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

All religions and spiritual practices have two purposes: 1) To relieve our suffering and 2) 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.


Quicklinks to Rough Transcript Headings (sorry for awkward text):
Two Ways to Describe the Absolute Aspect of Reality
Sunyata, or Empty of Inherent, Enduring, Independent Self-Nature
Suchness: How Everything Is Experienced When You See It’s Empty
Turning Toward Suchness
Perceiving Suchness
Caution: Suchness Is Not a Thing
How Can Suchness Be Positive If Everything Is Empty?



Most other religions have a God or gods. The hope that they provide has to do with going to heaven and afterlife; being part of God’s plan, that even if things don’t seem to make sense, God does have a plan. At the basis of everything is love and compassion and at some level things make sense, even if it’s not obvious to you at the moment. In Buddhism, we don’t have a God in that sense and we don’t have a permanent heaven refuge. If you believe in that kind of cosmology, our heaven is a temporary place and then you’re going to get reborn somewhere else where it’s not as pleasant. 

How does Buddhism answer that question? How does it give you hope? We obviously know Buddhism does a lot around relief of suffering. The Buddha said, this is what I teach: I teach the relief of suffering. From the very beginning, the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path all has to do with giving up our desires, our ideas, and therefore becoming free from dukkha or stress or dissatisfactoriness or suffering. Where do we get our hope? Where is the positivity? 

Two Ways to Describe the Absolute Aspect of Reality

What Buddhism tends to do is focus on that relief of suffering, and just leave it rather unsaid that what you perceive or wake up to or how you are able to be after that is positive and redeeming. To be fair, early on you talked about achieving Nirvana, which would definitely have a positive aspect to it. In Buddhism, what we say is that you can relieve your suffering and access this sense of hope and positivity and meaning simply by waking up to reality as it is. We don’t have any deity, we’re not counting on any afterlife, but if we wake up to reality as it is, both of those needs will be met: the relief of suffering and the hope. In seeing reality clearly, we end up perceiving two aspects of reality, which I’ve talked about many times on the podcast: the absolute and relative

It’s very difficult to talk about these two aspects using language and concepts because we immediately become dualistic about it. The absolute transcends dualism. Let me give it a try. It’s like, you have a finger and it is independent and free. It’s a thing unto itself, right? The fact that it is separate from other fingers is part of what defines it, part of what makes it functional. At the same time, the finger is part of the hand. Those things can be true simultaneously, and they reflect a different reality of the finger.

In the same way, everything we perceive has relative aspects, has time, space, causation, individuality, good and bad, but there’s another way to perceive reality. Reality has another aspect in which we recognize that all of these things, good and bad, the boundaries we draw between individuals, in a way these are all just ideas. When we let go of those ideas, we just see everything as one in its essential being. Sometimes I’ll say things like: in the absolute there is no good or bad; in the relative, there’s good and bad; in the absolute there’s no self or other good or bad. Sometimes saying in the absolute, in the relative, it sounds like there are two different places, and that most of the time I’m in the relative, but sometimes I’m in the absolute. The limitations of language definitely show up there.

Lately I’ve been testing a different way to describe it, which is: Reality has two natures, the particular versus the whole. The particular, of course, it’s true that reality has individuals and individuals interact. There are positive and negative repercussions of actions. This is the way that we usually experience reality. At the same time, reality is a seamless whole, if you will. It’s just as it is. When experienced that way, the particulars can be true, but they don’t ruin the wholeness. Everything is included.

This is kind of a strange analogy, but I kind of imagine this is like if you were caught up in a drama and you were concerned about your well-being and who was doing what and what was going to happen next. It could be full of angst or excitement, but if you somehow realized that all of this was part of a movie or a novel and this novel or this movie has a point, has an artistic arc, and when you stood back, you could see it was just all part of the story. When we’re watching a movie, for instance, we don’t think, “Oh, no, how could that happen to that person?” The happening is just all just part of the story. It’s a very difficult concept to get across, but in any case, what we usually call the absolute aspect of reality, the essential, the wholeness, the things as it is, how we perceive things directly, when we’re not interpreting them through our mental map or our self interest, we just see things in this whole way.

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

One of the keys to getting to be able to see and experience reality this way is to recognize that things are empty. The term for this is Sunyata; emptiness. I’ve also heard the translation boundlessness, which is kind of cool because it basically means all of these individual things that we usually think or who we usually think have inherent, essential, independent, enduring self nature. There’s something inherently, independently real about them, and that that’s not actually the case, that all individual beings arise interdependently with everything else. That’s where we focus on emptiness. If you see the emptiness of things, then you see their true nature.

