On Emptiness and Daily Life – a talk by Madelon Bolling

Posted by on Jan 15, 2019 in Zen Talks | Comments Off on On Emptiness and Daily Life – a talk by Madelon Bolling

January 13, 2019

It is said that the world is empty, the world is empty, lord. In what respect is it said that the world is empty?” The Buddha replied,
“Insofar as it is empty of a self or of anything pertaining to a self:
Thus it is said, Ānanda, that the world is empty.
–Sunna Sutra of the Pali canon

Thank you for making the time, effort and sacrifice it took to join us here today to face the Great Matter together at the beginning of this new year, 2019.

A new year reminds us to consider beginning again, getting a fresh take on life, to look with new eyes at what we have. Recently I overheard someone expressing dismay or frustration with the Heart Sutra because as they show on the page, the words make no sense at all. So, I think facing that dragon again might be just the way to start the year.

The Heart Sutra says:

Shariputra, form is no other than emptiness, emptiness no other than form;

form is exactly emptiness, emptiness exactly form;

sensation, perception, mental reaction, consciousness,

are also like this.


Form is no other than emptiness—mind-boggling! like saying day is no other than night. What could it possibly mean? Trying to think it through just makes my head hurt. Really, though, it is not a rational statement, but an attempt to put direct experience into words.

“Form” we know—shapes, right? solid, tangible things in space and time? You and I and the cushions and chairs on the floor; grape leaves yellow and brown, fallen off the vine; the ceiling of grey cloud and a bright ray of sunshine; the sound of crows, the sound of my voice. All of these are forms, shapes, the appearances that make up what we call life. Form, we know. But in fact, what we know are stories about this word, “form.” Let’s see if we can take a step through the world of words to enter experience itself.

Close your eyes. As you do these next actions, pay close attention just to the sensations, to what is actually happening in the moment, before you say anything to yourself.

Remember to breathe with each action: let breathing sensations be part of noticing. Lift the left hand off your lap, noting that sensation as part of breathing sensations. Let the right hand meet the left. Breathe. As part of the sensations of breathing, note the sensations of moving the hands, touching—moving apart, touching, sliding a little, moving apart, touching, breathing. Sensations. Are these sensations inside? or outside? Where are you in this ongoing experience before describing or explaining? Before you tell a story about it, where are you?

Now open your eyes. Breathe. Still noting sensation, still noting the actual present-moment experience, let the left and right fingers touch, slide. With breathing, note visual sensations before thinking as part of the experience of this moment. Are there two hands in the experience of meeting? Really? Or is that a story made up after visual experiencing? Breathe again, noticing how good breathing feels as you return with me to the word-world.

This was a little exercise in questioning assumptions about form, to open the possibility of experiencing emptiness, because we’re not as familiar with emptiness as with form. After all, there’s nothing there to be familiar with, right? If you look at emptiness there is no thing there. But emptiness in the Heart Sutra doesn’t mean empty as in ‘an empty box’—that would be a thing, a box-shape with no other thing in it. And ‘empty’ in this context doesn’t mean ‘blank space’. Emptiness in itself, without reference to a thing is literally ungraspable. Also, “Nothing there” carries an energy that moves the attention away, saying, “Oh, nothing interesting here, nothing to keep your attention at all: look somewhere else.” “Nothing there” is Obi-Wan Kenobi’s Jedi mind trick, “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for…” It pops up when we’re looking right at those very droids!

Emptiness in the Heart Sutra is explained as “empty of self-nature,” that is, being without a distinctive, unchanging identity separate from the rest of experience. The nature of form includes and is made of awareness. Awareness also has no separate nature. The nature of awareness has appearances—form—as its mode of being.

In staying with the raw experience of touch as we just did, we were on the empty side of experience. When describing what went on: fingers touched fingers as we moved the hands towards each other—we entered the world of duality, telling a story about what happened, which includes assumptions of “self” and “other” as given. Pretty soon the experiential side, the reality of what it felt like in the open dark of closed eyes—that reality is lost to us because it seems easier to work with stories than to stick with the actuality, with just experiencing sensations of the present moment.

Our real experience before words is more like water. Streams flow into lakes, and where the energies of different streams meet and cross one another, waves appear for awhile, looking solid and identifiable until the energies dissipate—and then the total being of the waves, every drop, molecule, atom, goes back to what it always was—water. This is true of awareness; this is true of what we call form. This is how “form is no other than emptiness”—and because emptiness (no-self) is continually showing up in different ways, this is how “emptiness is no other than form.” You could say, waves are no other than water; water is no other than waves.

