That Stupendous

When I was a teenager in the ‘60’s, one of the few Zen books available was Nancy Wilson Ross’s The World of Zen. That rich anthology of writings sat on the single bookshelf in the small bedroom I shared with my sister Martha, next to Hesse’s Siddhartha, Paul Reps’ Zen Flesh Zen Bones, and some collections of haiku.  

Having pored over Ross’s book many times, I must have come upon the line by Leonardo Da Vinci. But it didn’t leave an impression, I didn’t remember it. Having no actual practice, let alone Zen experience, it must have gone right by me at the time.

Then about 20 years ago, thumbing through the old falling-apart book, I found this short passage by him:

“Among the great things which are to be found among us,

 the Being of Nothingness is the greatest.”

What? The “Being of Nothingness”? Of course we all know Da Vinci was likely one of the most brilliant humans ever to walk on this planet. But this was something else again — how had he accessed that?

Some years ago I was also taken by surprise by a poem by Emily Dickinson: 

The Infinite a sudden Guest

Has been assumed to be —

But how can that stupendous come

Which never went away?

Clearly she, too, was onto something —

Dickinson’s words echo Blake’s far more famous line — very likely known to Emily, a 19th century transcendentalist, and certainly familiar to many who ventured into psychedelics in the ‘60’s: 

If the doors of perception were cleansed

Everything would appear as it is –


Zen students all over the world regularly chant the Heart Sutra, with this line that is the essential koan at the core of it:

Form is only emptiness,

Emptiness only form.

The Infinite, the Timeless – aren’t these all just words for “Emptiness” – or for that matter, for Buddha-nature, Original Face, True Self, God, the Universe – MU?

When we live in the dark cocoon of self-absorbed thoughts, when we exist primarily in our heads how can we hope to access this infinite timeless truth of our being which is also our very own body-heart-mind right now, right here?

And yet, as Dickinson points out so concisely and intriguingly, how could this “stupendous” possibly come and go?

The zazen hand posture, or “cosmic mudra,” is a very physical, non-verbal way to bring this Infinite into our bodily awareness. When the thumbs touch lightly over upturned palms, with left fingers overlaying the right, then our hands form an empty oval, right here, close to the belly of our actual physical center. This nondual posture itself helps not only to center and ground us, but also to put us in touch with the vast silent openness, the dynamic Void, beyond words and at the core of each of us.

It’s like the black hole at the center of our galaxy – perhaps at the center of every galaxy, who knows. What I am certain of is that this wondrous, creative, potent, endlessly transforming Void – this “stupendous,” this “Being of Nothingness,” — is what you and I and all things truly are.

As Master Hakuin proclaims in the first line of his eye-opening “Chant in Praise of Zazen:” From the very beginning all beings are buddha! 

Dedicated, wholehearted Zen practice gives us the chance to  personally and directly experience this astonishing truth of our being, with profound consequences not only for our own life, but for all life in this intricate, infinite, interdynamic, galaxy-web of existence.

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