bodhisattva work

Form is emptiness. Emptiness is form.

This is the big idea in all the praj&#241a-paramita sutras. Paramita means “perfection,” that which leads to the other shore of awakening. Praj&#241a means wisdom. This is one of the fundamental practices of bodhisattvas, of those who strive to awaken all living things.

But not just any wisdom. It’s wisdom of emptiness. Of form. Of form and emptiness being one and the same. Wisdom of the fundamental nature of all existence.

I asked the guys this past week if they had any questions. One guy said, “What’s emptiness.” And I didn’t know how to respond.

Our text says something about all existence being empty of inherent beingness. And that’s close, I suppose. But the truth is, as always, a lot more complication. What we’re getting at is that all existence, everything that see, everything that we experience, every thought, every emotion, is devoid of independent existence.

There’s a bit of me in you. And you and in me. And when you smile, there’s a smile inside another person.

It sounds strange. It sounds hard to take seriously. It sounds simultaneously easy and complicated.

And it points to one of the most fundamental truths of Mahayana Buddhism: that there is no difference between unenlightenment and enlightenment. That we are all, already, awakened.

We just don’t know it.

And it’s so hard to grasp that, apart from all the practical, moral, implications. It’s so hard to accept that — as I sit here with a glass of wine and good music on the stereo trying to let go of all the frustrations of my day, the angry calls at work, the busted bicycle tire — it’s so difficult to accept that I am already awakened. I resist it. I ignore it. I cling to my own unenlightenment like a security blanket of irresponsibility.

And I think that’s what I always come back to when I sit down and try to think about my experiences in prison. We are encouraged to not ask what our students did to get incarcerated in the first place. And I don’t often think about it. I see them as my students, not as people who’ve committed some crime. Nevertheless, one guy wrote in his first paper that he’d killed someone. Reading that was something of a shock, something of a sudden reminder. I’m teaching murderers, rapists, criminals.

But really, if form is emptiness and emptiness is form, there isn’t anything separating me from them. Them from any of us. The only difference is the arbitrariness of a choice. They chose to do something that carried with it a huge price. And their level of acceptance of that price always astounds me.

And there I am, trying to point something out to them that I constantly forget.

That is, the work of the bodhisattvas is to liberate all sentient beings, everyone everywhere indiscriminately because the bodhisattvas don’t judge people; they know we’re all fundamentally of the same stuff. Each of us is waiting for our own liberation.

I need to hold on to that. I need to remember that each and every day.