“Form is no other than emptiness, emptiness no other than form. There are no walls in the mind.”
—The Heart Sutra
“‘What is not given is lost.’ These words were spoken by Father Ceyrac, a French Jesuit missionary who has devoted himself to the wellbeing of children in South India for over sixty years. A similar thought is found in Buddhist teaching: ‘What is not done for the benefit of others is not worth doing.’ Seeking happiness just for yourself is the best way there is to make yourself, and everyone else, unhappy.”
Whenever you think about generosity, one of its opposites appears along with it—greed, or stinginess or acquisitiveness. A well-known Thai abbot, Achaan Jumnien, invented a long-running spiritual practice organized around these opposing themes. Perhaps ten years ago, he had a canvas harness made for himself—something like a fisherman’s vest. Whenever anyone gave him anything—a watch, money, a bottle of water, a radio, a cup, healing medicines, an amulet or two—he would fix it on the harness. He bristled with objects; it was the kind of thing that would have made him a career in the art world. He accumulated things and from time to time passed them on, but first he wore them. He said the whole apparatus weighed about sixty pounds. He took it off to sleep, but otherwise he walked around in it, carrying the burden of everything he received.
He had come to Spirit Rock, in Northern California, where we talked together through translators. In one of those conversations, he mentioned a friend of his who was an even more successful abbot than he, and very wealthy. That wealth was good, Achaan Jumnien said, because it allowed his friend to help people. “Perhaps,” he said, amused, “he is wealthy because he is more generous than me.” But the abbot with the harness was also generous in many ways—with his teaching, with his smile, with his unsolicited advice, and with his homemade healing medicines. He was generous with appreciation, too. When Jack Kornfield introduced us, he explained that I, too, was an abbot, which was a generous estimate of my importance. Achaan Jumnien immediately commiserated, saying what a rotten job it was. He was so enthusiastic about how dreadful it was that I took the message that it was an excellent rotten job and not to be given up.
Achaan Jumnien had his own origin myth about how he took up the Buddha way, and it went like this: as a child he once sat in meditation all day without moving, just to prove that he could. He fell into a deep inward place, and after that his mind changed completely. He did seem to have a tremendous feel for the emptiness shining inside things.
When I saw him a year later, he had ended the experiment with objects and taken off the harness. His performance left me with an image of someone exploring the theater of ownership, gifts, and generosity—how we love to receive things and how they begin to own us, and also how we can be free of them and in some way step into emptiness by passing them on. It was an example of the way art can be more instructive than a sermon.
The discovery of emptiness is a kind of falling in love. There is a vertigo in it: we step off the cliff of what we know and are certain about. During a retreat, for example, when I’m doing interviews, someone will bring in a common object—an oak leaf, a rusty pipe wrench found on a path—and put it on the altar. That objects then becomes the thing that contains all the trees and the stars and belongs with the Buddha statues and other representations of eternity. We can allow objects to act on us so profoundly that afterward we are not the selves we thought we were.
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