Body is nothing more than emptiness, emptiness is nothing more than body… All things are empty.
Phrases like those from a translation of the Heart Sutra have long confused Westerners trying to understand Buddhism. One of my teachers went so far as to have a vanity license plate that said: NOSELF.
But all this talk about about the non-self doesn’t mean that Buddhists believe we don’t exist. (Sorry about the double negative.) As I interpret the non-self, it means that:
- We are not intact beings. Our thoughts and perceptions change constantly, as do our bodies. Somehow, the Buddha understood that we are mostly empty space with tiny bits of matter that change position within out bodies and venture outside them as well.
- We are impermanent. Not only will we age and die, but from one moment to the next we are not the same.
- We are not distinct from the rest of the world. The tiny bits of matter within me are the same as the tiny bits of matter within you and those within the tree outside my window. We manifest in different ways, but we would not exist without each other. So we are one.
James Ishmael Ford, Zen priest and Unitarian Universalist minister, prefers to talk not of emptiness but of boundlessness. His Buddhist tradition is called Boundless Way Zen, and in The Heart Sutra (A Paraphrase) he expresses one of the key statements this way: “…all things are boundless; the boundless is nothing other than all things.” That comes much closer to a translation Westerners can understand, and it captures the meaning as well as any other words I can think of.
Lama Surya Das teaches what he calls “co-meditation.” It began after he had spent a few days with the Dalai Lama and wanted a way to continue feeling him close, but it has grown into a practice of non-duality, or boundlessness, or emptiness, or non-self. You meditate with the image of someone or something else in your mind, breathing with you, meditating with you, being with you.
You may choose to co-meditate with a respected teacher like the Dalai Lama, or you may choose to co-meditate with someone you’re having difficulty with. Co-meditation brings you together and overcomes your selfness. I found success with this technique once in a dining hall during a silent retreat.
I became aware of a woman, in her sixties or seventies, wearing startlingly colorful clothing, charging in and out of the room, taking food from place to place and making guttural noises I could not identify. My first impulse was to assume she was an intruder stocking up on the free food and violating the sanctity of the dining hall. I felt as though I should report her to the people in charge of the retreat. But no one else seemed to notice her or to be disturbed, and the leaders were among the otherwise silent diners. Why weren’t they doing something about her?
Then I remembered that the woman and I are one. What a perfect opportunity to co-meditate. I sat at my table, breathing, calming my mind and eventually being that woman. I felt the need to make strange noises. I felt the impulses that led to the vocalizations. And I no longer perceived her as other.
I discovered later that she was a participant in the retreat, someone known to the leaders. They treated her with respect when she did appropriate things and when she did things that seemed inappropriate to the rest of us. And thanks to co-meditation, I also felt my oneness with her. By the end of the retreat, we were friends.
My emptiness, or boundlessness, enabled me to connect with our oneness.
— Mel Pine (Fearless Lotus)
Copyright 2016 © Mel Harkrader Pine
3 Comments Add yours
Thanks for this. I am one of those Westerners confused by the translation. Your explanation makes much more sense!
What do you make, though, of the need in everyday life for boundaries? Over the years I’ve found that more pain has come from not having healthy boundaries to my emotional life than it has from having too many boundaries.
Boundary violations can be a big problem in relationships: people assuming they know what you want or need, and being wrong; people assuming a connection where none exists.
How do you reconcile the need for boundaries with boundlessness? Or is it just one of those paradoxes that teaches you something as you grapple with it?
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I don’t think it’s a paradox. Or, rather, if there’s a paradox, it lies in being both boundless and intact. In the everyday world in which we function, we need to start with ourselves — love ourselves as we are before we can love others. We have to be intact in order to do anyone else any good.
True compassion is a state of being, not of acting. Once we experience compassion for ourselves, we want the same for others, and that compassion comes from deep listening and deep being together. It doesn’t come from rushing in and deciding that what’s good for me is good for the other person.
I married in to a family that tends to cross my idea of boundaries. It took me a long time, but I learned to make clear to my in-laws where my boundaries lie, and I’m quite clear/blunt about it. Just ask them. I can’t be a genuine member of their family unless I feel intact. And I can now embrace them from my genuine self.
I’m rambling a bit now, but on the other hand I guess that at first I saw the woman in the dining hall as violating the boundaries of the rest of us. But she was only making noise and acting in ways that were distracting to me. Once I reached out in meditation and experienced being her, I recognized her need to do what she was doing. My boundaries became less important than hers.
Another interesting slant: Many Eastern cultures don’t see personal boundaries as we do in the West. The boundaries there tend to be around family or clan or nation. Buddhism would flop completely in the West without personal boundaries.
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