Living without leaving a track
When the opposition of subject and object disappears, that is the condition of the real Emptiness. They have become one. Hitherto at each step in life a great imprint was left behind. While there are hearer and heard, at every sound arise the three passions of greed, anger and folly. While there are seer and seen, our mind sets them in opposition, and the different passions arise. While the two confront each other, while they have not become completely one, we are always leaving at each step a track which is the root of evil.
But for one who has actually realized Emptiness, both seer and seen, hearer and heard, disappear, and he can walk in life without his tread leaving any trace. To leave no trace is ‘nothingness’. So often is mentioned this ‘nothing, nothing’, and we have to understand what it really means.
To laugh without leaving behind any trace of the laughter, to weep without leaving any trace of the tears, to rejoice without anything of that rejoicing remaking behind—this is a state of lightness, and to be able to live in it is the life of Emptiness, life with nothing at its heart. Then not one of the five skandha-aggregates leaves any trace, their forms are all the forms of Emptiness. In Emptiness there is neither form nor any of the others. (Under form are included speech and actions of the body.) Though speaking and doing, no trace remains of speech and action. The other four are mental functions, and of these mental functions also no trace is left.
The text continues: ‘no eye, ear, nose, tongue, body nor mind; no form, sound, smell, taste, touch nor object of mind.’ These twelve are called the ‘entrances’. The first six are termed the six roots or organs; they are the six roots of subjectivity. Strictly speaking the five sense-organs are connected with awareness; the sixth is mind, which is mental functioning. Then over against the subject are the six ‘fields’ of form, sound, smell, taste, touch and mental objects.
The technical meaning of the word root is ‘life-bearing’. In us is the sixfold subject, and therefrom arise the thoughts of right and wrong and good and bad and so on. Vis-a-vis the six roots are the six fields. The six roots are our subjectivity and the six fields are the objectivity; it is when there is a mingling, a confusion between them, that the delusive ideas and wrong thoughts arise. This mingling and mutual confusion are called the twelve ‘entrances’.
Suppose I have only just heard of this teaching. Before that I was one who did not realize my delusive thoughts to be what they are. I was confounding subject and object, and so delusive ideas and wrong thoughts were appearing. With the clinging attachment to self, the delusive ideas were arising through this confusion, and they were painting a world of right and wrong and good and bad in which I was living in delusion.
Zen master Dogen speaks of it: ‘Days and months, for a hundred years, I was enjoying only meanness of sound and form.’ The hundred years is the wrong life up to the present. Sound and form here typify the whole six of the regions. Till now I was living just drawn by sound as I heard it, by form as I saw it. A long life indeed, pulled willy-nilly along as the impulses came. If the sound was unpleasant I was angry, and if pleasant then delighted—so I have been living just as the pulls came, in confusion of subject and object.
A hundred years of days and months I have been enjoying only meanness of sound and form ‘Yet in this state if I perform even one day of spiritual practice . . .’ If I realize the character of these illusions and continue to meditate on it then though still pulled along, at each step I can experience the world of Emptiness and find the world of liberation of Kannon Bodhisattva, and know the feeling of holding nothing in the heart. How is it to be done? It is by the power of spiritual discipline, the discipline of Zazen.
What is this anger which rises, what is this complaining, what is this greed? In this way we directly confront the wrong thoughts and ideas which arise day and night. If on them we perform our spiritual discipline, we become able to have a little taste of the world of Emptiness. Emptiness is not to be a concept in our heads, a sort of contentless void. It is something to be realized in actual experience. To have nothing at the bottom of the heart is to experience Emptiness; then we see but it leaves no trace, hear and it leaves no trace. From the confusion of sixfold subject and object, we have been pulled along, but now our steps leave no track and we know the experience of being light. ‘Notthingness’ means lightness in this sense, the joy of leaving no track behind.
In what follows I am taking the ear and hearing as representative of the whole set of six, and when it is said for instance that the opposition of hearing and hearer disappears, it must be understood to apply to the others also.
