When we turn our own light inward, we depart from form and enter emptiness. When we go deeper, everything exists again. We discover that the mind reflects everything.* It feels like we have returned to the world of form, yet something has thoroughly changed. The world has lit up.
Into enlightenment, there is emptiness. Out of enlightenment, there is existence.* Looking in, there’s vast emptiness; looking further, there are all forms. And these two sides are in perfect balance. We talk about the identity of relative and absolute, yet they may not always be evenly appreciated. In fact, I find the word ‘relative’ a little problematic, because in our language it has a slightly derogatory connotation – as if it is less relevant.
Verifying emptiness is the absolute side of enlightenment – becoming one with emptiness, one with the vast expanse of mind. But we shouldn’t stay there. Abiding nowhere, we enter the world again. Then all forms of existence are enlightenment. Can we really call this “relative”?
We all exist in some way, but very few people balance out their existence with their non-existence. So it means very few people live balanced lives, and it shows. Therefore the great masters urge us to “turn our own light inward”. When we do, we experience emptiness and we forget all existence, our own and the world’s. This is an elementary level of enlightenment. When we go deeper, the ten thousand things start to shine. The mind illuminates everything.
How deep we have delved into the world of emptiness shows in the ways we express ourselves in the world of form. Of course emptiness in itself is inexpressible. It’s ungraspable and beyond measure. As soon as we try to measure it, we’re back in the world of form. Yet your very existence, the forms through which you express yourself, show where you’re coming from – whether your actions are based on fixed ideas of self and others or are based on a direct connection with emptiness which cuts through fixation.
At some point I may experience that the whole universe is nothing but me, this very self. But that’s only a limited experience. Many people talk about this: I became one with the universe; the whole universe became “me.” That can be an authentic experience, but it’s only half way. In order to fulfill our bodhisattva vows we also need to experience the whole universe as nothing but “you”; rather than “this very self”, it is all the “other.” Only then can we start to live more in accord with our true nature and more naturally start to express love and compassion.
* Master Sheng Yen, The Book of Mu, page 117, Wisdom, 2011