The Buddha’s search for enlightenment began when he left home. Because modern people travel so easily, we may not appreciate the weight of this decision in his time, the 6th century BCE, when most people never ventured farther than a few miles from their birthplace. From almost any spot on the plains where the Buddha spent his childhood, he could see the open sky. But now, as the fields and hamlets fell away, he entered a jungle whose tangled canopy cast him in deep shadows. That jungle was unlike any place he’d seen—unlike the cities, villages, and farms, all proper venues for humankind—yet it was here the Buddha felt compelled to go in order to find what he was looking for, something called “liberation.” Psychologically as well as geographically, the Buddha had entered a liminal state. He stood on a threshold between the world he knew and another, undiscovered one.

In the early days of his wandering, the future Buddha studied meditation with two of the most respected teachers of the day. But after he’d mastered their methods thoroughly, he set out to practice on his own. Like other homeless seekers in northeastern India, he begged for his food, sleeping on bare earth and spending many hours in charnel grounds, where bodies were laid out to decompose, so he could sit undisturbed. Finally, after six years in the wilderness, the Buddha achieved complete enlightenment, and then, for almost five decades after that, he taught the dharma everywhere he went.

Related: The Myth of the Historical Buddha

None of these details were lost on Joseph Campbell, the path-breaking mythologist, who recognized in the Buddha’s narrative the outlines of a structure Campbell later refined in his many books. Drawing on traditions from around the world and reaching back to the Stone Age, he identified the stages of what he called “the hero’s journey”: departure from home, then liminality, a crisis, transformation and, at last, the hero’s victorious return. It’s no accident that Campbell’s stages match the Buddha’s quest almost point for point, because the dharma played a central role in the development of his ideas.

But the two journeys diverge in one way—a detail overlooked by Campbell and, I would say, by many Buddhists throughout history: the Buddha never closed the circle. It’s true that on occasion he returned to the city where he was raised, but up to his last breath he remained anagarika, “without home,” and he did everything he could to ensure that his followers remembered this. Liminality—in-between-ness—is the dharma’s dwelling place.

To communicate that truth, monks and nuns today leave their families behind just as the Buddha did, shaving their heads and giving up their names in order to pursue awakening and to inspire others to do the same. They become living symbols of the liminal. But as the reformer Zhu Hong complained in the Ming dynasty, monastic homelessness can easily devolve into just another kind of home, and this dilemma kept him up at night worrying about complacent students. True liminality, he understood, doesn’t depend on wearing robes or rising earlier than the sun: those are only skillful means devised to nudge the Buddha’s followers toward an encounter with the real in-between—a liminality of the mind. But this in-between is hard for all of us to find, because we don’t want to wander as the Buddha did, without any clear destination. We much prefer to dwell in our certainties, even though they often stand in the way of change.

Seeing this, the Buddha adopted a studied evasiveness about his own awakening. In the Pali suttas, when he describes the experience, he typically refers to what it’s not. He calls it amata, “the deathless,” rather than choosing an affirmative like “eternal life.” He says that enlightenment is “unborn,” “unproduced,” and “unconditioned.” The Buddha even makes this trademark move in one of his most often quoted passages, these lines from the Dhammapada: “Hatred is never appeased by hatred in this world. By love alone is hatred appeased” (1.5). But this translation is misleading, because the Buddha doesn’t go with the standard term for love, metta, opting instead for “non-hatred,” averena. “Love” sounds like something we already grasp, but “non-hatred” leaves us with empty hands.

Words such as “non-hatred” and “unborn” take us into liminality because they straddle the line between the meaningful and the meaningless. Most of us think we understand “love” and “hate,” or “alive” and “dead,” and these alternatives seem to foreclose any other possibilities. Yet we have more options than we might recognize and will find them if we are prepared to wander homelessly. When we do, we’re likely to feel stymied, lost, maybe even enraged, but once we stay long enough with the in-between, something will shift, and we’ll suddenly see a new coherence emerging from the fragments of our old thinking.

Of course, this use of words isn’t just a game but a strategy the Buddha used quite consistently throughout his career to free his hearers from their assumptions. Perhaps the best example is Buddha’s account of enlightenment in the canonical collection of stories known as the Udana (Khuddaka Nikaya):

There exists, monks, that sphere where there is neither solidity, cohesion, heat, nor motion; nor the spheres of infinite space, infinite [consciousness], nothingness. . . . neither this world, nor a world beyond, nor both. . . . there, monks, I say there is no coming, nor going, nor maintenance, nor falling away, nor arising; that, surely, is without support, non-functioning, objectless.

—Udana 80; trans. Peter Harvey

Just when we expect the Buddha to map out his path with precision and clarity, he denies that enlightenment corresponds to any known condition, even the formless jhanas, or states of meditative absorption he alludes to briefly: the spheres of infinite space, infinite consciousness, nothingness, and so on. But if these formless states don’t qualify as enlightenment, then we’re left scratching our heads, unsure about what options could possibly remain.