Now the sounds we make in the form of speech—there are two alternatives: either they issue from the state of Emptiness or they issue from the state of holding things. If we are not holding anything in the bottom of the heart and we can speak from the state of Emptiness, then in regard to those sounds there is neither hearer nor heard.
When I first came to my present temple I found I was getting a bad reputation as uncivil and unsociable. I tried to think what it might be, but I could not see that I was uncivil. I took a lot of trouble over being civil. If an old lady came with a radish to offer to the temple, I used to say: ‘It really is extraordinarily good of you to have brought such a fine radish and please accept my gratitude. And may I inquire after your health and that of your family?’ And yet, the reputation remained. ‘How awkward he is to get along with,’ they used to say, ‘not civil at all.’ I gradually began to understand. It is quite inappropriate to say to an old woman with a cloth round her head: ‘May I inquire after your health?’ And when I was saying ‘It is extraordinarily good of you to have brought such a fine radish’, I had something at the back of my mind.
Well, I changed, and when I met an old lady on the way I did not say: ‘Madam, may I inquire whither you are bound?’ but instead: ‘Hullo, Mum, where are you off to? Keeping well?’ And gradually things changed and I had a good reputation for being very civil.
One may repeat elegant phrases a thousand times, but if there is something at the back of the mind there is the opposition of hearer and one who is heard. If there is nothing in the heart, and complete unity, then the simplest phrase doesn’t have any opposition in it—there is just one. And words where there is neither hearer nor heard are the world of Emptiness.
The patriarch Dogen quotes a poem by his own teacher which he estimates as unique in spiritual illumination:
The whole body like a mouth, hanging in emptiness,
Not asking whether the breeze be from north or south, east or west;
For all alike declaring the Prajna wisdom—
He saw a little bell hanging in a mountain temple, hanging in the emptiness. Hanging in emptiness means not to set oneself in some permanent position.
We often use the phrase ‘to settle down’. People say ‘Your Reverence’ and one settles down. In the Your Reverence and then replies. When they ask him something as Prime Minister, he first settles himself as Prime Minister. But with the Buddha’s sermons, the whole body is a mouth, namely it is a unity, and so he speaks. He has no fixed form. Whereas with me, if I’m going along the road and someone asks: ‘Your Reverence, may I inquire where you are going?’ I say: ‘Why, I am going to such-and-such a meeting . . .’ I have been addressed as Your Reverence and my answer is extremely polite. But suppose someone shouts unexpectedly: ‘Hey, Baldy! Where yer goin’?’ Then what? I do not find a reply. If my head is shaved, it is for your sake . . . what is this ‘Baldy’ to a Your Reverence? . . . I am stuck in Your Reverence and cannot make a real reply.
When the whole body becomes a mouth—to speak negatively, Emptiness, and to speak affirmatively, Unity—without being fixed to anything, then if a word comes it is the form of the holy Buddha. The Buddha is one who puts himself in the condition of Tatha-gata, ‘thus gone’. He never boasts of himself as Tatha-gata; the Buddha forgets Buddhahood and acts for the release of all beings. He who settles himself in Buddhahood is no Buddha. Buddha forgets Buddathood and then teaches. Not asking whether the breeze be from north or south, east or west, it is all the same, he never goes against it and so he can speak.
When a beggar comes he can speak to the beggar, when a noble comes he can speak to the noble. However high an elder may come, he enters the feeling of an elder and speaks to him He will never be reluctant, they are all absolute sameness. Whoever they are it is the same, there is no slightest bias, no reluctance; for the welfare of all he speaks of the wisdom of ultimate Emptiness, the wisdom of holding nothing in the heart.
Without this teaching there is no touching the hearts of the people. I am speaking of it, but I cannot attain it. Yet if one speaks from ultimate Emptiness, that man may weep but his tears have power to save all the people. He manifests the appearance of affectionate love and in that love is a power which saves all. And if he manifests the appearance of anger, in those very words of his there is a sublime power of salvation.
by Abbot Obora of the Soto Zen sect