Master Dogen asked “ If the cart is stuck, do you beat the ox or beat the cart?”

In other words, what is zazen? Is it an effort to purify the mind, or is it the full effort of this body of practice to express itself fully?

And in his greatness, his unique position, he answers “the cart”.

This body of practice is not the pictured lump of flesh, it is our actual experience. Freed from this picture, whether “the mind” is agitated or peaceful is of no consequence; it is like an electron in a cathedral.



Our five familiar senses stand, as it were, at the border between our body and the world, gathering information about the world. Except, other than when we are in pain, our body, apart from its surface details, is largely unknown. Not in the abstract, obviously. We have a lot of information about our body. We have a body of knowledge. But we don’t, generally, have a body of feeling.

When we do zazen, the situation changes. Our familiar senses are displaced by ones less culturally familiar. The sense of the breath moving dynamically inside us in a dance with our flesh. The sense of the aliveness of the spine uncompressing itself, like a tree expressing how it is to be upward. And the sense of balance between this body and the great earth.

These senses have nothing to do with information, and everything to do with expression and interconnection: it’s a paradox. We constantly go on about non duality, yet zazen awakens the body from the stupor of the self. And this enlivened body of expression is our bridge, both symbolic and real, to the greater body of all beings.



Emptiness isn’t a description of how the world is; it’s a description of a way of seeing and being, paradigmatically when we are meditating.

In the original Pali, it just meant absence. “This place is empty of elephants” just meant that no elephants are here, but the meaning changed with the Mahayana.

In the Heart Sutra, we chant “form is emptiness, emptiness is form”, “form” being the first of the five skandas, but in the earliest of the prajnaparamita sutras, the formulation is different:

“Form is not wisdom (prajna) and wisdom is not form.

Just as with feeling, perception, will and consciousness.

They are not wisdom and wisdom is not in them.

Wisdom is like space....”

This is probably the origin of the widespread use of space/ the sky as a metaphor for emptiness, the dharmakaya, and lots more besides.

Space is “empty” because we can’t say that it either exists or doesn’t exist, and thus it becomes the exemplar of a new definition of emptiness, one where all the familiar dualities, good/bad, samsara/nirvana, delusion/enlightenment are “empty” because everything is “empty”. That is, everything arises within dependent origination.

The translation choice of “emptiness” for sunyata is unfortunate, as it suggests vacuity, nothingness, and ignores the connotations of the space metaphor: openness, freedom, brightness.

How is this relevant to our practice?

It seems to me that  space/emptiness/prajna is a good description of our experience in zazen. When we are sitting, we don’t feel we are something solid, like a block of flesh, we feel spacious. It is as if we are hanging in space. In our breathing, we are, as it were, making this space dynamic: it is moving within us. Except, our actual experience isn’t of an outside and an inside, but an interrelation of the two, our airway the connecting channel between two oceans.



There are many visual metaphors in Zen which appear to be about reflection: the moon in water, the moon in a dewdrop, and the mirror. The crucial thing is not to see them dualistically: there isn’t a moon up in the sky; there isn’t a true person whose reflection in the mirror is false.

If we can see in this way, then we can see how the images are illuminating emptiness: it isn’t that a particular feature within the reflection is an illusion. Rather, it’s an illusion to regard that feature as being separate.

It is also helpful to see these metaphors as having a dual function: they both explain and describe zazen.

Sometimes we are like a mountain. Sometimes we are hanging in space. Sometimes we are a small bird, thrown upwards into the bright air.



Kusen 313

In many of the Mahayana Sutras, there are long lists of bodhisattvas. In Zen, there are really only two: Manjusri, the bodhisattva of wisdom, and Kanzeon, the bodhisattva of compassion.

Manjusri is generally the figure on the zen altar. He sits on top of a lion and wields a sword, to cut delusion. “Wisdom” is a misleading translation of prajna, which literally means ‘pre-knowledge’: that state of wholeness before we cut the world into pieces, either through language or adherence to a self. For this reason, his sword is unusual. He cuts the world into one.

We can see him as a description of one aspect of zazen, and if we can, we can then see Kanzeon as another, and the two of them as Not-Two.

Kanzeon is normally represented as having a large number of hands and eyes. The symbology is her capacity to see the suffering of living beings, and to assist them, but I think this multitude of hands and eyes is also descriptive of our state in zazen.

Manjusri is a definite figure, but, for Dogen at least, Kanzeon is equated with the whole of existence. In our dualistic way of thinking, the world is divided up into things, which then interact, but if we cast this aside, and de-centre this I/eye, we enter into the vast compassionate space which can hold the experience and perspectives of all beings (eyes) and the expression of those beings (hands). We are not cultivating compassion. It is cultivating us.


On this basis, we can then see why it is Kanzeon (compassion) practicing zazen in The Heart Sutra, which we chant after sitting, and why she is, as it were, practicing Manjusri (prajna), and vice-versa, and we can reconfigure the Heart Sutra as a poetic re-expression of the zazen which we have just experienced. Not just poetic, obviously.

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