Posts Tagged ‘Emptiness’

no beginning no end

January 17th, 2018    -    No Comments

Midstream
by Vicki Patschke

“So God, we . . . “
Every Sunday
our pastor begins the prayer
this way
as if already deep
in the middle
of a conversation
with God —
and we just joined in

I recall the words
of my Japanese calligraphy
teacher
the thick wet tip
of his bamboo brush
poised high above
a blank sheet of
rice paper —
The brush stroke begins
before
the ink touches the paper.

From invisible to visible
From silence to hearing
A message flows
through us
and we receive it
midstream.

“Blind Men Crossing the Bridge” by Zen Master Hakuin Ekaku (1685-1768), ink on paper.
The poet is my cousin.

you are born

January 4th, 2018    -    24 Comments

eggshellFor everyone.

You are born.

Let’s consider the facts before we get carried away.

You are born and no one—neither doctor, scientist, high priest nor philosopher—knows where you came from. The whole world, and your mother within it, was remade by the mystery of your conception. Her body, mind and heart were multiplied by a magical algorithm whereby two become one and one becomes two.

You inhale and open your eyes. Now you are awake.

By your being, you have attained the unsurpassable. You have extinguished the fear and pain of the past, transcended time, turned darkness to light, embodied infinite karma, and carried forth the seed of consciousness that creates an entire universe. All in a single moment.

Now that you are here, you manifest the absolute truth of existence. You are empty and impermanent, changing continuously, turning by tiny degrees the wheel of an endless cycle. Just a month from now, your family will marvel at the growing heft of your body. They will delight in the dawn of your awareness. You will grab a finger and hold tight, turn your head, pucker your lips and eat like there’s no tomorrow. You will smile. Six months from now, the newborn will be gone. Within a year, you will be walking the earth as your dominion. And although your caregivers might think that they taught you to eat, walk and talk, these attributes emerged intuitively from your deep intelligence.

You are born completely endowed with the marvelous function of the awakened mind. You are a miracle. You are a genius. You eat when hungry and sleep when tired.

You are a Buddha. But in the same way you will forget the circumstances of your birth, you will forget the truth of your being. And by forgetting what you are, you will suffer in the painful, fruitless search to become something else, striving against your own perfection to feel whole and secure. By your attachment to desires, you will squander the chance of infinite lifetimes: the chance to be born in human form. Luckily, the chance to be reborn—to wake up—arises every moment. Your body is the body of inexhaustible wisdom. When will you realize it? read more

serene through all their ills

January 17th, 2016    -    4 Comments

popsicleboat1

When I travel around the country for meditation retreats, they usually take place in rooms that weren’t designed for Zen meditation. We may come together in a converted barn, for instance, or a basement, conference room or classroom. All that matters is that the room be empty. Then into the space we put a little bit of the form, or appearance, of a Zen retreat.

That means a bell, a statue of Buddha, and if allowed, a candle and incense; cushions or chairs; and a schedule of seated meditation, walking meditation, and chanting services throughout the day. It sometimes seems to me like we fashion a retreat out of popsicle sticks, but somehow it works.

To a beginner, the form appears strange. It’s rarely anything you’ve done before; classical Zen is not exactly a free-for-all. It’s important to see that the form of a retreat isn’t imposed, like a rule. It is offered, like a life raft. Form gives us a place and a way to rescue ourselves from ourselves. What do I do now, our crazy mind shrieks. Do this, form tells us. But how, we wail. Like this, the form shows us, and we have one less thing to fret about.

One of the first things I invite people to do at a retreat is write down the name of someone who is suffering, someone other than themselves. Even though people come to a retreat to get something—something called Zen—we automatically receive the benefit of our own practice. The point is to extend the benefit to others. The names go onto our retreat sick list which is chanted out loud as part of each day’s service. People might offer the name of someone who has cancer or is going through a personal calamity. Someone ill, elderly, or near death. We all know someone in those straits, and those are the first names that come to mind.

At the first morning service, people are self-conscious. Anyone would be. They are chanting things they don’t understand, mumbling words and syllables that don’t make sense. The chant leader is trying to find the right rhythm and pitch; the names on the sick list are mangled. But this is practice: everyone doing everything together for the first time. There is no criticism spoken, but of course, we often judge ourselves harshly.

