Virtual Sesshin Day 4 Dharma Talk

by tendo zenji

Virtual Sesshin Day 4  – May 15th, 2020


Today we are going to really consider the Empty aspect of Empty Awareness.  This is awareness empty of the self, unmediated through our thoughts, conditioning, feelings and views.  But it is also Absence, absence as the undifferentiated tissue of all things operating through us.  

Absence was often referred to as “emptiness” (空 or 虚), […], and described as the generative void from which the ten thousand things (Presence) are born and to which they return. Our language and intellectual assumptions have trained us to interpret such terms—Absence, emptiness, void—as a kind of nonmaterial metaphysical realm in contrast to the material realm of Presence. We interpret Absence and Presence as a dualistic pair, in which Presence is the physical universe and Absence is a kind of metaphysical womb from which the physical emerges. But No-Gate would not have recognized any metaphysical dimensions in this dualism, for like all artist-intellectuals in ancient China, he was a thoroughgoing empiricist. And in the empirical reality of the Cosmos there is no metaphysical womb, no pool of pregnant emptiness. Absence is emptiness only in the sense that it is empty of particular forms, only Absence in the sense that it is the absence of particular forms. In normal everyday use, Absence (無) means something like “(there is) not,” and Presence (有) means “(there) is.” So the concepts of Absence and Presence might almost be translated “formless” and “form,” for they are just two different ways of seeing the ever-generative tissue of reality.

– David Hinton. No-Gate Gateway (pp. xxvi-xxvii).

This is an important point, to not see the separateness of Absence and Presence.  They can be seen as two different views of fundamental reality.  The view of absence is the seamless, undifferentiated generative tissue.  Presence is that reality manifesting in the myriad forms. When we reach the depth where we see Presence and Absence as a singular tissue we have broken through to the very depths. The Taoist tried to capture this understanding of seamless reality beyond both absence and presence with the term Dark Enigma.

Dark-enigma is a philosophical term that attempts the impossible task of naming Absence and Presence as a single existence-tissue, as it is in and of itself before any names, before Absence and Presence give birth to one another, and before all the other words and concepts and distinctions we use to approach the nature of reality. And the “gate of all mystery” is clearly the same gate that appears twice in the title No-Gate Gateway: first as the simple Gate, and second as the primary element in the Gateway ideogram.

When No-Gate speaks of ‘passing through this gate,’ he means understanding Absence and Presence together as a single generative tissue; and that transforms things completely, for the fundamental dichotomies structuring everything vanish. Absence and Presence, generative emptiness and the ten thousand things, become a single tissue. Word and silence become a single tissue, as does meaning and meaninglessness, self and Cosmos. Thought and empty-mind become a single tissue. The mirror-deep empty-mind that perceives and the ten thousand things filling perception become a single tissue. And there, suddenly there, we are wholly a part of that dark-enigma: not just in moments of empty-mind enlightenment, but also our thoughts and obsessions and memories as we move through our routine self-involved lives: Buddha-nature as ordinary mind, ordinary mind as Tao.

Concepts at this level blur. Absence is one half of the Presence/Absence dichotomy and, at the same time, the resolution of that dichotomy, for it is the undifferentiated tissue that includes all the differentiation of Presence: landscape’s ten thousand things, individual identity, words. And so, it is hard to distinguish Absence from dark-enigma or Tao. All of which is what No-Gate means when he says Absence is beyond even the most fundamental explanatory distinction: “Absence: don’t think it’s emptiness, and don’t think its Presence.” This understanding leads to a remarkable realization: if our original Buddha-nature is Absence, and Absence is the undifferentiated and generative tissue that includes all of Presence, landscape’s ten-thousand things; then our original-nature is itself all of those ten thousand things. Hence the desire among artist-intellectuals and Ch’an monks to inhabit rivers-and-mountains landscapes: for to face such a magisterial landscape is to make one’s own internal dimensions magisterial.

– David Hinton. No-Gate Gateway (pp. xxix-xxx).

This is why we can engage in the practice anywhere, that any of the ten-thousand things can be a grateway. In the natural world where it is more clear, where the complexity is beyond human scale we can enter just as directly as when we reduce all the complexity down to the simplicity of zazen and the basic structure of sesshin.

