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Tables, Mountains and the Heart

by Bob Hozan Gray

(Hozan, meaning Dharma Mountain, was given Tokkudo by Keizan Sensei at SWZ Centre Liverpool on December 12).

“I remember attending a retreat with Master Simon Childs of the Chan Fellowship, whom I followed for some years. He was responding to questions, and one student asked him to explain “emptiness”. It’s a big, important subject in Buddhism, so Simon thought about it for a moment and started to pull out some of the well known formulations. Traditional buddhists love those formulations. In Tibetan shedras, crowds gather to listen to students chewing the fat about subjects like emptiness, buddha nature, angels on the head of a pin!

Imagine a table, he said. Just like that one there. In fact, move that one to the centre of the room. See, it has four legs and a top. Very simple, but what happens if you remove a leg. Is it still a table? What if it has only two legs, or only one leg? Is it still a table? We considered this dutifully. One leg gone and it’s still a table, restlessness and disagreements emerged among the students. Still a table with one leg gone, not a table with no legs. Must be something to do with the number of legs.

What if you leave it outside for a few years, let the wind, rain, snow and frost get to it. It becomes weathered, it crumbles, goes out of shape, the varnish peels first, then the layers start to part company with each other. Is it still a table? Was it ever a table? Did it ever have any inherent existence of its own? Where is the tableness of that table now?

My mind protested as he moved on. What about a mountain, that’s a big, solid thing, looks like it would last forever. Does a mountain have inherent existence? Take a few eons and even Mount Everest could find itself below ground. Is it still a mountain then, below the ground, or below the sea? Was it ever a mountain? Did it ever have inherent existence as a mountain? Surely that mountain must have inherent existence?

I thought about this and wondered. Was this emptiness, or was it just impermanence. I could grasp impermanence, I thought, but emptiness eluded me. And somehow mountains seemed easier than tables. What about people then he said, throwing us to the wolves!

What about me? Do I have inherent existence. Surely I exist, I can see me, touch me, feel me. Where’s the bobness of bob. Is it real? Does it have its own inherent existence?

He provided a recording of that talk, so I put it on my phone, bought an earphone and listened to it, again and again. I listened while driving to Wales, while driving back from Wales, on my way to work, when I went to bed, but still got no closer to fathoming it then, than I do now. I wore out my earphone listening to that talk, but still, no emptiness. Don’t worry if you don’t understand this, he said. Emptiness comes differently to different people. For some they grasp the emptiness of things first, then the emptiness of self. For others it’s the emptiness of self that comes first, then they start to see the emptiness of things.

I asked, is this about perception, does someone who sees emptiness see things differently, from others. Might be, he answered. I thought about this, but it didn’t get me anywhere. Does the sight faculty alter, can you hear emptiness, or touch it. What about empty fingers, eyes and ears. My head was splitting.

In my present Zen practice it is all much simpler for me. No need to worry about tables or mountains. No need to think about anything at all in fact. Forget about inherent existence, don’t try to conjure up buddha nature, or angels on a pin head. Just sit and rest the mind.

In the immortal words:

To study the self, is to forget the self.
To forget the self is to awaken to the thousand things
(Usually in the form of ONE thing)

The screech of the hungry sea gull wheeling over the harbour – yeeeeeha!. The waves breaking on the sea wall with a mighty crash. Thump, ceeeesh, thump. The passionate kiss of a lover (I’ve heard). The innocent hug of a grandchild, thoughtless, full of joy.

If my heart empties I experience something releasing in the body-mind and fluttering away. And when that happens something starts to fill it. It is said nature abhors a vacuum and for me I find love, with joy, with tenderness arising. Is that buddha nature, is that compassion? What is it? I find I do not care. Mountains and tables and all the wide world become empty. Empty of what, I ask myself. I do not know, all I know is Just This.

Notwithstanding this my head doesn’t empty though. It sees an opening and tries to dive in, take over. Tries to claim that emptiness and to strengthen my sense of the self. That’s when I really have to start practicing .  For me the struggle continues, but with less fraughtness and things are slowly becoming easier.

Right now there is nothing else to do but to give it everything I have to give, and then a bit more and leave the tables to the diners, the mountains to the sheep!”