With each service, the chanting grows clearer and more confident, and each morning the sick list grows a little bit longer. In our empty room, our minds are growing clearer. We think more compassionately of others when we stop obsessing about ourselves. We might approach the chant leader and ask, can I add one more name to the list?

On the last day of retreat, the chanting is strong and beautiful. The words merge in one voice. All are alert and present. The chant leader makes a point of sounding out each syllable. The names are carefully pronounced, and the list is twice as long. That’s when I hear the names of our children, partners, and parents: people who may not be distressed except by what we say to them, what we do to them, what we expect of them, and what we think of them. We have, by the last day, forgotten ourselves, and in that forgetting, taken responsibility for everything and everyone. After saying the last name on the list, the chant leader intones the final benediction:

May they be serene through all their ills
and may we accomplish the Buddha Way together

And in that instant, they are, and we do.

***

Even when it’s made of popsicle sticks, there is room in the raft.
Come sit by me.

Zen Retreat: Meditation as Love
Feb. 5-7, 2016
Kripalu
Stockbridge, MA

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out of the park

November 11th, 2015    -    No Comments

1

Last week I asked a friend, an educational psychologist, where he had gone to college. When he told me I said, “That’s a good school.” He shook it off, admitting that he’d seen no difference between the top-ranked public institution and another one he had also attended, except for one thing. At the higher-rated school, tests consisted of multiple choice questions and essays, the essays being graded by graduate minions. At the other university, tests were strictly multiple choice, there being no surplus of labor to do the tedious work.

His own opinion was that, once you’re there, schools are more or less about the same. Some are simply harder to get into. Whatever you call your experience, it is entirely you.

Just then my head exploded. It felt like a party, a really good party, the kind where the parents aren’t home.

Is it possible that any place could be the right place?

I’m the mother of a high school sophomore, so you can guess why I’m susceptible to exploding. Although I know better, I still consider myself the undercarriage of my daughter’s future, and it never feels like I’ve done enough to secure the launch. Have I said enough, seen enough, provided enough — in other words, is she good enough — to make it out there on her own, so far away from my help?

I wish I didn’t think like that. So does she.

The other day my husband and I were reminiscing about fourth grade — our daughter’s fourth grade — which was a high point in my parental confidence, a veritable blue sky. We sat across a desk from the teacher, whom we loved. She flipped open a manila folder and scanned the contents for a few seconds. I can’t imagine what, of any significance, was written there. Then she looked up and broke into wide-eyed awe: “She’s hitting it out of the park!”

We took it all on faith then, having no way to judge, no doubt, no fear, no need to second-guess or strategize. I have wondered lately what park that teacher was talking about, a park open in every direction, unbounded by expectation, unmarred by fence or failure, and certainly without me.

Oh yes, I realize. It is my daughter’s park, still my daughter’s park, the one she’s playing in.

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the hidden gift of macaroni

December 1st, 2013    -    3 Comments

893661103C39C086AE1A284E3E0C4I had begged my father to take me to the store. It was the day before Christmas, and I had nothing to give to my mother except an art project I had brought home from school, a picture made with painted macaroni. How embarrassing. Even in kindergarten I knew that it wasn’t a real gift. It wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t the kind of thing anyone wants or gets. Remembering it, I can feel the full extent of a five-year-old’s self-criticism and shame. Dad took me to a convenience store and I emptied my piggy bank for a set of plastic drink coasters.

One day my mom cleaned under my bed and pulled out the macaroni picture from its hiding place. She showed it to me with questioning eyes. Now I know what she felt inside, her heart breaking with a sudden rush of tenderness for an injured child.

The most profound gifts are the ones that don’t measure up to any standard. They are not excellent or grand, but unexciting and ordinary. They may not look like gifts at all, but like failures. No matter how they look, they carry the precious essence of life’s true nature, which is love.

“Between the giver, the recipient and the gift there is no separation.” This is a Zen teaching telling us that generosity goes beyond appearances. There is really nothing in-between us, nothing that divides the sides or defines the substance of a gift. All is empty and perfect as it is. We practice this truth by giving what we can whenever it is called for, and by taking what is given whenever it is offered. When we give and take wholeheartedly, without judgment, separation is transcended. Stinginess is overcome and greed vanishes. We come to see that everything is already a gift that we have already been given. All that remains is to share it.

