Zoketsu continues an exploration of the essential emptiness of phenomena, as taught in the Diamond Sutra, with a discussion of the practice of renunciation.
Zazenkai, May 7, 2000, Karuna Meditation Society retreat,
I'll review a little bit of what I was saying yesterday, because to speak of emptiness bears
repeating. The Heart Sutra that we chant every day is chanted in all Zen places all over the
world. Not only in Zen but all Mahayana Buddhists honor the Heart Sutra. This sutra is about
emptiness, of course, as well as the Diamond Sutra, so we can never exhaust this discussion of
"What is emptiness?" "How do we understand emptiness?" and more importantly, "How do we live
So yesterday, as I was talking about the title of the sutra, I was talking about shunyata,
emptiness, the fact that everything is empty without exception. There's not one thing left over
that is not empty, or two, but everything, without exception, is empty, and that also includes
emptiness itself. Emptiness itself is empty. I don't think I spoke of this yesterday, but another
way of understanding what emptiness is, is that emptiness means that all things, including all
phenomena (not only physical things, but thoughts, feelings, and so on) are all mere designations,
mere names, necessary conveniences that make it possible for us to converse with each other, buy
groceries, and basically make it through the day. Without these designations, without the creation
of the world based on designations, you can't get anywhere or do anything. So it's very important
that we have these designations — but it's equally important that we recognize them as
designations, as empty.
This means that if you actually look for something that you've named, if you actually try to find
its fundamental nub, its nature (which is not actually possible) you won't be able to do this.
The real nature of something is called in Sanskrit "svabhava," meaning "own being," like the "own
being" of something. The actual essence of it, if you look for that, the actual essence of
something is not findable.
This reminds me of this movie that I recommend, if you ever have a chance to get it. It's called
"Powers of Ten." Maybe some of you know about this movie. It was made by Charles and Ray Eames,
who are an American couple who were designers, and they made this film. The premise of the film is
very simple: this fellow is having a picnic in Chicago, near the park, and he's lying on a picnic
blanket taking a nap. There's a camera maybe ten feet above him, showing him lying there, and the
entire movie is that the camera pulls back from him, each time a power of 10 further back. Ten to
the second power, ten to the third power, ten to the fourth power, ten to the fifth power… So the
camera, you can imagine, is going way back, past the solar system, past this galaxy, past the know
boundaries of the universe. And then it comes back, and goes the other way, by powers of ten
closer into the man's body. And as it goes closer, you see the hairs are like gigantic trees, and
the pores are like huge crevasses in mountains. Then it goes further past that, and there's a
certain kind of similarity between the inside, going that deep, minisculely small, and going back
Ultimately, you see that at a certain point there's just space, nothing is there — going inside
and also going outside. So this is not some ancient Indian fantasy that things are empty. It's a
modern-day fantasy also, that everything is actually space. You can't find it. You look in there
and there's nothing there. It's actually the case that there isn't anything there. So the more
closely you look at anything, the more you find that it isn't, it actually isn't, and that all it
is is what we have put together as a world, so that we can live in it.
Now I don't know if the rest of the men in the retreat have noticed this, but probably you have.
In the men's bathroom there's a tiny little spider on top of the urinal, so when you go in there
to pee there's this little spider there. This spider's been there, I think — I don't know — the
whole weekend, but certainly all day today, I forget if it was there yesterday. This is a very
unusual spider, I've never seen it, very tiny. And so, basically, you get to contemplate this
spider several times a day – the older you are the more frequently you get to contemplate this
spider. I really don't know what this spider's thinking, sitting there all day long. Why is this
spider there? I don't know. Are there microscopic little creatures that it's gobbling up? I have
no idea. Is it there out of friendliness? I have no idea. And what is its experience? When a
person comes and stands in front of there and pees, what is this spider thinking, what is it
experiencing? Does it say, "What a drag, all these guys are coming here and splashing!" I don't
think so, because I don't think that the world that the spider lives in includes such things. I
don't think there are guys peeing in this spider's universe. I don't think it's a problem for this
spider, because I think that world is a different world.
Now we could say, "A spider's world doesn't matter. It's the human world that's the real world."
But we all know better than that, I think. I think we all know that it's not so, that while the
human world is a wonderful world, it's the human world. A spider's world is a wonderful world.
It's totally unknown to us. For all we know, the spider is in bliss consciousness every minute.
