Dharma Talk

On Emptiness

May 20, 2020

Hosho Peter Coyote

I’m going to talk about the Buddhist concept of emptiness today after zazen. And to do that, I have to talk about a little history. It can get dry. I’ll try to make it interesting. It interests me, so maybe my interest will become infectious.

A couple of things. There’s a website … if anyone wants to email me with any questions, there’s an email address sfzencoyote@gmail.com . I’ll try to answer questions that people have, or I said something that confused you. My website, PeterCoyote.com, there’s a section for Buddhism where the transcripts of these talks are going up for those of you who like to read as opposed to listen.

My phone is still so dead it won’t even turn on. I don’t want people to think they are late when they are not. In the monastery, if you are late for zazen, you have to stand outside, with your hands like in shashu with your hands jammed against your solar plexus. You just breathe in place and meditate. Because everything in a zen monastery is run by gongs and chimes, and they don’t allow you to disturb people by being late, it actually helps you get your stuff together. Helps you organize your life, and make sure that you are in the zendo before the chimes ring.

There’s a big wooden block, called a “han”. It’s kind of that big 24 x 12 inches and maybe that 6 inches thick, and a guy stands in front with a hammer “bock” sounds it and then a minute later. At seven minutes they’ll go in a downward cycle of “tak tak tak tak tak.” That’s the first series, and maybe five minutes later there will be another series. By the end of the third series, the warnings are up, and you have to be in the zendo.

------ [3 bells and gassho].

Good morning. Thank you all for coming. The people who came late, obviously didn’t hear the request not to send emoji smiley faces and hearts while we sit. Can’t win them all.

I advertised that this talk would be about emptiness because it’s a big concept in Buddhism. It’s a kind of core concept, and it seems to confuse a lot of people. I’ve heard many knowledgeable religious leaders talking about Buddhists not believing in anything, or wanting to disappear, or wanting to be about nothing.

I thought I’d talk about that. But to do that, I have to talk a little bit about Buddha and Buddhism. Here’s a little bit of history. Buddha was born about 2500 years ago. 500 something BCE, although there have been recent excavations that may have pushed the date of his birth back 600 years. It would have been 3000 years ago.  He grew up in a part of Nepal.

His father was a tribal leader. Before western European nations colonized India and the Middle East, it was organized by tribes, not by states. Today in places like Pakistan, the Pashtuns are a huge nation. There was no Iraq. Iraq was an invention of post WW1 adjustments. One of our contemporary problems in that region is drawing those nation-state boundaries threw all kinds of Sunnis and Shias together, whereas once they all had their own kind of territory, and their own customs: things got turned around.

Buddha’s father was a ruler of a tribe, a large tribe. Buddha was raised to be a warrior. He was raised to be a soldier. His father went to great lengths, as we all do, to see that our kids have a perfect life. In Buddha’s case, he lived on a huge estate with thousands of acres of hunting and streams and places to play, and his father saw to it that he didn’t leave. At least this is the Buddhist myth. This is what people are told.

One day when he was married, he had children, he had concubines – he had everything he needed – but one day he got his chariot driver to take him outside the palace walls, and he went into town, and it was there that he supposedly first encountered sickness, old age and death. He saw a very old woman, hobbling along on a cane. He’d never seen anything unsightly, or unattractive, or jarring. Later on, he saw people laying in the streets, he saw bodies being burned, he saw all sorts of illnesses, suffering and unhappiness, and it kind of unhinged him. I mean, he became kind of obsessed with the subject.

He became so obsessed about why we suffer, that one day he stole away from the palace. He left his wife and family. He knew that they would be wanting for nothing, and he went, and he joined a group of ascetics living in the forest. These guys were caught in the dichotomy of matter versus spirit. They were punishing their bodies. They were ignoring the material world to try to achieve a kind of spiritual enlightenment. You used to see something like it at Grateful Dead concerts: people high on acid, coursing through “nirvana”, in filthy clothes, unwashed, un put-together. It had the same kind of feeling to it. “It doesn’t matter. It’s the spirit that counts.”

