On The Way: The Daily Zen Journal

July 15, 2024

Search for the Pearl

Buddhadhasa Bhikkhu (1926-1993)

When Buddhism spread to China, the Chinese of those days were intelligent and clever enough to accept it. Eventually, there arose teachings such as those of Hui neng and Huang Po, which explained mind, Dhamma, Buddha, the Way, and voidness in just a few words so that people could understand. A typical first sentence from their teachings might point out that mind, Buddha, Dhamma, the Way, and voidness are all just one thing.

Just this is enough; there is no need to say anything more. One sentence is equivalent to all the scriptures. However, we may not understand. It’s especially hard to those of us studying and practicing in the old style, because we have no way at all of understanding such a statement.

Further, the Chinese Buddhists said that voidness is by nature always present, but we don’t see it. Similarly, I will say that everyone at this moment has a mind that is by nature void. But not only do we not see it; what’s more, we will not accept that this is sunnata (one meaning: the mind which is free from attachment, which is void of greed, anger, and delusion)


Huang Po scolded us for being like someone, who, without knowing it, has a pearl attached to his forehead, yet goes searching all around the world for that same pearl. Not seeing that it is stuck to our foreheads, we seek all around the world, and if that’s not enough, in other realms. So, please, just for a while, look very closely to see what is there on your forehead and how you are going to get your hands on it.

When speaking of the way to grope for the pearl, the Chinese teachers spoke even more profoundly. The Chinese Zen masters said that there’s no need to do anything. Just be still and the mind will become void by itself. These words, “Just be still, there’s no need to do anything,” have many meanings.

Our minds are naughty and playful. They wander about the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and body gathering sense objects. Having let them in, we are stupid enough to allow ignorant dhammas to climb into the driver’s seat, so there’s nothing but grasping and clinging to “I” and “mine.” This is called refusing to be still.

“Being still” means not admitting sense objects into the mind, being content to let them founder like waves on the shore. For instance, when the eye sees a form, if there is merely seeing, this is called “not admitting visible forms into the mind.” If you can’t do that and feelings of satisfaction or dissatisfaction arise, stop right there.

Don’t begin desiring according to those feelings. If the wave stops there, the mind has a chance to be still. But if we act to extend a feeling of satisfaction, in a moment “I” and “mine” emerge. Or if we act in response to a feeling of dissatisfaction, there will be dukkha (suffering). Either way, it is called “not being still.”

The “being still” of the Zen masters refers to that very practice which the Buddha taught: seeing that nothing whatsoever should be grasped at or clung to as being “I” or “mine.” If there is nothing whatsoever to be clung to, what possible purpose can there be in busying and confusing ourselves, in rushing about things and disturbing them, rather than just “being still.”

We must look for sunnata (the mind free from attachment) which is truly worthy of our aspiration To say that there is a kind of voidness that gives rise to cessation, purity, clarity, or peace is still to be speaking in conventional terms. Truly speaking, there is nothing other than voidness; there is only this one thing. And voidness is not the cause of anything. It is Buddha; it is Dhamma; it is Sangha; it is the Way. It is purity, clarity, and peace.

All these things are there in sunnata. If we still say that voidness is the cause of this or that, we show that we haven’t yet reached supreme voidness, because if we have reached the supreme, we don’t have to do anything. By being still, there is Buddha, Dhamma, Sangha, purity, clarity, peace, nibbana—anything, everything– in that immutable, unconcocted state.

Huang Po had an extremely simple method for teaching people how to recognize sunnata. He gave them the riddle, “Look at the mind of a child before its conception.” I would like to present you with this puzzle. Look at the child’s mind before the child is conceived in the womb. Where is it? If you can find it, you will be able to find voidness easily, just as if you were grabbing the pearl that’s already there on your forehead.

Buddhadhasa Bhikkhu (1926-1993)

Excerpted from Heartwood of the Bodhi Tree – The Buddha’s Teaching on Voidness 1994

There are many principles of Buddhism easily understood. For instance, any one of the Six Perfections sounds like a reasonable aspiration. However, as in all spiritual traditions, there is the understanding of the householder versus the spiritual aspirant who hears another meaning.

We all have a sense of conventional meanings in conversation as opposed to an exchange beyond words and letters. We can get a bit glazed-over reading some of the historical koans, but they are examples of conversing from a different place.

Where Buddhadhasa was unique was in his approach to teaching the foundation of Buddhism – the direct experience of voidness – to all people. Despite being discouraged by his contemporaries that this was too difficult for the common person, he persisted and became one of the most influential teachers in Thailand.

One of the biggest challenges in practice is detaching from the experience of an “I” and the grasping that comes from viewing things as “mine.” Buddhadhasa takes this challenge head-on in every one of his writings. When a word like voidness is misunderstood, he takes great care to explain what he means and brings it into our everyday experience.

At some point in practice examining this experience of “I” and “mine” warrants more study and experimenting with how to live from voidness in our daily lives. What would that entail? How can we learn to recognize when it is already present each day like that pearl embedded in our forehead?

This will take some contemplation on our part. Where do you start? Each of us will find our own entry point, but like everything else that is profound, it will require more than a nod of the head in agreement.

Following the Way with you,

Elana, Scribe for Daily Zen

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