138 - Buddhist Images of Fierceness and Compassionate Anger
140 – Sustainable Buddhist Practice: Creating Form But Keeping It Flexible

All religions and spiritual practices have one purpose: To relieve our suffering and give us hope. Buddhism is no different, teaching us that all we need to do is awaken to reality and we will be free and at ease. However, as Buddhists we sometimes emphasize “relieving suffering” and leave it unsaid that, after being freed from your suffering, you will perceive things in a way that gives you hope, inspiration, and solace. The Buddhist teaching of suchness arose a couple hundred years after the Buddha, at least in part to address the need some of us feel to hear descriptions of the positive aspect of reality from the beginning of our practice.



Two Ways to Describe the Absolute Aspect of Reality

At a challenging time like we’re living in, most other religions would point you toward heaven, better rebirth, eventual kingdom of God, God’s plan

Buddhism: relief of suffering and hope can be found simply by waking up to reality (seeing through/letting go of delusion)

Reality: absolute and relative aspects, we get the relative

Absolute aspect of reality –

Sunyata – Sanskrit, Pali, Tibetan, Chinese, Japanese term in Buddhism: translated as emptiness, more lately sometimes boundlessness

Second way to describe absolute aspect:

Tathātā – Sanskrit, Pali, Tibetan, Chinese, Japanese term in Buddhism: translated as suchness, or thusness

Emptiness doesn’t mean nihilistic void; Emptiness -> Suchness

Briefly: Why it’s important to perceive suchness as well, preciousness of things-as-it-is


Sunyata, or Empty of Inherent, Enduring, Independent Self-Nature


Heart Sutra:

Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva, when deeply practicing prajña paramita, clearly saw that all five aggregates are empty and thus relieved all suffering… Therefore, given emptiness, there is no form, no sensation, no perception, no formation, no consciousness; no eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind; no sight, no sound, no smell, no taste, no touch, no object of mind; no realm of sight … no realm of mind consciousness. There is neither ignorance nor extinction of ignorance… neither old age and death, nor extinction of old age and death; no suffering, no cause, no cessation, no path; no knowledge and no attainment. With nothing to attain, a bodhisattva relies on prajña paramita, and thus the mind is without hindrance. Without hindrance, there is no fear. Far beyond all inverted views, one realizes nirvana.”[1]

Emptiness – example of a leaf – what it means and what it doesn’t, why it relieves suffering and fear, how we “see” it


Suchness: How Everything Is Experienced When You See It’s Empty

Emptiness is not the only way to describe the absolute, this is not just negative

Our regularly recited teachings also mention suchness/thusness:

Precious Mirror Samadhi starts with, “The dharma of thusness is intimately transmitted by buddhas and ancestors. Now you have it; preserve it well.”[2]

Faith in Mind (By Chan Master Seng Ts’an, translated by Chan Master Sheng Yen):

The Way is perfect like great space,
Without lack, without excess…
If the mind does not discriminate,
All dharmas are of one suchness.
The essence of one suchness is profound;
Unmoving, conditioned things are forgotten.
Contemplate all dharmas as equal,
And you return to things as they are.
When the subject disappears,
There can be no measuring or comparing…
In the Dharma Realm of true suchness,
There is no other, no self.
To accord with it is vitally important;
Only refer to not-two.
In not-two all things are in unity;
Nothing is excluded.
The wise throughout the ten directions
All enter this principle.[3]

See Leighton, Just This Is It, pg. 9 for the history of the concepts of emptiness and suchness in Mahayana[4]

Positive expression – What we intuit, what our heart longs for, reasons we may not emphasize this, and yet…


Turning Toward Suchness

Hongzhi – 12th century Chan master – The Whole Arrives in Original Brightness (translation by Taigen Leighton, Cultivating the Empty Field)

“The place of silent and serene illumination is the heavenly dome in clear autumn, shining brightly without strain, gleaming through both light and shadow. At this juncture the whole is supreme and genuinely arrives. The clear source is embodied with spirit, the axis is wide and the energy lively, everything apparent in the original brightness. The center is manifest and is celebrated. All the various events are consummated, with yin and yang balanced and the ten thousand representations equalized. Smooth and level, magnificently peaceful, from north to south, from east to west, heaven is the same as heaven, people are the same as people, responsive with their bodies, visible in their forms, speaking the dharma. This ability is fully actualized, extensively obliterating obstacles.”[5]

What is your heart response to this description? How does it seem to relate to original Buddhism?


Perceiving Suchness

Covering this topic with Bright Way Zen, breakout groups – asked how does your heart respond. Some people think “I’ve never experienced this” but everyone has, at certain moments

Important thing: In Zen we point to those peak moments as say, Yes, that’s reality

Suzuki, Shunryu. Branching Streams Flow in the Darkness: Zen Talks on the Sandokai: San means many, Do means oneness, kai means to shake hands/friendship/understanding:

“’Many’ and ‘one’ are different ways of describing one whole being.”

Things-as-it-is (Suzuki’s term for suchness):

“Small mind is the mind that is under the limitation of desires or some particular emotional covering or the discrimination of good and bad. So, for the most part, even though we think we are observing things-as-it-is, actually we are not. Why? Because of our discrimination, or our desires. The Buddhist way is to try hard to let go of this kind of emotional discrimination of good and bad, to let go of our prejudices, and to see things-as-it-is.

