I recently picked up Thomas Merton’s The Inner Experience: Notes on Contemplation again. In one of the sections I read yesterday, the section comparing sacred to secular life, I was especially excited by his description of the scared life in terms that very closely parallel the understanding I’ve come to through Buddhist practice:
The truly sacred attitude toward life is in no sense an escape from the sense of nothingness that assails us when we are left alone with ourselves. On the contrary, it penetrates into the darkness and that nothingness, realizing that the mercy of God has transformed our nothingness into His temple and believing that in our darkness His light has hidden itself. Hence the sacred attitude is one which does not recoil from our own inner emptiness, but rather penetrates into it with awe and reverence, and with the awareness of mystery.
This is a most important discovery in the interior life. For the external self fears and recoils from what is beyond it and above it. It dreads the seeming emptiness and darkness of the interior self. The whole tragedy of “diversion” is precisely that it is a flight from all that is most real and immediate and genuine in ourselves. It is a flight from life and from experience—an attempt to put a veil of objects between the mind and its experience of itself. It is therefore a mater of great courage and spiritual energy to turn away from diversion and prepare to meet, face-to-face, that immediate experience of life which is intolerable to the exterior man. This is only possible when, by a gift of God (St. Thomas would say it was the Gift of Fear, or sacred awe) we are able to see our inner selves not as a vacuum but as an infinite depth, not as emptiness but as fullness. This change of perspective is impossible as long as we are afraid of our own nothingness, as long as we are afraid of fear, afraid of poverty, afraid of boredom—as long as we run away from ourselves.
What we need is the gift of God which makes us able to find in ourselves not just ourselves, but Him: and then our nothingness becomes His all. This is not possible without the liberation effected by communication and humility. It requires not talent, not mere insight, but sorrow, pouring itself out in love and trust. (pg. 53)
Buddhism talks often about “emptiness” (Sanskrit: sunyata) beneath all composite things (including the personal self, or “inner self” as Merton calls it). Basically the idea is that all things of this world are devoid of an independent, lasting substance. This is impermanence taken to its end. Because all things are undergoing continual change, there is no lasting essence we can pin down as unchanging. Emptiness is not nihilistic since the existence of things is not in dispute here, it’s more a reinforcement of impermanence by raising it to a level where it becomes very difficult to take anything for granted. Merton’s use of “nothingness” and “emptiness” have negative connotations that are not part of the Buddhist idea of emptiness, however, there is a definite relation.
Another perspective of the same reality reveals “suchness” (Sanskrit: tathata). Suchness is more difficult to talk about, but is often seen as the essential completeness of life— the idea that life taken in its totality, as it is without the corruption of discursive consciousness and the filters of self, is akin to awakening in the deepest sense.
When I reflect on Zen practice, especially the practice of zazen and allowing myself to completely sink into present awareness without any forced application of thought, I think of bumping against emptiness and, at times, experiencing suchness— life as it is-ness! When I read Merton’s description of the sacred life and how it “penetrates into the darkness and that nothingness, realizing that the mercy of God has transformed our nothingness into His temple and believing that in our darkness His light has hidden itself” I am reminded again of the transition in perspective from emptiness to one of of suchness. I think of the depth of our lives that is always right here before us when we’re able to truly face it. Any form of diversion and turning away from the direct truth of now will only take us further from the truth, further from an embrace of suchness, and further from God.