Empty in the fullness of time

March 25th, 2009

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.


  1. Yes Ma’am…will do.

    My ego doesn’t want you to be right because it is this clutter that gives it form, but you are totally right.

    Thank you for the reminder. The re-mindful-er. Another bad joke. I’ll work on this.

    Comment by Cam@Journey Wildly — March 25, 2009 @ 11:32 pm

  2. Thank you. I was just getting ready to go to bed and read this post. AHHHHH!jeNN

    Comment by big Jenn — March 26, 2009 @ 2:56 am

  3. I read this and my brain blew a fuse. Until I got to the analogy of the moon. Now, I see. By the light of the moon (and by the dark of it), I see.

    Comment by Kathryn — March 26, 2009 @ 5:28 am

  4. Let your brain blow a fuse, and then you can see your mind. The moon is an analogy, and it’s not. The moon is your mind. Just look up and there it is, right where you are and no place else.

    Comment by Karen Maezen Miller — March 26, 2009 @ 5:33 am

  5. Brilliant. Lovely. Thank you!


    Comment by Meg — March 26, 2009 @ 11:29 am

  6. Thank you, beautifully said,


    Comment by Anonymous — March 26, 2009 @ 12:27 pm

  7. Wow, thank you for this one! I look forward to rereading it when I’m not distracted by work and ashamed of my cluttered apartment…oh crud, did I already miss the point? 🙂

    Comment by Melanie J. — March 26, 2009 @ 3:35 pm

  8. Good stuff.

    Comment by Chris — March 26, 2009 @ 5:30 pm

  9. I liked this, I feel balanced, my head is afterall a good reflection of my cluttered home!

    Comment by Cat — March 26, 2009 @ 5:51 pm

  10. Well, there’s clutter and then there is clutter. Seems like there is clutter that people gather around them to fill that void, to represent something, to hide something, to be whatever but what it is.

    Some people empty out all their clutter and then get zen-inspired furniture. There may be less of it, but they’re mind is still cluttered with image and trend.

    That said, I am sick of magazines making me feel bad because housework is not my goal in life. I don’t find it simple to organize everything in perfect containers and have pristine edges everywhere I look. I heard someone say recently, “I’m perfect in all my flaws.” I wanted him to be my friend!

    From the moment I could gather up my own toys, I’ve lead a cluttered life. But I’m happy with my life. I know I am where I want to be–clutter and all.

    Comment by mapelba — March 27, 2009 @ 4:03 am

  11. pure brilliance! love this.

    and need this.

    Comment by curious girl (lisa) — March 27, 2009 @ 9:57 am

  12. I love this one. It reminds me of the story where the man goes to a retreat and is locked in a room to sit in silence. After a while, the man starts to panic and starts crying and screaming.

    The old monk goes into his room and asks, “why are you so upset? Nothing in here has changed since you came in.”

    At this, the man started laughing.

    Thank you so much for sharing this post!

    Comment by TennZen — March 27, 2009 @ 1:50 pm

  13. Ah, thank you for the reminder in this post. The shoes are away and the benches are clean, so it seems all is as it seems…and it is.

    Comment by Zen Quill — April 18, 2009 @ 12:37 am

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