The Actual Realisation of Emptiness

This is a retreat report on the Western Chan Fellowship retreat called ‘Shattering the Great Doubt,’ held at Maenllwyd, in September 2014. The retreat was a nine day silent meditation retreat in the Chan (Zen) tradition of koan study. The focus of one’s meditations is a self-selected koan from one of the classic collections. In addition to the long periods of silent meditation, there are daily talks by the teacher, and occasional one to one ‘interviews’ with the teacher (dokusan), usually about once every two days. One hopes to break through to Enlightenment, an experience variously described in the literature of zen as ‘the falling away of body and mind,’ or ‘seeing the nature,’ or ‘the realisation of emptiness.’

The first evening, before the rule of silence takes effect, each of us says why we have come. To simplify, simplify, simplify, I said. I did not want elaborate conundrums. I wanted to strip things down to as little as possible. When the koans were offered on the second day, there was the perfect one for my purpose: “Ordinary Mind is the Way” (Mumonkan, Koan 19). It continues: “If you try for it you will become separated from it.” And, “The Way is not a matter of knowing or not knowing.” It was an instruction manual in how to simplify.

The koan in full goes like this:

I had a new agenda to work on in meditation: get out of the way; be in the present; add nothing; have no expectations. But it did not work because I began finding out shocking things about myself. Simon’s next talk pushed me further into the pretentions and complacency of my sense of self. I realised I was only interested in other people if they had something to offer me. I realised that even my caring for dying friends was contaminated by bits of ego, and limited by my other priorities. The koan was right. If I was seeking some satisfaction or sense of goodness from the encounter with a friend, then we would, “become separated” from the Way. I recalled many instances of feeling sadly separated when I had wanted to feel intimate and open with someone. I found ludicrous examples of pride wherever I looked. Even my relationship with the sense of mystical bliss, The Mystery itself, was selfish: I wanted it when it suited me, and for it to go back in its box and wait for me at other times. It should not disrupt my pleasant, busy lifestyle.

In the next interview, a day later, as I reported these dreadful findings to Simon, he said, “You have got plenty of time for yourself, not much for others. It is controlling. Is there a fear of letting others in? The Mystery might take you anywhere.” I wanted to get rid of myself, shoot the greedy little selfish so and so. “Just relax,” said Simon. “Soften. Open to the Mystery.”

I did now realise how ridiculous and insubstantial all my cherished bits of pride and ambition and complacency were. I let go of them. Then the last piece too, had to go: the affection I had for my pride, the attachment to my idea of myself. All of these ideas I had about myself were flimflam. All my favourite beliefs, my specialist knowledge, my attainments, my hopes, my doubts, the life-story I repeat, they are all flimflam. They are unreal. They are bits of invention, imagined fantasy productions. Let them go. Open yourself to what you don’t know.

With this insight, I could now proceed with my simplifying agenda in meditation: get out of the way; be in the present; add nothing; have no expectations. The following morning, Thursday, in that beautiful first hour of meditation, I did it. I monitored my mind for any trace of the things Nansen warns me about in the koan; any trace of seeking; any trace of knowing; any lack of trust. Instead of having ideas about The Mystery (that it would deepen and be more blissful and explode into enlightenment) I just examined it. It has absolutely no concern for my absurd hopes and fears and ambitions and pride in attainment, I realised. None whatsoever. And why should it? The whole lot is absurdly trivial. And not really there. Not there at all. The universe flows on. Thousands of generations of creatures grow and die. Their wanting and attachments and ego concerns are all empty imaginings. It’s not just that they are self-serving – we all know that when we think about it – but that they are not there, and nor are the people constructed of them, such as me. Flimflam. Not there. I’m not really there. I feel like a root and nothing growing from it but an awareness of space. It is a jolt. I am not now thinking empty, I am really not there. It is a vivid and dramatic experience and emptiness is the right word for it, a word that has for years been elusive and ultimately incomprehensible to me. It is now clear to me how to be with my dying friends. By letting go. Death is empty too. All that cloudy stuff of wishing it away, clinging, protesting – that stuff is not real. It is empty. What dies is the body. All the highly valued personality that we are so profoundly attached to was never there in the first place. Life is the value. But what it is, I have no idea. There is a great Mystery but nothing for a self to seek or attain. There is the ordinary sublime to wonder at, but our reactions are neither here nor there and we can’t know anything about it. I sit through the beautiful morning service and as others eat their breakfasts I do many prostrations of gratitude to the Buddha.