Maybe the spider is a Buddha. We really don't know, because we have no access to that world, and
it's a very different world. So is it a little bit less real because it's a spider, or is it a
little bit more real? Well actually, it's an empty world. The actual world is completely empty and
unknown to anyone. All anyone knows is the world that they inherit according to karma. If you're a
human being, you inherit a urinal. If you're a spider, we don't know what you inherit — but it's
not a urinal.
So this is the emptiness of the world. Every creature creates its own kinds of designations and
shapes for living that carry out the karma and the life of that creature. But the actual world,
the hard and fast world that cuts through all these worlds, cannot be found, is entirely unknown,
and is fundamentally nonexistent. But this nonexistence is not the usual nonexistence that we
think of as the opposite if existence. It's a nonexistence that, somehow, is completely involved
with, and is the source of, what we know of as existence. Without this nonexistence, without this
emptiness, there could be no world at all.
Now another way of looking at this emptiness (these are all traditional ways of understanding
emptiness, the analysis of Nagarjuna the Buddhist philosopher) is to see that when you look for
one thing in this world, one way is you find nothing, which is true; but another way of looking at
it is that if you look at one thing in this world, instead of finding that one thing you find only
everything else in the world. If you look for yourself you don't find yourself, you only find all
those things that create you to be yourself. But if you did look for any one of those other
things, you'd find the same thing. You don't find that thing, you only find all the things in the
universe that created that thing, and it's always absolutely everything that has created that one
thing. Each thing that appears, you could say, including you and I, is the absolute center of the
universe, around which everything else is organized, and each person, each thing, each blade of
grass is that, because the whole world co-creates and cooperates to make the world be what it is.
So this is why the bodhisattva practices compassion, not because the bodhisattva has a concept of
how nice it would be to be altruistic and how much credit you'll get for that because everybody
thinks it's really nice and you think it's nice. This is not the source of the bodhisattva's
hysterically extravagant compassion. The source of the bodhisattva's compassion is the recognition
that all phenomena are empty. Being who one is means being embraced at all points by everything in
the universe, being in harmony, you could say, always among friends, always at home with the
family. This is what it means to recognize emptiness.
So you could say, in this way of looking at emptiness, that emptiness is really fullness. That I
myself am a mere designation, a mere convenience, is to say that I am constantly embraced by and
at one with everything else in the universe. It's not me, it's everything else. So naturally,
knowing this, my natural impulse in my conduct is to want to care for everything else in the
universe more than myself, because I know that this is my self. So it's a very natural and
ordinary thing to do. To be concerned for others is not something special. It's really natural and
really ordinary when you appreciate the real nature of phenomena as empty.
So there's a famous Zen story. (By now, I'm highly conscious of the fact that I've been coming
here long enough, and doing retreats with you all long enough, that I'm sure everything that I say
now you all have heard before. But that's good because soon I won't have to say anything, and the
rest of you will say things and I can listen.) I'm sure in the past I've told you this story of
the two monks. One asks, "You know the Bodhisattva of Compassion – Kuan-Yin, Avalokitesvara? She
has so many heads and so many eyes and so many hands: eyes to see beings, and hands to help them.
Why does she have all those hands and eyes?" His brother monk says in reply, "It's just like
reaching back for your pillow in the dark." This is a very famous Zen case, and Dogen comments on
In other words, compassion is not something special. There is no one else to help, and there is no
helping, and there is no helper, because helpee, help, and helper are all empty. There's only the
empty nature of phenomena, and in that there's a natural flowing of what happens. Just like in the
natural world around us, trees give off leaves and buds and so on, and birds come and eat them,
and the trees are not getting credit for this, and thinking, "Wow, we're really great. We have an
annual dinner and give somebody an award for the Best Tree Giving to the Birds." They don't have
those ideas, because this is just what they do, and without those buds the birds don't live, but
everything naturally unfolds together. And so, that's how human compassion is really the same.
Just like in the middle of the night you reach back for your pillow. You do it automatically
without thinking about it. It's dark, so you don't even know where the pillow is. It's just a very
natural human gesture, and compassion is just like that, because of our appreciation of the empty
nature of all things.
This is kind of repeating an explanation for the passage that I read to you yesterday, where the
bodhisattva says, "How should we conduct ourselves? Give us a pointer." And Buddha says, "Here's
how: save all sentient beings without exception, but recognize that there are no beings to save.
