Emptiness: Where Dreams and Reality Collide

How do we know whether something is possible or impossible? How can we put limits on a world which we can never totally understand?

Our beliefs, the many concepts and ideas which we hold in our heads, provide a rulebook for what we are able to achieve in our lives. From our past experiences, our education, and from what we are told by other people, we know that there are limits to what we can achieve. We know that there are boundaries which we can never cross and freedoms which we can never experience.

But what happens when we strip away these ideas, when we free our minds from the fetters of concept and thought?

In the silence provided by emptiness, an emptiness beyond even the concept of emptiness, where no thoughts or desires arise, there are no limits. The walls of our cell have crumbled, and now there is just empty space. The whole world, filled with objects which no longer seem real, becomes a living and breathing expression of ourselves. Dream-like and surreal, forms merge into a formless whole of which we are the source. Through the absence of concepts, objects no longer have distinct forms. Our own identity crumbles with the walls of the cell, and our bodies merge to become a part of this new landscape.

While such a process may seem fantastical, and mystical beyond achievement, it is the very essence of our existence in every moment. Even when turbulent emotions arise, they no longer have any power, as they are not considered to be’real’ or separate from ourselves. It is like the whole of reality falls into our own being.

However, even these ideas remain barriers to true freedom. When all ideas and limitations are removed, when even the concept of emptiness is destroyed, we are left in the boundless silence of being, standing alone on the empty plain of existence.

Watching the World Burn: The Importance of Letting Go

Everything around us dies.

Every person we meet, every object we see, and every experience which we will ever have will end. While such a viewpoint is extremely cynical, it is fact. There is not a single thing in our experience which will last forever, no matter how hard we try to preserve it. Nature reflects this through its seasons, each one representing a different stage of life. How then can there be eternal happiness? How can we ever be at peace in a world that is forever crumbling as we watch it?

Intuitively, we know that there is something which cannot die within us. We know that there must he something about us which will live on once our bodies pass away. What is it then that can outlive form, that can outlive the Universe and everything in it?

If we cling to things which are ephemeral, our health, our house, our loved ones, the sad truth is that one day we will lose them. They cannot last forever. Even our memories of them may not outlive us, due to diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. If we attach ourselves to these things, we can never experience true freedom from suffering. We will always be paranoid to lose them, and the happiness which they bring us.

True happiness, permanent happiness, is therefore found when we are able to surrender the mortal within us to become immortal. It is a change in our relationship to the world. No longer do we cling to the ephemeral to bring us happiness or to give us a sense of identity. This is when we become free of form, and free of the world.

Suffering dies with our attachment to things which pass, and while it takes an enormous amount of wisdom and courage to be able admit that, we can never be happy until we are able to let things go. It is like stepping into the fire. What we are not will die, and what remains is that which will never perish. From the ashes of that fire, we will rise free of the burden of existence and our attachments to it. This is happiness. This is who we are, who we have been, and who we always will be.

Jelaluddin Rumi

‘Quietness is the surest sign

that you’ve died.

Your old life was a frantic running

from silence.

The speechless full moon

comes out now.’

Jelaluddin Rumi

A renowned mystic and poet, Rumi was born on the border between modern day Afghanistan and Tajikistan in the early 13th century. The Persian culture in which he was raised had a great influence on him, especially the mystic sect of Islam known as ‘Sufism’. His father was a theologian and mystic, and Rumi was raised to follow in his father’s footsteps.

After the Mongols invaded the Middle East, Rumi’s family travelled further west to escape the advancing hoard. He lived much of his life in the city Konya, a part of the Sultanate of Rum. It was there that he met Shams, a mystic and friend of Rumi’s who is often alluded to in his poetry. He often refers to Shams as the ‘friend’ who taught him the truth of his nature.

Rumi emphasised a sense of playfulness and delight in one’s being, and taught that it was through the stupor of emptiness that we can find bliss in life. This was reflected in the practice of the Whirling Dervishes, who would spin in circles to evoke this detachment. He uses various forms of imagery in his poems to convey a sense of the delights of our being, and to encourage us to surrender ourselves to that bliss.

