Excerpted from “The Great Expanse of Darkness,” May 23, 2019 ~ Tahoe City, CA
The Sandokai is a fundamental scripture that is chanted in Zen monasteries and temples throughout the world. “San” means “many,” “do” means “sameness” or “oneness,” and “kai” means to shake hands, as in friendship. So, it’s the many things and the One in relationship, which is a way of depicting true nature, or reality. It was written by a Zen master, Sekito Kisen, in the eighth century.
One of the themes that runs through the Sandokai is the theme of light and dark. In the West, we have a relatively surface understanding of light and dark. The light is thought of as good, and the dark is bad or evil, but that’s not the way it is used in the Sandokai. Sekito uses the sense of the dark for the great reality, that great unknown terrain where all things are unified, where they all come together in a single source. And light is being used as the light of our consciousness, which sees differences. When you open your eyes, a tree looks different from a rock, and the sky looks different from the ground. It’s the light of consciousness that discriminates. Mostly the light forgets the dark and gets stuck in its immediate perceptions of difference. It loses the sense of the source, where all things come together.
When you’re paying deep attention, you see that the dark is a metaphor for quiet, the silence, or the great ground of being. You see that all things and all experiences arise out of that dark. A thought simply appears. A feeling simply appears. Where it appears from, you don’t know. It comes seemingly out of nowhere, the great expanse of pure unmanifest potentiality. When you’re just sitting there attending to your own experience, each moment of experience simply arises, and then it passes and disappears into the dark.
The wonderful thing about Sekito is that his vision, his enlightenment, went deep enough to not be attached to either the source—the One—or the many. Of course, whenever we see and experience an aspect, a facet, of the jewel of enlightenment, we’re touching upon the whole diamond. In just the same way, when we have a realization experience, some facet of reality is revealed to us, and each facet feels totally complete. We’re filled with a kind of confidence of that completeness. And yet, there are high-level delusions, even in deep states of realization, or enlightenment. It takes quite a bit of real vision to see that and not get hung up on some of the high-level delusions that are innate in various forms of awakening.
One of those high-level delusions is that, because each facet of reality feels so complete, we may not allow any other facets of reality into our view; we may think they’re simply illusions. When you have an experience of the One—the all-encompassing ground of being—the world of diversity can look, at least for a while, like a flimsy illusion. It’s easy to conclude that the source, the ground, is real but the rest isn’t. It is real, it is the ground, it is the fundamental source, but each distinct expression is also a complete expression of the source, and so each thing is itself the great totality.
In essence, as Sekito would remind us in his sutra, we live in two worlds. One is the sort of pinprick of the known terrain of our life. What our light of consciousness recognizes, sees, and imagines that it knows is this small terrain of life that’s illuminated by what we think we know. The other is the world of the absolute, that immensity of existence that lies outside of what we’re conscious of—that which is generating our experiences and also our thoughts that just come out of the dark.
You can be sitting in meditation and all of a sudden you might feel like you’re encountering the dark, which often evokes a kind of fear. Whether the dark is of the exterior world or it’s the interior world, this is the terrain of our actual existence, of what we know and what we don’t know. It is the immensity of existence that is generating the life that we are conscious of. It can be generating your thoughts, your feelings, your reactions, and your dreams.
Where do your dreams come from at night? They come from this immense terrain of your unconscious, which seemingly knows no bounds. And that’s the culmination of the change to “I am not just what I think I am. The world is not what I think it is. It is not contained within the confines of the little piece of terrain that I’m conscious of, whether it’s what I think about myself, what I feel, what I imagine, my past, my history, or my hoped-for future.” All of a sudden you realize, “I’m not defined simply by this tiny terrain of the known. And the great expanse of the unknown is not some menacing, lurking danger outside of me. It’s actually simultaneously what I am—the totality of being itself.”
All revelation is born in the dark. When you let go of clutching onto the certainty of what you know and open your eyes like a newborn, as if for the very first time, you are surprised to find that the world you had imagined to be real was nothing more than a dream, one fabricated assumption after another. By stepping into the long-ignored silence of our aloneness and directing the light of our consciousness beyond the current frontier of our knowing, we allow the great unknown dimensions of life to find us and remain faithful to the work of our yearning.
To the extent that the fire of truth wipes out all fixated points of view, it wipes out inner contradictions as well, and we begin to move in a whole different way. The Way is the flow that comes from a place of non-contradiction—not from good and bad. Much less damage tends to be done from that place. Once we have reached the phase where there is no fixed self-concept, we tend to lead a selfless life. The only way to be selfless is to be self less—without a self. No matter what it does, a self isn’t going to be selfless. It can pretend. It can approximate selflessness, but a self is never going to be selfless because there is always an identified personal self at the root of it.
Being selfless isn’t a good, holy, or noble activity. It’s simply that when there is no self, selflessness happens. This selflessness is very different from having a moralistic standpoint. When action is selfless, it tends to do no harm. It tends to be the salvation, the secret alchemy that awakens and removes conflict. It’s a byproduct of not having a self. It just so happens that reality is overflowing with goodness and love.
This is radical emptiness—where everything is arising spontaneously. There is no more need to discriminate with the mind between what seems to be the right thing or the wrong thing to do. In ego-land it’s helpful to have an ego that can discriminate between right and wrong, but at a certain point, that’s not what you are operating by. You are operating by the flow of the Tao, which is a higher order of intelligence. You don’t need to intellectually discriminate anymore because the Tao discriminates without discriminating; it knows without knowing; it moves without moving. There is no sense of being enlightened or unenlightened. Since there is no self, there is nothing to be enlightened or unenlightened.
We can talk about enlightened beings and non-enlightened beings, and conceptually that has a use. But when there is no self, when there is radical emptiness, the whole enlightenment thing is sort of irrelevant because reality has become conscious of itself, which is enlightenment. That’s what is often missed. People believe that enlightenment is an improvement on reality, like becoming a super human being or God-knows-what. But enlightenment is when reality is awake to itself as itself within itself.