So, if you stop being afraid, if you stop being wonderful, if you stop being charming, if we stop charming each other, we’re just here in the vastness with no agenda, and that’s the Daoism that’s at the core of Chan. Emptiness is here. That’s what I think is a good thing.
One of the things I notice is that we don’t do practice for particular outcomes. The problem being that we might get that outcome and miss out on all the more interesting things that we hadn’t imagined yet. So, when we practice, we’re just stepping into it. Part of the great freedom is in not constraining ourselves by what we think we should be becoming. That’s what I noticed this afternoon, just walking around from one end of the house and then out on the porch.
There’s a chapter of the Zhuangzi called “Free and Easy Wandering.” And pretty much that’s like walking from my dokusan room to the kitchen—free and easy wandering. With each step, light and joy rise from the kitchen tiles, the kitchen boards and entranceway tiles …
Jordan: [sings Robert Burns’ Westlin Winds, a cappella]
… The soaring hern the fountains:
Thro’ lofty groves the cushat roves,
The path of man to shun it …
You might notice that if you have chances for freedom, you still want to put yourself back in a confined space. Think about something terrible that has happened in history, think about something terrible that is happening now, think of something terrible that will happen. It’s not very hard to do that sort of thing. That’s what the old people called “leakage,” where the mind is just chasing out after things and trying to distract, trying to construct, actually, a kind of reality that we’ve just made up, that we call a self. Yuanwu said that letting go of things is better than chasing after things. I don’t know if that’s always true, but that’s the point now, that we already have what is sufficient.
We’re going to do a couple of things tonight. I’m going to do a little tiptoe across a bridge. Last night we talked about the great koan NO, or Wu, or Mu, and how it came to be used as a device but is really a place, a world you enter, an environment—as all the great koans were.
And the person who really worked on how to work with that, and workshopped it a lot, was Dahui. It’s interesting, because he had some great women students, and he worked with them first. Maybe they were more open to different things, I don’t know. But some of his earliest prominent disciples were women. It was also during the Song Dynasty, one of those times when women could do things.
So, he got people to just repeat a one-word koan, and things like that—something you are very familiar with that came down through Japanese Zen to us. Harada, Dokutan, Toyota, Yasutani—that kind of line, a very strong one: having that one word and having a big experience with it. I went that route and I’m all for that.
I think, though, that everybody has their own—what’s a big experience is just for you. Only you can really taste that. You’ll notice if you’re measuring your experience, thinking, “I’m nearly there,” or, “Oh god, I’m not doing it.” You can tell that that’s the leaking, the mind just wandering off, and that’s not it: any kind of assessing that you do with your mind. It’s kind of hard to do—we’re always assessing. “Do I like this ice cream better than the other ice cream? Do I like this boyfriend better than the other boyfriend?” We can tell that there’s something not right when we’re doing that—comparing.
I just want to tell you a tiny bit about Dahui and then move on to his teacher, Yuanwu, who collected the Blue Cliff Record. Yuanwu was very fond of poetry and lived with poets and artists and musicians who lived in Sichuan, where they were far enough away from the center of things to be more adventurous, more innovative. Dahui is one of those people whose parents funded him—he was one of those annoying children, so his parents funded him. They rented him a place where he could study for the exams—it was like going to an Ivy League and getting a high degree. He dropped out and took vows in a monastery instead of studying for the exams. If you pass the exams, a lot of things opened up⎯you could become a governor or a high official. Good things could happen, but also bad things could happen to you. You could get exiled because the Emperor got annoyed with you, things like that.
Dahui started studying the Dharma intellectually, but then got dissatisfied with that and went to study with Tangzhou, who thought, “This person’s really bright, but clueless,” and he made him his attendant. One day he asked Dahui, “Why are your nostrils boundless today?” It’s a bit like, “Say a word of Zen!” Why are your nostrils boundless? And Dahui said, “Because I’m at your place.” And the teacher said, “You phony Chan person.” [laughs] And then, after a few years of being under this tender guidance, the teacher said,
“You can talk about Zen/Chan very well. You can quote the sayings of ancient masters and you can write commentaries, and you are brilliant at giving sermons, and you’re quick with exchanges during interviews. But there’s one thing you lack.”
