The Buddhist Teaching of Emptiness

Dainin Katagiri Roshi teaches on the Buddhist concept of emptiness.

Dainin Katagiri Roshi
30 March 1994
Dainin katagiri Roshi, Emptiness, Zen, Shambhala Sun, Lion's Roar, Buddhism
Photo by Carlo Scherer.

The Buddhist teaching of Emptiness is quite difficult to understand, but this teaching is very important for us. Emptiness is that which enables us to open our eyes to see directly what being is.

If after careful consideration we decide to do something that we believe is the best way, from the beginning to the end we should do our best. We must respect our capability, our knowledge, without comparing ourselves with others, and then use our knowledge and capability and think about how to act. Very naturally a result will occur. We should take responsibility for the results of what we have done, but the final goal is that we shouldn’t be obsessed with the result, whether good or evil or neutral. This is called emptiness. This is the most important meaning of emptiness.

When I became a monk I had no idea about the practical aspects of Buddhism or about life at the temple or about life as a Buddhist. My master told me very often that I was a person who was blessed with good fortune. I didn’t understand exactly, but from my life at that time I could feel a little bit that I was fortunate. When the village people came to the temple and offered something to us, they didn’t say, “This is a present for the teacher,” they always said, “This is for Dainin Katagiri,” for me.

My teacher, Daicho Hayashi Roshi, became a monk at the age of ten. He had practiced and studied very hard since his childhood under the guidance of a famous teacher of those days, at a monastery. Finally Hayashi Roshi became a very famous preacher, traveling all over Japan to preach about Buddhism to the Japanese people. And then he was given a wonderful, big temple in Nara, a very nice old city next to Kyoto.

Hayashi Roshi was very concerned about his teacher, who had been criticized and asked to leave his temple by the people he served, after he used money for his own personal needs that had been given to him to rebuild the temple after it had burned. My master found a small temple and made a place for his teacher there so he could take care of him. That is the temple of which I am now the abbot.

By chance, at this same time, my teacher found his mother, whom he had not seen for many, many years. He couldn’t leave her alone, because she was very old, so he brought her to this temple too. After his teacher died he was very concerned about how to care for his mother, who was now alone at the small temple. He had to decide whether to take his mother to the big temple in Nara or whether he should go to the small temple and live with her. Finally he decided to leave the big temple and he moved to the small temple and lived with his mother.

It was fortunate that he did, because that big temple in Nara burned up right after he left.

At that time Hayashi Roshi was a very famous teacher and many people wanted to be his disciple. He had had six disciples, but when I became a monk under him, he had no disciples left. Actually one person was left but he was in a mental hospital, and then several months later, that disciple died. So all his disciples were gone. Some of them died, some committed suicide, some ran away from the temple, one disciple fought with the master and was put in jail. And then only I was left, but unfortunately I also went away, and came to the United States. So he died at his temple by himself.

He continued to plant good seeds, helping people, preaching about Buddhism, but his life was not lucky.

In a sense it was a little bit sad and pensive, but he enjoyed himself. He said to me, “You are really a person who is blessed with good fortune. Sometimes you take my good fortune. I am jealous.” Of course he said this with a smile. I asked my teacher, if he believed that he was an unlucky person, why did he practice Buddhism? Even though he did good things still he was an unlucky person, so why did he continue to practice? He said, “The karmic retribution of good and evil occurs at three different periods in time. One is the retribution experienced in one’s present life, second is retribution experienced in the life following one’s death, and third is retribution experienced in subsequent lives.”

The karmic retribution will continue from past, present, future, life after life; someday, somewhere, it occurs. This Tis the understanding of karmic retribution in Buddhism. He also said to me, “Dogen Zenji says that if you discontinue practicing the Buddha Way you lose merit.” I was very impressed by his answer. This was why he wanted to continue to practice the Buddha Way.

There is the law of causation and we shouldn’t ignore it. If we do something good, there will be a good result. If we do something wrong, a wrong result will occur. This is the law of causation. But, actually, even though there is the law of causation, human life doesn’t seem to follow this law, because, just like my master, sometimes we do good things, but we are not lucky people, and the results are not good.

So apparently there are two possible results following the law of causation: a good cause will bring a good result and a good cause will not bring a good result. We have to understand both. But we are always tossed away by these two ways. If we see our life according to “good cause will not bring a good result,” it is easy to allow our life to become decadent and not to care about a sense of morality. If we see people who are still lucky even though they have done something wrong in the past, we become skeptical and are unable to trust anybody.

This way of looking at life is pretty hard to take care of, so it is necessary that we understand the law of causation within the overall picture of human life. It tells us to “watch out,” to be cautious about our actions.

According to the law of causation, karmic retribution or results occur in the present life, or in the life following this one or in subsequent lives. My master didn’t like his unfortunate life. He would have liked to be more fortunate. But he was not, he was unlucky. He did something good every day, but the results were not often good. Was there something that compelled him to be an unfortunate person? Maybe it was the result of his previous life, or his lives before his previous life. We don’t know. But if we look at our life with straightforward stability, we can do something good every day. Whatever happens, all we have to do is to continue to sow good seeds. For whom? For when? For you, for all sentient beings, for this time, or that time, for the life after the next life, for future generations, all we have to do is sow good seeds. This is the practice for us.

