When you open and relax,
There is an emptiness that goes beyond true or false.
Here, if you know arise and release, natural release, and direct release
You are no different from all the awakened ones.
You are awake and no different from me.
It sounds so simple. Just open and relax. But the opening and relaxing to which Jigmé Lingpa refers is not quite what we do when we come home from work and let the cares of the day subside. Nor is it what we do when we go on a vacation. He is talking about the opening and relaxing that takes place when we cease to do anything, when we let go of any effort whatsoever. This is not easy. Our whole being is keyed to striving. Biologically we strive to stay alive. Emotionally we strive for connection and fulfillment. Cognitively we strive to be someone, to have a narrative for what we call “I”.
Letting go is not something I decide to do. But it can happen, more often by accident than by design, though, as Trungpa once said, the purpose of practice is to make ourselves accident-prone.
People have described what happens in different ways. We become an empty mirror. Mind and body drop away. We fall into an emptiness that goes beyond true or false. And then, as so often happens, others seize on our words and miss what we are saying. Tomes, great and wonderful tomes, have been written about emptiness, trying to describe it, trying to understand it, trying to explain it.
Emptiness is not a thing. At the same time it’s not nothing.
It is a description of an experience, or, possibly, a way of experiencing. It is not a statement about the ground of being or anything like that.
What is that way of experiencing? Here, ordinary language fails because it relies on and generates conceptual thinking. We can only use the language of metaphor, and there are several — a cathedral, snowflakes on a hot stone, a knotted snake thrown into the air, a thief entering an empty house.
The first time I went to Yosemite, I was completely and utterly stunned. The sheer cliffs, the mass of rock, the vertical grandeur towering over the tranquil meadows, rivers and lakes of the valley floor — a natural cathedral. My mind just stopped.
When we look at mind, when we look at nothing and actually see nothing, the same thing happens. All effort disappears and the mind stops. It’s not something you or I make happen, but it happens. This is not just the quiet mind. It is no mind (not literally, of course, but that is how the experience arises). No thinking, no conceptualization — good, bad, true, false — nothing.
Sometimes, too, when thoughts arise, they vanish in the moment of arising, like snowflakes landing on a hot stone. Beautiful intricate structures in incomprehensible numbers, swirling, dancing and — one by one — they vanish, not even a trace.
Sometimes it’s as if we are inside a thought as it arises and it unties itself, leaving us in empty space, somewhere over the Grand Canyon or in the Hubble Gap — again, not because of any effort we make.
Sometimes a thought arises and pokes around for a while. Or perhaps it’s a whole gang. Still, there is nothing for them to connect to, nothing they can take or push against or steal. At some point they just leave and the house is empty again. Good, bad, better, worse — these don’t even enter the picture.
In all of this, “I” doesn’t do anything. “I” is based in thought, in language. The efforts we have made make it possible to be without engaging the conceptual mind. Other possibilities are now available.
To experience arising and releasing and not have to react, to know what arises and for it to take care of itself — this is what it means to be awake and free. In more technical language, experience is empty, groundless. It comes and goes but it is not a thing. Yet it is not nothing. It is also knowing — unrestricted, unconfined by concept or conditioning. That unrestricted knowing naturally manifests as compassion, as continual movement in the direction of balance in the totality of experience.