts, even as they are arising. In the language of Zen, this practice is known as “mindfulness of the mind in the mind.” With practice, we can learn to monitor our thoughts and patterns of thought, and we can watch how readily our thoughts turn into conscious intentions. In similar fashion, when we are engaged in such routine activities as taking a shower or getting dressed in the morning, we can note how even our most habitual action is preceded by an intention, conscious or otherwise. By becoming aware of such subtle intentions, we develop the capability to recognize our more consequential intentions and their impact on our lives.

Beyond awareness training of this kind, we can also explore traditional practices designed to support good intentions and foster wholesome qualities of heart and mind. Prominent among those qualities are what is known as the Four Immeasurable Minds (brahminviharas): loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. Typically, the traditional practices begin with the intention to cultivate a particular quality in oneself. In metta, or loving-kindness meditation, for example, we initiate the exercise with such sentences as “May I be filled with loving-kindness. / May I be well.” As the meditation proceeds, we widen the circle to include a loved one, an acquaintance, a stranger, an enemy, and all living beings. Like similar exercises for cultivating compassion, equanimity, and gratitude, the objectives are, first, to articulate our intention and, second, to cultivate the desired quality itself. These active, daily practices can also serve as a form of mindfulness training, insofar as they reveal how remote our mental state might be, at any given moment, from the one desired. We may wish to be filled with loving-kindness, but in our present state, we may feel anything but loving.

In concert with these practical measures, there is the deeper practice of taking vows. The Zen tradition embraces a wide variety of vows, which may be taken both by monastics and lay practitioners. Some are limited in scope and pertain specifically to the conduct of everyday life: “Waking up, I know I have twenty-four new hours. / I vow to live mindfully, and to view all things with the eyes of compassion.” But at their most profound, Zen vows are both open-ended and life-altering. They chart a challenging course for serious practitioners. Best-known among such formulations are the Four Great Bodhisattva Vows, two of which read: Shu jo mu hen sei gan do (“Sentient beings are numberless; we vow to save them all”) and Bo non mu jin sei gan dan (“Delusions are inexhaustible; we vow to extinguish them all”). To those grand—and self-contradictory–assertions, the cynical observer might retort, “Good luck with that.” But it is in the nature of such vows to formulate not concrete, finite goals but unattainable objectives, acknowledging at once the nobility of those objectives and the impossibility of fulfilling them in one lifetime. A declaration of our best intentions, the Great Vows are a confession of our highest values and an affirmation of our shared humanity. And, in the words of Zen teacher Shohaku Okumura Roshi, they are also “a manifestation of the foundation of our being.” To return to the “reality of life in the midst of this reality,” writes Okumura in his book Living by Vow, “is our practice. This practice is based on vow.”


The true purpose: Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind (Weatherhill, 1970), 33.

The thought becomes an intention . . . : Guy Armstrong quotes this passage, which has been attributed to the Buddha, in his book Emptiness (Wisdom, 2017), Kindle edition, 122.  “I doubt it was he who said it,” Armstrong notes, “but I think he would agree.”

A manifestation : Shohaku Okumura Roshi, Living by Vow (Wisdom, 2012), 51.





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Shinge Roshi, Abbot, Dai Bosatsu Zendo and the Zen Center of Syracuse

Shinge Roko Sherry Chayat Roshi, Abbot,
Dai Bosatsu Zendo and the Zen Center of Syracuse

The practice of Zen contemplation, Zen teachings tell us, is the “action of non-action,” grounded in silent awareness. At the same time, the “non-action” of Zen is best described in active verbs. In her essay “What is Zen?” Shinge Roko Sherry Chayat Roshi offers this description:

What is Zen? Stop now. Stop trying to get an intellectual lock on something that is vast and boundless, far more than the rational mind can grasp. Just breathe in with full awareness. Taste the breath. Appreciate it fully. Now breathe out, slowly, with equal appreciation. Give it all away; hold onto nothing. Breathe in with gratitude; breathe out with love. Receiving and offering–this is what we are doing each time we inhale and exhale. To do so with conscious awareness, on a regular basis, is the transformative practice we call Zen.

It would be difficult to find a more lucid or concrete description of Zen practice. Follow Shinge Roshi’s instructions, and you will not go wrong. Yet, for all its clarity, this description is at one point ambiguous. “Hold onto nothing,” Shinge Roshi advises. “Give it all away.” But what is the antecedent, a grammarian might inquire, of the pronoun “it”? What, besides our breath, are we giving away? (more…)

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Today I am writing this column with my Sailor 1911 fountain pen. Its name commemorates the origin of the Sailor Pen Company, which was founded in 1911 by Mr. Kyugoro Sakata of Hiroshima, Japan. Having learned about fountain pens from a British sailor, Mr. Sakata started his own company, naming it after his source of inspiration. My Sailor 1911 is plum-colored and sports a gold-plated nib, from which the black ink flows freely. A gift from my wife, it is a pleasure to use and a handsome object in its own right.

Yet my pen is also a composite thing, and when I take it apart to clean it, I see that it consists of four principal components: nib, cartridge, cap, and barrel. Were I to take those components themselves apart, I would discover that my fountain pen, which feels so stable in my hand, is actually an impermanent aggregate, to which the concept “fountain pen” has been applied. And though it appears independent, it is really a locus of interdependent causes and conditions, including the manufacturers who produced its resin, metal, and ink, the craftsman who assembled it, and of course Mr. Sakata himself. Far from being a separate entity, my pen might better be seen as an event in the ever-changing web of life. For all its beauty and functionality, it is void of solidity or intrinsic existence.

That is no small discovery. And were I to continue my investigation, examining my Sailor 1911 under an electron microsope, I would see that my so-called fountain pen is mostly energy and formless space. I would recognize the formlessness—or what Zen teachings call “emptiness”beneath the form. Through direct experience, I would have verified the core teaching of the Heart Sutra, which is chanted daily in Zen monasteries. “Form is no other than emptiness,” that sutra informs us, “emptiness no other than form”. A pen is indeed a pen, but it is also not a pen. And what is true of fountain pens is true of all phenomena, ourselves included.

To examine the world and the self in this fashion might seem a rather negative, if not destructive, enterprise, but in practice it is quite the opposite. It is as nurturing as it is liberating. In his book A New Earth, Eckhart Tolle explains:

Once you realize and accept that all structures (forms) are unstable, even the seemingly solid material ones, peace arises within you. This is because the recognition of the impermanence of all forms awakens you to the dimension of the formless within yourself, that which is beyond death.*

In Zen teachings, what Tolle describes as the “dimension of the formless” is usually called the “absolute” dimension. It is contrasted with the “relative” dimension, where a pen is a pen and a post is a post. In Zen training we are enjoined to see all things, including our bodies, thoughts, and feelings, from both perspectives. We cultivate a kind of double vision, seeing the changing and the changeless, the relative and the absolute, as two sides of a single coin. By so doing, we loosen our anxious attachments to things and thoughts and feelings, having recognized that ultimately there is nothing solid to be attached to, or any need to be attached. And if peace arises, as it often does, it is because at long last we are seeing things as they are.


*Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth (Penguin, 2005), 81.

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