A mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels.
— Walt Whitman
In this practice we meditate in front of a blank-white wall, but sometimes we fail to recognize the miracle it is. Like all structures in practice, perhaps this one, too, has a brilliantly practical and deeply spiritual significance. Perhaps no one in our lineage prescribed the type of wall in front of which one should meditate, but it’s delightful to project the whimsical wisdom of Intelligence at work in the selection of the perfect setting for awakening.
Blankness is a curious quality. The dictionary defines it as emptiness, void, a state of containing nothing. One doesn’t have to be around a Buddhist practice for long to grasp the significance of those words! The dictionary definition conjures up the Heart Sutra that encodes the Buddha’s essential teaching:
Form is not different from Emptiness
Emptiness is not different from Form
This teaching might sound abstruse to those struggling with the immediacy of identification. Enter the blank-white wall, our practical guide to unlocking the mystery of the Blessed Knowledge of Emptiness.
All that is required to realize the Self is to be still.
— Sri Ramana Maharshi
The first lesson is not obvious, and in it is the genius of the teacher. We could say that the realization we are practicing waking up to is always here, waiting to reveal itself to us, right in front of our noses, literally and metaphorically speaking. But we do not see it; we can’t. It’s opaque to us, not because it isn’t there but because we don’t yet have the vision. A transformation of our way of seeing is required. And so the blank-white wall, solid and dense, issues an invitation to sit, be still, and look more deeply. Eyes open, gaze softly focused, we sit attentively, inquiringly, contemplating blank-whiteness. We sit, to cultivate the stillness that will reveal the Mystery. We sit, to empty our self of ourselves in preparation for an encounter with Emptiness. We sit until opaqueness opens to clarity.
I am the unchanging observer of the changeful mind
— Nisargaduttta Maharaj
The second lesson is more complex. We have to sit still in front of the blank-white wall over and over again, to prove to ourselves that the teaching of the Heart Sutra is experientially true.
As we sit, battling the demons of conditioned mind, the blank-white wall, a synonym of awareness, remains unchanging, non-judgmental, and radiantly pure. Terror, boredom, fantasy, anxiety, resistance come and go, but something eternal weaves through it all as witness. “Don’t go. Stay! Be! You will find this Truth,” the blank-white wall exhorts. If we acquiesce to the invitation, it is bound to dawn on us that the drama of suffering plays itself out completely and fully in the mind. The players, the stage, the dialogue, the script are invented by memory and imagination. The mind weaves a “life” story in which “I” am cast in a central role, and it is simply in the repetition of the thought grooves that the story’s reality is reinforced. There really is no one in the Mediation Hall except the wall, this human form, and the movie-making apparatus of the mind. If it is true that the world “I” live in is a mental invention, then what is real? What is the world? Who am I? The blank-white wall is right here to reflect the answer!
Each moment is all being, each moment is the entire world. Reflect now whether any being or any world is left out of the present moment.
The third lesson is breathtaking, for it saves us from the feeling of loneliness that besets most human beings. Identified with ego, disconnected from our Authenticity, we feel the absence of our Self. To assuage the desire for connection, we seek relationship, hoping the “other” will provide what is missing for “me,” without realizing that external relationships can’t actually satisfy the longing within.
The Heart Sutra supposedly describes the insight of the bodhisattva of compassion, Avalokiteswara, gained in deep meditation while attempting to awaken the faculty of the highest wisdom of the heart. The insight into the True Nature of Existence is not that nothing exists (the conventional definition of blankness) but nothing exists independently. The True Nature of Existence is inter-being, that everything is the same thing; no thing has its own nature separate from the essence that imbues everything.