Buddha did this for six years. He lived with these people. One day he decided he had to “up his game”, and he sat under a big banyan tree. Banyan trees are strange trees because it sends roots down from the branches. They are huge. There are these columns that come down. And people live in these columns. Buddha sat under those columns, and he vowed that he was not going to move until he got enlightened. While he was there, again according to legend, a milkmaid came by with a big bowl of warm, fresh cow’s milk, full of cream, full of nourishment. Buddha was so thin and starving, and there are statues of Buddha meditating and you can see all his ribs – just on the verge of death. And he drank this bowl of milk, and it nourished him. It gave him strength.

He vowed not to leave his seat until he achieved enlightenment. During that night, the myths have it that all sorts of temptations were laid before him. Mara, the great temptress, threw demons up in front of him, threw beautiful women, threw every kind of attraction to throw him off his game.

A huge cobra was said to come and established himself over Buddha’s head to protect him, and there are little statues you can get of Buddha sitting under a cobra that are pretty groovy. In the morning, the morning star rose, and Buddha had his breakthrough, and he understood something about emptiness.

He understood something about dependent origination, how everything was hooked up and not separate – that the separateness of things was an illusion. That there was a fundamental unity to the universe. But then for a long time, he thought it was too subtle and too difficult to teach, he just didn’t think that anyone would ever get it. But he meditated on it for forty days, and his compassion was such that he decided to try to begin to teach. His first teaching was on the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path.

With whom he came back, by the way, after his morning of enlightenment, was that small band of ascetics with whom he had practiced, and he was so self-evidently a different person that they all prostrated themselves in front of him, and became his first students with whom he began practicing his teaching and refining it.

Let’s fast-forward 500 years. The main sect of Buddhism was called the Sarvāstivādins, and they were people who felt that the world could be known, that Buddha had broken it down into systems. They were great for making lists. They compiled an encyclopedia that would account for the world without the ego – it’s called the Abhidharma.

There was a leading scholar at that time named Shariputra. Shariputra made these incredible lists: the five skandhas, the twelve abodes of sensation, the eighteen elements of perception, twelve links of dependent origination. His people held sway. They were called the Sarvāstivādins, but today we call them Hinayana, which is the “smaller vehicle”, because some scholars stated their primary concern was self-enlightenment. They were trying to reach nirvana. They were trying to reach a breakthrough, and per the scholars they were basically concerned for themselves. But more recently they are called the “fundamental vehicle”, as their practices are quite primary to all schools of Buddhism.

Around 2000 years ago, starting around the first century BCE, the Mahayana understanding began to evolve. Mahayana means “great vehicle”. Their goal was to achieve enlightenment for everybody, even my dog. They began to critique the Sarvāstivādin understanding. There was a sutra, which is a teaching, in the smallest, most condensed version of Buddha’s teaching. It is called the “Heart Sutra”. In Sanskrit it is the Prajna Paramita Sutra. Prajna means “wisdom”. But the word is broken in half. “Pra” means “before” and “jna” means “knowing”. This is actually the knowledge you have before you know anything.

I’m going to read the Heart Sutra. There are a couple things I have to tell you about it so you can make sense of it. It’s called the Maha Prajna Paramita Sutra – the Great Understanding of Wisdom. Great Wisdom. It’s cast as a little dramatic play. The first word of this sutra is name of the person giving the teaching who is Avalokitesvara.

Avalokitesvara, sometimes Kwan Yin, sometimes Kanzeon. You’ve all seen statues of her. Sometimes a man, sometimes a woman, but this is the Bodhisattva who hears the suffering of the world and is there to help people.

Sometimes you see Buddhist statues with hundreds of arms. These arms are all about emblems about how we help people. We are all emblems of helping. She would be, maybe, the closest thing in Western images, to the Virgin Mary. The way people regard the Virgin Mary as a great heart of compassion.

Avalokitesvara is teaching. The thing about the Bodhisattva, this word, “bodhisattva” was that it was a great addition to human thought. I don’t know if you have ever been involved in a group effort where everybody’s trying to do something noble and pure, or even in a monastery, there’s a temptation for people to get kind of ruthless. “If I can just get enlightenment, then I can turn around and help everyone,” where that leads to no good.

