The Empty and the Open: Pointers on the Zen Way in a Real World

The Empty and the Open: Pointers on the Zen Way in a Real World August 4, 2021



Jan Seymour-Ford

Senior Dharma Teacher, Empty Moon Zen

I’ve been in a very quiet, dark, empty-handed place for a while in my practice, and in my life. So here’s what I’ve been thinking this past week: Oh, crap! I’m supposed to give this dharma talk, and I’ve got nothing. How am I going to keep talking for at least five minutes when I don’t have anything to say?

The good advice is to give the talk you need to hear. Ok, so I guess I’ll talk about having empty hands. A good start is always to find a great poem. Here’s a wonderful one by Wendell Berry, entitled Our Real Work.

Our Real Work

It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,

and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.

The mind that is not baffled is not employed.

The impeded stream is the one that sings.

–Wendell Berry

Lately I’ve been baffled. Not sure which way to go, and there’s nothing in my hands.

For a long time, I’ve been overcommitted. My commitments brought me great joy and the opportunity to serve others. Suddenly, alliances shifted, people moved on, positions narrowed. So, for various reasons, a bunch of the commitments removed themselves from my hands.

Aside from caring for my mother, which is increasingly time-consuming, I don’t know what I should do, where I should engage. And that’s OK. It’s been a bit disorienting. And that’s OK. But sometimes I forget to be grateful for this gift of not-knowing. Sometimes I’ve fallen into feeling off-centered and impatient. I’m a plowhorse, and I kinda miss my plow. In my daily life, find myself grasping for the feeling of being focused on a goal, of having work to do. In my practice, I feel the urge to fumble around and grab some spiritual tools and get busy. To refill my empty hands.

When I feel this impatience, I realize I’m forgetting something. I’m forgetting that for me, anyway, this Zen practice is a practice of simplicity.

I’m forgetting that empty hands are open hands, free of grasping and clinging. Open to the needs of the world, my friends and family, ready to act.

Most of all, I realize when I’m feeling off-centered and dissatisfied, I’m forgetting my breath and my body.

When we welcome newcomers to our sangha, we offer them an orientation to show them how we do our practice together. Most of the orientation focuses on our breath and our bodies. Our practice is based on presence, and we use the breath moving in and out of our bodies as our anchor to the present moment. When we offer orientation to new practitioners, we emphasize that our breath, our practice, our presence is embodied. We are embodied. Sometimes it comes as a surprise to new practitioners.

Every once in a while, my practice calls me to give myself an orientation. I need to remember that the breath is moving through my body is exactly my practice. It’s how I experience presence. Every breath, sensation, pain in the knees, sweaty discomfort on a hot day, or sleepiness, calls me to simply be present.

When I forget my breath and my body, I’m clenched and tight. When I’m impatient with not-knowing, it feels like bewilderment and being unfocussed. When I remember my breath and my body, I remember to welcome not-knowing, letting it fill me and remind me to simply be present.

So back to the Wendell Berry poem. I really like this line: “The mind that is not baffled is not employed.” I think that’s a lovely reminder that not-knowing and stillness are the source of our engagement, our presence and work in the world. When we trust our not-knowing, the work comes to us.

For many years, I was in charge of a research library in the special education field. We subscribed to many newsletters and magazines offering information and advice for parents of kids with special needs. Once I read an article that has really stayed with me. The authors were parents of a son with severe cognitive and physical impairments, and they shared their experiences in order to support and encourage other families with similar challenges. But here’s what made the article memorable to me. Almost offhandedly, the parents said they’d had many meetings with well-meaning professionals who assured them it was normal to feel angry and resentful because of their son’s intense and life-long needs, and disappointed because he would never live up to their dreams for him. The parents wrote that they were perplexed by these conversations. They weren’t sure why they didn’t feel resentful or dissatisfied. Confused and overwhelmed sometimes, but not resentful about their son’s condition, and not colored by expectations of entitlement. They were humble, generous people; they weren’t congratulating themselves. They just didn’t dwell on ways their son could be different. They were grateful that they had the ability to meet his needs, and loved him the way he was. The authors mentioned they were both second-generation immigrants from Thailand. They wondered if their Buddhist beliefs might have some influence on their outlook.

I never forgot this article because these loving parents are my sangha-mates, teaching me about not-knowing. They didn’t cling to certainties, fixed ideas about what life owed them, or how it should be different. They met their son and his challenges with open hands. They were simply present with him, meeting his needs, and doing what was necessary. Their teaching was generous and heartfelt, and it reached beyond their peers with similar family issues and touched my heart. They reminded me that ours is a practice of open hands and not-knowing.

When my hands cling to certainties, to self-importance, to inflexible goals, I’m forgetting my breath, my body, shrinking away from them. When my hands are empty, when I don’t know, I’m invited into stillness and simple presence.

Here’s a line from Rumi:

What a relief to be empty! Then God can live your life.


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