“I love it,” my mother said. And it was true.

From the January 2014 issue of Shambhala Sun magazine.

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anthem of the empty room

August 28th, 2013    -    11 Comments

jill_bedroomI’m cleaning off the desk today. Then I’ll tackle the drawers. By process of elimination, I’m headed for the floor.

I finished the manuscript for Paradise in Plain Sight, the book that New World Library will publish next spring. By finished, I mean I had the thought that I was finished. Every day I’m more finished than before. Soon I will gather the files and shoot them into a life of their own. I want my hands free to do simple things.

These hands. What will I do with them? That is the question that keeps coming around. Now what? Now where? What’s next?

My sister told me she has decided to retire next spring. She is younger than I am, and she has worked longer and harder than I ever did doing complicated things. She is at ease with her decision, the only ruffle coming when people kindly say, “I can’t wait to see what you will do next.” It is just small talk, but right there is the expectation that there’s got to be something great and interesting to show for ourselves.

All around, the year reaches crescendo: kids starting kindergarten, fourth grade, high school, and college. Everywhere, the firsts, which carry in them the lasts, and leave the emptiness of closets and chairs. It seems impossible to be finished. No less impossible to begin. But impossible things happen every day. Today.

My friend and dharma sister Jody Kujaku Glienke came to me after sitting zazen on Saturday. She handed me a pair of headphones and asked me to listen to a new song she’d written and sung about her daughter now grown and living in New York. She stood behind me like a good mother, so she wouldn’t intrude on my hearing and force a response. She was surprised when I turned around, sobbing at the end of her sweet song. She held me in her arms. Because I have a daughter still in her room, but halfway to New York, Chicago, Nashville, Atlanta, and San Francisco. Don’t we all? Let this console you, let this hold your song: the empty room where we find ourselves alone and together again.

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a forest of emptiness

May 29th, 2013    -    8 Comments

IMG_5614

 

Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva, doing deep prajna paramita,
Clearly saw emptiness of all the five conditions,
Thus completely relieving misfortune and pain.

Heart Sutra

Form is emptiness and emptiness is form. This single phrase is the summation of the Buddhist path, the culminating insight of the Way. But having uttered it, I’ve already strayed from it. Having read it, you’ve missed it, because now your mind is running amok trying to understand it, and here I am trying to chase after you. So let’s come back together in one big, empty place, and start over.

What looks solid is not solid; what has no shape comes in all shapes. In a physical sense, bamboo is strong because it is hollow. It is supple and resilient; it bends without breaking. It supports incredible weight. It grows unimpeded by any known barrier, spreading outward everywhere. This is true of you, too. Where do you think you begin and end? Your feet? Your head? Your skin? Your eyes, nose, mouth, ears? Your thoughts, memory, feelings? The way we limit ourselves imposes a bunker mentality and defies scientific reality.

It helps to remember what you took on faith in fourth grade science. All matter is composed of atoms. Atoms are mostly empty space. By definition you can’t see emptiness, but you can be it. Now, to live and let live in emptiness. That’s the secret to paradise.

First, be quiet. Give away your ideas, self-certainty, judgments, and opinions. Let go of defenses and offenses. Face your critics. They will always outnumber you.

Lose all wars. All wars are lost to begin with. Abandon your authority and entitlements. Release your self-image: status, power, whatever you think gives you clout. It doesn’t, not really. That’s a lie you’ve never believed.

Give up your seat. Be what you are: unguarded, unprepared, unequipped and surrounded on all sides. Alone, you are a victim of no one and nothing.

What appears in front of you is your liberation. That is, unless you judge it. Then you imprison yourself again.

Now that you are free, see where you are. Observe what is needed. Do good quietly. If it’s not done quietly, it’s not good.

Start over. Always start over.

Excerpted from the upcoming book Paradise in Plain Sight ©2014 by Karen Maezen Miller. Printed with permission of New World Library, Novato, CA. www.newworldlibrary.com

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weather

March 18th, 2013    -    18 Comments

JR70297-red-tree You are the sky. Everything else—it’s just the weather. Pema Chodron

Ohio in March? The weather would be iffy. For months before last weekend’s retreat in southwest Ohio I crossed my fingers about the weather. The brink of spring in Ohio was like—what exactly? Now I know the answer. Ohio would be like Ohio. A chilly day of filtered sun, the rip-roar of thunderstorms preceding a bright and balmy afternoon, an overnight freeze and snow flurries on the way out of town.