The bodhisattva concept was that they would be the last beings to be enlightened. They will help everyone else across, and then they will go last. It was an emblem of selflessness, and that lack of craving enlightenment, that lack of demanding it, left bodhisattvas free to help other people.

So, the first line is:

Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva when practicing deeply the Prajnaparamita,

Which is the kind of meditation we’re doing.

               Perceived that all five skandhas in their own-being are empty and was saved from all suffering.

Now the “skandhas”, the word “skandhas” related to the trunk of a tree. That was an early understanding that eyes, ears, nose, mouth, were each supported by a trunk of consciousness.

Avalokitesvara has just had a new look, and he is saying for the first time, “these skandhas are empty. They don’t exist as separate things.” Now he turns around and he talks to this guy Shariputra, who is the most famous scholar of the time, and he says:

Oh, Shariputra, form does not differ from emptiness.

Emptiness does not differ from form.

That which is form is emptiness.

That which is emptiness, form.

The same is true of feelings, perceptions, impulses, and consciousness.

That was one of Shariputra’s lists. A human being was constituted of these five skandhas: form, feeling, impulses, sensations, consciousness. So, right away, he’s [Avalokitesvara is] stepping into his [Shariputra’s] turf. Stepping on his robe. He says:

Shariputra, all dharmas

Dharma means individual things.

               All dharmas are marked with emptiness.

Meaning, that’s their core nature.

               They do not appear or disappear, are not tainted nor pure, do not increase or decrease.

Well, that’s a world very different that the world of our daily understanding, where I’m over here and you’re over there. We see people being born; we see people dying; we see trees coming, changing. Here he’s going to talk about it.

This is what he says, while he’s describing emptiness, what is interesting about this sutra is that it is all cast in negatives. It’s cast in negatives because he is basically systematically destroying this earlier Sarvāstivādin understanding. The understanding that you could study hard to get enough knowledge so that you could understand the whole world. So, he says:

Therefore, in emptiness, there is no form, no feeling, no perceptions, no impulses, no consciousness.

No eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind.

No color, no sound, no smell, no taste, no touch, no object of mind.

This was another one of Shariputra’s concepts. There’s mind and then there’s an object of mind. There are eyes, and then there is an object of eye, and when the two meet, consciousness is created.

               No realm of eyes, until no realm of mind consciousness.

               No ignorance, and also no extinction of it.

That’s worth stopping there a second. Because form and emptiness sound like a dichotomy. Form is over here; emptiness is over there. Emptiness is the real stuff. Form is the stuff that is changing. But later on, in the Heart Sutra it says that “form is form, and emptiness is emptiness.” It’s not a dualism. We say, “Sun-faced Buddha, Moon-faced Buddha.” They are different expressions of the same thing, like waves and the ocean.

No ignorance, and also no extinction of it until old age and death, and also no extinction of it.

No suffering, no origination, no stopping, no path.

No cognition, also no attainment.

There’s nothing namable, graspable, that you can attain.

               With nothing to attain, the Bodhisattva depends on Prajnaparamita.

He meditates.

               And the mind is no hindrance.

               Without any hindrance, no fears exist.

               Far apart from every perverted view, he/she dwells in nirvana.

               In the three worlds, all Buddhas depend on Prajnaparamita attain anuttara samyak sambodhi.

Unsurpassed, complete, perfect enlightenment. So, he says:

               Therefore, know the Prajnaparamita is the great transcendent mantra.

The mantra, you know, is a phrase. He’s going to give us this phrase, by which we can remember this teaching.

               It’s the great, bright mantra.

               It’s the utmost mantra.

               It’s the supreme mantra, which is able to relieve all suffering and is true, not false.

               So, proclaim the Prajnaparamita mantra.

               Proclaim the mantra which says:

               Gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate. Bodhi. Svaha!

Svaha means “done”, “accomplished”. And it is translated into English. It means, “Gone. Gone. Gone beyond. Gone beyond beyond.  Bodhi. Svaha!”

That’s the most famous sutra in all of Buddhism, and it tackles the question of emptiness head on.

