QUESTION: What is shunyata?
SHORT ANSWER: Sunyata is the completion of learning
LONGER ANSWER: The important thing is to have the Dharma in your heart. How does this come about? There could be a million different ways. Perhaps something happens in life that shakes one’s complacency. One sees this with many of the great figures - both Dogen and Honen were orphans. Perhaps one has a disaster like Nagarjuna seeing his friends cut down by the guards. These things make one take life more seriously and one starts to learn the lessons in a deeper way. One yearns to get to the bottom of it all, to learn completely. This is the driving force of a life koan. These kinds of things, however, are adventitious. Life brings challenges. Mostly we try to avoid them and so only learn to hide. Is there a simple practice that we can use that will serve even if one has not had a great disaster in life?
One of the best ways is to always say the nembutsu. This is because the name of Amida Buddha includes all of the virtues of all the Buddhas; it encompasses all the possible practices. Individual practices each have their merit. To sit still for long periods of time certainly calms the mind and imparts a certain discipline. This has value. To do virtuous acts of charity cultivates the spirit of generosity. To make offerings at the temple teaches one the spirit of devotion. To make prostrations incises humility upon body and mind. All of these and many other virtuous practices are good. They are good for self in that one learns something and they are good for others in that one becomes a more kind, wise and useful presence for them in the world. All of these are means of learning. Generally speaking, however, those who practise these practices rarely complete such learning; they rarely integrate the learning totally in their heart. They sit on the meditation cushion for many hours but then go forth and become stressed and busy-minded all over again. They do acts of charity, but a meanness remains in the back of the mind. They make offerings, but want something in return. They make prostrations, but do not stay humble long. They have gone through the motions of the practice but they have not completed the learning. Consequently the mind does not arrive at emptiness. As Honen said, all of these are excellent and true but few people succeed.
Nembutsu has the merit of being very simple yet all-encompassing. One merely says the name of the Buddha. It goes straight to the heart of the matter. This is like planting a seed in the ground. From one single seed may grow a great tree, the tree of the Dharma. The tree of the Dharma is different from other kinds of trees in that it has many different kinds of fruit. An apple tree bears apples only, a cherry tree only cherries, but the tree of the Dharma bears all kinds of good fruits. If this can come from one seed, how much more from many! Reciting the nembutsu is like scattering seed. Even in unexpected places, the Dharma may take root and flourish. As a result, the spirit of all the practices may be integrated in one's being. It gets under the skin without the ego being able to appropriate it. One then lives that spirit naturally. One becomes more humble, more generous, more devoted, more calm, and so on, not because one has set goals in each of these areas, but because one has the Dharma in one’s heart, one has learnt the lesson completely without really knowing what one was doing.
To learn a lesson completely is to have it totally integrated so that one no longer has to think about it. We can see this in the case of any skill. The Buddha was once asked if he had to prepare his lectures and he replied that he did not have to prepare because he knew it. The Dharma was so much what he was that he naturally responded to each situation or each audience and that was enough. He arrived at the lecture hall empty, but as soon as he saw the people he knew exactly what he must say. Such integration can come as a result of repetition. A skilled wood carver has carved many pieces of wood. He know how to do it. if you give him a piece of wood, as soon as he sees it he knows what he must do. The knowledge is complete in him. When the knowledge is complete the mind is empty. This is shunyata. When the mind is empty it is ready. As soon as something comes and fills it it responds in the appropriate way.
This is how one aspires to be with the Dharma. If one really has the Dharma in one’s heart, then the mind is empty and ready. Whatever comes along one will respond. That response will be “Namo Amida Bu” and in that response will be humility, generosity, devotion, equanimity and a multitude of other virtues, but this will not be because one has cultivated each of these individually but rather because the fundamental spirit of the Dharma has penetrated one’s heart directly. When the man comes to cut off one’s head, “Namo Amida Bu”. The learning is complete. That is shunyata.