awakening ain’t thinking it

Listen to this spiritual talk. You may download, but please do not repost.


This is the second talk given by Nona Strong Roshi at the June 2022 zen sesshin at Mercy Center Burlingame.

In the Heart Sutra, we read: Form is no other than emptiness; emptiness is no other than form. Form is exactly emptiness, emptiness exactly form.

The Diamond Sutra has the same fact this way: Dwelling nowhere, mind arises. Or mind comes forth. We might see it this way: Dwelling nowhere [emptiness], mind [form] comes forth.

In both expressions, what we see / perceive [form] is what there is [emptiness] … and what there is not, as it turns out. Everything we perceive arises – materializes – within the Void. And that everything includes material forms, thoughts, notions of “being,” even time itself. This is just too confusing for our thinking minds to understand, so we’ll forgo any further explanations. But here’s a description of an actual event, something that happened to a person near and dear to us all, and this description may paint a picture for you.

No echo

No inner stenographer, editor, censor, viewer (this is scary, at first)

Everything missing

Nothing to confirm that the one who lives exists

Alone, black, endless, no horizon

No medium in which to transmit

No ripples, no gravity waves

No ending, no beginning

But no one to be alone; in fact, there is no alone

No echo. That means there’s nothing off which anything can bounce. No sound wall, no echo; no mirror, no reflection. No “this,” no “that”; no “here,” no “there.” Just a vast spaciousness that defies definition, that defies characterization, that defies description. All words are useless. Only limitless, boundless freedom abounds. Emptiness is the fullest thing there is.

No part of this event occurred as a result of thinking or intellection. And it didn’t take as long to happen as it did to read the foregoing description. All this happened in a flash – an instantaneous happening. It’s always this way, and it may look different in each instance. Just look at all the descriptions of awakening that Kapleau Roshi relates in his classic book (The Three Pillars of Zen). They’re unique to each person.

You all know the story of the Sixth Zen Patriarch, in 8th century China. A poor, illiterate youngster, who sold wood to support himself and his widowed mother, heard an old man reciting Buddhist scripture. And upon hearing one line, the youngster was awakened. He heard it and had a big “Aha!” moment.

Dwelling nowhere, mind comes forth.

That is, out of nothing, everything arises. Emptiness is infinite potential – to use Fr. Greg’s word, it is plenitude. Everything we perceive is born out of nothing. Everything we see, feel, taste, touch, do, think, whatever … is just a form of “nothing.” We see this reality expressed all over the place – in the Judeo-Christian New Testament, in Buddhist and Hindu scripture, even in today’s Western sciences: quantum physics, astrophysics, cosmology – everywhere! We all live in the same dream, in which everything is nothing, and nothing is everything. Sounds pretty bleak, doesn’t it? Well, not really. Just wait!

The story continues as the youngster gets wrapped up in a challenge issued by the master of a certain monastery. Write me a verse, the master said to his monks, that expresses your understanding of Reality. The most prominent student writes this verse and posts it for all to see:

The body is the Bodhi tree
The mind is like a clear mirror, 
At all times we must strive to polish it 
And let no dust alight. 

Here, body and mind are abiding elements of existence, which we must maintain in order to fulfill and perfect our existence. Now, our illiterate outsider, upon seeing this verse, says, “Fine and dandy. But that’s not the deep truth.” So, he offers this counter-verse:

Bodhi originally has no tree, 
The mirror also has no stand.

From the beginning not a thing is.
Where is there room for dust? 

In his own words, he restates the line from the sutra: Dwelling nowhere, mind comes forth. In his words, From the beginning not a thing is. Nothing is the basis for everything. What a realization he’s expressing! And then, in recognition (albeit secret), the head honcho acknowledges the realization of our outsider, the illiterate youth. He recognizes the Dharma – the fact – that is expressed in this little verse.

Okay, so everything we perceive is born out of nothing. “So what?” you may ask. What’s the point of this cryptic verse? Well, I don’t’ really know what the master saw. But here’s what I get from it.

The Dharma feeds everything that is, everything we perceive in our world, everything we have to deal with in our daily lives. In fact, the Dharma is everything that is; every thing – every sight, sound, taste, touch, thought, object of thought (everything the Heart Sutra enumerates, and more) is the Dharma. There’s nothing outside it.

Recognizing, realizing that that everything is nothing in form, we can release our attachment to that everything and all its parts. We can free ourselves from the ties that bind us to our own particular brand of dust – our perceptions, thoughts, feelings, opinions, judgments, likes, dislikes – all the stuff that puts us at odds with ourselves and our fellows. We can release our attachments.

Now, this doesn’t mean that we don’t or can’t see things that do seem to bounce off one another and create discord in our world. Remember, we all live in the same dream. But it does mean that we need not attach ourselves to such things. They are not intrinsically part of us; we needn’t identify ourselves (or others) with or as those things. We don’t have to judge them as us. Rather, we can accept them as they are and behave accordingly.

If we have to act forcefully to prevent harm from being done, we act. If we have to speak out against hatred or injustice, we speak. As Dr. King said, The moral arc of the Universe is long, but it bends toward justice. It may be hard to see that axiom in operation in present times, but there’s something there that rings true. It’s the tone from the tuning fork that we all can hear and see and feel in our bones.

So, let us hold to the realization that everything is nothing in form, that we all live in the same dream. And whether the dream feels in any given moment like a little piece of heaven or a ghastly nightmare, let us find ourselves acting in accordance with what life is presenting us in that moment. And let us be free to respond to that life as the moment demands. A daunting task, to be sure, but one that we can accomplish with mindful attention. And with dedicated practice.