Welcome to Ohio, everyone said, with a tinge of dismay, since it was, after all, Ohio. Nothing to write home about. Oh but it is! Here I am at home writing about it. I found everything about Ohio to be utterly wonderful and illuminating. What a marvelous place to observe the whims of the weather, and learn by it.

Weather changes. Weather moves. Weather does not linger. It is not to be understood or analyzed, because it doesn’t last. No one, I hope, believes they are irreparably shaped by the misty rain they encountered walking home from school in April of the fifth grade. Or by the heat wave that stultified the summer of 2006. Or by last night’s wind or this morning’s fog.

Everything, it turns out, is like this. Everything we see, hear, feel, and think. Every bit of life plays out in a phenomenal flicker, and then it’s gone. We are able to accept this impermanence in the weather; we are not so foolish to expect one day to be like the next. Welcome to Ohio! But we are terribly foolish in other ways. One is the importance we give to our feelings, especially our difficult and uncomfortable feelings. We think they have value—high and lasting value—giving insight into our being, our soul, our self, the who, what and why that we are. We are obsessed with our feelings; we are confused by them; we are entertained by them. On a perfectly ordinary day when nothing at all is happening to us we rummage back into old feelings—I’m afraid, I’m angry, I’m sad—as if these faded footprints formed the meaning and substance of life.

When we identify so totally with the weather we do not see where the weather comes from. We do not see our true nature, the infinite and eternal spaciousness that gives rise to a single momentous thunderclap or the billion snowflakes that melt into a square foot of March mud. We do not see that we are the sky, a vivid and unpredictable vista that is never once marred by the frolic of light and vapor across its flawless face.

This is what I saw in Ohio. I saw the sky, and I loved it. I loved everything and everyone who roamed with me across that wide open field, like birds at rest and play. They leave no trace.

Now, come see the ocean in June.

 

they grow up soon enough

January 15th, 2012    -    18 Comments

We spent the day emptying drawers, sorting “keep” or “go,” hauling bags of trash and giveaways, swiping piles of dust. My husband and I have relented to buying my daughter a new bed, a bed entirely of her choosing, to match her self-image and sensibilities, a “teen” bed which will endure as the last blasted bed we buy her. It delivers tomorrow, and so today we cleaned out her room, meaning we cleaned out the most beloved 12 years of our lives. A day like this reminds me that all days are like this. I can’t say it any better than I did in Momma Zen:

“Form is emptiness,” Buddhism teaches. “And emptiness is form.” What could it possibly mean? It means this. It means I cried on the night of Georgia’s first birthday.

The bakery cake was ugly. She bawled in bewilderment at the crowd around the table. The presents didn’t interest her. She fled my arms to the cuddles of her babysitter. My shame was complete, but it was something else that brought me to tears. It was the finality. My baby was done with her first year. And despite my hurry, I was not. I had chosen this night to box up her baby clothes, refolding the tiny come-home things, sobbing at the poop and spit-up stains. They were already relics. How could it be over?

People will tell you so many things, passing on their hindsight and regrets. Love them when they are little. Cherish the early days. I would say it all again but I’m not sure you can hear it until you reach the other side, open your eyes and let the tears of recognition come. There is not one piece of life that you can grasp, contain or keep, not even the life you created and hold right now in your arms. I confess I never tried to slow it down, ever pushing forward to some imagined place of competence for me and independence for her. On this night, though, I could see how fast it all would go. How fast, how sad. Every happy day brimming with bittersweetness.

This is how it passes: no matter where we are we think of someplace else. The place before nighttime feedings, the place beyond twelve-a-day-diapers, the certain bliss that beckons from a distant shore.  This is how we spend our lives; this is how we spend their lives, motoring past milestones as if collecting so many merit badges.

We can be forgiven for this tendency, in part, because childhood is full of tests and measures, percentiles and comparisons. Bring your baby to the doctor’s office and they will plot her as a dot on a growth chart. I inscribed these glyphs dutifully on my calendar ­– how many pounds now, how many inches now – satisfied that we were safely on course to get somewhere. Where is that somewhere? Where is that place that I can relax the tension on the reins, ease off the accelerator?

