Love Letter

Form is emptiness, emptiness is form“ — Heart Sutra


Form is nothing but form, emptiness is nothing but emptiness“  — Dogen


Is it all right to be in love with form?

I love the form — the formalities and order of our Zen sittings.  It’s the beautiful container that holds the essence of the practice within:  Bowing to one’s cushion, one’s neighbor, and the Buddha, lighting the incense, chanting the Gatha of Atonement and Enmei Jukku Kannon Gyo, the posture of sitting, walking kinin between sittings, chanting the Four Vows, listening to the jikido intone his closing gatha, the final bows.  Molded by centuries of practice, it’s like a piece of driftwood sculpted by the elements until nothing remains but an inner grace revealed through the wear of time itself.

There’s nothing in the form itself that will get you enlightened, make you a Buddha.  Chanting obscure words in a foreign tongue creates no insight, improves no character.  Walking in circles around a room is just walking around in circles around a room  — it’s not even particularly good exercise.  Bowing to others does not, in and of itself, create respect.  Vows to save beings are just words.

One can go through all the motions, and it can all be empty — not the Buddhist ”empty,” but the existential one.

One can bristle and rebel:  Why am I doing any of this?  What has this got to do with anything?  Bow to the Buddha? Isn’t that idol worship?  Save all beings?  Isn’t that claptrap?  Keep my mind on Kannon day and night?  What’s up with that?

What matters is the spirit in which it is done.  Can it all be done with constant presence, with undivided attention and intention, with one’s full being?  If so, then form is no longer  form but something inhabited and alive — a vehicle that carries you beyond itself.  Form becomes content.  It becomes a window into emptiness.

You could have been doing something else with your undivided presence — chopping wood, carrying water, making music, making love.  You could have been at home, in the woods, by the sea.  The zendo is just a building.  There was nothing special about the form itself that awakened you.

But the form itself is beautiful.

Is it all right to be in love with form itself?


Enmei Jukko Kannon Gyo


Namu Butsu!
Yo Butsu u in;
Yo Butsu u en;
Bu po so en;
Jo raku ga jo.
Cho nen Kanzeon;
Bo nen Kankeon.
Nen nen ju shin ki.
Nen nen fu ri shin.


Veneration to the Buddha!
With Buddha I have origin;
With Buddha I have affinity;
Affinity with Buddha, Dharma, Sangha;
Constancy, joy, self, and purity.
Mornings, my thought is Kanzeon;
Evenings, my thought is Kanzeon.
Thought after thought arises in mind.
Thought after thought is not separate from mind.

(trans. Robert Aitken Roshi)

16 Replies to “Love Letter”

  1. Seth, thanks for this.
    I love the spirit of Zen from my readings of Shunryu Suzuki, Uchiyama and Charlotte Joko Beck and practicising with my local Thich Nhat Hanh sangha, albeit much less formally.
    You ask : ” Can it all be done with constant presence, with undivided attention and intention, with one’s full being? ” Well, no but we can be aware of what takes us away from constant presence or experiencing the way it is because that is the practice – or so I am lead to believe, primarily by reading Charlotte Joko Beck. I see Zen practice as just that, practice for the spirit in which to experience all of life and, maybe, love all of life.
    With metta, Terry

  2. Hi Seth

    I have just come across your blog and you raise a fundamental question that is holding me back from getting involved in buddhism. Why is it necessary for all these forms. It seems that it is a form of idol worship. From the little that I have read, the aim is for the enlightenment to come from within. As an ex practicing orthodox jew, and someone who is uninspired by the ritual of judaism, I don’t really want any more ritual. I am looking for truth, essential truth, not external worship. It seemed from my superficial understanding of buddhism that enlightenment will come through proper behaviour and meditation not through external worship. One of the reasons for leaving judaism is the irrationality of it all, as you have written on one of your blogs. To have to do more of the same irrational acts and have to try and give them context??

    I look forward to your thoughts.

    1. David,

      We all have our personal histories which incline us in one direction or another — the fact that you are looking for less ritual and less cultural tradition will incline you away from certain forms of Buddhism and towards others, or perhaps towards a meditation practice that does not completely identify itself with a Buddhist tradition at all but just derives certain aspects from it. There are writers such as Toni Packer, Jiddu Krishnamurti, or Stephen Batchelor — and websites such as The Secular Buddhist ( — which might appeal to you. There are also the mindfulness-oriented therapeutic programs such as MBSR which might appeal as well. None of these require any metaphysical or ritualistic commitments which might discourage you from sincere and dedicated meditative practice.