Don't have any idea, any notion of a being, a self, a soul, or a person. Recognize that those
things are just designations, conveniences."
There was one guy who could see the truth of this, and so he tried to reform people's speech, so
that nobody would use the word "I", and stuff like that. It was a noble attempt. I suppose
theoretically it could work, but actually we don't need to do that. We can live in the regular
world, and appreciate it for what it is, and still at the same time recognize its fundamental
emptiness. We can have designations, we don't have to abandon designations, as long as we know
that they are designations. So there is a conventional reality, a relative reality that we live in
and embrace, but we just know that it's a relative reality and that fundamentally phenomena are
So that's clear right? The passage from yesterday, now we appreciate it, right? I can't go through
the whole sutra, but I want to hit a few other passages that I want to talk about today, that I
think are important.
The very next passage, right after the one that I mentioned, says this:
"Moreover Subhuti (here the Buddha is talking to Subhuti, who asked a question), a bodhisattva who
gives a gift should not be supported by a thing, nor should she be supported anywhere. When she
gives gifts, she should not be supported by sight-objects, nor by sounds, smells, tastes,
touchables, or mind-objects. For, Subhuti, the bodhisattva, the Great Being, should give gifts in
such a way that he is not supported by the notion of a sign (nimitta). And why? Because the heap
of merit of that bodhi-being, who unsupported gives a gift, is not easy to measure. What do you
think, Subhuti, is the extent of space in the East easy to measure?"
Subhuti replied, "No indeed, O Lord."
The Lord asked, "In like manner, is it easy to measure the extent of space in the South, West, or
North, downwards, upwards, in the intermediate directions, in all the ten directions, all around?"
Subhuti replied, "No indeed, O Lord."
The Lord said, "Even so, the heap of merit of that bodhi-being, who unsupported gives a gift, is
not easy to measure. That is why, Subhuti, those who have set out on the bodhisattva vehicle
should give gifts without being supported by the notion of a sign."
So this is specifically talking about the practice of bodhisattvas: they should save all sentient
beings, and they should practice giving. That's the very next thing that the Buddha mentions,
practicing giving. The Six Paramitas are sort of the course of training of bodhisattvas: giving,
morality, patience, energy, concentration (or meditation), and wisdom. These are the practices
that a bodhisattva perfects, the perfection of giving, the perfection of morality, and so on. All
of the practices are pervaded with the perfection of wisdom, because the perfection of wisdom
shows the empty nature of phenomena. So you practice giving in an empty way, and you practice
morality in the midst of emptiness, and so forth.
So in a way wisdom, Prajna Paramita (which is our subject here), is the most fundamental of the
paramitas, but on the other hand, Prajna Paramita is not action. It is understanding, approach,
orientation, but it's not, itself, action. The other paramitas are action. The perfection of
wisdom only comes into play, only exists, when there is the perfection of giving, the perfection
of morality, the perfection of patience, and so on, because there is no cognizing emptiness in the
sky, abstracted from action. So naturally, the Buddha says, you have to understand the nature of
sentient beings, the nature of all being, but then you have to be active, you have to practice
How do you practice giving? Just very quickly, I'm sure I've said this before, the traditional way
of thinking of giving is that there are three ways to give: 1) Giving stuff (which also includes
your time), giving away something, giving gifts and giving your time to other people; 2) giving
the teachings, giving dharma. When you take part in keeping a meditation hall going or when you
give teachings, or whatever you do to cultivate the dharma, that's a very precious kind of gift;
and 3) is the gift of "fearlessness," they call it, the gift of seeing sentient beings as buddhas,
and giving people back their buddha-nature, which they have but they forgot about. Treating
people, viewing them in that way, from the bottom of your heart with that much respect, this is
also a really precious gift.
So a bodhisattva should practice giving, it's very important. It's in fact the fountainhead
practice. The most important practice that defines a bodhisattva is the practice of giving. When
we live our lives wholly and truly, we give ourselves every moment. Sometimes when Zen teachers
talk about the practice of giving they talk about giving yourself on the cushion, with each breath
breathing completely. Gathering everything you have into that exhale and letting it go, and giving
the gift of your life to the world with each moment on the cushion. All of this is the practice of
So we all know about that, and that's one conventional reality giving-practice. But here the
Buddha is saying practice giving without thinking that there's any such thing as a giver, a gift,
or something to give. He says here in a technical way, "You should practice giving a gift
unsupported by a sign, unsupported by sights, smells, tastes, touchables, or mind-objects."