The important point is that we shouldn’t be obsessed or bogged down with the results that we see, feel and experience. All results, whether good, evil or neutral, must be completely accepted. All we have to do is sow good seeds day after day, without leaving any trace of good seeds, without creating any attachment. This is why my teacher, until his death, just continued to practice and help people. This is the meaning of emptiness.

We cannot attach to either idea about the law of causation, that a good cause will bring a good result, or that a good cause will not bring a good result, because everything is changing constantly. Within this situation the point is how we can live in peace and harmony for the good of people and of future generations, life after life.

Emptiness doesn’t mean to destroy our life or to ignore responsibility or a sense of morality, or our knowledge or our capability. We should use our knowledge, our capability, our career, whatever we can offer, to do our best to accomplish what we have decided to do. Results come up very naturally if we do our best. They can be a good hint, showing us what to do next, so we should completely accept them. This is emptiness. This is how to live, how to handle our daily human life.

But in daily living there are lots of distractions, both criticism and admiration. These things are distractions for us because it’s pretty easy to be obsessed with them. If people admire us we are completely infatuated with that admiration. If someone gives us criticism we are completely tossed away and it’s pretty hard to spring back. Always there is something that we are obsessed with, and we are stuck there. This is not emptiness. It’s very hard, but this is daily living, so we cannot escape from this.

The question is, how should we handle the admiration, criticism and judgment, good or bad, right or wrong?

In daily living it’s pretty difficult to do our best in order to accomplish what we have decided to do, because between the time we have made the decision and the time when we start to act, many things come up. Sometimes, before we start to act we are already tossed away. So it’s pretty hard. This is why we have to know the overall picture of human life, which is very tangled with complications.

For this, zazen is a very simple practice. Zazen, itself, teaches us how to handle our daily living. We should think carefully about zazen, using our body and mind, using our knowledge, our perceptions, our emotions, everything. Then, after deciding to do zazen, just do it. If we do our best to accomplish this practice, according to the suggestions and information that the ancestors have given us, immediately we can see the result.

Good zazen, good concentration, delusions, the beautiful face of Avalokiteshvara, angry arhats, many things come up. These are results in the realm of zazen. But these results are something we have to accept completely, because they are coming from our decision, our life. We are changing day after day, so whatever results come up, we have to take responsibility for them and accept them.

But our zazen must be empty, so don’t be obsessed with these results. All we have to do is do our best to accomplish our zazen after thinking carefully about what zazen and then deciding to do it. Immediately results come up whether we like it or not, but these things are just within us. Nothing is given by others outside of us. These things are given by ourselves. When
we realize this, it’s a little easier to concentrate, to sit down without being tossed away by these results. It’s a very clear human life; we can see who we are, how we have handled our life in the past, how we are handling our life now, and how we will handle our life in the future.

In zazen we can see anywhere. These pictures of life in zazen are good hints for how to deal with life moving toward the future. If we see something we have to correct, we should just correct it. If we correct it and then believe we are correct, immediately we are off balance again. Then we have to correct again. Always there is something happening. This is zazen. This is why zazen is exactly life.

The important thing is to accept completely those things that happen. If you see something you have to correct, correct it. If there is nothing to do, just do nothing. Whatever happens, from beginning to end, just continue to do your best to do zazen. That’s all you have to do. In zazen there is regulation of mind; regulation of mind is having no sign of becoming buddha. This is emptiness.

Whatever happens, don’t create attachment. “Don’t create attachment” doesn’t mean to ignore attachment. There is already attachment. The important point is to understand how to use attachment without creating too much trouble.

If you see trouble, confine the trouble to a minimum, understanding what attachment is. Consider carefully what to do, using your knowledge and capability. This is already attachment. Without attachment, how can we do anything? Attachment is desire. Broadly speaking, without desire, how can we survive in this world?

Using our knowledge, we consider carefully what to do next. And then whatever we decide to do, let’s just do it, do our best to accomplish it from the beginning to the end. That’s all we have to do. Immediately, see the result and accept it. Just continue to sow good seeds from moment to moment. This is zazen, which is called shikantaza, in which all delusions, doubts, distractions drop off. This kind of zazen is exactly Buddhist faith.

Buddhist faith is not an idea. It is practical action, something we have to actualize. Even though we can explain what Buddhist faith is, what zazen is, through and through, finally there is a little bit we cannot explain. This is the core of zazen or of faith. This is the core of being. Zazen, nose, mouth, ears, whatever it is, this is something we have to actualize in our daily living through our body and mind. Religious faith can become something dangerous that hurts people, so we have to polish our knowledge, polish our perceptions through and through. Then this is Buddhist faith, which is based on emptiness.