Once this whole conceptual framework is established in No-Gate’s Foreword and first sangha-case, the purpose of all the following sangha-cases is to ‘cut off the mind-road’ and establish this identification with Absence as our original-nature, our Buddha-nature. For this is the answer to No-Gate’s first sangha-case: not some profound insight, but to inhabit Absence wholly, to make it the whole of consciousness, to become it, to enact it. A central concern in No-Gate Gateway, this identification with Absence is described repeatedly as a kindred intimacy,” and it explains the adoption of No-Gate as a spiritual name, for its deep meaning is of course Absence-Gate. This identification with Absence, this “kindred intimacy, entails a radical transformation in everyday life. One acts always as landscape/Cosmos in its most fundamental generative nature, as wu-wei (Absence-action) and wu-hsin (Absence-mind): movement through daily activity becomes the Cosmos living a life; sight becomes the Cosmos gazing into itself; thought becomes the Cosmos contemplating itself. And it also entails a transformation in death, for death becomes a return home to the generative Cosmos as our truest self, meaning that our most essential nature is therefore as boundless and enduring as the Cosmos itself. So No-Gate is being quite literal when he says: Once through this gateway, you wander all heaven and earth in a single stride.

– David Hinton. No-Gate Gateway (pp. xxxi-xxxii).

This is what it means to be in Empty Awareness. For our ego self to be hollowed out of its conditioned responses so that we identify with Absence and we are seamless with the entirety of presence. We are fundamentally reality in motion.  

There is nothing that abides, unchanging, independent of the rest of the fabric of original nature. Everything is dependent on something else, when we sit still enough and are open to absence we can see this directly. Thought rise and fall. The seasons spin through their cycle. Things are born, live and die. Everything is in flux arise from the generative ground and returning to it.  

The essence of this path is to get to a place where we experience this directly. A direct experience and intimacy with Absence. This is where we will turn to Sheng Yen and his pragmatic take on this as theory and praxis.

Contemplating Emptiness

We said before that there is conceptual emptiness and experiential emptiness. Conceptual emptiness is the recognition and understanding that all things are impermanent and lacking in substantial identity. “Emptiness” does not truly convey the meaning of the Sanskrit *shunyata, or the Chinese kong. People may be misled into thinking of it as a void. Emptiness can be understood as meaning “empty of” and “lacking.” Empty of what? Empty of permanent, fixed, and substantial reality. Lacking what? Lacking attachment. Hence, the Buddhist sense of emptiness is not mere void but the absence of a self-nature.

Here Sheng Yen tries to convey the true essence of emptiness.  You can see why a master of language like David Hinton–who freely notes in his poetry translations that you literally can’t capture the essence of the poems in translation–uses absence to try to get a handle on emptiness. But even then when discussing Wu has to fallback on the layered meaning of ‘not’ and ‘absence’.  We see this all the time in the attempts to translate this words: heart-mind, lovingkindness, these are attempts to capture words that have layers of meaning. Considering this serves us well lest we fall into reductionism.

All phenomena result from causes and conditions and are subject to change as causes and conditions change. Therefore, phenomena are empty of enduring self-nature. Phenomena exist and coexist, but their nature is transient, lacking inherent, abiding, and unchanging reality. Thus, self-nature is intrinsically empty. Understanding that all things are empty of substantial reality and therefore impermanent, one will naturally not be attached to phenomena. This conceptual understanding of emptiness is basic Buddhadharma.

This is where we get to empty awareness.  Emptied of the sense of self being tied into fleeting thoughts, feelings, emotions, of defining ourselves through conditioning from society, our traumas and our desires. Our practice is leading beyond this understanding to this being our everyday experience.

Experiential emptiness can be contemplation of emptiness, or it can be actualization of emptiness. There are different ways to practice contemplation of emptiness. A direct method is to let go of the past, not project into the future, not fixate in the “space” between past and future, but maintain clarity and nonattachment of the present moment, free of wandering thoughts. As bodily sensations fade away and one is no longer influenced by the environment, the mind is clearly aware but there is neither method nor form. The mind will not “abide” anywhere.