What we know as the “solid” world is rather like a dream built and held together by words. We are always involved with, continually drawn into the dream by the concept of solidity and the notion of permanence. Both “solidity” and “permanence” belong to the illusory, fictional realm of story. AND the complete reality is right here, now, with us in it, inseparably. It cannot be an elsewhere thing. Reality has to be now and has to include us just as we are.

But how in the world can these mysteries help us live from day to day? We’re all too familiar with stress. We try all sorts of things to relieve that stress. So, this might be old hat to you but it’s worth trying. Stop identifying with thinking or story. Notice the mind’s habit of relating everything to “me.” This will help us let go the habitual business of shoring up and defending the “I,” which is the source of much stress.

There’s no need to try to eliminate the habit—just turn the Jedi mind trick upside down. When you notice a story about self going on (even harmless self-references like, ooh I like that house!), think, “Wait, these are the droids I’m looking for”—and shift attention for a moment to what’s really here, to the place that is noplace, the sensory experience of the moment: hands on the steering wheel, rain soaking through socks. When traffic is stressful and you hear in your head, “Dang it you jerk! What’s the idea of cutting in like that?!” shift attention for a moment to what is really right here: pounding heart, tense shoulders and stomach, the jagged in-breath. . . No need to follow the story-making that goes on automatically in response to situations—and no need to push the stories away either, just note them, come back to sensations and keep your eye on the road.

See if you can meet the moment completely and appropriately with what you really are in the moment, not with automatic, habitual responses that just maintain their own, painful stories. Quite often you’ll notice habitual responses dominating. That’s normal. Noticing that it’s happening is the first clear step: Oh! there’s that again. Let it be there and check in with sensory reality. Drop into the place that is noplace for refuge, for rest.

You know, when the Buddha sat under the bodhi tree, the demon Mara showed up with all kinds of temptations. This demon is exactly an automatic appearance of the self-story, the “I” narrative in our minds, with likes and dislikes, moved by greed, hatred and ignorance. The legend goes that Buddha called on Earth to bear witness for him to counter the demon. How did he do that? What did he do? He touched the ground, returned to the moment, the totality of non-separation.

All things are made of parts, and all things fall apart. As long as we struggle to maintain a sense of solid self, our lives will be marked by stress and fear, because there is no solid, separate, single self. We have no solid center. We are just the meeting of multiple causes and conditions, the temporary confluence of various streams.

So, try coming back throughout the day (not just during set meditation times) to the reality that is right here. Sensations reveal our interconnectedness – not just with each other and not just with other beings and objects in the world, but interconnectedness with the fact that each sensation is no other than the totality of the universe as it is right here, right now, not separate: the fact that form is no other than emptiness.

In the Korean Zen tradition there is a line that goes:

Holding beads, perceiving the universe;
with emptiness as the string, there is nothing unconnected.
–Hua Yen Sutra

Don’t take my word for it—see for yourself. Again and again, try coming back to sensations before words, to the sensation of holding beads, scratching an itch, or holding your phone. With emptiness as the string, there is nothing unconnected. Come back to sensation before words. Does anything happen to your usual levels of stress and fear?

In this poem, James Wright writes about overcoming fear through close attention to small things:

I Was Afraid of Dying

I was afraid of dying
In a field of dry weeds.
But now,
All day long I have been walking among damp fields,
Trying to keep still, listening
to insects that move patiently.
Perhaps they are sampling the fresh dew that gathers slowly
In empty snail shells
And in the secret shelters of sparrow feathers fallen on the earth.
The Branch Will Not Break, p. 56.

He also wrote of the freedom that flowers when we are able to let go of the story of a separate self and come back to what we really are and can never be apart from:

Today I was so happy, so I made this poem.

As the plump squirrel scampers
Across the roof of the corncrib,
The moon suddenly stands up in the darkness,
And I see that it is impossible to die.
Each moment of time is a mountain.
An eagle rejoices in the oak trees of heaven,
This is what I wanted.

The Branch Will Not Break, p. 53

Holding beads, perceiving the universe;
with emptiness as the string, there is nothing unconnected.
–Hua Yen Sutra