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The Garden of Emptiness, The Treeless Forest

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Published in 
 · 5 Apr 2023

By: Stephen Echard Musgrave Roshi
Zen Institute of San Diego
For Practice Schedule Information,
Call (619) 582-9888

A Zen student is someone who wishes to undergo Zen training with the purpose of realizing ones true nature. According to Buddhist teachings, the fundamental Reality of the Universe, the Buddha Mind, is none other than our own original nature. This nature is hidden from us due to the conditioning of desire and attachment to the process of becoming. We literally are unable to see the Forest for all of the trees, and yet there is no forest other than these Trees.

Our practice of Zazen allows us to see each tree for what it is, a perfect expression of time and space. Each tree becomes a mirror to the process of becoming, reflecting all other trees in its existence.

Our usual understanding is that a tree is an adaptation of a particular organism to a unique time and space. This is a linear perspective, however, and does not see the tree for what it is. It ignores the tree's interaction with the rest of the environment. A tree is a dynamic process rather than a concrete unit of being. That we perceive it as such is because of the limits imposed upon our sense by their structure.

In other words, our eyes are able to perceive the light, but only that which can reach our face. Though the energy of light is composed of undulating patterns of waves, our perception of it gives us the impression of solidity. This sense of solidity is further nurtured by the fact that our perception of change is limited to only rapid transformation. We can see this clearly when we look at a time lapse film of a garden flower.

What appears to our ordinary consciousness as a rose in bloom, is actually a rose in process. Through time lapse photography, we can see the crest and trough of the energy of the Rose as it generates buds, blooms, drops flowers and begins again, all the while growing in the process. Along side all the visible manifestations of process are the myriad aspects of its interaction with the other forces of the garden. The Rose interacts with the soil, taking in nutrients and dropping leaves and flowers to add new nutrients, hosting insects and the insects feeding each other, breathing carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen.

Nothing about the rose is static, in fact its very being is in interaction. Our consciousness defines it as a thing, however, a unit which is separate from the other units in the minds arena. It is either experienced as foreground or background. When the mind contemplates a garden, it delegates the rose to the role of background, and when it considers the rose itself, the sky or the garden wall becomes the background. The reality of rose, however, is in its interaction with its environment. The names rose, garden, sky, earth are mere tools of the intellect and communication; having no real relationship to the reality of the phenomenon itself. This is always a matter of mutual interaction or better put, interpenetration.

The Buddhist term mutual interpenetration recognizes the absolute coincidence of being that is an environment. Every aspect of the garden is effecting and being effected by all other aspects -- simultaneously. The evidence of this reality is recognized in many disciplines; from ecology to particle physics. The essential point for the Zen student to realize is that his own being itself is also sharing in this interpenetration. There is no abiding reality of self outside of this interpenetration; no permanent soul, mind or spirit that is not one with this eternal interchange.

The process is being, there is nothing else. Ideas about self are irrelevant to the truth, they are mere clouds over the garden, coming into being and dissipating. All the while the constant stream of interaction goes on. As clouds blow where the wind takes them, so should the Zen student allow ideas of self to be free to blow across the sky of this eternal mutual interpenetration. The forest is the trees, the trees are the forest -- others are the self, self is the other. There is nothing other than this; nothing to cling to and nothing to fear. For if all is Self then there is no self which can be threatened by other.

Understanding this reality is to have Wisdom, and Wisdom's expression is compassion. Not just loving others as you would have them love you, but loving others because they are you! This is the real nature of love, the recognition of mutual identity. Just as the real nature of hate and fear is the ignorance of real self, which sees the world as a series of things outside of itself.

Through the process of our Zazen practice, we become aware of this interpenetration which is our real nature. A nature which is birthless and deathless. Life and death are concepts of limited awareness. The boundless Buddha Nature has no borders. Night and day, birth and death, are merely reflections of this reality. They are two sides of the same coin; inseparable, united, one always following the other. When we attain this perspective, we no longer have to strive to be anything, yet we are able to accomplish much.

How is that possible? It is possible because each phenomenon, though sharing an essential being with all other phenomenon, never the less maintains its own pattern or structure as an express of this interrelationship. Things do not cease to exist when we become aware of their essential emptiness of self. If they did, then all existence would vanish with them. The process of this awareness in Zen practice is in the expression: first there is a mountain, then there isn't, then there is.

When we first see things, we see them as absolute concrete realities in themselves. A mountain is a mountain and nothing else. Then we become aware of the mountain's essential emptiness, that is, it does not exist outside of its interrelationship with the world. Finally, it becomes mountain again when we see it with the enlightened eye -- as the perfect expression of the universe as mountain. In the final vision, it is no longer other, but participates with us in the mutual being of the moment.

We do not sacrifice anything by attaining this enlightened perspective. We are still able to function in the world of things with the same facility as before. We use reason and discrimination in our daily lives with even more adroitness than we did when we saw each thing as a reality onto itself. Now we understand on a visceral level, that no action we take does not interact with the whole. Impetuous and stupid actions we would have taken before, thinking them to be in our self interest, are now seen for what they are.

For the first time, we trust our intuition to be a full partner with our reason in determining lifes action. This is because there has been a fundamental turning round of consciousness which allows intuition to flow directly from that shared being which is the universal consciousness. Before, intuition was crippled by the mind's obstinate adherence to a conception of a world of things separate in being.

We begin to move through the world with the grace of a virtuoso, who having attained technical mastery of his instrument, can now let his intuitive genius flow into the symphony of harmonious actions. Each note consistent with the symphony of life, but with our own unique touch and accent. The old view of self, which we believed gave us a sense of freedom, actually held us back from experiencing the beauty of our life. This beauty is what we call the Buddha nature, it is the harmony of life of which we are one note.

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