Emptiness can sound a little negative, right? It’s about what things don’t have, but there’s another way of describing reality, describing the absolute aspect of reality, which is more positive and has been around since a few hundred years after the Buddha or maybe even earlier. That term is Tatātā or Tathātā. This is translated as suchness or thusness because emptiness doesn’t mean a nihilistic void. Once we let go of our mental map of reality, of our attachment to an idea that something or someone has an inherent, enduring self nature, reality doesn’t just disappear. It doesn’t become a nihilistic void, it just is what it is without our mental map of it. Everything is such.

It’s actually quite rewarding. We’re seeing this point of giving us hope, of giving us meaning and context to our lives, not just recognizing everything is empty, but once you see that things are empty, then things are just as they are. There is something that’s been described many different ways and language is limiting, but it can be luminous. Sometimes it’s described as perfect. Everything is perfect, just as it is. I kind of like the word precious because perfect to me invites too much relative comparison, like perfect as opposed to imperfect, whereas precious is something that’s not tied to something being perfect or pure.

For example, we might have relationships with people and the people aren’t perfect, we’re not perfect, the relationships aren’t perfect. Maybe the relationships are even rather fraught, but nonetheless, that relationship is precious to us. That’s the kind of preciousness we can perceive. Therefore, suchness describes this. 

Emptiness is mentioned quite a lot in our Buddhist scriptures. For instance, the 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]

 Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva, when deeply practicing prajna paramita,” the perfection of wisdom, “clearly saw that all five aggregates are empty and thus relieved all suffering…”  This is the relieving suffering part. When we recognize that we’re just projecting this inherent reality on things, we’re not as upset that there’s no one to protect. There’s no one to blame. Our self, our being partakes of something larger. That’s why later on in the Heart Sutra, it says, “With nothing to attain, a bodhisattva relies on prajna paramita, and thus the mind is without hindrance. Without hindrance, there is no fear. Far beyond all inverted views, one realizes nirvana.” Nirvana is a good thing. It’s a positive experience.

In terms of getting my mind around emptiness recently I was thinking, inspired by a book that my Zen center was reading by Thich Nhat Hanh, was thinking of the example of a leaf. When I sit to meditate, I can see a shrub outside my window. I see leaves, and each leaf is an individual thing. You can imagine if you were that leaf, and what you perceived was your individuality, that’s all you perceived was the particular, then you would be very concerned about your well-being as a leaf. How long are you going to last? Are you as large a leaf as other leaves? Are you getting enough sunshine? Are you getting enough water? Why are you turning yellow in the fall? You can see where the leaf experiencing itself as a particular can lead to much stress and suffering and fear and pride and comparison and all other kinds of things.

But, if the leaf is able to see how it partakes of –  it is an individual thing, and yet what on earth does a leaf mean except that it is part of a larger plant. It’s a meaningless thing in and of itself. It partakes of a larger organism. The larger organism supports it and gives it meaning and the leaf would be meaningless apart from the shrub. At another level, the leaf is composed of elements that came out of the Big Bang and have been thousands of other things before they became the composition of a leaf. The leaf is also stardust. The leaf is composed of cells, and at a certain level you could see each of those cells as being an individual living thing in and of themselves. The shape and structure of the leaf reflects our solar system, reflects the presence of a sun that’s not too close and not too far away, and reflects the evolution of photosynthesis. There’s so many things beyond the individuality of that leaf that are contained within it.

If the leaf, as a metaphor for us, is able to let go of itself as a sense of an individual thing and able to see that it’s a manifestation, it’s connected to a lot of other things, and therefore, when it’s individual manifestation goes away, it’s not as terrifying. It doesn’t cause as much suffering.


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

Emptiness is not the only way to describe the absolute. We have other regularly recited teachings, including the precious mirror samadhi, which starts with, “The dharma of thusness is intimately transmitted by buddhas and ancestors. Now you have it; preserved well.” [2]

Then there’s Faith in Mind by Chan master Sheng 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]

This positive expression, all dharmas are one suchness, the Dharma Realm of true suchness, there is no other, no self.

When you hear these words, how does your heart respond? I think for many of us, we intuit that reality has this aspect that we’re not really separate from everything else, or if we feel that we’re separate from everything else, we feel that’s not the way it should be. We engage our spiritual and religious practice, our search, because we want that connection. We want that not-two. Nothing is excluded.

