A leaf spirals towards the earth.
The sword at my side rests peacefully.
The fire has gone out of the lake.
In the forest clearing I kneel on the dry carpeting of leaves. The slightly acrid smell of the oak trees catches in my nose and reminds me of all the woods and all the seasons I’ve spent in solitude waiting for a single, perfect leaf to fall.
After performing this exercise for so many years I sometimes forget its purpose. The meaning has changed from year to year, place to place, season to season, but the basic form of the exercise remains the same: take a seat under a tree, relax, wait for a falling leaf, attempt to cut the leaf with your sword before it reaches the ground.
There are some obvious prerequisites to the completion of this task, as well as some commonsense steps that can be utilized to almost guarantee your success, but those things are not important to this moment.
What is important? What is important to this moment is the silence, the stillness of this moment. The calmness of your heart, the resolution of your spirit, the non-resistance of your sword as you come to meet the falling leaf.
Nothing could be simpler. Nothing?
As a child, I would storm through the forest in wild abandon, slicing leaves, limbs, bushes and tree trunks. I imagined fierce adversaries and wily foes.
In my youth, I subscribed to the “more is better” school of combat, and would devote endless hours of practice, honing my skills from sunrise until dusk. I was sure the way of the warrior was in boundless repetition and routinized instruction.
Oddly though, I’ve spent several recent years not exercising my sword at all. I’ve allowed dust to gather on my once treasured possession. Walks in the woods are limited to early morning dashes through the backyard with a bag of garbage in each hand.
The traditional Asian concept of emptiness must be like this. An emptiness that allows usefulness from what is not there. What is not there in my life is the desire to sit in the woods, and wait for a leaf to fall. That lack of desire allows other activities to take place, such as composing this essay or painting the kitchen walls. In the cooling of my desire to experience a perfect moment I become available to a broad band of experience. That knowledge, however, is only approaching the heart of the emptiness concept.
To express what is central to emptiness as a philosophy, an art, and as a way of life, requires more than the cooling of desire. The fundamental standpoint of this concept is the inherent emptiness of all things conjured by ego-illusion.
The field of ego-illusion is boundless. I have yet to plumb the depths of foolish human endeavor. In several circumstances, my own invincible stupidity has cost much more than a “pound of flesh”. In retrospect, the people, things, ideas and experiences that I believed to be quintessential to my life, have settled like the dust on the scabbard of my sword, and the quality of my life is not diminished.
All things are empty of ultimate meaning because they have form, and all form is impermanent, temporary, imbued with conventional meaning.
I am impermanent. So are you.
The very idea of kneeling beneath an oak tree, waiting for its leaves to fall, is impermanent. The duration of that moment would inhabit an incalculably brief spell in the field of life. What I have accomplished, rather, what I have invested through practice and repetition are countless hours of mindfulness, awareness that, in the next moment, or with the next breath, the possibility of experiencing a profound event is eminent.
Each moment of mindfulness I experienced through the years is strung together into a garland of peace that represents the form of my life.
I have become attached to the form of my life, the shape of my world. That attachment is the fetter that binds me to what is dear, what is beloved. That binding is what makes change, separation and death so difficult to negotiate sometimes. This is the grief of autumn, the melancholy that attends my awareness of this conventional existence.
When I’m kneeling in the forest, waiting for a special leaf to fall, it becomes easier to release this moment and embrace the opportunity of the next. In the fullness of time perhaps I will achieve the experience of: no one is kneeling, no forest, no sword, no-thing to meet, and no desire to attain experience. There is no emptiness.
Fire in the lake. What images do those four words evoke? Do you envision a flaming oil-spill or blazing raw sewage floating down-river? Perhaps, as some ancient people convened, fire in the lake represents the general sense of revolution: to turn, change, and revolt. When I have fought to change, revolted, and resisted, I have become the institute I was attempting to overthrow. Traditional wisdom informs us that in true combat there is no stance, no static posture. Combat is fluid and attitude is useless once the battle is enjoined. All form is made of component parts, each part a constituent facet of infinite possibility. Except by convention of name, is there a leaf, a sword, or a person? Except by the sense filters of eye, ear, tongue, nose, brain, and skin, is there opportunity to distinguish self and other, near and far, black and white, this and that. There is no fire in the lake.
The initial error of my childhood was to assume the other upon which to project my fear and my anger. The obsession of my youth was in rehearsing for a perfect moment, as if I would recognize perfection even if it bit me in the butt. The maturity of my faith reveals this moment intersects the same plane of potentiality as all other moments, and the opportunity to experience any moment of bliss-perfection can only occur if perfection is always available.
All the desire, discipline, and patience in the world cannot enable the perfection experience; rather those actions can only serve to inform the student of perfection of the impediments to ego-extinction and the ultimate truth of emptiness of all things.
Kneeling, frozen by a late-autumn wind, I cried out to the last oak leaf clinging selfishly to some oblique stem, “Let go, can’t you see I’m cold? I want to go home!” No response, no echo, no sound, no self, no home. Form is not different than emptiness.
“We are dancing at the feet of our Lord, all is blessed, all is blessed.” - partial lyrics to an old song. Perhaps some of us are dancing, some are singing, some loving, and some dying. Some of us are feasting and some of us are sipping bitter dregs. A child enjoying the day at the carnival wishes those moments to never end, elsewhere, a child prays for the end of the suffering that this moment has created. In either situation grasping desire prevents the fullness of the moment, the perfection of the moment from being experienced. We all may be dancing, but not to the same beat. Emptiness is not different than form.
Today the sun reflects specular highlights from the gentle curve of my exposed sword blade. A single oak leaf drifts onto the autumn breeze, the earth rushes to meet it. The sword trembles and I pass cleanly through the burnished orange sky with only the faintest whisper of my passing. All is blessed; all is blessed.
The Heart Sutra