Again, just like in the case of the spaciousness inside of matter, I think that the traditional
Buddhist analysis of perception is borne out by psychological and brain studies. The analysis goes
like this: the world that we perceive, starting with sight, is a result of the eye organ, which
has the capacity to see. The eye organ comes into contact with an object of sight. Because of this
contact the mental function creates what's called in Buddhism "nimitta", a sign, which is
designated as "Graham." Now I have a perception of Graham, but what I'm really seeing is that
sign. If I were dead, even though my eyes would be in good shape, and you propped me up looking at
Graham, I'm not going to see Graham, right? Even though my brain is still there, and my eye is
still there, and Graham is still there, it's not going to happen because the consciousness has
left the body. So what I'm seeing is a production of my own apparatus, of my own consciousness,
and this is called a sign.
Now if I believe in the sign as a hard and fast reality, and I don't understand that it's a sign,
it's a designation, then I'm going to get entangled. Like: "I never did like that Graham. Here he
is again. Why is he here? What's he doing here?" I have problems, in other words, because I
believe in the hard and fast reality of this. Then maybe I said something to Graham, or he said
something to me, everybody gets mad at everybody and troubles happen, I'm depressed, I go home and
I smash my wife, she gets mad at me, I get divorced, and my life falls apart, because I took this
thing seriously. I thought that this was something hard and fast and real. I didn't realize it was
just a sign.
When my acts of perception are supported by signs in that way, and when I attach to those signs,
and create what I perceive to be a hard-and-fast, real, out-there world, that has nothing to do
with me, then I've really gone a long way in creating the conditions for confusion, attachment,
and grief, which will affect not only my life. I'll spread them far and wide, because we all do
that, right? It's like some kind of game of dominoes: you bump one person, and then they bump the
next person, and pretty soon we have the world we live in.
So I have to realize that "Graham" is a designation. This doesn't trivialize Graham, it only frees
him, and it frees me from entanglements. Instead of entanglements, I only have one thing:
compassion, love, connection. In emptiness that's all there is, love and connection, but not
entanglement. Entanglement comes along because of separation. If Graham is threatening me, because
I'm separate from Graham, then that's why I don't like him. All the problems come from that. But
if Graham is a designation in which neither one of us really exists, except for the flow of empty
being in which we are completely connected, then there's not a problem there. There's only a
spontaneously arising desire for Graham and I to benefit each other in the best way that we can.
So that's what he means when he says, "A bodhisattva should give a gift unsupported by sights,
sounds, smells, tastes, touchables, or mind-objects." A bodhisattva should recognize that all acts
of perception are creative acts, that we make the world. Now this is tricky business because this
could sound like: "I'm making the world up, I'm in charge, I'm God (or something)." But I'm empty
also, right? I'm only a figment of your imaginations. This teaching could be dangerous if I reify
myself and then assume that everything else is made up. So one has to be very careful to recognize
that all things are empty of any own being, inside and out. And in that, there is no inside and
out, there's only one seamless reality that we all share.
In the meal chant in the monastery (here we use an abbreviated, informal meal chant) the
traditional Chinese meal chant says, "Gratitude for the emptiness of the three wheels: giver,
receiver, and gift." When you're receiving the food, to eat in the monastery you say, "Now that
I'm getting this food, I'm dedicating eating this food to my practice, to realize the Way, and I'm
grateful to see the emptiness of the giver of the food, the receiver of the food (which is me),
and the food itself, the gift itself. I recognize the emptiness of this now as I prepare to eat."
This is a line in the meal chant that comes pretty much directly out of this Diamond Sutra
teaching of how to give a gift.
Somehow our conventional English expression is very Buddhist when they say: "She gave a gift with
strings attached." We get that, right? Entangling strings. Whenever you give a gift and you're not
unsupported, in the way that the sutra is saying, there are always some strings attached. Some
obligation or some credit that you feel you should get, or something. Somehow there's some flavor
or perfume that goes with the gift, that sort of pollutes the atmosphere. And it doesn't really
feel like a gift sometimes. But when you really wholeheartedly give something, without thinking
you're doing something special, or without making anything of it, but just doing it with an
overflow of joy and a feeling of connection, then it feels like a real gift and there are no
strings. And so, Buddha is talking here about how to give without strings, with no strings
attached. No entanglements are possible when you recognize the emptiness of the act of giving, the
giver, and the recipient.