Luckily, the Buddha offers us a hint in his praise of “unsupported discernment,” awareness that accepts everything while clinging to nothing at all—not to words, ideas, or experience. The Pali term for it is appatitthita, “without footing or support.” And in the Ogha-tarana Sutta, the Buddha is quite explicit about the role that unsupported discernment played in helping him reach the “other shore”: “When I, friend, am supported [by anything], then I sink down; when I strive, then I am whirled about. Thus, friend, without support, unstriving, I crossed the flood” (SN 1.1; trans. Peter Harvey).

Common sense would lead us to assume that somebody trying to ford a rushing stream would sink without the aid of a walking stick or a guyline to clutch, but here the Buddha affirms the opposite: only by giving up and letting go did he succeed in crossing. That the Buddha’s speech on this occasion has a distinctly Zen-like ring may not be an accident. In the Mahayana movement that produced Zen, “unsupported” came to mean “non-abiding,” possibly the single most cherished term in Zen’s lexicon.

Liminality goes against the grain. The more uncertain our lives become in response to events beyond our control, the more we want to plant our feet solidly in one place.

But there’s a problem with this argument. About a thousand years separate the Pali texts from Zen and its love affair with the non-abiding mind. Many thinkers in the dharma’s first centuries moved as quickly as their feet could carry them in the very opposite direction—away from the liminal. They saw enlightenment as a specific state and an object of definite knowledge. Thus historians have tended to split the Buddhist world into opposing camps, with Theravadins gathered on the side of enlightenment as a knowable state and Mahayanists on the other as the defenders of the liminal. And yet the distinguished Buddhist scholar Peter Harvey says that this separation oversimplifies the dharma’s real complexity in its early days. The fact that monks with a certain view were the first to lay hands on a sutta doesn’t mean that they always had the best interpretation. The Pali texts, he argues, do indeed contain many passages celebrating liminality, and these later helped give birth to the traditions of Zen, Mahamudra, Pure Land, and others. Harvey wants us to rediscover those passages, along with other commonalities linking the Pali canon to the Mahayana and beyond. And if he’s right, then, ironically, the liminal—groundless and indefinite—could turn out to be the common ground of Buddhists across the board.

It’s only human nature, I suppose, to wish that firm lines could demarcate the Theravada from the Mahayana, with the Abhidhamma’s precision on one side and Zen’s clowning around on the other. But if we stop there, everything neatly in place, we miss the bigger story about Buddhism, now in its third millennium. Regardless of the school and lineage, each generation of the Buddha’s followers has needed to spell things out explicitly, because we can’t function without doing so. When we were beginners on the path, we all relied on simplifications. Distinct steps and stages gave us confidence when we started wavering. But in every generation, too, others have gone for the liminal, ignoring the divisions in order to explore new possibilities opened up by embracing the in-between.

If you’re the sort of person who feels an affinity with the outcasts responsible for breakthrough art and cutting-edge ideas, then the tendency to organize and codify might look like a problem that we need to leave behind once and for all. I still recall the pained expression on the face of the Japanese monk who relayed to me this story about Soen Nakagawa (1907–1984), a Zen master widely considered to be the greatest haiku poet of the last hundred years. In his temple quarters at Ryutakuji in Mishima, Japan, Soen Roshi was old and retired but still very much the trickster. He would invite guests on a hot summer day to refresh themselves by watching goldfish swim around in a hibachi he had filled with water. He called it his “air conditioner.” The monk—who spent many years in the United States—told me that Westerners raised to enjoy Dada and the Theater of the Absurd would laugh aloud or smile broadly, whereas many Japanese guests would find the whole thing disconcerting. They would say disapprovingly, “Hibachis are for winter!”

When I first heard this story from the monk, I found myself identifying with the guests who were in on the joke, but later it occurred to me that the joke required both sides: the conventional outlook on hibachis and the one that turned this outlook on its head. Liminality needs a boundary as well as an act of boundary crossing. In the West, we call this “complementarity,” but thanks to Nagarjuna, the 2nd-century CE Indian philosopher, Buddhists will recognize it as another case of dependent origination: each thing exists only by virtue of its connectedness to everything else. This truth applies even to opposites, which are also mutually creating. For all their differences, opposites connect, and the in-between is where they meet. But because this point is so often overlooked, the need for both boundaries and crossings occupies a central place in Prajnaparamita (Perfection of Wisdom) literature. And nowhere is this teaching more prominent than in the Diamond Sutra, revered by many as the crown of the Prajnaparamita and quite possibly the most important inspiration for the whole Mahayana.

