Form and Emptiness

Form and Emptiness


This week goroshi opened his talk by discussing the forms we use in practice, both words and deeds.  If everything is empty, why have forms in our practice?  Why do we bow a certain way?  Why do chose certain translations of chants over others?  In a very practical way, Roshi mentioned that this “standardization” can make one feel comfortable in any sangha anywhere in the world.  He related a story where his dharma “colleague” Tenku Roshi traveled to Italy and felt totally comfortable participating in a Sangha there.  


The question is whether words and deeds and actions have meaning?  They do!  Words and deeds drive thoughts, and thoughts drive energy, and energy drives karma.  However, as with everything in our practice, words and deeds can have great power, but in the ultimate sense are still meaningless.  Goroshi noted how so much of our language has dualism “baked in.”  he noted that every language with a term for “I” also has a term for “you.”  


It is because of the limitations of language and its potential power to drive karma, words can become a great teaching tool, but also a great source of suffering and misunderstanding.  As an example, Tesshin Roshi, asked the group to consider the word “Prajna.”  The common translation of Prajna in English is “wisdom.”  However, the term wisdom is loaded with so many connotations and preconceptions to almost be useless for our purposes.  What is “perfect wisdom” anyway?  Goroshi suggested that perhaps a different word like “Understanding” may be more appropriate.   However, even “understanding” does not get at the heart of the matter.  Here again, words, have great power to distract us, but at the same time members of the sangha must be able to communicate.  Form and emptiness dance back and forth.


Tesshin Roshi gave another example from the Blue Cliff Record of koans.  In the first case, Bodhidharma is called in front of the emperor and asked what is the nature of the dharma.  So first, is dharma the teachings or all phenomena?  Does the question even matter?  Do all phenomena teach us?  Bodhidharma is way too accomplished to get confused here.  He responds that all dharmas are “empty.”  Again, “empty” is another poor translation.  Empty does not mean negated.  It means that it does not stand separate from ultimate reality.  So, the emperor asks Bodhidharma, “who are you, then?”  To which Bodhidharma responds, “I don’t know.”  Again, perfect answer!  It is not that Bodhidharma does not know who he is.  Rather, how could he use forms and words to separate himself from the very suchness he has spent his life trying to understand.  What he is saying is that I cannot express it to you.  There is nothing to really say!  Any words would do you more hard than good.  


Roshi mentioned that in practice one may come to the point where they think they “know” reality.  The more we grasp at knowing the farther we are from realizing suchness.  How can that be?  If we get a clever idea as to what “it” is, we obsess over it and close our eyes to the rest of reality.  We have broken reality down into “my idea” and everything else.  Our dharma eye is shut and we begin to stumble around again in the dark.  


Goroshi wrapped up by talking about another form in our practice, namely the kyosaku or “awakening stick.”  This is a practice which he will be bringing back.  Again, this practice is charged with many misconceptions.  The stick is not there to beat wayward students.  It is not to enforce discipline.  Again, this is our ego and conditioning getting in the way.  At its simplest, it is what is called.  A device to awaken you.  It is a technique to pull back the wandering mind.  To refresh our memory, below is a link to a talk Rosi gave on the kyosaku a few years back.