Seeing Into the Reality of Emptiness

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In true emptiness everything can be revealed.

Tangen Harada Roshi

In his meditation on the waterfall at Yosemite National Park, Shunryu Suzuki reflected that, “the water was not originally separated, but was one whole river. Only when it is separated does it have some difficulty in falling.” Tangen Harada Roshi, who was born one generation after Suzuki, begins a teaching on emptiness with the similar image of a waterfall, and of constant, continuing change. “The water that you see in the waterfall has already rushed to the great ocean,” he wrote, in trying to communicate the essence of impermanence as well as the futility of trying to hold on to anything that is passing by. This, he says, is the reality of emptiness, which is actually Original Mind, the original nature of our being.

There is a famous waterfall offshore here in the town of Obama, and boats go there to show people the white water falling like a cascading silk cloth. Life is like the rushing water of the waterfall. From a distance it appears solid, but when you look closely, you see that it is in constant movement, continuous change, rushing like a cascade of long white rope. It seems to be there always, but it is not solid. The water that you see in the waterfall has already rushed to the great ocean. Life is alive; it’s not stagnant and it’s not solid. It has no self-nature. This is perhaps the easiest way to describe life–it is limitless space, limitless time, never the same state, instant by instant by instant by instant, fresh and new. Birth and death, birth and death, constantly continuing, constantly changing, now, here.

When one is in accord with time, place, and circumstances –now, here— where is there any solidity? Fundamentally no thing abides even for an instant. There is no solid form. All limitless time is just this one instant, body and mind, earnestly in accord, now and here. Everything is open and honest, altering form in accordance with changing conditions. The multitude of forms that appear are not solid. There is just a constant dance of form and function. “All phenomena arise from causes and conditions. Arising from causes and conditions, they have no self-nature.” 

Life is like the rushing water of the waterfall. From a distance it appears solid, but when you look closely, you see that it is in constant movement, continuous change, rushing like a cascade of long white rope.

When conditions come together, a form comes into being. When conditions change, the thing disappears. Each dot, each speck, is born of causes and brought to life in circumstances. Born of causes and conditions, the world is perpetually fresh and new. Certainly there is no fixed permanent self, and this doesn’t apply only to things that you think are outside of you- the very same thing applies to you yourself. There is no self. Yes, there are thoughts, but they are all learned from other people. When you were born, you didn’t have any thoughts. Yes, there are feelings. But feelings never appear without an external stimulus; they always arise in relation to circumstances. There is not even “my body.” This body, if we were keeping track of it, would be 240 bags of rice, 450 bottles of milk, 275 carrots, 190 radishes, and so forth. Far from being an independent, separate self- everything is received, given. Trace your steps: How did you get here? Step by step by step, you are dependent on the great earth.

We are always thinking, “I made this; I did that.” Look closely at just one case of “I made this” or “I did that” and you can see that it’s all being received, coming together. All things arise through causes and conditions; nowhere is there any solid and abiding self. There is simply a crystallization of indebtedness, a gift of heaven and earth, thoroughly protected and cared for.

Seeing into the reality of emptiness, no matter what happens, no matter when, where, or how—it is always only perfect original mind. Nothing is in excess, nothing is lacking.

Seeing into the reality of emptiness, no matter what happens, no matter when, where, or how—it is always only perfect original mind. Nothing is in excess, nothing is lacking. Complete virtue, perfect merit. Everyone is receiving all, no matter what form is taken, no matter how it appears. So how can anyone judge and compare and feel envious? Self and other are not two. No self, no other. This I that has been so miserable does not exist. There is nothing artificial in truth—in truth, all is truth. How intimate, how close–this one life can never be taken away, never harmed. This one truth is universal.

Every day, everything appears to be changing, but as long as we continue to think that there are things that keep changing, we will see only change. If we are taken in by the surface, by superficial, ever-changing conditions, we will always have objections and anxiety. But the source of the source, the truth of truth is immovable; it is universal. This is what we chant in the Hannya Shingyo: “All things are essentially empty. Not born, not destroyed, not stained, not pure, not increasing, not decreasing.” All things are always just one. Above and below the heavens- just one’s self. This life can never be taken away; this life is never lost; this life is never deluded.

True emptiness is wonderful existence. Emptiness is your nature–and what arises and flowers from this emptiness is truth. This emptiness is truly ever fuller and fuller, complete potential. In true emptiness everything can be revealed. True emptiness, absolute emptiness is not separate from this wonderful existence. The absolute and the relative are one. One truth. One breath. This one breath.

From Throw Yourself Into the House of Buddha: The Life and Zen Teachings of Tangen Harada Roshi. Translation © 2012 by Belinda Attaway Yamakawa. Reprinted in arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boulder, CO.

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