Buddhist wisdom uncertainty
Courtesy Bernadette Jiyong Frank / Dolby Chadwick Gallery; Spaces in Between (Green), 2013 | Oil and acrylic on panel | 48 x 48 inches

Histories of Buddhism tend to emphasize the Mahayana’s radical break with the formalism of the earlier schools. But “break” might not be the right word for what actually happened. It would certainly be fair to say that the Diamond Sutra deconstructs almost every major tenet of the religion it inherited. For example, the sutra takes aim at the well-established stages on the path such as the sotapanna, or stream-enterer, whose dharma eye has now been opened, and the sakadagamin, or once-returner, whose nirvana is now certain to be only one lifetime away. The sutra seems to undercut the paramis, the forms of moral excellence, and it openly denies that we can identify a Buddha by his 32 distinguishing marks—which, tradition tells us, must include flat feet with wheel-like indentations on the soles, webbing between the toes, well-retracted genitals, a lion-like body, arms reaching to the knees, and a fleshy knob on the crown of the head. To the sutra’s anonymous authors, this list must have seemed as dubious as it does to many of us, and it’s not hard to feel allied with them in their skepticism. But the sutra doesn’t stop with these oddities. It also appears to jettison beliefs we may well esteem today: the poignant reality of suffering, the prospect of liberation from suffering, the attainment of awakening, and even the existence of buddhahood.

The Diamond Sutra seems to dismantle the whole edifice of the dharma, but it’s important to recognize that it does so in a Mahayana spirit —“not seeking the destruction of anything,” to paraphrase the Buddha’s words in chapter 27. Yes, the sutra takes things apart, but it doesn’t leave them in utter disarray. Instead, it reassembles them for new purposes—retaining the tradition but transforming the way we inhabit it going forward. Now we can inhabit it liminally. Consider this exchange:

The Buddha said to him, “Subhuti, those who would now set forth on the bodhisattva path should thus give birth to this thought, ‘However many beings there are in whatever realms of being might exist. . . . I shall liberate them all. And [yet,] though I thus liberate countless beings, not a single being is liberated.’ “And why not? Subhuti, a bodhisattva who creates the perception of a being cannot be called a ‘bodhisattva.’ And why not? Subhuti, no one can be called a bodhisattva who creates the perception of a self or who creates the perception of a being, a life, or a soul.”

—Chapter 3; trans. Red Pine

A destructive attack would flat-out reject the notion of special people who vow to save all beings by leading them to their final liberation. This would be a Buddhism without beliefs, or without these beliefs, anyway. But the sutra’s Mahayana strategy first affirms a convention of the path, and then, only after making that initial move, denies that the convention points to anything ultimately real. And those two tactics—the destructive and the Mahayana one—aren’t at all the same. The first assumes that Buddhists in the past simply got things wrong, and that if we wipe their errors away, the truth will finally shine through in its pristine simplicity. But the second tactic assumes that no such truth exists because everything we might say about the world has been fabricated by our minds and conditioned by a complex web of causes. If we peer behind our image of the world, we’ll simply find another image and, beyond that, images forever. Form is emptiness, and emptiness is form, as another Prajnaparamita text, the Heart Sutra, affirms.

In a destructive spirit, we could wipe away the dharma’s first millennium, but that wouldn’t solve the problem as defined by the authors of the Diamond Sutra: how do we, as symbol-making beings who depend on culture to survive, keep ourselves from getting fatally ensnared by our own mental fabrications? When early Buddhists wanted to describe the journey from delusion to truth, they often chose the Buddha’s preferred simile of his teaching as “like a raft” that the seeker can discard after reaching the other shore. But what happens when you make your way across, only to learn that both the shores have been mirages all along? Then, the Diamond Sutra says, the highest wisdom is to view

. . . all of the fleeting world
[As a] star at dawn, a bubble in the stream;
A flash of lightning in a summer cloud;
A flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream.

Section 32; trans. Mu Soeng

These verses, which appear near the sutra’s close, descend on us with such finality that we are almost reduced to silence. If we stop there, however, we haven’t fully understood. We’ve discarded form but still cling to emptiness. We need to let go of emptiness as well, and that’s why the sutra doesn’t end with those beautiful and wrenching lines. Instead it returns us to form again:

When the Buddha had finished [speaking], Venerable Subhuti, the monks and nuns, the pious lay men and women, the bodhisattvas, and the whole world with its gods, ashuras, and gandharvas were filled with joy at the teaching, and, taking it to heart, they went their separate ways.

Section 32; trans. Mu Soeng

The whole array of beings who fill the universe go “their separate ways,” but this time one thing is different: awareness itself has become their raft. Enlightenment no longer means standing on firm ground; now the mind wanders freely “without footing or support,” just as the Udana recommends.