“What is that?”
“What you do not have is awakening. Thus, when I talk to you in my room, you have Chan; as soon as you leave the room, you lose it. When you’re awake and attentive, you have Chan; as soon as you’re asleep you lose it.
Dahui said, “Yes, this is precisely what I’m doubtful about.”
Dahui and Yuanwu
So, Dahui went off, and he ends up with Yuanwu, the great master of the Blue Cliff, who was a poet. He decided he’d work with him for nine years. And if he had an experience and Yuanwu passed him, and he didn’t really think it was real, he’d give it all up and turn to writing scriptures or just become a religious writer.
Yuanwu gave Dahui “The East Mountain Walks on the water” as a koan. And he threw himself into the koan and struggled with it. He’d get an interview with the teacher every now and then. He gave forty-nine answers to the koan and the teacher said, “No … ”
So, you can tell that an important part of the tradition is in the intimate relationship with your own process of discovery. The teacher just holds that, really—it’s an impersonal thing. The teacher is not personally rejecting those responses. It’s nice when you’re the teacher and somebody is really doing that. You can feel the vibrancy of the work, when somebody’s really doing the curriculum in that way. And they’re not just trying to please you, or whatever: “No, I really need to discover something.” So, that’s kind of a nice thing.
Because he was the attendant, (he was around a lot, and this happened to Yuanwu too, when he was a student), he would accompany Yuanwu, who would get invited to talk by the local dignitaries. This one was Madame Chang Kang Kuo.
Yuanwu said, “Once someone asked Yunmen, ‘Where do the Buddhas come from?’
And Yunmen said, ‘The East Mountain walks on the water.’
But if I were him, I would have given a different answer.
Where do all the Buddhas come from?
As the fragrant breeze comes from the south, a slight coolness naturally stirs in a palace pavilion.”
When the student Dahui heard this, suddenly, there was no more before or after⎯ time stopped. Dahui said, “I ceased to feel any disturbance and my mind has stayed in a place of utter calmness.”
And Yuanwu said, “Yeah, it’s kind of nice you’re here. But unfortunately, you’ve just died but not yet been reborn.” And he gave him another koan that Dahui worked on for another six months, actually day and night. And then he had another breakthrough, which his teacher finally recognized, and then Dahui went on to work on another koan.
It’s an interesting thing that happens when we hold this doubt and anxiety.
I don’t know.
What am I doing?
What is life for?
And how come I feel a lack in things?
“What is it you lack that you ask this question?” said one of the old teachers.
And it was pretty much any question you could ask. “What is it I lack? What is my anxiety? What is my doubt?” The idea of having the anxiety come to the surface and meet the koan, or the core of the koan, was an important thing.
Bodhidharma’s Vast Emptiness
There already was a collection of one hundred koans and poems—and Yuanwu decided to tidy them up and add commentaries to them, publish them, and give lectures. These became the famous Blue Cliff Record. He lived under the Blue Cliff, with monkeys who were carrying their children beyond the mountains, and a bird alighting with a flower in its beak.
The first koan of the Blue Cliff Record is the one I want to introduce today, the famous koan.
The great Bodhidharma, the Indian sage, had an interview with Emperor Wu of Liang.
He had come from India. We don’t really know a lot, but we do have various stories about him. His teacher was called Prajnatara, who I think was probably a woman. Bodhidharma was red-bearded, tattooed, and blue-eyed, and was therefore called a barbarian.
“What is the first principle of the holy teaching?” asked the Emperor.