“When I say things-as-it-is, what I mean is to practice hard with our desires – not to get rid of desires, but to take them into account… We must include our desires as one of the many factors in order to see things-as-it-is. We don’t always reflect on our desires. Without stopping to reflect on our selfish judgment we say “He is good” or “He is bad.” But someone who is bad to me is not necessarily always bad. To someone else, he may be a good person. Reflecting in this way we can see things-as-it-is. This is buddha mind.” [6]

Letting go… experience of suchness… preciousness vs perfection


Caution: Suchness Is Not a Thing

Not concretizing idea of suchness, “Have I seen suchness yet or not? Did I just see it? Where is it right now, when I’m all caught up in suffering or stress?”

Leighton, Taigen Dan. Just This Is It: Dongshan and the Practice of Suchness.

“I should note and emphasize here as an important disclaimer, that although I am using the term suchness, in reality there is no such thing as suchness. Speaking about a Japanese term immo… [I did Episode 8 – It-with-a-Capital-I: The Zen Version of God on this word, which I translated as “the Ineffable”] the scholar Thomas Kasulis makes an astute, important point. He adds, ‘This term is often improperly construed substantially and metaphysically as “Suchness.” [But it] is not a thing; it is a way things are experienced.’”

Leighton goes on to explain how “in actuality there are no nouns, but all words and supposed entities are verbs or adverbs. This is perhaps somewhat easier to express grammatically in Japanese than in English. In English, coherency requires the use of nouns.”[7]

We use words, concepts, teachings… very difficult to not conceptualize, but this is about direct experience


How Can Suchness Be Positive If Everything Is Empty?

Absolute – no good or bad, relative comparisons, so how can suchness be as Hongzhi describes it, silent and serene illumination… shining brightly…  gleaming… embodied with spirit… manifest and celebrated… smooth and level, magnificently peaceful…

Assumptions about what emptiness means… what reality is… fear it’s all a nihilistic void

Ashvaghosa – (c 80-150 BC) Indian Buddhist, perhaps earliest Mahayana philosopher

Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana

Ashvaghosa identifies a number of Biased views, including: People think Ultimate Reality (Dharmakaya) is like empty space.

But, he says, that is actually a concept of nonbeing as opposed to being, void as opposed to corporeal (physical) bodies.

Need to realize “emptiness” is used as a tool to counteract our attachment to our concepts

“The way to correct this error is to make clear that Suchness or the Dharmakaya is not empty, but is endowed with numberless excellent qualities…

“From the beginning, Suchness in its nature is fully provided with all excellent qualities; namely, it is endowed with the light of great wisdom, the qualities of illuminating the entire universe, of true cognition and mind pure in its self-nature; of eternity, bliss, Self, and purity; of refreshing coolness, immutability, and freedom.”[8]

But how can this be? His audience asks, “It was explained before that the essence of Suchness is undifferentiated and devoid of all characteristics. Why is it, then, that you have described its essence as having these various excellent qualities?”

Ashvaghosa says, “the characteristics can be inferred”

Essentially, we can observe that suffering, “illusions and defilements, outnumbering the sands of the Ganges, such as lack of true cognition, absence of self-nature, impermanence, blisslessness, impurity, fever, anxiety, deterioration, mutation, and lack of freedom”[9] are generated by our own minds.

Therefore, the absence of these means Mind has many excellent qualities

Apart from this philosophical reasoning, however, we can directly experience this

These qualities are not concepts, not reliant on concepts… not judgment, not comparison… like perceiving light or heat or sound… we recognize these experiences without any need for judgment or categorization

This is what gives bodhisattvas their strength and joy, why Buddhas are satisfied and serene

What does this mean for practice in daily life? In any given moment, this is what we open up to in our mindfulness. What we seek to open up to more and more in our study and practice and zazen. What we can place our faith in, provisionally, when we don’t perceive it.



[1] Soto School Scriptures For Daily Services And Practice: https://global.sotozen-net.or.jp/eng/practice/sutra/scriptures.html
[2] Soto School Scriptures For Daily Services And Practice: https://global.sotozen-net.or.jp/eng/practice/sutra/pdf/01/06.pdf
[3] Sheng Yen. Faith in Mind: A Guide to Chan Practice. Dharma Publishing, 1987.
[4] Leighton, Taigen Dan. Just This Is It: Dongshan and the Practice of Suchness. Boston, MA: Shambala Publications, 2015.
[5] Leighton, Taigen Dan (translator). Cultivating the Empty Field: The Silent Illumination of Zen Master Hongzhi. Boston, MA: Tuttle Publishing, 2000
[6] Suzuki, Shunryu. Branching Streams Flow in the Darkness: Zen Talks on the Sandokai. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1999. Page 29-30.
[7] Leighton, Taigen Dan. Just This Is It: Dongshan and the Practice of Suchness. Boston, MA: Shambala Publications, 2015. Page 9.
[8] Suzuki, Teitaro (translator). Açvaghosha’s Discourse on the Awakening of Faith in the Mahâyâna: Translated for the First Time From the Chinese Version (Classic Reprint). London, UK: Forgotten Books, 2015.
[9] Ibid


138 - Buddhist Images of Fierceness and Compassionate Anger
140 – Sustainable Buddhist Practice: Creating Form But Keeping It Flexible