April 2016: Emptiness

Buddhist emptiness is easily misunderstood. This emptiness does not mean nothingness. The emptiness that Buddhism refers to is emptiness of self. When we empty our self, we make room for everything just as it is. We get a feeling for life as it is – life without our judgements, our fears, our pressing interests.

When sitting zazen in the zendo, the sound of the car passing, the chickens clucking, the feeling of breathing – those sensations become our self.

The Buddhist doctrine of emptiness is rich and complex. But at its heart is the realization that we are more – not less – than we think. Everyone has a self, but everyone also has another aspect, one that is easily overlooked. It goes by many names – no self, true self, big self, Buddha nature.

The practice of emptying our self allows us to realize this aspect. It helps us see how often we take our way of thinking as concrete fact. It challenges some of our unconscious assumptions about our self and our world, neither of which are as fixed as they seem.

Giving up everything in emptiness practice also gives us a new start with everything. It allows us to approach situations and people in our lives with a fresh perspective, and to be more open to them. Over time we learn to be more open to our own suffering and the suffering of others.

Emptiness is a strange way to get to a fuller heart. The road to emptiness can seem cold – it involves giving up our likes and dislikes, our hopes and fears. But that giving up allows for a warmer, less self-centered, more caring life.

Emptiness practice is simple, but not easy. Quieting our usually noisy self and loosening our perspective takes time and effort. That’s why retreats are an essential part of Zen practice. A retreat gives us the time and the environment we need to do the work of fully emptying ourselves. Our spring retreat at Camp Sealth is a great chance to do just that. I encourage you to seize that chance and sign up.

I really believe Zen guides us toward truth and love. The doctrine and practice of emptiness helps us toward both.