Tuesday, April 24, 2012


Ryōkan (17581831) was a Soto Zen monk who lived in Niigata, Japan. He was proclaimed a Zen master, but he avoided temples and monasteries and made his home as a hermit and poet in the forest.

          Here is one of Ryokan’s verses.

“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.

I’ll repeat that last line.  

In the vast emptiness, my understanding deepens.

          Once when I was visiting a Buddhist temple in Thailand, I noticed a monk sitting across a courtyard. I smiled at him, and he waved me close. He spoke excellent English, and we fell into a conversation about Buddhism.

          At one point I asked, “In simple terms, how do you define Buddhism?”

“Buddhism is emptiness,” he said,

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

Buddhism is the nothing beyond being. It’s the fullness of nothing.

Let’s go back in history.

Until the 1800s Japan stood apart from the Western world. Japan exchanged goods and ideas with China and Korea, but it retained its own social structure, its own language, and its own convictions. It avoided contact with Westerners, whom it considered barbarians.

          Then in 1853 America’s Commodore Matthew Perry entered Japan’s Edo Bay with four American warships.

          Perry wasn’t making a social call. He offered Emperor Komei two options. One was opening the country to commercial trade with the West. The other was being blown out of the water by the ship’s cannons. Neither choice was appealing, but Japan knuckled under.

          In short order, Western society inundated the country’s rich heritage.

Missionaries poured in to convert the so-called heathens to the Christian way of thinking. One compassionate course involved the destruction of Japanese temples and shrines.

The Japanese people may have been physically intimidated, but they did not swallow religious teachings completely.

          One missionary, the Jesuit, Cosme de Torres, was known for his intellectual wrangling, and he wrote: "Those [Jesuits] who come to these regions must be very learned in order to answer the very deep and difficult questions which the Japanese ask from morning till night.”

          Christian priests spoke about God, while Buddhist and Shinto monks spoke about emptiness.

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

Remember the old brainteaser of water in a glass?

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 vacancy, a hole, and nothingness is nonexistence.

Is there a difference?

Is this a semantic word game?

Or is it a Zen koan?

Things change.

Long ago, when I took first-year physics, students were told outer space was a total vacuum, empty of matter.

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 junk.

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

If a writer isn’t satisfied with an explanation of reality, he can fashion his own interpretation.

*     *     *     *     *

Here is a question.

What’s the difference between Sunyata and Nirvana?

Here is an answer.

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

That’s Sunyata.

Nirvana is a human state in which one has attained disinterested wisdom and compassion. It can also be thought of as one’s innermost nature, or Buddhahood.

In some Western minds, Nirvana is assumed to be comparable to the Christian notion of Heaven, but that’s a half-assed assumption. It’s as false as the old notion of empty space.

As Maseo Abe wrote (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 Japanese tanka:

          All the aches and pains
Of the body and the mind
          Don’t last forever.
And so, this is emptiness.


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