So, that’s kind of good. But Dahui didn’t have that kind of conversation. What he did say was to take this koan, and no matter what questions come up, just throw them into the koan, bring them into the koan—all those anxieties and interests. “Wow, I know I’ve got this problem, but this other thing is really interesting!” You’ll notice that when you’re working with a koan, other koans become much more interesting. [laughs] Dahui is saying to just throw them all into this one koan—drive all the doubts into one. It’s a methodological solution.
But, the Emperor is just asking about what to think and what to believe. “What is the first principle of the holy teaching?” And Bodhidharma, instead of saying, “Well, why don’t you do koan ‘X’”—which would be a reasonable response and give him a method—he says,
“Vast emptiness, nothing holy.”
A couple of things, there.You can’t have pure and not-pure—you can’t have all those opposites. He is straightaway attacking the opposites. And, also, he says, “Vast emptiness.” So, really, that’s the very first koan of the Blue Cliff Record.
One of the things you’ll start to notice in sesshin, is “Why am I happy?” Because everything is falling away. I didn’t insert happiness; these things fell out of my mind. Those things are still in my mind, but I don’t care, that sort of thing. So that’s the Sanskrit word shunyata. You can feel a little taste of emptiness happening. I have this really hard thing going on in my life, but my life is suddenly bigger than that. It’s a hard thing going on, and I don’t know the end of the story, and Bodhidharma says, “Vast emptiness, nothing holy.”
We can imagine that the Emperor was probably expecting something more, something different from that. But we don’t know and it doesn’t really matter. What is the first principle of the holy teaching? He basically says there isn’t one, there isn’t a first principle. It’s vast, it’s empty. And you can’t confine it by saying it’s holy, good, or bad. The Dao—we can’t say the Dao is holy or not holy.
Then, the Emperor looks at the person again and says,
“Well, who are you, standing in front of me?”
Who are you?
And the barbarian says, “I do not know.”
You can tell that “Vast emptiness, nothing holy,” is a kind of description, and that “I do not know,” is how it appears in our lives. Uncertainty—trusting uncertainty. I don’t know what is going to happen with “X.” Good. One never does, but trust the uncertainty that’s there, even in a dark situation that’s unfolding, even if it’s a cause of sorrow, even if you didn’t get something you want. “I do not know if this is good or bad.”
So, this was a foundational thing, and we can tell that there’s something important going on here, because Chan is not something to believe. People call me up fairly often, and say, “I’ve got a faith-based podcast and I’d like you to talk.” I just can’t bring myself to do it because isn’t that snake oil? Things to believe. You’ll notice that as soon as you believe something, your mind, well, my mind thinks, “I don’t know, is that true?” And some other argument starts to happen and then I have to explain and justify. You can tell that we’re bigger than that, we’re more vast than someone who’s explaining themselves and saying, “Oh, but I meant to come on time,” or, “The reason I was mad with you is … ” you know. Vast emptiness, nothing holy. [laughs] I do not know. So you can tell that there’s a great freedom that starts to get in there. “You’re responsible for that!” “No, I’m not,” that sort of thing. A freedom gets in, an emptiness gets in.
One way to look at emptiness is as a kind of transparency in things. You look at a leaf, and the universe is there. You look at the dust on the leaf, and the universe is there. Look at the tired guy making a delivery in an Amazon truck, and the universe is there. The bodhisattva is delivering a book, and the universe is there. It’s kind of marvelous.
Nothing much happened out of the exchange except that it got written down and became this legendary thing. And then Bodhidharma crossed the great river. You’ll see him sideways on a reed sometimes. And here he is. [shows image] It’s carved out of bamboo. And this is his face, which is scowling and barbarous, and here is his beard. He’s also sideways on a skateboard or something, but he just crossed the river on a reed. Isn’t that marvelous?
So, suddenly the marvelous is in the story. His telling the Emperor, “Nothing holy. Vast emptiness, nothing holy,” is something. And it’s courage too, because you’re disappointing the Emperor. “Look, I always interview sages, I collect sages. I signed up for snake oil, where’s my snake oil?” And Bodhidharma says, “Vast emptiness.” You know, “What are the seven principles of Chan, or mindfulness, or whatever?”