It makes perfect sense that all beings high and low—monks and nuns, laywomen and laymen, and gods of various ranks—should feel joy after they’ve received instruction from the Buddha. But the sutra leaves it for us to intimate what his teaching might mean when they return to everyday existence. And it’s here that we begin to glimpse the stakes behind a discussion that could seem purely academic: the Diamond Sutra’s teaching of liminality cannot be separated from its egalitarian outlook. If the sutra unmasks all claims about the world as finally unreal, those claims include the hierarchy that orders the Buddhist universe as well as the Buddhist societies that took it as their model.

This hierarchy’s gradations were based on a person’s “defilements” and his or her distance from complete enlightenment. Generally, the suttas define “defilements” as destructive mental habits like greed, ill-will, anger, lust, and arrogance—qualities that all Buddhists will agree prevent us from awakening. But we should also note how quickly the language of defilements slips into a distancing of people along with mental states. Consider this passage from the Ariyapariyesana Sutta:

And what may be said to be subject to defilement? Wife and children are subject to defilement, men and women slaves, goats and sheep, fowl and pigs, elephants, cattle, horses, and mares. . . . These objects of attachment are subject to defilement; and one who is tied to these things, infatuated with them and utterly committed to them, being himself subject to defilement, seeks what is also subject to defilement.

trans. Bhikkhu Nanamoli and Bhikkhu Bodhi

The list of those defiled includes not only wives, children, and slaves of both genders but also all the people whose livelihoods “tie” them to animals used for tasks like plowing fields, pulling carts, and in the case of elephants, felling trees or hauling logs. And that covers pretty much everyone except for monks and nuns.

But once we’ve understood form as emptiness and emptiness as form, we can approach our so-called defilements in a radically different way, not as inherently degrading but as illusions we now need to deconstruct. These too we should regard as nothing more than “a flash of lightning in a summer cloud;/ A flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream.” Of course, we could always leave our husbands or wives, to say nothing of the kids; we could relinquish all our property and enter the monastic life. But if we imagine that changes of this kind would liberate us at last, the Diamond Sutra begs to differ. No matter who we are and what we do, the sutra tells us that we’re in the same boat: liberation comes from liminality, and liminality comes from letting everything go by perceiving its fundamental emptiness.

buddhist uncertainty
Courtesy Bernadette Jiyong Frank / Dolby Chadwick Gallery; Spaces in Between (Yellow), 2014 | Oil and acrylic on panel | 60 x 48 inches

The language of “defilements” leads us to believe that our problem is “out there” in the world of form with its defiled cows and pigs, when the culprit is our mind’s tendency to make everything appear permanent and independent of everything else. As the Diamond Sutra pushes us to recognize, liminality is the way things really are, and the solidity we ascribe to things is a necessary fiction that causes suffering when we mistake it for a fact. If some early Buddhists spent their lives trying to avoid stepping outside the lines, the Diamond Sutra calls for the opposite. We have to see and then dissolve all boundaries.

Of course, liminality goes against the grain. The more uncertain our lives become in response to events beyond our control, the more we want to plant our feet solidly in one place. A Zen story begins with a figure who tried to do just that during a terrible time. That figure, a 6th-century soldier, Xiao Yan, served under the mad emperor Xiao Baojuan. Somehow the soldier Yan managed to survive and finally overthrew Baojuan, who was assassinated by two trusted aides. Yan, now known as Emperor Wu, proved himself a ruler of great ability who created the Liang state with Buddhism as its cornerstone. He constructed temples throughout his realm, inviting from India some of the foremost Buddhist teachers of the day.

Related: Bodhidharma’s Teachings

And yet an encounter with one teacher went awry—the Indian master Bodhidharma, who brought Zen to China. As the Blue Cliff Record relates, when the two men met, the emperor rehearsed his numerous good works—all the monasteries and nunneries he’d built, and all the libraries he’d filled with books. Then Wu asked, “How much merit have I gained to share with my family, my friends, and my subjects?”

“No merit,” Bodhidharma replied. 

Incredulous, the emperor stared back at him. “But isn’t the dharma the way of holiness?”

“Not holiness, your majesty. Great Emptiness,” the old monk said. Clearly the emperor did not understand. After Bodhidharma had exited, Wu asked one of the palace monks, “Who was that strange fellow?” The monk told him, “An avatar of Avalokiteshvara” (the bodhisattva of compassion).

The most important details are contained in what happened next. Bodhidharma literally turned his back on Wu’s religious paradise. But he didn’t walk into the nearby town so he could live among the villagers. Rejecting both alternatives, he strode into the mountains where he would meditate for nine years in a cave until his first student arrived.

As for the kind and wise Emperor Wu, his reign ended when rebels conquered Liang. Wu’s captors gradually starved him to death, and soon nothing remained of the temples he had built. But temples aren’t the dharma’s home, and neither are the villages. “Temple” and “village” are just ideas, too. The dharma’s true home is always in between, and that’s why it can set us free.

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