Believing in Nothing

Sage advice from a welcome voice

Best known as an actor and narrator, Peter Coyote has studied Zen since 1974. In 2011 he was ordained as a Zen Buddhist priest and four years later received “transmission,” establishing him as an independent Zen teacher.

The Editors

I want to share a quote from Zen Mind, Beginners Mind, my favorite Zen book by Shunryu Suzuki-roshi. This quote is from a chapter titled “Believing in Nothing”:

This is a very important point. No matter what God or doctrine you believe in, if you become attached to it, your belief will be based on a self-centered idea.

In the full text, he adds an important distinction:

It’s absolutely necessary for everyone to believe in nothing. But I don’t mean “void-ness”—there IS something. There is something. But that “something” is always prepared for taking some particular form. It has some rules or theory or truth in its activity. We call that “Buddha Nature.”

When I let my imagination play with the idea, Buddha-nature appears as a kind of pregnant energy, ceaselessly expressing itself as form, perhaps in the way in which clouds transform as we watch them. When this energy is expressed as a person, we call it “Buddha.” When we think of it as the ultimate truth of our phenomenal Universe, we call it “dharma.” And, when we accept this truth and attempt to express it in our life with others, we refer to it as “sangha.” Even though three apparently distinct expressions—Buddha, dharma, and sangha—exist, it’s all one thing, in the same way that ocean, wavelets, rain, steam, and fog are all one thing. Emptiness is always ready to assume form, color, and duration. Buddhist teaching is philosophical and logical (which is one reason many people appreciate it), but in the final analysis it is deeper than both—it is a practice for the radical transformation of what we used to consider the private property of the self.

Without understanding this, no religion or practice will help us. It’s fine to have religion, but if we understand that religion (like everything else) is itself an expression of this primordial, pregnant energy, our thoughts and ideas about things become less constrained, our judgments and distinctions become less absolute, because we perceive the common source. Our beliefs are contributions to the infinity of possibilities available in any moment but not necessarily privileged among them. We don’t insist on them being the only truth. 

Suzuki-roshi reminds us that such acceptance is a way of continually saying “Yes” to the Universe, accepting that what arises from Emptiness is an expression of the Universe itself and that no matter how odd or aberrant they may appear to us, they are following some law and the consequences of previous acts.

To accept does not mean to condone. To accept that weeds are Buddha-nature and understand they have an equal claim to existence and operate for their own being as we do doesn’t mean that we allow them to choke out our food. Understanding that hatred is a part of our human nature does not mean that we give it free rein, any more than we allow an infant’s tantrums or impetuousness to place the child in danger.

If we understand that malignant, jealous, envious thoughts are included within the wildness of Buddha-nature, we can be more compassionate toward them without inflicting the extra judgment of ourselves or others as “bad” people. We don’t risk much in accepting such thoughts or impulses when we have mindfulness and meditation practices to determine what we let past our teeth or activate our muscles.

This morning, waking from a dream, still in half sleep, dream residue of myself in a yellow T-shirt with black letters across the chest declaring me “Batshit Crazy” made me wake up laughing. As I rolled out of bed to brush my teeth, I thought, “Maybe I should wear such a shirt during my dharma talks.” We can understand our personalities and fallibilities and foibles with humor instead of self-judgment and disgust—which lessens their solidarity and significance.

Meditation allows the mind to be the mind and the body to be the body. The brain is a gland generating thoughts and images. We are not obligated to believe them or believe that each is an omen freighted with significance. We meditate in stillness, and the thoughts and emotions that arise (samudaya) will not harm anyone while we remain in meditation. They do not signal that we are deranged if our thoughts are wild. If we don’t act on them, we can allow them free rein in zazen, grow increasingly intimate with them, and eventually, once we’ve gained confidence that they will not leak or control us, they will cease to bother us. Remember the phrase from the Heart Sutra? Without any hindrances, no fears exist.