In meditation, we are not attempting to still the mind, to be mindless, to achieve a state that contains nothing. Rather, we are training to be more mindful or, more accurately, more aware. Emptiness is not absence but Presence. By calibrating the attention to awareness when we sit, we train to experience the wholeness of All That Is in which everything is. The blank-white wall offers its whiteness as example, for white is the unity expressed by the entirety of the spectrum, the shining saturation of all Light. The blank-white wall awakens in our hearts the heart wisdom of Avalokiteswara, that we are related and continuous with the totality of Existence—its separation that is the illusion. How can we feel lonely, when no being is left out of the present moment?
The lessons keep coming!
The closer I get to you, Beloved, the more I can see it is just you and I all alone in this world.
Emptiness conjures up an impersonal void, reinforcing the sense of isolation that is the identification with small mind. But if interconnectedness is the nature of True Nature, we cannot but belong. And yet we still seem to need the one true friend that will hold our hand in times of trial and celebrate our triumphs.
The blank-white wall introduces us to a friendship that is always available, to an intimacy with Life that belies the conditioned fear of not surviving the existential “void.” It is in projecting Unconditional Love everywhere that we come home to the truth of our Authentic Nature. And so the blank-white wall sits with us, a friendly mentoring presence, reassuring us that the nature of Life is love and that we are truly loved. The blank-white wall is there… patient, accepting, kind, compassionate, ever present, eternally available, the Friend that can be with, is, aware of it all. In its constant companionship we are supported in recognizing the Friend is us.
Within yourself is a stillness and a sanctuary to which you can retreat at any time and be yourself.
― Herman Hesse
The training of being with all that arises in the laboratory of the Meditation Hall stands us in good stead as we navigate the human experience. We find ourselves increasingly able to rest attention on awareness, stay connected to ourselves as we traverse the vagaries of circumstances, mental turbulence, and karmic upheavals. With practice, we begin to find the blank-white wall within, recalling us back to ourselves. If attention can remain anchored to the oasis of awareness, compassion for our suffering arises, and that context of compassionate awareness wears away the identification with the delusion of suffering.
And, when you consider that this incalculably subtle organism is inseparable from the still more marvelous patterns of its environment—from the minutest electrical designs to the whole company of the galaxies—how is it conceivable that this incarnation of all eternity can be bored with being?
― Alan Watts
Any spaciousness, the quiet of a long winter evening, a rainy afternoon, a day not scheduled with tasks or meetings, time away from it all is idealized by ego but resisted in actuality. Solitude and stillness are portals that invite us to touch the existential. In presence, nothing reflects the ego. This non-reflection is often described as boredom, a state we are conditioned to abhor and avoid at all costs. Busyness, productivity, entertainment, social interactions can all be distractions, means by which we are kept from being in touch with Life, unveiled and unvarnished.
The vastness of Emptiness is death for the ego. If we choose a spiritual journey, then this is a valley of death we are bound to traverse. Peaks of ecstasy and troughs of grief are still imbued by color and drama. But when everything is stripped away, when the mind is the only barrier left to transcend, we have to encounter ego’s fear of blankness, of nothingness.
In the moments that the mind rebels against nothing to do, it behooves us to get on the cushion, make gasshō to the blank-white wall, and surrender to its blankness. As we sit and wait, receptive to revelation, allowing Emptiness to speak, it does! Joyfully! It bursts into conscious awareness in a chorus of birdsong, dancing leaves, shimmering motes of dust, the breath moving in the body, the wind against one’s cheek. Suddenly the world, we, are alive with the awareness of complexity, color, texture, multiplicity of form and expression as Intelligence knows itself not as nothing but everything. The Blessed Knowledge of Emptiness vibrates in every cell of our being. And so the blank-white wall once more brings us through the gates of ego death with the encouragement to look deeper, to move past the wall of the mind and see Life as Life is. It is in sitting in front of the blank-white wall that we learn to embrace blankness not as something to be avoided but something to be moved through to an intimate encounter with the bristling fullness of eternity. The blank-white wall delivers the ultimate gift that simply to be alive, to be aware, to be one with All That Is is IT, and its glorious!
A mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels.