Spiritual Communion

M A Y   2 0 1 3

Zen master Dainin Katagiri once said, “Spiritual communion is the true meaning of emptiness.”

lotus and bambooHow could that be? The idea of “spiritual communion” sounds comforting — the essence of true love — while the idea of “emptiness” doesn’t sound comforting at all. Recently someone told me of a woman who quit her Buddhist meditation practice because “it was too nondual,” meaning it kept draining away her sense of self, leaving an empty void where before there was the richness of being the particular person she was. “I want to be a me!” she protested.

We can sympathize, can’t we? This sense of me-ness is our most familiar refuge, our home base. From it we judge whether the world we meet is friendly or not. My me is what plans to make things better; it has ambitions and picks and chooses what it likes and doesn’t like. As a refuge, my me is private, a private space I can open up or close down according to how safe I feel. When I feel very safe I can say to another person’s private space, “I love you.” This feels like communion, a connection — however fragile — between my me-space and yours. “I love you” also implies future safety and pleasure: you will be safe and happy with me in the future because I love you.

But as we have all probably found out, most of the “I love you” messages we have given or received in our past have had a limited shelf life. The person we were so in love with at age twenty-two is no longer relevant to us, at least as a “love.”

So what’s the deal here? Is love — the spiritual communion we experience — an impermanent transaction between two me’s? Or do we perhaps have this confused?

If you look carefully into the nature of your me — how it actually is — you see that it has no solidity. You can check this out right now: looking directly into your sense of self — how it is to be your me — you can’t help but come up empty-handed. Your me is an idea, not a thing. Your me is empty of me-ness. This is not to say you don’t have a recurring sense of your me-ness, only that when you look into that sense, it’s empty.

The problem many people have with the notion of emptiness — that it is blank, juice-less, love-less, etc., — arises because they have imagined emptiness is something. It isn’t. Emptiness is empty of itself. Try to stay with me here because this is the heart of the matter and it holds a blissful secret. Emptiness is empty of anything we might think is emptiness. It can’t be held in a definition because it has no edge by which to define it. And yet, it shows up as this sense of me! My me is empty of me-ness and it is also empty of being empty of me-ness. Is this comprehensible?

No, it isn’t. This is where the intellect can’t go. People studying nonduality often claim they have no self, and that there is no such thing as a self. But what is it they don’t have? A self! How could we speak about “self” if we didn’t have some sense of what we’re signifying with that word? Could it be that I neither have a self nor don’t have a self, just as emptiness is neither empty nor not empty?

This kind of word-play can leave us frustrated, or it can reveal a gap in our thought narrative. The trick here is not to land in an assertion — i.e., “I have no self” — but to open into the gap given by the double negation: I neither have a self nor don’t have a self. In the work of the Open Path I often suggest that if you sense that gap, allow yourself to “fall backwards into it.” Open into it, open into openness, and glide.

Openness, after all, is just another word for emptiness, as is awareness. What I call “the open path” is actually a contradiction in terms, since the path that is open is empty of pathness — it’s not definable in that way. As we learn to not define but open into openness, into emptiness, into innate awareness, we recognize that this “emptiness” is what knits everything together. It’s the ineffable presence that is the nature of your me and my me, and the nature of everything we ever thought was solid or existent.

This is how “spiritual communion is the true meaning of emptiness”: everything is empty of thingness and therefore everything is seamless, one, whole, all at once. Recognizing this directly — not intellectually or abstractly but as a living reality — is so joyful and relieving because you realize that love — spiritual communion itself — is not subject to temporary feelings but is the very ocean we swim in, what Sufis call “the shoreless ocean.”

The emptiness we feared would annul us and wipe out our chance to be in touch — in spiritual communion — with each other and this beautiful world, turns out to be exactly what makes everything present to everything else, the one in the many and the many in the one.