Suzuki-roshi used to say, “Don’t invite your thoughts for tea.” In zazen posture, we can leave our thoughts alone until we have some need to consciously engage the mind and organize them in a productive direction. There’s no need to block them from entering our awareness, but we don’t have to invite them to tea. In this way, we can have confidence to observe, study, and behave appropriately toward any phenomena without unbalancing ourselves with too much judgment and second-guessing. We can do this at any time, on or off our cushions.

Only a person who has reduced their needs has the bandwidth to open themselves entirely to the word. I certainly don’t claim perfection at this, but it’s a goal I’m working toward. Only a person who perceives in each and every manifestation of Emptiness the miracle of its presence can sit stolidly and unshaken before whatever presents itself.

When we sit zazen, as our thoughts slow and as the mind clears its agendas, we somehow merge with Emptiness. This may be another way of saying that our personality becomes porous and Emptiness seeps in. This does not happen immediately. Perhaps, at first, we become aware of how distracted and unfocused we are, how much chatter exists in our minds, and how busy and restless it is. But, when we quiet the body and diminish the stimulation to the mind, when our breathing becomes tranquil and unforced, and when our stomach and face muscles relax, awareness can intimate the vastness in the deep ocean of consciousness or the still, reflective surface of a lake on a windless day.

Thich Nhat Hanh suggests we practice maintaining a half-smile, imitating the Buddha’s while we meditate. Not only does it relax the forty-three muscles in the face, but it also induces the kind of equanimity and serenity that comes from deep acceptance. The mind slows down. Eventually, we become intimate with Emptiness.

I’ve already mentioned that we should not seek any particular experience of state of mind when we meditate. If we merely accept what arises as an emanation of the Universe, with its own logic and history, that has a deeply restorative effect, infusing our ordinary reality with clarity, spaciousness, and calm. Suzuki-roshi once observed, “To have a headache will be all right, because you are heathly enough to have a headache. When you are too sick, your head stops hurting and then you are in real trouble.”

People tend to begin Zen meditation in search of some heightened event or state of mind preferable to what they’re currently experiencing. They want something better than their normal existence. I certainly began my practice in hot pursuit of imagined ecstasies of enlightenment. But normal existence—everyday, quotidian existence—is the miracle itself! That’s where it is, just as it is, and the regard of every experience as a miraculous, unrepeatable expression is the true savor of everyday life. Even the experience of fear or revulsion reminds us that we are alive.

Everyone I’ve ever met who knew Suzuki-roshi agrees that when they met him, he was present and intimate to an unforgettable degree. His behavior admitted no distinctions of rank or wealth, Buddhist or non-Buddhist. Universally, people described him by saying, “I had never met anyone like that before.” It’s my deepest belief that he could be “with” people to this degree because he knew in his bone marrow that we are all poignantly temporary, conjoined in a common source, and that each instant of life is too precious to categorize or submit to hierarchical comparisons.

I encourage this same simple practice of daily zazen, allowing our small mind to calm itself, exerting the discipline and intention to sit upright and still and observe what occurs within our mind-body in each moment. We’re not trying to turn the mind off or change it. The thinking mind has a job to do, it is not an aberration of nature, nor is it the ripest fruit. If a thought arises, leave it alone. If you don’t like it, examine why and how your body responds to that thought or feeling. Do this dispassionately, as you would appraise a pair of shoes or a dress you were considering purchasing. Why does it bother you? Does it generate a feeling you’re uncomfortable with? Why? Where in the body is that? What memories does it dislodge? It won’t hang around forever, you can take it. Don’t be distracted. Don’t fidget. As Kobun-roshi once said, “If the body moves, the mind moves.”

Absolute freedom is available to us. This is what nirvana really implies. In the very next instant we are totally free to do something we have never done before. That freedom can also involve surrendering to forms or social norms, or not, but you have the space and ability in which to do that.

The more unstable and difficult things become in the world, the more necessary it is to have people available who see clearly, operate fearlessly, and are not preoccupied or deluded with self-centered thinking. The state of our current world might be inducement enough to try this practice. ◆

From Zen in the Vernacular: Things As It Is by Peter Coyote, published by Inner Traditions, © 2024. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission of publisher.

This piece is excerpted from the Summer 2024 issue of Parabola, REALITY. You can find the full issue on our online store.