Robert Aitken Roshi (1917-2010)
Everything falls under the law of change,
like a dream, a phantom, a bubble, a shadow,
like dew or a flash of lightning;
you should contemplate like this.
This poem comes at the end of the Diamond Sutra, and refers not only to the brevity of life, but to its very texture at any moment. It is not substantial; in fact, as the Heart Sutra says, it is empty.
Because the Buddhist doctrine of emptiness cannot be understood intellectually, it is widely misunderstood. Some Buddhist scholars are reduced to explaining it simply as the ultimate of impermanence: "When you say 'now' it is already gone." But this is not the ultimate fact.
Emptiness is simply a term we use to express that which has no quality and no age. It is completely void and at the same time altogether potent. You may call it Buddha nature, self-nature, true nature, but such words are only tags or pointers.
Form is emptiness and as the Heart Sutra also says, emptiness is form. The infinite emptiness of the universe is the essential nature of our everyday life of operating a store, taking care of the children, paying our bills, and other ordinary activities.
In realizing all this, we understand how we are just bundles of sense perceptions, with the substance of a dream or a bubble on the surface of the sea. The vanity of the usual kind of self-preoccupation becomes clear, and we are freed from selfish concerns in our enjoyment of the universe as it is, and of our own previously unsuspected depths.
The mind is completely at rest. Nothing carries over conceptually or emotionally. In this place of rest, we are not caught up in the kaleidoscope of thoughts, colors, and forms as they appear, so we do not react out of a self-centered position.
We are free to apply our humanity appropriately in the context of the moment according to the needs of people, animals, plants, and things about us. We stand on our own two feet and decide, "I will do this; I will not do that." This sense of proportion is called "compassion," a word that originally meant "suffer with others." "I am what is around me," as Wallace Stevens said in an early poem. Thus you may see that enlightenment and love are not two things.
(The above is excerpted from the excellent book ‘Taking the Path of Zen’ by Robert Aitken.)