The Buddha’s Secret: No Search, No Problem

Can you remember a time before you knew about nirvana? Can you remember a time when you weren’t searching for something more? These two goals define us as human beings. We are always searching for something, be that wealth and status or enlightenment. However, it is this very search for meaning and happiness which prevents us from seeing the happiness that is always here, which is in fact totally natural.

Have you ever considered that it is your very insistence that there is a search to be undertaken which holds you back? Consider for a moment that the whole idea of spirituality and the search for enlightenment is a fiction, and that no search need be undertaken to find happiness, that enlightenment itself is just a myth. 

Where does that leave us? 

If the search is just a made-up story, that would mean that our present condition, with all of its thoughts and mental problems, is the enlightened condition. We could continue to pick holes in our present state, but is there really anything that needs changing? Are we not perfect as we are?

The realisation that whatever we try will not lead us to the truth is a crucial one. Only by forgetting about spirituality and enlightenment, and returning to the very being which we are, can we ever hope to be free of burden. We are so busy looking for meaning elsewhere, that we don’t notice that what we are is all we will ever need.

Forget about enlightenment. Forget about the search, and live without the need to change who you are or your position in life.

This is to live without fear. This is to truly live.

Defeat: The Ultimate Blessing

The world will always support us on a journey to understand ourselves. In ways which we cannot comprehend, our lives are shaped by circumstance. Often what we believe to be a blessing can become a curse, and our greatest fears can become our greatest allies.

Let us say for example that you win the lottery. The sudden acquisition of wealth suddenly blows away all fears for survival, and you are able to live a life of comfort and pleasure without the need to work or strive. The result is often severe depression. With nothing to work towards or achieve, the winner is left with an empty shell of life, in which pleasure is valued by how much the experience costs. In the opposite scenario, extreme poverty forces us to work and to achieve, and the simplest things in life can become our greatest joys.

While wealth does not directly determine our happiness, as a wealthy person can be more happy than a person in poverty, it is important to realise that our situation in life is suited to promote our own growth. If we never faced adversity, we would never develop as people, and if we never experienced the love of others, we would never understand true altruism.

One of the greatest gifts which life can throw at us is that of utter defeat. When we are totally broken, unable to move on and unable to piece ourselves back together, we are forced to surrender ourselves to something greater than us. If we are able to give ourselves to this, to go with it rather than to fight it, we will be reborn all the stronger. We cannot hold onto the same beliefs about ourselves for our entire lives, and it is though these moments that we are humbled, learning more about ourselves and discovering the hidden strength within our own hearts.

You are forever supported by life. Like a river, through the hard times and the good, it will always guiding you towards the ocean.

Master Dogen

‘When we discover that the truth is already in us, we are all at once our original selves’

Master Dogen

Born into a Japanese noble family in the early 13th century, Dogen became a Buddhist monk after renouncing his noble heritage.  He travelled to China in order to deepen his understanding of Buddhism and bring what he had learnt back to his homeland. Upon his return, he became one of the early adherents of Zen Buddhism in Japan, and he founded several communities of practise in the Kyoto region.

Dogen was an advocate of the ‘zazen’ form of meditation, and disliked the ritualistic practises of his predecessors. He taught that human beings are already enlightened, and that the journey to attempt to rediscover this is futile and meaningless. He taught that through this understanding, one could attain peace.

The Way of the Lazy Buddha: Give up the Search

‘But deluded people don’t realize that their own mind is the Buddha. They keep searching outside.’ – Bodhidharma

The Buddha is famous for having found happiness and serenity in the world, reaching nirvana and the end of suffering. His achievement took him years of struggle and toil, and we, who believe ourselves to be lesser human beings, look to him as an idol. How can we achieve nirvana when we are so attached to our modern ways of living? How can I achieve this perfect state when I am still so tied to the world?

In truth, we could give millions of excuses as to why we are not suited to reaching the end of suffering. But there is only one reason why it is fully within our capability, and that is because we are already there.