And there is a kind of interesting history for this piece that was given to me by a Rinpoche in Seattle, that I have a connection with. Panlop Rinpoche had a dream about Bodhidharma, which is kind of unusual for a Tibetan person, because the Chinese have not treated Tibetans well and Tibetans are really aware of that. He can’t even go into China because they’d let him in but they might not let him out because he’s a high Rinpoche. So, it’s rather wonderful. And he’s a painter. Bodhidharma became a thing [in his dream]: Here we are, crossing the Yangtze on a reed, having escaped the Emperor! [laughs]
So, he went and did zazen. The story is that he did it in a cave but there are slightly different stories. And it’s that sense of, Oh, this is freedom. Being with the Emperor is hard; having your heart and mind be free is the easy thing, that’s the joyful thing.
If you are working with a koan, you can tell that Yuanwu, right from the beginning, is suggesting you can just kind of dance with it. It might have a fragrance, it might have a taste, you know. People sometimes try to be kind of Puritan or Calvinist about it but you can’t push everything away. You’re just here with your question, your koan. And you’ll find that gradually you stop being the person who was worried about all that, and that you’re vaster. An easy way to say this is that the koan starts meditating you, which is kind of easy because “Look, I don’t have to do anything.” You might be able to feel that now. And it’s kind of sweet.
Jordan told me a story this afternoon. Jordan, tell me the story about how you walked outside in the leaves, and then how you thought of another friend and another retreat.
Jordan: Oh, yeah. We had frost on the ground this morning. Some snow yesterday, but frost this morning. I was just trying to get into the house to get a glass of water and got caught by the droplets that had formed as the ice was melting. The ice was melting on the blades of grass, and I forgot all about getting the water. Then I went in and sat down again. Then, I had to pick up some glue at the hardware store this afternoon, and all the glue bottles were, like, perfect.
I remember a friend, Amelia, at a retreat—we were getting toward the end, it could have been the last day, and she was getting really concerned about having to leave. And she said something about, “Who do I have to shiv to stay in jail here because I don’t want to go. Don’t let me out.” I thought that was funny. And I’d like to stay here forever as well.
John: Thank you. Well, here we are, we are staying here forever. That’s what this is called right now. You look—this is forever. And if you look at the emptiness, you can see it’s in your hands, it’s in your face. Yeah, we’re always looking at faces and they’re very appealing to us because it’s in that face, too. There’s no face that is not beautiful, no face that is not full of that shining quality that the glue bottles are full of, or the droplets of the first frost, the first snow that didn’t settle.
There’s a character in the story called Zhi, Duke Zhi. He became a very high person and was a meditator. People said he worked miracles. And he was a very charismatic, interesting, compelling person. The Emperor was very impressed by charismatic, compelling people, as emperors often are. Duke Zhi had been in prison, where he became very popular teaching the Dao. Then he was let out of prison for this, and the Emperor sort of adopted him.
The Duke said, “Your Majesty, do you know that person who came to see you with the earring and the tats and things?
And he said, “No, I don’t.”
And the Duke said, “That was the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, carrying the mind-seal of the Buddha.” And the Emperor immediately felt regret, wanting to go after him. He wanted to send people after Bodhidharma.
The Duke said, “Even if you sent the whole kingdom after him, he would not return.”
So that’s a wonderful thing. Oh, that moment is gone and you can’t get it back. You can’t get the moment when Bodhidharma said, “I do not know,” back. You have to move on into your own moment. And you’re already in a beautiful place.
One of the later Japanese commentaries about the Emperor was that after he was “filled with regret,” at first, he was “like a widow, waiting for her husband to come back from the war,” not knowing that the husband wasn’t going to come back. So the Emperor, at first, was full of hope. And afterwards, when he was no longer expecting Bodhidharma, he was “like a crow weeping for its mother.”
So, even his feeling of having missed out, is it. It’s a great thing. When you have the feeling of missing it—very common in the Dharma—if you haven’t had that, let’s do a little more koan curriculum stuff, you know. And there’s the wonderful thing where you keep coming in like Dahui—forty-nine times, you get an interview with your teacher and each time, “No.” That’s not missing out—that’s being inside the great work.
When the universe has a barrier or a wall like that, that’s, “Oh, the door is shut, it seems to be shut.” There’s something going on that is magical, that is opening all the doors. So, that’s the vast emptiness thing. I think everybody notices it. You know, “Who do I have to kill to stay in this jail, this prison?” You can tell how vast and easy it is. Then, other times it won’t be like that, and you think, “Wow, I didn’t know I wasn’t holding my mouth right. I felt great. I was sure I understood the Dharma, and now I’m sort of getting cranky about small things, or whatever.”
Right in there, too, it’s like the Emperor’s missing, it’s in there. The Emperor’s “I don’t know,” is very different from Bodhidharma’s, but also, in everything, the vastness is there. The emptiness is there in everything.
When you have those moments when you feel completely unenlightened, there is something to be said for them. You’re not claiming things you don’t have, you’re not grandiose, you’re not trying to sell other people on “I’ve got it, really,” things like that. You’re not trying to sell yourself on ”I’m not very good at this.” All of that just falls away and we’re just here.
The curriculum is great like that, because you go to the teacher and you tell them how you experience the koan, and it doesn’t really matter, really. The teacher probably says, “Oh, good, oh,” or, “No,” or whatever. It’s an objective thing. It’s the first time we’re in an objective process, and it is not about status. It’s not about whether you’re virtuous, it’s not about whether somebody loves you, and it’s not about whether you can charm your way through it. You don’t have to persuade the universe because the universe just gives it—it’s free. The universe gives it to you and you just have to attend, and the gifts just come. It’s kind of by donation.
The Magical Duke
There are great magical stories about the Duke.
If Bodhidharma was ever Avalokitesvara, how can the Duke be Avalokitesvara, or Guanyin, as well?
And the Duke was found in an eagle’s nest. So, just imagine you’re the Duke, and you open your eyes and you look around, and there’s just sky, and the smell of dead fish, and you’re by the river. This is the wonderful world you’ve come into. That’s your moment of vastness and emptiness, as a child.
In the story, an old lady was walking along one of the great canals and she heard a baby crying, up in a tree. So, she climbed all the way up to the nest, fifty feet high, or whatever it was. And the baby was in an eagle’s nest. And the baby’s face had this golden hue [laughs] and its fingers and toes were clawed. And she picked it up and brought it down.
And, the Duke could never walk very well. He wasn’t really meant for walking. But he had a great affinity for fish—he always loved to eat fish. And he’d spit the bones into the canal and they’d become alive again. It’s good to know we have people like that on our side. [laughs]
Then, the Duke told the Emperor he was going back to where he had come from, into the vastness. And the Emperor said, “Well, how long am I going to live?” And he did this. [gestures] After that, nobody could find him. He disappeared. In other words—the Emperor, you too, will die.
If you just feel into your life—feel something difficult in your life, if you feel something easy in your life, feel something that’s triumphant and wonderful in your life. If you look at it, can you just let it be? Then you let the emptiness in, and let it be. If there is someone you think is wonderful, can you just let them be without convincing them they’re wonderful, or getting them to feel something that would make them even more wonderful? Can we not interfere with others? Emptiness means we are trusting the Dao and the vastness.
And there are many ways of that. But we can tell—like, let’s say that you wake up and you’re sick. Inside sickness, you can see the space. You think, “God, I shouldn’t be sick,” and you get into that, and then you’ve got to worry about, “What should I do, is this ER time?” You’ll notice that you don’t have to do all that. If you need to go to the ER, you just make the decision—you will or you won’t. But there’s a certain way in which you can just “Enter here,” as the old teachers say, and that’s the emptiness. And so, it doesn’t matter if you’re full of joy, or you have a headache. Like that.
