Yes, all form is empty, but emptiness is always taking form.
David Loy: In 1971 I was living in Hawaii, sometimes hanging out with a friend in Waikiki who heard about a zendo near the University called Koko An. We went there one evening and after the sitting learned that the following weekend there would be a seven day sesshin with a Japanese Zen master, Yamada Koun of the Sanbo Kyodan. There were still some openings, so my friend and I signed up – but we had no idea what a sesshin was! We expected that we’d all sit a bit and have tea with the roshi, with opportunities to talk to him about this or that. It turned out to be the most difficult seven days of my life.
During the sesshin I literally thought that I was going crazy after about the fourth day. Physically, there was a lot of pain, of course. But the biggest challenge was psychological. Because I hadn’t sat much before, I didn’t really have any perspective on all those thoughts that were bouncing off the wall, and of course during a sesshin you don’t get the reassuring feedback we usually get from other people. But after the sesshin was over and I was lying in bed at home, about to fall asleep, at that moment of letting go there was a little opening– nothing terribly dramatic but it reinforced my sense that this was the path for me.
The main teacher in Hawaii was Robert Aitken, who was just beginning to teach and at that time I felt particularly connected with Yamada-roshi. I stayed in Hawaii for several more years, later living at the Maui Zendo and then Koko-on Zendo while I studied at the University of Hawaii, but eventually, many years later, I ended up in Japan doing intensive koan study with Yamada-roshi in Kamakura.
SZ: Did you have an interview with Yamada-roshi during that first sesshin?
DL: Yes, although for the first few days newcomers had a series of introductory talks on Zen practice with Bob Aitken, as we called him at the time. It wasn’t until the last two or three days that I actually had dokusan with Yamada-roshi and started working on the Mu koan.
SZ: Now, what was it about zazen specifically that attracted you?
DL: It wasn’t only zazen but also inspiration from the example of Yamada-roshi, in particular. If Zen practice could transform me into someone like him then I was interested. I could also tell that, despite the difficulty with my thoughts bouncing around wildly, that something very valuable was happening.
SZ: Why is kensho so important within the Sanbo Kyodan tradition?
DL: That seemed pretty natural at the time. As you know, the word Buddha literally means “the awakened” and kensho – literally “seeing [into one’s true] nature” – is simply another word for the same thing. Zazen isn’t just a matter of improving one’s mental or physical health, or one’s power of concentration. The Sanbo Kyodan emphasizes that there are three goals of Zen practice – concentration power, kensho, and personalization (the transformation of one’s character). They fit together well.
SZ: There has been some criticism leveled against the Sanbo Kyodan regarding kensho, that so much emphasis on it can be problematical because it makes such openings into a thing that can be gained.
DL: In principle, at least, that focus on kensho is balanced by emphasis on personalization too, the transformation of character. It’s often been assumed that, for someone who has had a kensho, that this transformation happens by itself if one continues with the sitting practice. Now I’m less sure that’s true. Something we have learned over the last generation in the West is that one’s zazen practice can benefit from being supplemented with various types of psychotherapy. Sometimes zazen by itself isn’t enough for thorough transformation.
SZ: Some of your work discusses the encounter between Buddhism and Western psychology. You have made the point that, while many discussions of the two emphasize their similarities, each may shed light on the other. Could you expand upon that?
DL: Zazen, and Buddhist practice in general, helps us to become aware of the emptiness (shunyata) of all phenomena, including mental phenomena. We open up to the empty ground from which thoughts, memories, intentions and feelings arise.
It is important, indeed necessary, to realize that thoughts, etc., are not the product of an ego-self but just the opposite: one’s sense of self is constructed by the ways that the thoughts themselves interact.
The ego-self does not create thoughts, it’s a product of thought. The “mind stream” has a deeper origin. With meditation practice we become aware of this groundless ground. Awakening, kensho, is like the bottom falling out of a bucket. It’s realizing that thoughts, etc., arise from a much deeper place.
A common assumption, maybe the traditional assumption, is that just going back to that empty ground — becoming more aware “of” that shunya source from which all phenomena arise — is sufficient. Yet none of us live “there” only.
Yes, all form is empty, but emptiness is always taking form.
The sense of ego self needs to be reconstructed as well as deconstructed. The point is not to get rid of the self, because there never has been a self. Nor is it to get rid of all sense of self because that would result in mental disability — you could not function at all. Rather, the challenge is to realize the emptiness of that sense of self and reconstruct the self as a better vehicle for this deeper functioning.
That’s where psychotherapy can play an important role. Psychotherapy can help us understand important things about our habitual patterns and self-defeating mental tendencies, the mostly unconscious ways and places we are stuck.
SZ: Are you saying that psychotherapy has a role to play in helping us transform these patterns, or in helping us understand them better? I’m thinking of something more like cognitive behavioral therapy rather than psychotherapy, whereby we can systematically change those thoughts to produce new behaviors.
DL: I’m talking about blockages. The sense of self — in Buddhism, that’s the fundamental delusion, right? Instead of Buddhist practice being a simple matter of always letting go of the thought-patterns that arise and compose the sense of self, sometimes one can also benefit from examining and understanding problematical patterns. It may not be enough just to sit, or to just realize the empty ground from which these habitual patterns arise. Sometimes insight is needed into the knots — the mental tendencies where we are stuck. Psychotherapy can be very helpful for gaining insight into what those knots are and how they work, so that we are more open to, better able to see, alternative ways of thinking and acting.
SZ: So while there is shunyata emptiness, sometimes there’s also something else going on that we need to look at.
DL: Right. I don’t think of this as cognitive therapy, which, as I understand it, usually involves replacing one conditioned way of thinking with another.
David R. Loy (born July 27, 1947; Dharma name David Tetsu’un Loy) is a Buddhist philosopher who writes on the interaction between Buddhism and modernity. He has been practicing Zen since 1971 and is an authorized teacher in the Sanbo-Kyodan tradition of Japanese Zen Buddhism.
Interview transcript originally published on the Sweeping Zen Website on April 5, 2011.
Image: Zen, by Hartwig HKD, CC BY-ND 2.0, from Flickr.com