We attach so much importance to our outer environment. Our bodies, property, and status all define our identity. Do we ever stop to think that there is something more to this? Surely what we are cannot be so fragile and transient? Those who seek the understanding of the Buddha aim to find the immortal in themselves, and contrary to what appears to be obvious, they look for it amongst everything that dies. They look to the world for knowledge from ancient texts. They reason with their thoughts to find answers, which are then forgotten in the instant in which they drift into sleep. They look to emotions to guide them, but even they rise and fall with the events of the world.

The permanent can never be found amongst the impermanent. What Bodhidharma is trying to say is that through our constant search, which can only be conducted outside of ourselves, we never come to realise that what we actually are in this present moment, devoid of thought and intention, is the nirvana which we have been searching for. It is only when we give up the search and surrender that we finally rest in what we have always been. No effort can take you there and no amount of thinking can bring this change about. It is like quicksand: the more you struggle with life, the more it consumes you. It is this realisation which will finally free you, and in an instant we are let loose from the cage of life.

The Buddha is found in the land without thought, so go meet him there.

Pride: The Curse of Success

In a world of competition, where status and ability are valued above all else, the image which we have of ourselves is so easily influenced by our situation. With failure, we deem ourselves worthless, unwanted by  a society in which we are no longer valued. With success the opposite is true, inflating our self-worth and causing us to look down upon those of lesser status.

This is nothing to be ashamed of, and while we try to break the shackles of our class-controlled past, subconsciously there is still a need to judge and to compete. This need to be better than others leads to an unending sense of dissatisfaction and inferiority. Unable to compete with the very best, we become bitter human beings, rude to those we consider inferior and spiteful to those above us.

The cause of this misery is not necessarily inherent to society as a whole but, as with every problem, is an issue within ourselves. The power-play which we seem to see going on around us is entirely built upon our own sense of individuality. As a small person in a large world, we must constantly strive to survive and overcome obstacles which could consume us. The misery which this causes only grows with our investment in it, and moment by moment we become obsessed with being better and wealthier.

So how can we cure ourselves of this sickness? At the outer level, humility and self-respect are essential. For the proud, being humble and respectful to others shows a great deal of maturity. By letting go of the need to be better, we suddenly become more secure and understanding as human beings, naturally much kinder and more charitable. For those who feel unwanted, self-respect comes through the ability to see value in oneself, and to begin to realise that circumstance does not define who we are.

To be able to let go of this hierarchy is to accept oneself. At this much deeper level, understanding of our true nature brings release from the fearful mind. By letting go of the need to strive and compete, to appreciate and value ourselves and others exactly as they are, we find peace among people, and genuine friendships based on mutual respect.

You have nothing to lose, so let your tongue speak freely and your heart glow in the presence of the people you love. Like a lantern, your flame will provide light and warmth to all those who sit with you, until you can all rise above the fighting of the world below.

Craving: The Foundation of All Suffering

Has there ever been a moment in your life where you have felt content? Where you could sit where you are and close your eyes, never needing or wanting anything else to satisfy your needs. Such moments are rare and extremely special. We feel a peace that stretches to the very core of our being, like a lightning bolt from the blue that paralysis any want or desire.

The first time I experienced such a feeling was on a bus. It wasn’t a particularly special day, but all of a sudden the clouds that shrouded me disappeared, leaving a space of pure happiness and contentment. I had never felt peace like it, and tears of happiness are entirely acceptable in those circumstances.

As we weave our way through life, we are forever followed by these clouds. They can be worries for the future, regrets from the past, or distant dreams which we believe will bring us happiness. In any case, the key reason for their existence is that the present moment is not enough, that what we are and where we are right now is insufficient to make us happy. We believe that there is always something else which will fulfil us, and the whole world is chained down by this curse.

So how do we break those chains?

To begin with, forget about the future, and let go of the past. Look at who you are right now, what you are scared of and what you hope for. Then when you are ready, drop it all, every single part of it. When you let go of everything, of all control and fear, what is left is the pure peace and serenity of freedom. It is here that the world melts into ourselves, and the distinction between what we dream of and what we are becomes one.

Remember this place, because it is our home. Our minds are like hostile planets compared to this, and it is only through our ability to let go, of control of the future and fear from the past, that we can spend our days resting in it.