The Buddhists have had three understandings of wisdom, still do, actually. There’s mundane wisdom – everyday wisdom which has everything backwards. It views the impermanent as permanent. It sees the impure as pure. It sees what has no self as having a self. This is the way most of the world lives.

Most of the world thinks we have a self. It’s kind of a thing, even though I don’t know where it is, or what color it is, or exactly where it’s located. “I know who I am.” We say things like, “He knows who he is.” [Shrugs] If you knew who you were, it means you are no longer in process. It means you have a defined shape, a fixed shape, a fixed identity. That is the fundamental ignorance that Buddha saw through.

Then the next level is metaphysical wisdom, people who study the mysteries and we get more sophisticated, and our understanding is a little more nuanced. Metaphysical wisdom views what appears to be permanent as impermanent, views what appears to be pure as impure, and what appears to have a self as not having a self. But really, it’s an advancement, it’s closer to the way things are, but both of them result in having attachment to views and ideas and concepts and knowledge, and even the idea of transcendental wisdom. It leads a lot of people off the path. Because when we look for teachers, we keep looking for somebody out of the ordinary.

So, there’s a lot of transcendental charlatans … a lot of people who we expect to be more perfect than they are. They may have profound insight about something, but they’re not a special being. There is only this reality. The idea of looking for a different state of mind in which the weather is always sunny, that’s mundane wisdom, “that ain’t happening.”

Finally, transcendent wisdom, which is where we get into zen practice, or Maha Prajna Paramita. Transcendent wisdom looks at all things mundane or metaphysical, both sides of the spectrum, as neither permanent nor impermanent. They are beyond description. No old age and death, and also no extinction of it. Buddha didn’t say the self was real, or false. He said it wasn’t permanent. They see that things are neither pure nor impure, neither having or not having a self, because it is all inconceivable, and inexpressible. It’s all operating on a level beyond language.

Language, for all the gifts it gives us, for everything wonderful it does for us, it exacts a tax. It tends to reify the things that it names. It tends to make us feel that they are fixed and real. And there are several consequences from that. Once you get the idea of a tree, you don’t really have to look at each tree separately. That’s efficient, but it’s also a loss.

You don’t have to look at each person. “Oh, yeah, I know that guy. He wears his hair that way, has an earring. Got it.” This is part of the problem with naming. We can’t get on without it, but it’s only one half of the equation.

I talked about self and other. I talked about waves in the ocean. Each little wave that comes up, a little wavelet. Something in the universe that could be named. It appears to be a singular person. Could be a person – sometimes I imagine shy waves, or insecure waves, or really bold waves, and “I’m the ‘baddest’ wave in the ocean.” Just like us, they rise up into form, they hang around for a while, and they go back to the ocean.

We call the “hanging around for a while” “living”, and we call the “ocean” “dying”, but what we forget, and the waves forget is that they have not for one instant not been part of the ocean. And neither have we.

So, what emptiness is about is not really nothingness. Emptiness is about erasing the artificial distinctions between things. That the distinctions that we see as so fixed and permanent are transitory. Our life is transitory, this body is transitory – the institutions of humankind – look at the Parthenon. You look at Machu Picchu. You see these things that one appeared to be permanent to the citizens of those places.  And now they are a little Peruvian peanut vendor, selling in the ruins of Machu Picchu.

This idea of emptiness, Suzuki-roshi has a quote that I want to read, because it is very germane. This is the way we bring this rather theoretical stuff into our life. Suzuki-roshi says:

We have to believe in something which has no form and no color. Something which exists before all forms and colors. No matter what god or doctrine you believe in, if you become attached to it, your belief will be based, more or less, on a self-centered idea.

It’s very hard for us to stay alert to the fact that we view the world through our ego, because, normally, we don’t have a place where we can step outside of it. So, everything we see is through this spectrum of what Buddhists call “small mind”. Big Mind is what is outside the ego.

It’s like putting a salt cellar upon the table. The salt cellar is the self, and the table is the space it’s in.

Why does he say that we have to believe in something that we can’t see, that has no color and has no form?

