Emptiness v. Suchness Teachings (with a little Soundgarden…)

This very mind is Buddha;

Practice is hard, expounding is easy.

No mind, no Buddha;

Expounding is hard, practice is easy.

One could say that this poem by Dogen encapsulates the entire essence of Zen.

ma tsuThe first and third phrases here come from stories about Ma-tsu, or Mazu: “the Horse Master,” so-called because he was supposedly big as a horse, and with charisma, skill, and wisdom in scale to his physical size. I sort of picture a sterner version of the great Tibetan master Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, if you know who that is.

Anyway, the story goes that for many years, Ma-tsu’s answer to nearly any Dharma question was some version of “this very mind is Buddha,” or “Mind is Buddha.” One of his senior disciples, Damei (which means “Ripe Plum,”) got transmission and went off, still practicing with ‘this mind is Buddha’ for many, many years. Later, Ma-tsu emphasized “no mind, no Buddha.” When this got back to Damei and he was asked if he would change his practice, he replied “this very mind is Buddha.” Upon hearing a report of this, Ma-tsu said of his former student, “the plum is ripe.”

Such a great story, and a lot to discuss; but I only want today to underscore Dogen’s poem and a couple of its possible themes. Our guiding teacher Taigen is about to return, and he will be concentrating on some stories from his new book about the great ancestor Dongshan (who lived in the century following Ma-tse.) This book is called “Just This Is It: Dongshan and the Practice of Suchness.”

We could say that Zen has two basic possible emphases. One teaching, two aspects: emptiness teachings, and suchness teachings. Emptiness teaching is the Heart Sutra (form is emptiness, etc.) It is also “no mind, no Buddha.” It is not hard to imagine how sometimes, that is an extremely liberating thing to realize. Maybe we experience a great loss, and right in the middle of that we find grace, serenity, and wisdom. However, if we get too attached to this teaching, maybe we end up like the Nihilists in the Big Lebowski. “Nothing matters, Lebowski! Give us the money!” and we are generally a real bummer to hang around. It happens. It’s ok.

We could also just call this breathing out. 

So then we might encounter medicinal suchness teachings, like “your very own mind right now just as it is without any separation in time, space, set, or setting, just as it is, experiencing and co-creating reality, is a perfect expression of the wisdom of the highest principle of awakeness possible.” A great teaching, obviously. We all would like to live in some sense of this I think.

Breathing in, we are “inspired.”

However, we live in an insanely positivist society, with paradigmatic dysfunctions that go back thousands of years, that are encoded in and as our body/minds. I was thinking recently about that (pretty disturbing) Soundgarden video for Black Hole Sun, where these nice modern, suburban people have these big plastic smiles that just keep growing until they become monstrous and terrifying. A concise visualization of how even our interest in spiritual practice can get twisted by some kind of attachment to outcomes, to just being “shiny happy people” or “accomplished spiritual people,” without maybe having felt our way through our questions, our grief, our difficulties, our personal faults, and our social, even planetary responsibilities. We might even consider this video a sort of emptiness teaching (I am a “Gen X’er” and I would say that the so-called Grunge and Riot Grrl movements, and our generation generally, were colored by the need to express generational anger, with its underlying grief, at the poverty of the (patriarchal) positivist/materialist vision being expressed by the mainstream society of the time.)

Dogen even helps us by pointing out how our practice might show us where we are on this spectrum of teachings. Sometimes, sitting is hard, but talking about the ideas flows naturally. That’s not a bad thing necessarily. Other times, we practice with joy and ease, and have no desire to utter one word. It can be like that. If we translate this into our daily life, perhaps sometimes we feel very plugged-in with work, for instance, and we don’t need to analyze it too much. Other times, we have to step back, talk with trusted advisers, not do, and wait. We can play with this idea and each come up with other examples I’m sure.

I personally feel that for our time right now, we are in deep need of some grounded, affirming suchness teachings. This is why I am so happy that Taigen was inspired to publish his new book now. I think we can all get a lot out of it, if we are open and keep our wits about us.



2 thoughts on “Emptiness v. Suchness Teachings (with a little Soundgarden…)

  1. Lloyd

    A really moving article for me and thank you!

    All along I have thought that zen was about uncovering the delusion of the separation of emptiness and form – or what suchness appears as. Not emphasizing or discounting either is how I understand zen and even how I experience “zen” from time to time. Fresh. I am an artist, a painter. I love to lsiten to Norman Fischher from time to time. He is “inspiring”. And I spend time in the studio too – expiring simultaneously as I inspire. There I take refuge from all those very white teeth so popular nowdays. You said: “I personally feel that for our time right now, we are in deep need of some grounded, affirming suchness teachings.” Wow! It is in the studio that suchness teaches me and appears on canvas and does so from inside that emptiness that can sometimes be too chilly. Thanks. I look forward to meeting you.

    I read online that Norman Fischer is going to visit Upayah in Santa Fe next month. Just wondering if he might drop in at Valley Dragon around that time? I am on a very minimal fixed income. I must plan with some skill so as to not run out of $ before the end of the month. Would love to meet you and Norman at the same time if remotely possible!

    Much love to you and your sangha.


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