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

Turning Toward Suchness

I want to share with you another writing of one of our Zen ancestors, Hongzhi, a 12th century Chan master. I feel like Hongzhi, of all the things that I have read, does the most wonderful job of describing suchness.

A lot of times I think in Buddhism we refrain from describing the positive because otherwise people will get too fixated on it, right? Which you see happen anyway in Zen. I want to have an experience of enlightenment. I want to have Kensho. I want to see this amazing thing. If we emphasize it too much, “Wow, there’s this amazing realm, this amazing experience you can have, this amazing way you can perceive reality!” We get obsessed: Have we perceived that yet or not? Have you perceived it? Has she perceived it? Has that teacher perceived it? It becomes a concretized thing which just gets in the way.

At the same time we sometimes need some description of the positive in order to inspire us and guide us because practice can be hard. This is Hongzhi in Cultivating the Empty Field, translated by Taigen Leighton. He says

“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]

How does your heart respond to this description?

I heard Houston Smith, who’s written about religions, say something like, there’s something in our heart that responds – it’s unrequited – and it responds to these kinds of things and suggests the divine, suggests the ineffable, suggests the reality of suchness, the way that a bird’s wings suggest the reality of air.

Therefore, whether we think we understand this or not, whether we think we’ve experienced it or not, the fact that our hearts resonate with it, the fact that we long for this, the fact that it just sounds true suggests that there’s something in us that is responding. This is a reality that we evolved with. This is part of our reality. This is part of who we are. It’s reflected in the structure of our minds and hearts and spiritual being.

Perceiving Suchness

I gave this talk about suchness to my Zen center, Bright Way Zen. Then we went into breakout groups and I was asking them, how does your heart respond to this passage by Hongzhi and the idea of suchness? As is pretty typical in those kinds of conversations, it’s often that people say, I’ve never experienced that or, you know, I don’t know what this suchness thing is. I wanted to emphasize there and here that I think everyone has experienced this many times. Perhaps this is what we call peak moments sometimes; those moments where everything seems to make sense; moments where our life has preciousness, meaning, dignity; moments where things look just beautiful, luminous, special, O.K. It will often be at otherwise very mundane moments. This preciousness shines through the steam rising from our tea or the breeze blowing through some branches.

In Zen, what I think is remarkable is that we point to those moments, which usually we think of as, oh, wasn’t that nice? That was a nice moment. Now we’re on to a different kind of moment. In Zen, we point to those moments and we say, yes, that’s reality. For a moment you saw reality. You saw it shining through your mental map.

I love the way that Shunryu Suzuki describes what I think is suchness in his book, Branching Streams Flow in the Darkness: Zen Talks on the Sandokai. Sandokai is another scripture that we chant with regularity in Soto Zen. He explains Sandokai: San means many and Do means oneness. It’s like I was saying, the particular and the whole. San means many and Do means oneness and kai, he says, means to shake hands. It implies a friendship, a meeting, a mutual understanding. He says, “’Many’ and ‘one’ are different ways of describing one whole being.”

Then he describes something he calls things-as-it-is. English was his second language, not his native language. So sometimes the way he spoke it was a little idiosyncratic. With “things-as-it-is” he’s not using English quite correctly and he should say things-as-they-are, but it’s so appropriate that I think it was deliberate: things-as-it-is. There’s the many and the one in that one term, one phrase, and it’s written hyphenated: things-as-it-is. So he says:

“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]

Sometimes this can be a frustrating instruction: to let go of your desires, let go of good and bad, but we have to remember that we’re not being asked to let go of good and bad permanently. We’re not being asked to pretend there is no difference between good and bad, suffering and happiness, harm and beneficial action, because in the particular, of course that is part of our reality. In order to see this wholeness, to perceive things-as-it-is, momentarily, we do have to let go of that discrimination, particularly because that discrimination almost always, even if we think of it as an ideal or we think of it as being on behalf of someone else, self-involved. There’s the sense of self, a sense of self-preservation or a sense of attachment to ideas or whatever. We have to momentarily release our grasp so that we can perceive this other nature of reality, this other aspect which then gives us that kind of hope and gives us that other aspect of our spiritual practice and the sense of meaning, preciousness, and purpose.