Not one bit of life is a weight or a measure, a list or a date, a tick or a tock. It is never a result or an outcome. What it is, is a continual marvel, a wondrous flow without distance or gap, a perpetual stream in which we bob and float. We are buffered from nothing and yet never quite fully immersed because our thinking mind keeps eyeing the banks, gauging the current, scoping for landmarks and striving for some kind of perfect, elusive destination. There isn’t a destination. Life keeps going. It keeps going within us; when we’re not attentive, it keeps going without us. read more

the song of your life

May 15th, 2011    -    25 Comments

This is a passage from my next book, No Trace of My Teacher: Finding Faith in Your Days. I wrote it last night. The parts in italics are the words of Maezumi Roshi.

He only hears the cicadas singing in the maple-woods.

the Ten Oxherding Pictures

When I was little, I spent nearly every weekend at my grandparents’ house in the middle of the Ventura County orange groves about an hour north of Los Angeles.

Theirs was a tiny house, with only four rooms, and I slept in one with my grandfather. He could snore like a bear, but I never heard him snore, or at least I was never troubled to hear it. What I heard at night, through the screen door, atop the dark chill that carried the smell of sandy dirt and orange essence, were the crickets.

I just heard the crickets.

I didn’t make any meaning of it then – four-year-olds don’t yet assign meaning to things – and I don’t make any meaning of it now.

I simply heard the crickets and I knew they were crickets and I knew where I was and how I was and what time it was and what it was time to do. I knew everything that you know when you hear a cricket, which is actually quite a bit, so much that you can’t really explain it all. And the good thing is, you don’t have to.

I’m reciting all this here and now because lately when I toss in my bed, I can remember what I knew for sure when I was four or five and heard the crickets. I am fifty years older now and my head is crowded with far more than it needs to be – fear, for instance, of being 54, and worry, and doubts about my work, especially this work, and my daughter and whether she will be okay and not too disappointed or hurt and then the prescription that needs refilling and the bills that need paid and I forgot, what did I forget, oh that’s right I forgot to call, to fix, to sign, to return, to finish, to start – and for all I know there are crickets outside my own window right now but most of the time I’m making far too much noise between my ears to hear them.

That’s what can come between the hearing and the knowing, between the lost and the found, and between the fear and the faith. That’s all there is to let go of: what we keep putting in-between.

Hearing the sound, seeing the forms, many attain realization. Here where the verse says “He only hears the cicadas singing” what does it imply?

When I remember the sound of those country crickets these days, it’s not an emotional thing. It doesn’t trigger a sentiment as much as it awakens a sensation. A state of being that is effortless and relaxed, tucked into a small house under a vast and twinkling sky with a gentle grandfather beside me. When I remember that, I can drop the wiry tangle under my skin, the jangle inside my skull, and empty out what’s come in between me and a simple song.

When we see, when we hear, when we feel, when we smell, when we think, or when we perceive, conceive: right there, the author urges us to realize, “Why don’t you hear cicadas singing as the song of your life!” instead of just listening to it as a lousy noise something outside is making.

Oh that – that’s just a cricket.

Beginner’s Mind One-Day Meditation Retreat, LA, Sun., June 12

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plastic poinsettia

December 15th, 2010    -    14 Comments

She was a good woman, and she never failed to fill our table, even when we saw it as empty.

I must have been 11, my older sister 13, when we came to the dinner table one evening around this time of year and saw what my mother had placed in the middle. A spindly plastic replica of a single-stemmed poinsettia. It wobbled up from a gold-colored cup in a fashion that aspired to “modern” but that to our newly cynical senses screamed “cheap,” “fake” and “funny.” We gasped, even laughed. I remember because it’s hard to forget the first time you laugh outright at your mother, taking up a cruel sport that can take some time to put down. It would color much of what I perceived of her in the years that followed – until I became a mother myself, until I felt the tender wounds in my heart from the way I had once ridiculed and rebuked her.

I remember this now because it’s Christmas, and I’ve trimmed the Christmas tree. I did it by myself and I did it for myself. I did it for the mother in me. read more

Yield the floor, take the sky

August 13th, 2009    -    14 Comments

August feels like a lost month. Slow boiled, a pot left on the burner and forgotten until a quicksilver memory sends you back to find it pitch darkened and empty.