Another really important passage in the sutra, which is quite similar to this one, also includes
this idea of an unsupported act or an unsupported thought. This is the line in the Diamond Sutra
(if you read the Sixth Ancestor Sutra) where it's said that on hearing this line of the sutra the
Sixth Ancestor was immediately enlightened and then just dropped everything and went to the
monastery. So, I'm warning you before I read this line. I'm telling you this just as a fair
warning. So take a deep breath, get ready. This is the line that awakened the Sixth Ancestor:
"Therefore then Subhuti, the bodhisattva, the Great Being, should produce an unsupported thought,
that is, a thought which is nowhere supported, a thought unsupported by sights, sounds, smells,
touchables, or mind-objects."
I just said a moment ago what "unsupported" means in this context. I feel I'm talking, but knowing
there's so much more to say about all these things. I feel a little bad – I'm glossing over things
that bear much more discussion. So let's say we've thoroughly discussed what an unsupported
thought is, the idea of being unsupported. So now the Buddha says that it's important for a
bodhisattva to produce an unsupported thought. Maybe the language in this translation isn't so
good. Maybe it's better to say: "It's very important that in the heart of the bodhisattva should
arise an unsupported thought." And the name of this thought is called "bodhicitta," which means
"the thought of awakening." Although the literal word doesn't say it, it implies this altruistic
spirit, the thought of awakening not for oneself but for all sentient beings. This thought should
arise up into the heart of the bodhisattva.
Technically, this is the beginning. There is an archetype of a bodhisattva career — that's what
they call it, a "bodhisattva career." And it begins with the arising of the bodhicitta. You're
going along, minding your own business and all of a sudden you get this bodhicitta arising in the
heart, as a strong desire, an impulse to practice awakening for the benefit of all sentient
beings. This thought, in and of itself, has a vow power, so it propels you along the rest of your
course as a bodhisattva, which they say takes 10 to the 20th power lifetimes. That's what it says
in the Abidhammakosha. So if you're discouraged about it not going well, you've got plenty of
Again, His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, once said in a Christian dialogue, "You Christians, you're
really much better practitioners that we are, because you think you only have this one life, and
at the end you're going to go to heaven or hell, so you're really intent on your practice. We
figure we've got a lot of lives, so if we mess up it's okay, the next life we're going to do
better." Anyway, it's a very long journey, but the good news is, you're guaranteed to get there in
the end, once bodhicitta arises.
So where does that come from, the bodhicitta? How do you get one of those? We want one of those,
how do we get one? Well, you can't get one, it doesn't come from anywhere. It's already your
nature. This is already your nature as a sentient being. In this form, here, this is the nature of
your heart. It's just a matter of being fortunate enough all of a sudden that this would come up.
Sometimes you cultivate it by your practice, but cultivating it isn't producing it. That's why the
language isn't too good. You don't produce it really, you allow it too happen, you get out of the
way. You reduce your selfishness and confusion sufficiently to allow what's already there to just
arise up in you. And then it carries you along, inevitably, toward Buddahood.
So this is bodhicitta, this is the thought that we are all encouraged to produce. This is the
thought that is the defining vow, really, of a bodhisattva, and all the other vows of bodhisattvas
come from that arising, bright thought, of bodhicitta. It's the wisdom in you. It's a
forward-propelling energy, this vow, this thought. It comes from your innate desire, and all other
desires are subversions of it. That's why desire isn't bad. In Mahayana Buddhism we understand
that desire isn't bad, desire is just a slight curveball on the bodhicitta, which is this powerful
forward propulsion toward compassion, and love, and awakening. That's inevitable once the
So I was thinking about this bodhicitta, and I think another way to look at it — and more and
more as I think about this, it seems more apt, and more and more to be the case that what is meant
in buddhadharma by "renunciation" is really this: renunciation is really giving rise to the
bodhicitta. I looked renunciation up in the dictionary. It's a very interesting word. It comes
from a word that means "to speak out, to shout." "Nunciate" is "to shout." So there's a papal
nuncio, there's an announcement, denounce, enunciate, pronounce, and renounce, all with the sense
of various aspects of standing up and shouting something out. It comes from a Latin word meaning
"announcement," which also meant "a messenger." A nuncio is like a message.