Simon’s next talk was on, “All our world of experience is created by the mind. There is nothing that is not produced by the mind.” Wonderful. He manages to explain these abstruse ideas in very down-to-earth terms and make them perfectly clear. He guides my practice and I can feel the profound changes happening within me.

At the end of the day I had the opportunity for an interview. I had seen empty, Simon implied, but not entirely emptied myself out. You are dying, he insisted. What do you feel about that? I was stumped for the moment. Tired now, hours after the morning’s elation, my sense of an empty self was not secure. Keep practicing, he said.

The next morning, Friday, with new energy and the wonderful clarity of the dawn sit, I pushed on with my stripping down, simplifying, and letting go. I had to loosen control, receive rather than transmit, and be wu wei, empty of ulterior purpose. I monitored my mind clear of self-concern and the last vestiges of wanting, to just accept the experience of the present, with no expectations.

I saw how it corrupts to have any views or intentions, even well-meaning ones (in caring for my dying friends, for example, or in any kind of loving relationship). I was now convinced that my selfish little bits of wanting were standing in my way and really needed to be rid of them. I followed the guidance of Nansen in the koan, watching out for seeking, knowing, and doubt. It was surprisingly easy. Everything opened up. It was “vast and boundless like outer space”, as the koan said. As I emptied, the whole universe emptied, and there was no centre. The root I had yesterday was gone and there was no viewing position for me at all. Vast undifferentiated emptiness. It is not just a bigger version of the oceanic sense of spaciousness one gets in a clear meditation but a completely different experience, very distinct and vivid. Not that the world outside had gone, or that my body had really disappeared, of course, but that there was no bit of me in the way. How extraordinarily straightforward it was. The mechanism was simple: root out all the deluded flimflam of the seeking, wanting ego… and there is nothing but the boundless Mystery. Later, outside, the world shines, fully itself in perfection, pristine. You’d have thought that to make the world perfect all those bloody people with their half-baked beliefs and violent reactions would have to be emptied out, but no, it’s nice little me who has to be emptied. How extraordinary. I can answer the question Simon challenged me with. The proper attitude to my death is to go through it without wanting anything to be different, because I can see how futile that is, and any wanting at all gets in the way, ruining your joy in the present, closing you down to one needy issue. Acceptance. I should start now, because as Simon has pointed out with relish, I’ve already started dying.

Simon quoted Master Shengyen distinguishing between Contemplating Emptiness and the actual Realisation of Emptiness. He thought my Thursday experience was Contemplating Emptiness. As we talked, he acknowledged that the complete emptiness of Friday was the actual Realisation of Emptiness. Keep practicing, he said.

I am deeply grateful to Simon for his teaching. I have the greatest possible respect for him. The koan retreat at the Maenllwyd is a rare and beautiful experience, beyond all valuing. If only people knew what an amazing resource it is! It is a national treasure. I think it is the perfect way of doing these things and I would not want to go to any other kind of sangha. I love the place, and I love the flexible, helpful, but brilliantly focused spotlight of the teaching. And I am grateful to Simon for transmitting the magnificent Buddha dharma of compassion and wisdom passed down through all the teachers from Shakyamuni all the way to Masters Shengyen and John Crook, and transmitting it with humanity and humility.

In a Shoreham garden by Samuel Palmer with grateful acknowledgement to the Victoria & Albert museum.

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