Tuesday, December 09, 2008


“In the silence by the empty window

“I sit in formal meditation wearing my monk’s robe.

“Navel and nose in alignment,

Ears parallel with the shoulders.

Moonlight floods the room;

The rain stops but the eaves drip and drip.

Perfect this moment—

In the vast emptiness, my understanding deepens.


Until the 1800s Japan had sealed itself off to the Western world. Though Japan exchanged goods and ideas with China and Korea, it maintained its own religion, its own social structure, and its own language.

Then, in 1853, Commodore Matthew Perry steamed into Japan’s Edo Bay with a squadron of four American warships, their guns pointed shoreward.

Perry offered the Emperor two options: That of opening the island country to trade with the West or that of being blown out of the water. Neither choice was appealing, but under pressure of the black ships the Japanese government knuckled under.

At that moment Japan was bullied into the modern world, and its seclusion came to an abrupt end.

In short order, Western society—including the arts, ways of thinking, and most of all (or worst of all), religion—trampled the country’s rich native heritage.

With the country now fair game for exploitation, missionaries poured in, eager to convert the so-called heathens to their way of thinking. In their zeal the “true believers” actually destroyed many temples and shrines.

One missionary, the Jesuit, Cosme de Torres, was known for his prowess at intellectual debates, and he attempted to establish an open dialogue with the Japanese Buddhists.

Torres spoke movingly about the existence of God, while the Zen masters and monks spoke about emptiness.

Once when I was visiting a Buddhist site in Thailand, I noticed a saffron-clad monk sitting across a courtyard. I smiled and waved to him, and he beckoned me closer. He spoke excellent English, and we fell into a livery conversation about Buddhism.

“Okay,” I said, at one point. “In simple terms, how do you define Buddhism?”

His answer was simple.

“Buddhism is emptiness,” the monk said,

The friendly monk experienced Buddhism as the nothing beyond being, as the fullness of nothing.

I’ll say again, Buddhism is emptiness, the nothing beyond being. It’s the fullness of nothing.

Some schools of Buddhism—Tibetan, for example—say that things have no reality of their own. Stars, trees, humans are like reflections in a mirror. The ultimate nature of reality, of things as they really are, is emptiness.

Incidentally, the concept of Buddhist emptiness is known by the Sanskrit term, Sunyata, which is also translated as nothingness. The concept is not a negative one, but a positive rendering of existence and the relationship of all things.

Here is a koan:

When you drink an entire glass of water, is the glass then empty, or is there nothing in it?

Are emptiness and nothingness the same thing? The dictionary lists the two as synonyms for each other. It says emptiness is a void; nothingness is nonexistence. Is there a difference?

Is this a Hayakawan exercise in semiotics?

Or is it another koan?

Long ago, when I took first-year physics, we trusting students were told that the celestial expanse was a void, a total vacuum, a space empty of matter. I had a hard time getting my mind around that.

Now we know different. Outer space is crammed with stars, and planets, and moons, and meteors, and asteroids, and interplanetary dust, as well as lots of human litter.

We naive students were also told that cold was the absence of heat, and dark was the absence of light.

What a way to describe something, by using its opposite. I’m sure science has advanced beyond such barren statements.

Perhaps that’s one reason why I never sparkled as an engineer, but instead became a writer.

If a writer isn’t satisfied with reality as explained to him, he can create his own.

* * * * *

Are there any questions or comments?

The usual silence is deafening, so I’ll provide you with a question.

What’s the difference between Sunyata and Nirvana?

Here is one answer that probably won’t satisfy you.

Sunyata refers to the transience, the impermanence, of things in existence. Cities, cars, trees, human beings. Here today, gone tomorrow. Nothing lasts forever. Things in the phenomenal world appear to be real outside, but they are empty within.

Nirvana is a human state that is free from suffering. It can also be thought of as one’s innermost nature, or Buddhahood. In some Western minds, nirvana is comparable to the Christian heaven, but that’s a misunderstanding.

As Maseo Abe wrote, the book Zen and Comparative Studies, “. . . the goal of Zen is not Eternal life as the Supreme Good, but that which is neither life nor death, neither good nor evil, namely Emptiness or sunyata.”

Zen is neither life nor death, neither good nor evil.

Zen is emptiness.

* * * * *

To sum this up in a tanka:

All the aches and pains

Of the body and the mind

Don’t last forever.

In Zen, this is emptiness.


Blogger Alan Gregory Wonderwheel said...

Here is a koan:

When you drink an entire glass of water, is the glass then empty, or is there nothing in it?

Sorry, but I don't see that as a koan. It is close, but not quite there.

Compare to Mazu's line in response to a question, "When you drink up the whole river then I will tell you."

Now, there's a koan. ;-)

Wednesday, December 10, 2008 4:02:00 PM  

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