Can you understand? It’s that inside everything you do, that brilliance is there, the shining is there. Even when you’re fighting with people, trying to impress them, trying to defend yourself against them—all the things that mammals do. [laughs] If we can have a sense of humor about the things we’re doing, that’s where the emptiness gets in.
“Oh, that person’s really wrong, and I’m right.” And then we think, “Oh, that’s funny.” And then the emptiness gets in. Who knows? Right or wrong, it’s not important. You’ll find that all the explaining things makes a self. Who we think we are, are the explanations that are going on in our minds. Bodhidharma said, “Knock it off, cut it out! Vast emptiness. I do not know. I do not know.”
Another thing I notice that people will do a lot because of the social pressure—wanting to impress the teacher. And I don’t know if you can impress teachers, impress me. I don’t know. I don’t know.
People often tell me what they think I’m going to say, so that I’ll understand they’re wise. I kind of know this because I used to do this, you know, maybe I’ll still do. Jump in and prove our brilliance immediately. And it’s never what I was planning to say. If you would just stop doing that, we can meet.
So, if you stop being afraid, if you stop being wonderful, if you stop being charming, if we stop charming each other, we’re just here in the vastness with no agenda, and that’s the Daoism that’s at the core of Chan. Emptiness is here. That’s what I think is a good thing. Yeah.
Amaryllis, say something about emptiness.
John: A little intellectual, I think. Dave W., say a word of Zen. Teach us.
Dave W: No.
John: [laughs] Very good. Amanda, teach us!
Amanda: [laughs] Achhh…
John: Good enough. Jan Black! I’m just going through who happens to be on my screen.
John: Todd G., explain emptiness, quickly.
Todd: I have no idea what I’m doing.
John: Excellent. [laughs]
John: Jan B., explain emptiness to us.
Jan: What is IT?
John: Meredith! Explain emptiness.
John: Freely I watched the tracks of the flying birds. The heat of the Indian summer is spreading through the garden and the leaves are rustling—like that. It’s not so bad, emptiness. Courtney, explain emptiness! Courtney has usually got something to say.
John: Very good. Ewen, tell us about emptiness so that we will understand.
Ewen: [laughs] I pressed the wrong button.
John: Ah, there you are. Is that it? Fair enough. [laughs]
Okay. Play—the emptiness gets into that silvery, shining, golden quality that play has, where nobody’s winning or losing—it’s great. But also, you’ll notice that even if there’s a right or wrong answer, there can’t be a right or wrong answer. It’s just empty. It’s vast.
I do not know, I do not know.
I do not know.
I used to think that was more or less a last resort, but actually, it is something I can depend on. The Korean guy, long dead now, liked doing stunts, and he gave everybody t-shirts saying “Don’t know.” And that was his thing: “Don’t know.” So, I don’t know about that. I don’t know if that’s a good technique or not. [laughs]
So, you can see that here we are. The vast temple is a place that is absolutely full of emptiness and play. Your heart is absolutely free. There’s no where you can’t go.
Thank you very much.
The equality of all things.
Peacefully, humbly, the ship stars travel,
the grass hunches down to earth, the demons take their rest.
And we ask the protectors to smile over us,
as the work in darkness goes on, until dawn.
Amanda: [plays ukulele and sings the Four Vows]
I sometimes imagine what Bodhidharma’s footsteps must have sounded like as he was leaving the hall. Everyone wondered who he was, and I imagine even before the Emperor turned to Zhi and said, “Who was that?” What was this moment? Just thinking, “What’s just happened?” Nothing’s gone according to plan today and no words could find him.
Sometimes when nothing goes according to plan, all you can do is listen. That, too, is the voice of emptiness. Good night.
Dharma Talk on October 7, 2022