You can practice to the point where the body-sense falls away and you are free of wandering thoughts. However, if you still feel the presence of the Chan Hall and your neighbors, then the environment still exists for you. If there is something for you to rely on or cling to, that is not contemplation. Since you are still aware of the environment, take it as your body just sitting. As the particulars of the environment fall away and it no longer exists for you, you will be able to enter into contemplation of emptiness.

While this is not actualized emptiness, it is important at this point in your practice. You will likely reach a point where your body-sense falls away, leaving the mind with nothing to attach to. People are so used to holding on to something that they may have problems maintaining this state. Do not become alarmed since contemplation of emptiness is precisely the absence of attachments. Just maintain that clarity. Perhaps you will think, “Where is my body, where am I, what should I do?” If you stir up such thoughts, surely there will be something for you to attach to. But in fact, just sitting is the most direct method for contemplating emptiness. When you are just sitting, you are focused on the sensation of yourself sitting. But really there is not much sensation anyway, since it is only a general sense of your body that you are aware of, with little or no sensation of the particulars. As your mind becomes calmer and steadier, and your approach is very relaxed and reposed, your body-sense will eventually diminish. At this point you have gained an entry to the practice: the “silence” is the mind free from thoughts of past, present, and future, and the “illumination” is the mind very clear and free of attachments.

In Indian the Buddhist scholar Nagarjuna conceived of the ‘Middle Way,” the Madhyamaka. The middle way makes no claims as to whether the ten-thousand things exist or do not exist. This is the middle way. The Madhyamaka view is one of the primary influences on Ch’an.

Contemplation of emptiness is also called “contemplation of the Middle Way,” a later term that was applied to this early practice. The Middle Way neither asserts nor denies the existence of phenomena, since either position would express attachment. This is the genuine way to contemplate emptiness. To begin the contemplation, you rely on immediate experience. For example, beginning with just sitting or any other method, you contemplate that which manifests before you in its immediacy, in the present moment. Stay with that completely, whether sitting, walking, or eating, until you are beyond clinging and being conditioned by the past or the future. When you can experience this manifested realm while letting it go, and when you can maintain this openness and clarity of mind, that is contemplating emptiness. At this point, there is no object of your awareness, nothing that can be relied upon, not even the present. But it is not yet truly actualized emptiness, since you are still relying on this level of bare awareness itself to contemplate emptiness.

Contemplating of emptiness is a practice which can lead to the genuine experience of emptiness. Actualizing the fundamental point as Dogen zenji would say.

In that case, what is actualized emptiness? In his writings on Silent Illumination, Master Hongzhi described actualized emptiness as wide and far-reaching with ever-present luminosity. Because there is no subject (the self), while the illumination is present, you perceive objects (phenomena) as they really are. At the point of enlightenment you do not experience the production and extinction of vexations, because there is no self-reference. This is the silent aspect—the quiescent extinction of phenomena to enter a noumenal state, unknowable to the senses, of things-as-they-are. This is illumination. Independent of any observer, things exist in and of themselves. For that reason you will not be entangled in the causes and conditions of the external environment, nor will you experience vexation.

All aspects of the practice from its surface trappings, to its ancestors and present day teachers, the texts and commentaries, the form, ritual and practices, all of this are not awakening are not actualizing emptiness. They are all vectors of attachment and should all be seen as provisional and merely an aid to keep you on the path.

However, it is more important to be fully grounded in practice without being too concerned about actualizing emptiness. Begin with just sitting, without dwelling on the past or projecting into the future. Be aware of just enough of the body to know that you are sitting there. Strive to gain a sense of the total body just sitting there, as a general understanding and awareness. You will gradually reach a point where the body is no burden either in its totality or its particulars. Your whole-body sensation starts to become formless and fades as your mind becomes more calm and stable. When you reach that point naturally, without relying on the past or future or clinging to manifestations, you will be contemplating emptiness.

If the environment still exists for you, take the environment as your body until environment and body become as one. At this point, do not concern yourself with attaining emptiness, as it will come naturally. You will understand that it cannot be deliberated through words and analogies, nor can it be conceived as existent or nonexistent. Words cannot describe actualized emptiness—it is simply inconceivable. It is like me pointing to the moon. All you can see now is my finger. Eventually, you will see the moon itself.