And so my daughter, my sweet little, is 10. It is different at 10, you know. That extra digit on one side. The roundedness of zero. The empty whole of it.

“I don’t want to grow up,” she sighs on every day but her birthday today, when she didn’t say it. She doesn’t need to say it. It is the lyric we all live our lives by, and now she does too. The going is always gone.

Once I would have called it bittersweet. But I don’t taste too much the bitter any more. It benefits us both that her mother is ancient, so long and well-lived. I’ve lived forever! A hundred years or more, and the last hundred years were the best 10 years of my life.

I don’t want to grow up either. I don’t want to expend a minute of energy nursing myself: my make believe dreams and unrealized aspirations, the tug, the rift, the tides. I don’t want to become anyone else, or even more of myself. I’ve yielded that floor, scuffed and rutted.

Instead, I’ll take the sky. That sky!

Happy birthday baby girl. The world is yours.

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Empty in the fullness of time

March 25th, 2009    -    13 Comments


So last week I catch a headline in Newsweek: Why Getting Rid of Clutter Doesn’t Make You Zen. Of course I read it and my molars start to grind before I’m halfway through. How I want to be free of this! Not free of reading, but free of judging what I read.

The author takes clever exception to the crock of wisdom that a clean house is a clean mind. And like nearly everyone who tosses around that familiar punchline, Zen, she thinks it is a joke. We have a dart we like to throw at comedians who ham it up for a laugh about Zen.

Words, words, words: Fluttering drizzle and snow.
Silence, silence, silence: A roaring thunderbolt.

– Zen Expression

The writer goes on to defend herself against the irrational notion that you can get rid of your emotional past. Not her. As proof, she quotes Faulkner’s “The past is never dead. In fact, it’s not even the past.” Why you would want to take housekeeping advice from a guy who could write a 1,287-word sentence before he found a period, I do not know. Write a sentence, that is, when he was sober. Sure, he won prizes. But that’s not the prize you really want.

Most of us can’t tell our mind from a hole in the ground. In truth, our mind is a hole in the ground. Our mind is the cluttered house. Our mind is the cypress tree in the garden. Our mind is exactly what appears in front of us, without separation.

Though clear waters range to the vast blue autumn sky,
How can they compare with the hazy moon on a spring night!

Most people want to have pure clarity,

But sweep as you will, you cannot empty the mind.

– Keizan Zenji

Studies have shown that most of us think. (Zen joke.) Most of us think our mind is our thoughts. We think our thoughts are what we are. Thoughts about the past, the future, the snappy little article in Newsweek. But here Keizan Zenji tells us otherwise. The mind he speaks of is not the thinking mind beneath our skull. It is true mind. Buddha mind. And he tells us it cannot be emptied.

Now this Keizan guy is so deep and so precise that they sometimes call him the Mother of Zen! He describes our mind perfectly. Vast, clear, incomparable. If you have a concept of clarity, that’s not it. If you have an idea of purity, that’s not it. If you have a picture of emptiness, that’s not it. It is empty as it is. And it appears full. Doesn’t it?

This is not for you to take my word on. This is something for you to examine for yourself. Where is that past you think you can’t let go of? Where is the emptiness you envision as a vacuum?

We should thoroughly study ourselves from top to bottom. Our existence has nothing to do with the old or new, the past or the future. This time we are living right now exists as it is. There is no way to compare it to anything else. It is more than enough. It is the life of the sun and the moon, the life of the mountains and the rivers, the life of hundreds of grasses and myriad forms.
–Maezumi Roshi

There’s a good description of emptiness! Everything, anything, sun, moon, hundreds, myriad. When we say empty, you see, we mean it is not a fixed thing. It is constantly changing. It takes every form. It is empty and full. We misjudge empty when we think it is lacking. Or when we think it is the feeling of lacking.

In any of the phases of the moon before it is full, is anything truly lacking? Is the crescent moon lacking? A half moon? Of course not. You can see that assuming that the moon – or your life – at any time is not full doesn’t make any sense. Perhaps you are much more logical than I am, and you don’t wait for the day your life will be full!

Oh that Maezumi! He’s always telling a Zen joke. You have to clear away the clutter before you can laugh out loud. You, yes you, are Zen! Now put your shoes in the closet.

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