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It is All Empty

by Gil Fronsdal

Mushin was one of the more radiant monks in the monastery. His peace and joy inspired everyone who met him. Never seeming to want anything, he had a knack for being in the right place at the right time when others needed help. He was always thorough in doing his job as the monastery janitor and no one had ever seen him bothered by anything.

One day I asked him if monastic life had ever been difficult. This is what he said:

“Before coming to the monastery, my life was very hard. I even considered ending my life because my suffering was so great. For me the monastery was the end of the road. I saw it as my last chance. When I first arrived I had a long interview with the abbot. He asked me lots of questions. I told him things about my life that I had never revealed to anyone. At the end of the interview he welcomed me to the monastery. As I took my leave, I asked what sort of spiritual practice I should undertake. The old abbot looked up at me with such compassion and confidence that I thought he was preparing to tell me something very important. But I was confused when all he said was, ‘Always walk completely through the doors.’

“For the rest of that day I wondered if I had heard correctly. How could walking through doors be helpful advice to someone as despondent as me? Perhaps the old man was becoming senile.

“But the next day, to my surprise, the monastery doors started talking to me. Every time I went through a door I heard a faint whisper. At first I thought I was imagining it so I didn’t give it much attention. But when the whispering kept occurring, I strained to hear what was being said. Finally, I was able to make out the words. It seemed each door was whispering the same thing: ‘It is all empty.’

“I asked the other monks if they too heard the voices but none did. I asked them if they knew the meaning of ‘It is all empty.’ They just smiled and shrugged their shoulders, as if they didn’t have a clue.

“Pretty quickly I decided that the voices were a reminder of the life I had left behind. All my possessions, along with the endless pursuits I had run after, the burning drive for recognition, the insatiable womanizing; all of that was indeed empty. The whispering doorways seemed to be reassuring me that I had made the right decision in coming to the monastery. They were reminding me that no longer was there anything outside the monastery walls for me to go after.

“So, at first, the voices made me happy. Convinced that the world I left behind was shallow, I threw myself wholeheartedly into the monastic routine. What a delight it was to have finally found a meaningful life! But as the doorways continued to whisper ‘It is all empty,’ I eventually began to have doubts about my monastic life as well. Was this life also hollow, meaningless? Adding to my concerns, the voices started to grow louder.

“Before long I felt as much despair about monastic life as I had about my previous life. Trying to find something that would give meaning and purpose to my life, I decided to devote more time to meditation and thereby develop my inner life. Certainly the pursuit of real spiritual attainments would be meaningful.

“The meditation practice seemed to lighten my despair, and when my meditations were deep I was filled with confidence. I began to feel quite happy, even happy-go-lucky. I had found the key to happiness and was convinced that I was surpassing all the other monks in holiness. But every time I left the meditation hall the doors whispered again, ‘It is all empty.’

“After a while this began to grate on me. I became increasingly angry because the voices seemed to suggest that my newfound identity as a deeply spiritual person was empty. When the anger became too much to bear, I was forced to admit that I had been caught in pride and that my vanity, too, was empty.

“Once the anger passed, I carried on with my meditation practice. After all, nothing else seemed to make sense. But then the voices starting commenting on the meditation itself. I heard again ‘It is all empty.’ Did this mean that meditation itself was meaningless?

“My despair returned with a vengeance. I tried hiding in my room so I wouldn’t have to go through any more doors. I took to climbing through windows whenever possible. If I did have to pass through a door, I ran through trying to distance myself from the voices. But by now the voices had grown very loud. As I ran down the halls the phrase ‘It is all empty’ echoed after me.

“After a while, every thought I had, every wish I hoped for, and every effort I made was assaulted by ‘It is all empty’ resonating throughout the monastery. I couldn’t take it anymore. I ran toward the front gate of the monastery intending to find a tall mountain cliff and throw myself off. It no longer made sense to keep on living if life was going to be so hard. But as I came to the front gate the doors loomed large in front of me. I was too frightened to pass through them. I felt I couldn’t survive one more voice telling me that ‘It is all empty.’

“I stood there, frozen for a long time, but then remembered the practice the old abbot had given me on my first day in the monastery: ‘Always walk completely through the doors.’ The instruction seemed so empty and meaningless the first time I heard it. Now it seemed monumental. Still, I could not manage to get myself to pass through the front gate.

“Inside my head, a voice kept repeating ‘It is all empty. It is all empty.’ My mind couldn’t find any object to rest on because when it did I was reminded that it too was empty. My mind became increasingly contracted, turning in on itself. It kept pulling away from everything until all that was left was the frightened mind itself. Then, one last time, a voice boomed out, ‘It is all empty,’ and with that I let go of my mind. I turned around and re-entered the monastery.

“Since that day the voices stopped and I’ve never again worried about the meaning of anything. Neither despair nor hope is relevant for me. Happily, emptiness permeates everything.”