The Gift of Nothing

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zen tree

The old Zen Masters had a wonderful way of pulling the rug out from under any place that anyone landed and tried to set up camp. If you said you were a person, they’d point out that the self cannot be found. If you insisted that you were not a person and that there is no self, they would point to the absolute, undeniable uniqueness and beauty of each snowflake, each whirlpool, each wave, each person. If you insisted you had to work hard and practice diligently to awaken, they would point to the fact that you are already awake, that it takes no effort and no time to arrive Here / Now. If you said no practice was needed and that kicking the dog was no different from meditating, they might slap (or kick) you. Wherever you try to land, whatever you grasp and begin to assert, wherever you fixate, the true Zen Master pulls that particular rug out from under you.

As people who point to what cannot be spoken, nothing we say is ever the truth, but still, we have to say something. So we use words, inadequate as they all are, and then hopefully we erase them or say something apparently contradictory. I’m reminded of the old Zen koan where the Master says, “Dead or alive? I won’t say!” Or the beautiful Zen expressions: “Not one, not two,” and Dogen’s “leaping clear of the many and the one.” Awakening is not about finally having the right formulation or the right conceptual map. It’s about not landing or fixating or getting stuck anywhere. It’s about having nothing.

The thinking mind is always busy trying to get a grip, trying to figure things out. On a survival level, that’s its job, and in certain practical matters, it works very well. But the thinking mind doesn’t always know when to stop. The tendency to grasp onto a formula, to make no-thing-ness into some-thing, to construct a whole reality and then believe in it—this tendency is very strong and deeply rooted. It tends to recur. It’s not always that obvious or easy to see that we’re mistaking the map for the territory yet again. It can get very subtle. So can we be sensitive to this habitual tendency, seeing it as it happens and letting go, now and now and now, daring to find out what happens if we don’t hold onto anything at all, if we let every belief, every formulation and every answer go?

One of the things I most deeply appreciated about my friend and teacher Toni Packer was her willingness to look freshly, to question everything, to “start from scratch” as she would say, rather than regurgitating past conclusions. I loved the way she would welcome and invite and enjoy that kind of open questioning and exploring, that way of not knowing. Instead of asserting that she had The Final Answer to How the Universe Works and What This Is, as so many teachers seem to do, Toni would look and listen freshly—right now, in THIS moment—open to seeing something new and unexpected. She would tell us that anything she said could be questioned and/or taken further, that none of it was to be regarded as the word of some infallible authority. She often asked questions rather than making statements, leaving the listener in that placeless place of open wondering and not knowing. Instead of giving us something, she left us with nothing. And that was the greatest of gifts.

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