May 20, 2020
Jenny Hall

Verses from the Dhammapada 175

Space' is a word that describes a physical absence as well as an inward state. Jenny Hall explores the connection between the two to reveal the power in living simply.

Cygnus olor... By Marek Szczepanek - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, 



Swans fly through the air; those with supernormal powers pass through space; the resolute conquer the Evil One and rise above the world.

Many people are now using their garages not for cars but for storing their ever increasing possessions. Our ubiquitous habit of hoarding has led to a number of books being published on ‘decluttering’. When we tidy, recycle or give away material possessions, our surroundings become more harmonious. Space is revealed. When we give ourselves wholeheartedly to such actions, not only our homes benefit but also the Heart. The Heart yearns for spaciousness, the freedom from the endless stories we tell ourselves.

Swans fly through the air;

We may seek relief from the stress of these persistent thoughts by taking a walk in the serenity of Nature. Whilst walking on the South Downs, a flock of swans flew overhead. The beauty and sound of their snowy wings momentarily stilled all thought. “I” vanished. The Heart ‘rolled’ with their flight. However, ‘I’ soon reappeared. “Did you see that?” The Heart filled up again.

In the story of Swan Lake, Prince Siegfried sees a flight of swans whilst hunting. One settles on a lake and changes into a beautiful girl called Odette. She reveals that an evil magician, Von Rothbart has changed her into a swan. The spell will only be broken if Siegfried promises to be faithful to her. The prince realises he has found his heart’s true desire. At dawn Odette changes back into a swan. She flies away. The next evening Siegfried attends a ball at the palace. Von Rothbart, disguised as a nobleman arrives with his daughter Odile. She is seductively dressed in bejewelled black. She closely resembles Odette. Her alluring smile deceives and bewitches Siegfried. He dances with her and declares his love. At that moment the true identity of Odile and Von Rothbart is revealed. They leave the ballroom. Siegfried utterly distraught, rushes to the lake. He is reunited with Odette. Leaping into the water they both drown. The spell breaks. They are together forever.

The longing for the open Heart (symbolised by Odette) is often confused with the desire for what appear as glittering objects (symbolised by Odile). We believe they have the power to bestow fulfilment. Hence our tendency to stockpile yet more ‘things’. We perhaps embark on the Zen training with a materialistic mindset. We hope to accrue something special. The following story wards against such ambition.

Those with supernormal powers…

A Shin priest was jealous of Zen Master Bankei. He boasted to Bankei that the founder of his sect possessed supernormal powers. He described how this founder would stand on a river bank with a brush in his hand. On the opposite bank there was an attendant holding up a piece of paper. The founder would write the Buddha’s name through the air. The name would then appear on the paper.

The priest demanded “Well can you do such things?” Master Bankei replied that his was not the Zen Way. He said: “My miracle is when I feel hungry, I eat. When I feel thirsty, I drink.”

… pass through space.

Master Bankei was pointing to the fact that freedom from ‘I’ is to be found in our ordinary daily routine. It is discovered when we give ourselves wholeheartedly into everything as it naturally arises from moment to moment. When we wholeheartedly tidy a cupboard, we are not reliving situations associated with its contents.

The heart is cleared of all memories. When we give ourselves wholeheartedly to listening to a friend, all judgement and opinions are swept away. There is space to receive what is being said. When we give ourselves wholeheartedly to sitting zazen, all expectation is abandoned. Spacious awareness opens. This is allowing everything to ‘pass through space.’

‘… the resolute conquer the Evil One and rise above the world.’

The ‘resolute’ are those who give themselves over and over again, as Siegfried threw himself into the lake. Von Rothbart can be seen as the untransformed emotional energy. In the Zen tradition this is not regarded as ‘evil’ but precious. We are encouraged to greet it and invite it to burn us away, rather than wasting it in the endless cacophony of schemes and projects. These create the ‘world’ of me.

This is the ‘world’ we ‘rise above’, as the energy is transformed into spacious awareness, at one with all.

In Basho’s words:

Spring in my cabin

Utterly, wholly empty

Utterly replete.

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