      As for myself, I am more inclined to enjoy and celebrate some of the outer cultural raiments that Buddhism carries along with itself from its past. It has an interesting, gorgeous 2,500 year history that can be enjoyed and appreciated — the arguments, sounds, colors, and smells that come from centuries of ancestors struggling with the central questions of what constitutes an awakened life. I agree that these are totally unnecessary for awakening — I just happen to find some of them attractive and don’t experience them as a hinderance to progress. I like being part of the long tradition and history that comes along with the various Buddhist cultures of enlightenment. Of course, there are portions of these traditions that are, in fact, hinderances to practice and inimicable to enlightenment and are in desperate need change. I certainly wouldn’t want to import and adopt everything about Japanese, Tibetan, Thai or (fill in the blank) Buddhism. The process of sorting through what to keep and what to change is one that is already taking place in the West, and will no doubt continue as Western Buddhism matures and evolves.

      In a similar way, although Jewish religious practice has not been spiritually meaningful for me — and there is much about orthodoxy (of any kind!) that I abhor — there is also much that I love about the sound and form of traditional Jewish religious practice. I love the traditional melodies of the liturgy – the kol nidre, alenu, reader’s kaddish, etc. I enjoy reading the pirke avot, or hearing the stories of the Baal Shem Tov, or reciting the haggadah together with family. My marriage was performed under a chuppah with a solo klezmer violin playing soulfully in the background, and a lovely ketubah hangs on our wall. Many of the outer forms of Judaism have their own genuine appeal and are consistent with my cultural identity even as they are irrelevant to my chosen spiritual path.

      I wish you luck in finding an authentic path that suits your current needs and allows you to grow and deepen your spiritual practice.
      We are fortunate to live in a time when many forms of Buddhist and Buddhist-derived practice — some religious, some secular, coexist side by side, and with a little luck and patience, you should be able to find one that is right for you.

      1. Hi Seth,

        Thank you for your response and advice. I have started reading Stephen Batchelor’s book Buddhism without beliefs and it seems to be in line with what I am seeking.

        All the best,


  3. My dear writer, your Blog is not an inspiration, but an invitation to downfall. This is my sincere opinion. Have a good day.

    1. Dear Arhat,

      Usually when people disagree with a post they offer reasoned arguments for their opinion. You, not so much. But at least you’re polite! It’s always good to receive constructive criticism from Enlightened Beings. Thanks for your help!

  4. Dear Seth
    I just wanted to say thank you for posing the question. There’s a glimpse of something here that is inspiring. For me, it’s enough and quite lovely just to consider this. “What matters is the spirit in which it is done.”
    Yes, it is allright!
    Best wishes

  5. Hi, Seth! The translation of the Enmei Jukku Kannon Gyo was by the late Robert Aitken (not Aitkin) Roshi, from whom I first learned the “sutra” and who first showed me the Chinese text.

    I’ve been trying to figure out how to put it in English that can be chanted. I don’t have the last two lines right yet. In context, aren’t they specifically about “thought after thought” of the Bodhisattva?–John

    Ten-verse Life-prolonging Avalokiteshvara Sutra

    I bow down to Buddha.
    Linked to the Buddha by cause.
    Linked to the Buddha by karma.
    Buddha-dharma-sangha karma.
    Eternal, joyful, personal, pure.
    In the morning: Avalokita!
    In the evening: Avalokita!
    The thought springs to the mind.
    The mind is just the thought.

    1. Thanks, John, for joining my army of Bodhisattva Proofreaders! The error has been corrected! You’re asking me how to interpret the last two lines? Dunno. I’m illiterate in both Japanese and Chinese. Your guess sounds pretty sensible though. I like the idea that you are trying to come up with a chant-able English version. Any particular reason you switch from “Kanzeon” to the Sanskrit “Avalokita”? Does it scan better?

  6. It doesn’t necessarily scan better. If we’re going to talk about the Bodhisattva of Great Compassion in English, what do we call him or her? “Kanzeon” is a Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese “Guanshiyin” but isn’t the best known in English. But what is? “Kannon”? “Guanyin”? “Avalokitesvara”? “Avalokiteshvara”?

    So the Plum Village folks have a wonderful version of the Heart Sutra that begins with “The Bodhisattva Avalokita/While moving in the deep course/Of perfect understanding….”

  7. It’s ok to be in love with Form, Formlessness, and whatever else presents itself in your way.
    Nobody is there to mind– certainly not the Buddha!
    (PS– I love form, too. AND Emptiness).

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