Reaching Enlightenment in Zen and owning stuff: Seeing the truth in the empty

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Tim Ferriss’ most recent podcast featured Henry Shukman, an inspiring teacher of mindfulness who I hadn’t heard of before, but felt I could very much relate to with my own experiences as a yamabushi, and also as a son, to date. The podcast is a great listen due to Shukman’s humility and excellent story-telling ability and is definitely worth a listen. One great phrase that came up is Muichimotsuchu Mujinzo 無一物中無尽蔵, which was incorrectly stated on the show as Muichimotsu Mujuso or something similar, but this short phrase is said to encompass reaching enlightenment in Zen.

Said by the great Zen poet Su Shi, the phrase means ‘existing in nothingness, means seeing the truth in the empty’.

The following I translate from this great article I found on the phrase:

If you approach a white canvas with a brush, you make use of your creativity, and if you express that creativity as is, that white canvas could be covered with flowers, the moon, or towers, it could be covered with anything. If for example you take the brush and draw a mountain on the white canvas, the picture can only look like a mountain (well, depending on your drawing skills), but if it’s just a blank white canvas, any picture is possible. If we are able to let go of our attachments and desires, we can discover all kinds of abundance within (translation ends).

The things you own start to own you

When we have a blank canvas, like our lives can also be, we have a chance to create that we should take advantage of. Only, we shouldn’t also become too attached to it.

Over our lifetimes we accumulate any number of things. When we accumulate things, we start to fear losing them. This fear can control us. That is why we should try not to become too attached to things. The things you own start to own you. The same can be said for things that we create.

As someone who has had to clear up both of my parents’ homes, once after my father’s sudden death, and then due to my mother’s illness, I understand this too well. My father was strongly attached to many things that he really should not have been. One thing that comes to mind is the garage full of buckets of dried-up paint.

My mother on the other hand, didn’t have too much stuff to start off with. In fairness, she didn’t have the advantage of decades of accumulation, and a house with the stuff of three children in it either, but she now lives a comfortable life in her own room with a small number of things, because in all honesty, we don’t really need that much.

If you’re reading this, think carefully of the things that you have, and you start to understand the philosophy behind Zen monks, Marie Kondo, the minimalists and the like. Also, if it helps, think about who will have to clean up everything you own when you pass. Hint, it’s not you.

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