So to renounce something is to shout out a counter-word. Something has been announced, so to
renounce it is to announce again that "that thing that was announced, I'm de-announcing it." It's
like a canceling gesture. This was announced before, now I'm canceling that out, I'm telling you
that so now we're back to zero. That's renunciation.
We are born into a life of designations, as I was saying earlier. We name our life, our life is a
named thing, a designated life. We believe in and we enact the designations we are given in our
lives. But then after a while, if we pay attention, we can see that there's something oppressive
and limiting in this. We can see that this attachment to this, this insisting on the eternal
immutability of these designations is ultimately the cause of suffering. This condition-named
nature of our lives is really rooted in thinking and in language, in our belief in these concepts
which we call perceptions, in our being fixated on and naively believing in language.
So when we renounce, we shout out over again, "I take that back. I shout out the counter-name. I'm
free from the binding-name, and I return to zero." It's a form of expression that magically undoes
the binding expression. We renounce the throne. We had all these problems, we renounce the throne,
now we're free of that. Being born is like an announcement. Being born in a human body is an
announcement, and then we have to renounce that. Put down that designation in order to have
freedom within the human body.
So over and over again the basic logic of the Diamond Sutra goes like this: A is not A, and that
is why we call it A. If you read the Diamond Sutra it says this over and over again in relation to
many, many things. "A is not A, and that is why we call it A." And there's a saying in Zen that
maybe you're more familiar with: "Mountains are mountains. Mountains are not mountains. Mountains
are mountains," and rivers are rivers, and so on. This is very much the Diamond Sutra teaching.
The "mountains are not mountains" is the renunciation, the canceling word, the recognition of the
empty nature of phenomena, which is this thought of enlightenment, which is compassion. It frees
us, cancels us, and then the world can come back and we can live in it in freedom, without being
People take this for granted, but I think it's very oppressive to be somebody. Maybe you don't
mind, but personally I think it's a very limiting situation to have to be somebody. Like Emily
Dickenson says, "I'm nobody. How about you? Are you nobody too? Don't tell anybody. They'll all
want to get in on it." It's very dreary to have to be somebody, especially when the more
impressive you are the worse it is. Just to think, "Oh, there I go again. I have to pick that
thing up, and carry it to work again. Oh my God, it's so heavy." So you have to renounce that.
It's a relief to renounce that, let it go, give it up, cancel it out, and come back to zero. You
get a lot of energy from that, you don't have to carry that thing around anymore. Once you say,
like the Diamond Sutra says, "I am not I," then you can say, "and that is why I am myself."
The universe, from the Big Bang to the present moment, all occurred so that you could be you just
as you are in this life and do your work, whatever that may be, once you renounce the holding on,
take back the announcement, shout it out.
So this unsupportedness is something that's very freeing, something that's really joyful and
wonderful, even though it sounds kind of bleak: "God, I feel so unsupported." In Buddhism the
archetype of renunciation is renouncing the world and becoming a monk, entering the homeless life,
which is an unsupported life, a life of freedom. If you read some of the old sutras the
renunciation is usually the Buddha shouting out "Come forth!" or "Go forth!" And with that the
person's hair falls off automatically, and robes appear like in a cartoon, bing! This would be
good. It's so much trouble to do ordination ceremonies, I wish we could figure out how to do that.
Now there's a whole ritual and it's very complicated, but if you look at the ritual it is that
ritual of starting over again, throwing away your life and starting all over again.
Dogen says someplace, in his later years when he got more cranky, that there is no way to practice
the buddhadharma other than becoming a monk. People usually ignore that passage and don't want to
think about it – and there are other passages in Dogen that are eminently ignoreable, you have to
ignore – that's one you can think about more before you ignore it. As I get older, just like
Dogen, I'm almost the same age as Dogen when he passed away, I'm beginning to believe what Dogen
says when he says that. But I don't mean that you should take the idea of being a monk too
literally, on the level of designation, because I think that would be a mistake. The true essence
of being a monk, in Dogen's sense, is this renouncing that I've been talking about, which means
bodhicitta, which means the empty nature of phenomena.
