Where do thoughts come from? Where do they go when they’re spent? If you want to know, you can settle down quietly and look inside yourself to see. What you’ll eventually see is as open and as peaceful as the sky.
Constancy and Patience
But in order to see clearly you’ll need constancy and patience. You’ll need a disciplined yet gentle and lighthearted approach to meditation and mindfulness, one that’s open to letting go of both knowing and not knowing. And you’ll need a practice that’s consistent and joyful, too.
Our thoughts arise from perfect stillness. They return to perfect peace. Suzuki Roshi sometimes called this perfect stillness, this prolific, dynamic place where thoughts arise and return “the dark empty sky.”
Less poetically, we call this “place” where thoughts and experiences arise the mind. In Buddhism, because we see that our thoughts and feelings are intertwining we also sometimes call this “place” the heart-mind.
The Sky is Always the Sky
In talking about how we wake up to the sky like nature of our heart-mind, Zen teachers and Buddhist teachers from other schools and traditions emphasize the central place of meditation, mindfulness and continuous practice.
“[Constancy] is our continuous practice. We should always live in the dark empty sky. The sky is always the sky. Even though clouds and lightning come, the sky is not disturbed. Even if the flashing of enlightenment comes, our practice forgets all about it. Then it is ready for another enlightenment. It is necessary for us to have enlightenments one after another, if possible, moment after moment.” ~Suzuki Roshi
Here we have encouragement to constant and continuous practice mixed with metaphors for our mind, “the dark empty sky” and for thoughts and emotions. The “clouds,” and “lightning,” and even “enlightenment” serve as examples of thoughts or experiences that easily pass through the mind. The dark empty sky does not hold on. And what we practice most in Zen is this letting everything go—even enlightenment.
“There is nothing worth clinging to as me, myself, or mine.” ~Shakyamuni Buddha
So if the dark empty sky is a good metaphor for what’s at the heart of our being, why isn’t this open, sky-like quality a much bigger part of our everyday experience? Why does it seem like everything other than peace is at the heart of my being?
Metaphors are imperfect and of course there are important differences between the sky and the normal state of our minds before practice.
For one thing, the sky does not know what passes through it. It is inert and unfeeling. We on the other hand feel and know. Because we feel and know we have likes and dislikes. We distinguish between what we love and hate, want and avoid.
Therefore we can, and do, resist or crave our own experiences, our own thoughts, emotions and imaginings. The “objects” that might pass unhindered through one person’s mind get hindered and distorted, resisted and twisted in mine. As life goes on you grow to fear nearly everything that might happen next while I long for the life I have now to be different.
In Buddhist terms, we are very unlike the sky in that the sky does not hinder or cling to lightning, storms, bombs, birds or baseballs. The sky let’s everything move through without resistance, aversion or attachment. It is naturally unbiased.
Yet, we cling to our memories, opinions, and prejudices.
We hang onto what we think we know as if our lives depended on it. The sky remains untouched, even by the wind. But this seems untrue of a mind unfamiliar with mindfulness and untutored in meditation.
In this light it’s perhaps easier to understand that for Zen and Buddhism in general it is what we call the natural mind or the ordinary mind free from clinging, aversion, and attachment that’s best reflected in the dark empty sky metaphor.
“Develop a mind that is vast like space, where experiences both pleasant and unpleasant can appear and disappear without conflict, struggle or harm. Rest in a mind like vast sky.” ~Shakyamuni Buddha
When we begin to free ourselves from our habitual anger, prejudices, addictions, and other kinds of reactivity through practice, what we rediscover or uncover or return to is what we call the sky-like peace and clear unbiased knowing of the ordinary mind. And this makes all the difference.
Here is a wonderful guided meditation on A Mind Like Sky led by Jack Kornfield. I hope you enjoy it and that it helps you to deepen your practice: jackkornfield.com/a-mind-like-sky/
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Have a wonderful week!