Sheng Yen. The Method of No-Method (pp. 22-26). Shambhala. Kindle Edition.

We go through these practices in order to bring ourselves to where we can directly actualize emptiness. The body and mind are aligned. Thoughts fall silent. The distinction as a separate entity fades away. The truth of our original nature reveals itself to us, naturally, without any sort of direction of the self. Beyond self, beyond, perception, there is Absence.

So many of us simply work on these first steps of bringing the body and mind into alignment, into becoming the still pool. All of these practices inside and outside are designed to facilitate this. Practices to make this part of our continual experience, to open us up fully to Original Nature.

Seated Practice

The practice we are going to engage in today is Contemplation of Emptiness.  In the above section Sheng Yen went over the theory and practice of this technique.  In another text, Shattering the Great Doubt, he tackles this from a slightly different perspective that I think really gets into the practice.

After becoming adept at the practice of Direct Contemplation, your mind learns how to maintain its clarity without fixing on the object of meditation. At this point you are beginning to contemplate emptiness. To contemplate emptiness, do not let the mind fix on the form or sound of objects; do not fix on external events or situations, and do not fix on internal thoughts or ideas. So, internally as well as externally, do not allow the mind to rest anywhere. Many thoughts will arise within you, and you will perceive many things outside, but let the mind detach from all that. Unlike direct contemplation where you let your mind rest on, say, a sound, now you just let it go. Do not allow the free flow of the mind to be caught up with your perceptions. If you see forms, do not allow them to become the contents of your mind; just let them go. Similarly with internal thought and concepts—let them go. Though many things can come up, you are simply in a state of nonabiding, of letting go. So, stay with that process of experiencing, then letting go. It is a continual process of merely noticing, in which things present themselves to your field of awareness and then vanish of their own accord. If you do this very well, it is possible to bypass shattering of the great mass of doubt and still experience enlightenment. This method is not easy, but it is also not hard.

-Sheng Yen. Shattering the Great Doubt (pp. 26-28). Shambhala. Kindle Edition.

See the ties here with the outdoor practice – not allowing your attention to rest anywhere, to  get to the underlaying awareness. Direct Contemplation, which is the heart of the Gazing practice is the first step toward contemplating Emptiness. All of these practices feed into and reinforce each other.

Outdoor Practice

Gazing in Motion (or at myriad things)

Turning our gaze on things in motion allows us to hold in mind another facet of the ten thousand things.  This practice for me began with birds, watching them hop from branch to branch. At the time I was able to watch the birds and sense no separation, hopping from branch to branch along with the birds. This is what we are practicing.

Following birds in flight is a way to begin to lower the barrier between self and other. You practice standard gazing out into the distance and if a bird, or multiple birds, flit across your vision you hold them in your mind. You do not watch where they fly or what they are doing but “follow” them in your mind.  When barriers are lower you can be as the birds, flying where they fly and seeing what they see.

Other objects that won’t stay still are another way of working with complexity. Flocks of birds, branches swaying in the breeze, reflections of light dancing on water, falling snow. In this practice you gaze out in the distance where these objects are not focusing on any on aspect. Relax your vision. See it in its entirety

This complication collections of myriad things are too hard to hold in your mind. You follow birds, but you don’t look at them. Try to hold the path of multiple birds at one time.

As always we take a walk, being in our bodies walking from the the abdomen, engaging in Direct Gazing. We stop, pause, exhale then engage with what is there: Birds moving across the landscape, a swarm of dancing dancing in a tight cluster, gazing at the distant mountains. We don’t direct our attention toward these things, we simply let them be as they are. As the narrative falls into stillness we keep walking. We repeat this throughout the walk until the small self recedes and we are Just Walking. Just Empty Awareness.


  1. No-Gate Gateway: The Original Wu-men Kuan
    Translated by David Hinton
    Shambhala, 2018
    ISBN-10: 161180437X
  2. Mountain Home: The Wilderness Poetry of Ancient China
    Translated by David Hinton
    New Directions, 2005
    ASIN: B00O2R6G64
  3. The Method of No-Method: The Chan Practice of Silent Illumination
    Ch’an Master Sheng Yen
    Shambhala, 2008
    ASIN: B00C5KK72E