Caution: Suchness Is Not a Thing

Like all teachings, it’s important not to concretize the idea of suchness. Have I seen suchness yet or not? Did I just see it? Did I see it last October? Where is it right now when I’m all caught up in suffering or stress? Does it always exist or is it only something I perceive? Taigen Dan Leighton in his book, Just This Is It: Dongshan, and the Practice of Suchness says:

“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]

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. We use words and concepts and teachings. We can’t communicate with one another as human beings without them. I would never have dreamed up Buddhism or Buddhist practice myself. I had to learn it. Somebody had to communicate it to me, and they had to use concepts and words to do it while constantly trying to avoid concertizing and over conceptualizing. Ultimately, this is about direct experience.

This suchness is something that can’t be described at all, and I love that, I love that description of it as, “the way things are experienced.” It’s not a metaphysical speculation about the nature of reality. At the same time, it isn’t just about our perception. It’s not just a matter of, “well, suchness is just a certain way that human beings perceive things when they kind of see that everything is one or they choose to see everything as one.” It’s more subtle than that. It’s like human beings and our perceptions are not separate from the whole picture.


How Can Suchness Be Positive If Everything Is Empty?

Here’s a central question when it comes to suchness: How can suchness, in the sense of reality perceived without a mental map, or reality, when we understand emptiness, be positive? If everything is empty and in the absolute or when we were perceiving things this way, there is no good or bad. There’s no relative. Then how could you say anything was positive? I mean, Hongzhi was describing silent and serene illumination, shining brightly, gleaming, embodied with spirit, manifested, celebrated, smooth and level, magnificently peaceful.

For most of us, we kind of assume that emptiness means reality is really nothing; that it doesn’t have any meaning. All meaning is relative. Therefore it’s all just kind of a nihilistic void. In other words, emptiness may be a good medicine for suffering in the sense that we’re not as attached, but what it leaves behind is nothing.

Ashvagosha was an Indian Buddhist, perhaps the earliest Mahayana philosopher. He lived somewhere around 80 to 100 at 150-80 B.C. He wrote a short book: Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana. He talked a lot about suchness and he identifies a number of what he calls biased views, including that people think ultimate reality, which he calls Dharmakaya, is like empty space. But, he said that it’s actually a concept of a nonbeing as opposed to being, void as opposed to corporeal or physical bodies. 

What we need is to realize that emptiness is used as a tool to counteract our attachment to our concepts. This is why, actually, the Heart Sutra also says that all the teachings are also empty. All the Buddhist teachings, Four Noble Truths, Eightfold Path are also empty. They are just tools to counteract our attachment to concepts. There’s no real thing called emptiness. It’s just like there’s no real thing called suchness. However, he says it’s a biased view to think that means that there’s nothing because nothing is a concept contrasted with something. Ashvagosha says:

“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]

If it’s empty, how can it be positive? This is what Ashvagosha’s audience asks in his book, he quotes them and they say, “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?”

Ashvagosha says, “the characteristics can be inferred.”

Essentially, through our direct experience, we recognize that suffering, what he calls,  “illusions and defilement, 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,” all of these things are generated by our own minds. Therefore, the absence of these things means Mind with a capital “M” or reality has many excellent qualities. Apart from this kind of philosophical reasoning, which only does so much for me, this is something that we can directly experience. These qualities are not concepts and they’re not reliant on concepts. It’s not about judgment or comparison.

We perceive these things directly, like light or heat or sound. When we sense heat, that experience is not dependent on us having a word or a concept about heat and thinking this is hotter than this other experience that I had. The experience is not dependent on those concepts and therefore the experience does not have to be relative to anything else. It is just what it is. It’s a big surprise, frankly, when you really let go when you really let go of your mental map. For most of us, that’s just for a split second. You perceive something precious, something luminous, something whole, something complete, something you belong to. I’m not saying all spiritual experiences are positive, but this particular one is. It’s strangely positive, even though it’s empty. This is what gives bodhisattvas their strength and joy, why buddha-nature is satisfied and serene.

What does this mean for our practice and daily life? In any given moment, this is what we can open up to in our mindfulness and what we seek to open up to more and more in our study, practice, zazen, and what we can place our faith in, at least provisionally, when we don’t perceive it. More and more we recognize that those moments when it’s like the clouds part and we see things clearly for a little bit, are reality. The rest of the time I get kind of confused and caught up in my delusions. That is reality. More and more we can think of being grounded in that, and then the rest of the time we’re just kind of surfing on the waves of our karma. That really can shift our whole perspective.



[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