THIS AND THE VOID
This immediate awareness is of our lives as they are unfolding. Though we can conceive of alternative realities and other possible worlds, and though prediction and planning are ineluctable parts of the game of being human, and though we are well advised to embrace wholeheartedly these parts of our humanity, THIS is what we have to work with if we are to investigate the rumour of enlightenment, or even modestly just to find out about ourselves. This can be no other than it is, quite regardless of what might obtain ultimately with respect to free will and determinism.
I say this latter both because the metaphysical problem of free will versus determinism, as far as I can see, does not admit of a solution, but also to discourage fatalism in the name of some ‘be here now’ philosophy or regimen. No, we plan, prognosticate, remember fondly or with a shudder, and weave narratives as essential parts of our humanity and all of these events unfold here and now in this field of awareness. There is nowhere else to be and therefore no need or even possibility of cultivating a special way of being that connects to this. There are further ramifications to this analysis: primarily, since this is everything we have, this must be the ‘place’ where Buddha and Patanjali found their beatitude.
So what is this? This is nothing other than what we find, without further qualification. This in turn means that enlightenment is always, already, everywhere present. How can this be though, if enlightenment is to do with emptiness (sunyata) and silence (chitta vritti nirodha [YS 1.2]) as the smiling ones proclaim? Mostly, our field of awareness is full of activity: it is neither empty nor silent. This is precisely why those who have tasted a little of the sweet peace of emptiness and silence often end up prescribing nose-to-the-grindstone discipline and cultivation for those who ask for their help. But as already demonstrated, this project is incoherent and, not only that, it is even noisier than our ordinary, everyday mind.
We should notice at this point that Patanjali told us that for the passionate (tivre, ‘hot’ [YS 1.21]) practitioner, Yoga is very quick, and that a whole school of Zen Buddhism insists that ‘the Tao is everyday mind’ and its realisation, ‘enlightenment’, is sudden and can happen without training, as it did to the sixth patriarch whose mind simply exploded on hearing the Heart Sutra lines ‘Form is Void, Void is Form.’
Of course, we are not relying on the authority of texts. That would be far too second-hand. Their best use is as stimulants, not as authorities. Mastering the discourses of ‘spirituality’ is not the same thing as one’s own direct experience though the two are often confused. However, it was not the fact that ‘Form is Void, Void is Form’ is a venerable formulation from a canonical text that blew Hui Neng’s mind. It was the fact that he understood. Light dawned in his field of awareness enabling him to see.
What did he understand? That the figure (form) depends on the ground (void), that the calligraphy depends on the blank page, that the noise of thought and feeling and perception and imagination depends on silence. Not only do form and void inter-depend, the sutra tells us that they are indeed identical in some way: Form is Void and Void is Form. In other words, these two apparently different categories of being are aspects of a single phenomenon. But what is that?
Nothing other than this, the field of awareness, the flow of lived experience, that which we find. That in turn means our perceptions, our feelings, our cognitions, our sense of self, our volitions, all dancing on their empty stage.
Thus, when we practice, we aren’t going anywhere, cultivating anything, succumbing to the lure of any ideal. We are radically open to whatever is happening.
We can see deeper still into this identity of form and void, of something and nothing. Not only do we have here two aspects of the single reality, that which is, but two ways of talking about what we find in our life’s unfolding, two perspectives.
Our usual vocabulary is that of form. The chief component of our language is the noun which imposes a world of discrete forms, some of which are selves, onto our understanding. (This is particularly true of Indo-European languages.) For practical purposes, this arrangement has many advantages, not least in the development of techne and the comforts of social living, but as far as our self-understanding and therefore our full flourishing (our enlightenment) is concerned, it erects an apparent obstacle by forgetting half of the symphony. It tends to drown out the yet still present and necessary silent ground.
The void also has its speech but it is a glossolalia, a Zen riddling, a Mad Hatters’ versifying. Yet these poetic and crazy modes of speech are as capable of communication, expression and truth-revelation as our more quotidian speech. But their perspective is that of the Void which is yet to have its day culturally and is accordingly alien to most people and often deemed pathological.
A mode of speech which avails itself of both of these vocabularies, the sober and the drunk, is likely to be the most effective in communicating this not only to the world but also to ourselves as we do that wonderfully human thing of structuring a linguistic self-understanding.
EMPTINESS AND NON-DOING
Emptiness, the void has its practical uses as well as being the presence that practice brings into focus. This is no where more beautifully pointed out than by the laconic Lao Tzu and his follower, the humorous Chuang Tzu. Lao Tzu’s examples of this practicality are familiar and everyday yet they illustrate what both Buddha and Patanjali have suggested about our inwardness. ‘Clay is moulded to make a pot, but it is the space where there is nothing that the usefulness of the clay pot lies,’ Lao Tzu tells us. Thus our thought, eminently useful in the matter of survival, and entertaining in the matters of leisure and conviviality, is only made possible by the void.
Furthermore, for Lao Tzu, emptiness is not only useful, but the very ground of things as Patanjali and the Buddha remind us. He notes that ‘All creatures under heaven are born from being; being is born from nonbeing’ (4). Thus, the void is never absent, which realisation is a launching off point for practice of the most beautiful amplitude.
As if that wasn’t insightful enough, Lao Tzu connects non-being with non-doing and in non-doing offers us an instrument of art and creativity which is also the key to the practice of enlightenment. ‘Decrease and again decrease, until you reach nonaction. Through nonaction, no action is left undone’ (11), advises Lao Tzu. Thus we don’t make more effort to meditate, but instead approach the void, ‘decrease and decrease’, doing less and less, in other words, approaching a condition of making no effort! In nondoing, there is peace, even in the midst of activity and activity is rendered both efficient and beautiful by this strong presence of peace.
Chuang Tzu describes most vividly how this is visible in the work of great craftsmen. The most famous example is that of Cutting up an Ox (p 45), a short tale in which Prince Wen Hui’s cook describes how he butchers an ox with what others perceive as miraculous skill, but which to him is non-doing in which the actor has gotten out of the way and yet nothing essential is left undone. The cook tells how he follows the Tao: ‘I see nothing. My whole being apprehends. My sense are idle. The spirit free to work without plan follows its own instinct guided by natural line, by the secret opening, the hidden space, my cleaver finds its own way. I cut through no joint, chop no bone.’ Thus practice can be identical with ordinary earthy life as well as being a letting be in which the void works as a kind of productive matrix through which forms change and change. The cook also notes that joy is part and parcel of this non-doing: ‘[when finished] … I stand still and let the joy of the work sink in.’
Patanjali understood all this perfectly and recommends an approach like this to asana, by which he probably means just sitting. The sutra in question (YS 2.47) is worded so that we can apply its approach as a meditation to any corporeal activity in which we might be tempted to try too hard. ‘prayatna-saithilyananta-samapattibhyam’ states Patanjali. Taking this very literally, Patanjali is saying that the effort of no effort, nondoing, the letting go of activity, the relaxing into what is transpiring, endlessly, is a complete falling, which is a kind of grace.