Book Bits

Taisen Deshimaru and the Doctrine of Emptiness

The concepts of form and emptiness – shiki and ku – as put forward in the Heart Sutra – the Hannya Shingyo – are among the most difficult ideas in Zen, especially for new students. Here, they are tackled by Taisen Deshimaru, the monk who travelled from Japan to Paris in the 1960s and eventually founded the International Zen Association in Europe. This extract is from Deshimaru’s book, The Voice of the Valley.


Dogen wrote: “Don’t think from thinking.” This is a negation. But “Think, not-think” is an affirmation. 

In the Shiki soku ze kuku soku ze shiki of the Hannya Shingyo, shiki is phenomenon and it means thinking. 

Ku is emptiness, and it means thinking from non-thinking. 

Ku is non-thinking. 

Ku is concentration. 

Concentration of ku is the return of thoughts to the central brain. 

Ku is the return to nature. 

Ku is the originality of our nature. 

Ku, which is emptiness, means consciousness of the macrocosm. And so ku is connected with the cosmic order. 

We are always on one side or the other. We want freedom, we want to spread ourselves into the cosmos—by using the frontal brain. We want to realize humanity-—by using the frontal brain. These are contradictions. And how do we deal with these contradictions? Dealing with these contradictions is a big problem in the world today. 

The doctrine of karma and the doctrine of ku are the two essential principles of Mahayana Buddhism. They are the two pillars of Mahayana. Karma is the action created by our body, mind and words: Ku soku ze shiki. Emptiness becomes phenomenon. This is the affirmation. Ku is Shiki soku ze ku. Phenomenon becomes emptiness. This is the negation. 

In daily life most people look outside; they look about objectively. Zazen means to look inside. During this sesshin you must look inside, not outside; and so you will become intimate with your own egos. Look at your ego, look at it subjectively. What is the ego? We must look at ourselves. What is ourselves? We are the vital center of time and space. During zazen we can feel change, even though we seem changeless. During zazen we can feel our egos, our consciousness, our brains changing all the time, even though our noumenon seems changeless. Yet during daily life we do not notice these changes. 

What is the ego? The ego is in perpetual change. What is the noumenon of the ego? And where is it? We cannot find it. Most people feel that nature—the world, the mountains, the rivers—does not change very much. Yet during zazen we can hear the voice of the torrent changing all the time. All existences are impermanent, the ego as well. And there is no noumenon. 

Concentrate. The last moments in zazen are the most important. When you can no longer be patient, be patient. Then you will have deep concentration. 


Taisen Deshimaru
From: The Voice of the Valley


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