Well, one reason that we have to believe in it, is because, if we don’t, we’re always trapped in the domain of our small mind. We can never see the world objectively. We can never see other people without filtering them through our prejudices. What we like, and what we don’t like. This is why in the very first Dharma talk, I talked about forms and the importance of sitting a certain way. – whether you like it or not!

The part of you that doesn’t like it, and honors that, is the part that gets you in trouble, is the part that gets unhappy, is the part that does stupid stuff.

This idea of this kind of pregnant formless energy, generating the things of the world … that’s a dangerous metaphor because it sounds dualistic. But one way that I first began to understand it, was to imagine that emptiness is just visible in the forms it makes. You can’t see it. And the fact that there’s an infinitude of available forms, shows us that formlessness has no boundaries. If it had color, we couldn’t see colors. If it had a shape, we couldn’t make certain shapes.

Why we meditate is to acknowledge this energy. It’s for getting us, for a time, outside of our small mind. You can do it temporarily with meditation. You can do it with psychedelics, but the problem is you can’t fix it. It’s temporary. As long as you have enough drugs, you can be pretty high, you can pretty move around in there, but you can’t live with high. You can’t go to work. You can’t do the things you have to do. But it can give you a glimpse of something. To me, acid is like being taken to the Grand Canyon in a helicopter. The vista is fantastic. It’s gorgeous. It’s mesmerizing. It’s life-changing, to some degree, but you got flown in a helicopter. You don’t know how you got there, and don’t know your way back without the helicopter.

When you meditate, when you accept the slow, patient, gradual deepening – what we call walking in the fog until you get soaked you are making your own trail there. And when you have a wake-up experience, you won’t stay there.

But it is as if you see the edge of the moon behind the clouds. You only have to see the edge of the moon to know that the whole moon is there. You are reminded of the whole moon. You only have to have an enlightenment experience … it might be five minutes; it might be a half hour. It’s not going to be forever. But from that time on, you can see the connection between the visible edges of it and the full roundness of the moon.

Unless you have this idea of emptiness, unless you can accept the fact that you can kind of dissolve all your filters, and dissolve your prisms, and dissolve your fixed ways of doing things, and you will get an unimaginable sense of freedom.

Because if we look at the world through our small self, we can’t imagine extending the boundaries of that small self. It never occurs to us that the back of our head is open, into the entire solar system. Or that our spinal telephone is plugged into the cosmic switchboard. It’s all coming through.

Emptiness is not nothing. Emptiness is not a denigration of the material world. Emptiness, in the Heart Sutra I just read, “Shariputra, form is not different from emptiness. Emptiness is not different than form.”

Why do we say a form is empty? We say a form is empty because it is not made of a singular thing. It’s made of non-self elements. This thing I call a self, according to Buddhist scripture is made up of body, form, impulse, sensation, consciousness. It’s made up of sunlight, it’s made up of water, it’s made up of the microbes in the soil that grew my food, it’s made up of pollenating insects – I’m inseparable from all of that.

The fact that I have this body, for a while, this form for a while, gives me the illusion that I have a separate existence. Separate from oxygen? How long with that work? Separate from water? How long with that work? Separate from people growing my food? Separate from doctors? Come on!

You can get it intellectually, but the whole practice of the mantra, “Gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate, Bodhi, Svaha!” is to remind you of that entire sutra.

Therefore, in emptiness, no form, no feeling, no perceptions, no impulses, no consciousness. No eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind. No color, no sound, no smell, no taste, no object of mind. No realm of eyes until no realm of mind consciousness. No ignorance, and also no extinction of it until no old age and death, and also no extinction of it.

That’s the wild land. That’s the wild kingdom, and we are wild inside. Because it’s wild out there.

We lose a lot when we settle for only domesticity. When we settle for only being good little boys and girls. Not having access to our real birthright of the deepest transcendental knowledge.

So, that’s a good bite. I think that is enough for today.  

I invite you to join me in this three-line prayer.

May all beings be filled with lovingkindness.

May all beings be free from suffering.

May all beings be happy and at peace.

On my website, I’m posting some books. I’m posting transcripts of these speeches. I hope to see everybody next Wednesday at the same time.

Thank you very much.