It means living the homeless life, the unsupported life. But the unsupported life means that you
are supported everywhere by everything. What we usually mean by being supported is that we are
supported in a limited sense: so-and-so supports me, but so-and-so doesn't; this situation
supports me, but that situation doesn't. That kind of support, which is the conventional sense of
support, isn't very useful I think, because you can never avoid those people/situations where you
are not supported, and you will eventually lose all of those situations/people that you find
supporting. To live an unsupported life means that each and every thing, each and every place,
each and every moment of your life is total support, not limited support. I think that we have to
find that way of life for ourselves. This is the true support, boundaryless support, no-support.
So really being a monk, really renouncing, really giving rise to the bodhicitta, is not just a
matter of a ceremony or a lifestyle, because certainly it would be very easy to do the ceremony
and the lifestyle and not be a monk at all. It's a matter of an inner turning, an inner
transformation, an inner revolution, and I think you can be a homeless monk, living an unsupported
– which is to say, universally supported – life in the midst of a family, in the midst of an
ordinary busy life, if that's your heart, if that's your dedication, if that's the motivation that
you keep alive in your life, as your trajectory through life. So I believe this is really
possible, and I believe that maybe in the end we do, little by little, have to cultivate our
practice to the point where this bodhicitta doesn't get produced by us, but arises, comes up in
our hearts. This bodhicitta, this renunciation, this total dedication which can take many, many
forms outwardly, but inwardly is identical for each person who makes that vow.
I want to just finish with one more little passage, which I promise not to say too much about, and
then I'll stop.
"The Lord asked, 'What do you think Subhuti, is there any dharma which the Tathagata has fully
known as the utmost, right, and perfect enlightenment, or is there any dharma which the Tathagata
has demonstrated, has taught?' "
So is there any insight, any understanding that the Buddha has known as enlightenment, and is
there any understanding, any teaching that the Buddha has taught?
"Subhuti replied, 'No, not as I understand what the Lord has said.' "
And why? This dharma, which the Buddha has fully known or demonstrated, cannot be grasped. It
cannot be talked about. It is neither a dharma nor a no-dharma. And why? Because an absolute
exalts the holy persons.
So, despite the fact that I've just spent probably another hour talking about emptiness and the
Buddhist teachings, and I've spent I don't know how many hours of my life studying, and talking
about, and listening to talks about the buddhadharma, the truth is, as it says right here in black
and white, there is no teaching, because teaching a Buddha, just like everything else, is empty.
It's a mere designation, it's a counter-word. There's nothing to it, actually. It's just a little
something to balance the scales, because we're unbalanced. When everything's in balance there's no
weight at all.
How do you think Buddha could keep it straight? Forty-five years, never a day off as far as I can
tell. There's no sutra that says, "This sutra, the Buddha was in Hawaii. Thus have I heard, the
Buddha was at the beach." It doesn't say that anywhere. Everyday apparently, he was teaching and
practicing with the monks and nuns. Forty-five years, how could he keep it all straight? I've
often wondered, because I can't keep straight what I'm doing at all. I'm confused most of the
time. How did he do it? Well, he knew that he wasn't teaching anything. He understood this, he was
not fooled by his own teaching. This is easy to do, a spiritual teacher could easily get fooled by
their own teaching. The better the teaching the more easy to get fooled, right? The Buddha had a
lot of potential there to get fooled by his teaching, but he recognized, I think, that there was
nothing to teach, and according to Zen literature when the Buddha passed on he said, "I never said
a word." I never said anything. There's no thing called emptiness, there's no state of mind called
emptiness that's real, there's no state of being called emptiness. Emptiness is a mere concept, a
mere designation, and the Buddha's teaching is just a placebo. It's just a sugar pill, a very
pleasant sugar pill which we take and it cures us, but that's because we're already cured.
What does it mean, "An absolute exalts the holy persons"? There is much written and discussed
about this. This statement is made after it says there is no teaching, there is no emptiness,
there is no nothing, but an absolute exalts the holy persons. This means that we live emptiness.
The holy persons are the ones who accomplish the Buddha way, are awakened. The absolute, the
emptiness is not something that they hold, understand, see, or anything like that. It simply is
their life. So, our life is the teaching, we live emptiness in our conduct, in our activity. That
means body, speech, and mind, 24 hours a day. Turning our life around, we manifest emptiness. Even
though there is no emptiness, there is no life, there is no manifestation, that's what we do.
This talk transcribed by Colin MacDonald 5/15/02, edited by Alan Drake 5/30/02.
® 2002, Norman Fischer