Monday, June 15, 2015




A koan asks, When you can do nothing, what do you do?


          I’d like all of you to cup your hands in front of you. Now tell me what you have in your hands. What color is it? How heavy is it? What does it sound like?

          Nothing is hard to describe, isn’t it?

          This is a Zen group, and I am speaking in Zen terms, not philosophical terms. Such philosophers as Parmeides, Heidegger, and Sarte wrote about nothingness and my hat is off to them. But to them the question was, why is there something rather than nothing?

          If you say, “There is nothing,” then you have to acknowledge on observer. And if there is an observer, there is something.

          I can’t tell you what nothingness is. No one can. I can scatter words around, but words fall short. In fact, when it comes to nothingness, words are meaningless. We can talk about something, but not about nothing. Nothingness isn’t shaped like a gourd or a bicycle. It doesn’t taste like chicken. It isn’t green. Nothingness is what’s left when everything is taken away.

          You’ve been warned.

          “The time has come,” the walrus said, “to speak of many things. Of shoes and ships and sealing wax, and cabbages and kings.” In this talk I’ll be speaking of many things that are a lot less tangible than shoes and cabbages. Some may not seem to hang together, but don’t worry about that. If you grasp them intuitively, that’s great. Otherwise, let the words and the notions sink into your consciousness.

          Remember the mirror-wiping episode of Hui-neng and Shen-hsiu? Can anyone recall Hui-neng’s verse, or at least the gist of it?

There is no Bodhi-tree,

Neither is there a shining mirror.

Since there is nothing at all,

Where can dust collect?

          Meditate on that. If you care to, take it as a koan. But don’t pick it apart for hidden meanings. Don’t analyze the words. Don’t even visualize mirrors and dust.

There is no Bodhi-tree,

Neither is there a shining mirror.

Since there is nothing at all,

Where can dust collect?

          Think about it when you’re driving your car, when you’re painting a wall or baking a potato, before you go to sleep, when you wake up.

          See it. Grasp it. Sense it inside yourself. When you do that you’ll be on the way to understanding nothingness.

          Remember, from the first not a thing is.

          Who can describe what, in Zen, is called original mind? I’ll wait for an answer.

    *     *     *

          Original mind is one’s mind before it becomes cluttered with notions, ideas, rules, and regulations that are a part of living a human life. Original mind is simple and pure. By pure I don’t mean virginal. I mean squeaky clean.

          Are you with me so far?  Okay.

If original mind is pure, why is it necessary to wipe dust off? If original mind is pure, then dust-wiping, or rinsing with hot water, or scrubbing with a Brillo pad has no meaning.

          When you think of original mind, or your face before you were born, you perhaps imagine original mind as something you can visualize or describe.

          Are you still with me? Okay.

 If original mind is something like a book is something, then you can stand back, figuratively speaking, and look at it. Observe it. You are here, and a book, or original mind, is there. Right?

          Not right. Original mind doesn’t have shape or form. It’s not separate from you in place or in time. There’s no observer and observed. There’s no distinction or separation.

You are original mind, original mind is you.

          This is very important.

          Don’t mistake original mind, pure mind, true self—whatever you choose to call it—as something separate from you. If you expect to see an image of your pure, true self, you’ll be disappointed. Hui-neng rejected the notion of a clean mirror by declaring there is no mirror, no dust.

 Now make a big leap.

          This is nothingness.

          Nothingness is the doing away with all objectified qualities. By that I mean doing away with “I am this, that is that.” Nothingness a state of no-ness in which observer and observed are indistinguishable.

          From the first, not a thing is. When you understand this . . . . No, when you are altogether aware of the notion of “From the first not a thing is,” all logic and reason are wiped out. What’s left?

Nothing is left. This is nothingness.

          I’m almost finished, and I’ll wind this up with a dialogue between Shen-hui, one of Hui-neng’s followers, and a man named Chan-yen King. Their conversation went something like this:

          Chan-yen King asked, “When the mirror has nothing to illuminate, the illumination itself loses its meaning, doesn’t it?”

          Shen-hui said, “When I talk about illumination, this illumination is eternal and has no reference to the presence or absence of objects.”

          “Why then do you talk of illumination?”

          “I talk of illumination because the mind has in it wisdom, which illuminates the entire world-system.”

          “That being so, when is it attained?”

          “Just see into nothingness.”

          “Even if it is nothingness, it is seeing something.

          “Though it is seeing, it is not to be called something.”

          If it is not to be called something, how can there be the seeing?”

          “Seeing into nothingness. This is true seeing and eternal seeing.”


In conclusion,

There is no Bodhi-tree,

Neither is there a shining mirror.

Since there is nothing at all,

Where can dust collect?

          I hope I’ve offered you some thoughts about nothing.


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