Are all things empty?

Jesus said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants.” -Matthew 11:25

Dear members and friends of the Swedenborgian Church,

This is a story from Zen Speaks: There once was a young monk named Tesshu who traveled the land meeting with all the most respected Zen masters. One day, he wandered into Shokoku temple and happened upon the monk Dokuon. Here, Tesshu proudly proclaimed his level of enlightenment to Dokuon by saying, “The mind, the Buddha, and all beings are empty,” he continued, “The true nature of all things is emptiness. No enlightenment, no delusion; no sages, no commoners; no toil, no reward.” Hearing this, the Zen master Dokuon simply lifted up the wooden stick with which he was sounding the wooden fish and gave Tesshu a strong knock on the head. Immediately, Tesshu’s temper rose and he screamed, “WHAT DID YOU DO THAT FOR?” The Zen master smiled at Tesshu and gently responded, “If everything is empty, where did that temper come from?”

Spiritual cultivation is perhaps the most challenging task for any human for two reasons: 1. It is a very slow process, meaning it might feel like it takes forever; 2. The result is not measurable or obvious to others, meaning there is no way you can show others how well-cultivated you are. The core of spiritual cultivation is to change one’s inner attitude from a state of being that is innately programed to consider and process all things by means of materialistic and worldly standards, to the state of being that is aware of the value and importance of non-materialistic and non-worldly characteristics. The young monk Tesshu in the story studied and agreed with the statement of enlightenment (all things are empty), yet without being enlightened by it. Or perhaps his impetuous nature caused him simply to jump to the conclusion, ‘I studied it and understood it, therefore I might have gained the enlightenment!’ However, in truth, he only understood the literal meaning of the statement, not the spiritual one, which is nothing but to be able to live according to enlightened philosophy. Tesshu recited, “The mind, the Buddha, and all beings are empty.” This is one of the core teachings of the Buddha indicating that regardless of their objective existence outside our mind, all concepts, things, matters and beings considered in our own mind are subjective creations by our own mind, thus they are all empty in essence because none of them is the same as the truth outside of our mind. If the young monk Tesshu were to truly understand this statement, he would not have proudly proclaimed it to others because he would have known better that the act of proclamation is empty without a life that accompanies accordingly.

This is quite a universal theme in all religions that truly knowing the truth is achieved not by the level of intelligence or wisdom, but by the pureness of heart. Pureness of heart, however, does not means simply being good, kind, or charitable, but means to have gained two qualities as the result of spiritual cultivation: humility and innocence. This is echoed by Jesus in Matthew, “you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants.” Who can be more humble and innocent than an infant who has neither self-awareness nor self-importance? Yet, the real challenge is that we need to be like an infant not by birth, but as the result of voluntary spiritual cultivation.

Blessings, Rev. Junchol Lee