I like to tell people that I grew up in a construction zone. My father is a handyman, and during my childhood he managed to add an attached garage, one bedroom, and two bathrooms to my childhood home.
He did all this while working full time in a factory and raising five children with my mother. I've always been impressed by his ability to turn a pile of drywall and two-by-fours into something useful. But I was also intimidated.
My lack of hand-eye coordination as well as my inability to drive nails in one go prevented me from learning the secrets of his work. I just admired his work from afar and did my best to stay away.
When I was older, I took a sabbatical from the market and traveled the country working on organic farms. Coincidentally, one of the farms I lived on needed a building apprentice, so I spent my time there following the foreman around the property, helping him in any way I could. possible.
We installed stoves and repaired furnaces. We also built a small house.
It was during the construction of this house that I was bitten by the DIY bug. Turning a pile of wooden pallets, cedar slabs and two-by-fours into a house was a life-changing experience.
I still remember the day I was sitting inside the house with another apprentice. It was the middle of winter and it was freezing cold outside with the temperature barely above four degrees Celsius.
We would work inside for the rest of the day, installing the floors and reinforcing the earthen walls.
One of us, I don't remember who, had the idea of lighting the stove, so that we could enjoy a little warmth while we worked. I filled the wood stove with kindling and a few small sticks to keep it going. Then I lit a match and threw it.
The flames started small, but grew quickly and I ran outside to admire how all the smoke was being blown out of the chimney we had installed.
When I returned a few minutes later, the temperature in the house was starting to rise. And it occurred to me that one day our little house would be someone's little house.
One day another human being would walk through the front door, just like me, and marvel at how much warmer it was inside than outside.
They passed through the flooring I had installed, a flooring made from recycled wood pallets and plywood. They stood next to the stove and enjoyed the heat radiating from its burning metal surface. And then they could have a cup of tea or sit down to a meal where they discussed with their family the price of corn in the market.
At that moment, I realized that I could follow in my father's footsteps. I could use my hands to build things; useful things that could help people.
I like to reflect on that moment when I read the heart sutra.
Le heart sutra is a Mahayana Buddhist text that explains Buddhism's teaching on emptiness and attempts to answer the following questions:
1. Do things exist?
2. If things exist, what is the nature of their existence?
My favorite lines from the sutra are:
all phenomena bear the mark of the Void;
their true nature is the nature of
no birth, no death,
no Being no Non-being,
no defilement, no purity,
no increase, no decrease.
In this passage, The heart sutra answers the questions I listed earlier by stating that things do not exist in themselves. However, one thing exists and it is constantly evolving.
As humans, we arbitrarily choose parts of this ongoing transformation. And we give them labels such as birth, death, being and non-being. But these are illusions. In truth, there is only transformation.
It is the mark of emptiness.
However, because we are human beings, it is impossible to escape our illusions. We can't survive without labeling things, and we build entire societies based on the labels we share with other people.
Religions, laws, languages, houses, etc. All these things are illusions. But we must treat them as if they were real.
This is the mark of form.
Our project is to learn to navigate the relationship between form and void, so that we can save ourselves and others from suffering.
We can see a good example of this relationship by looking at the house I helped build. In truth, there is no house per se. There is only the constant change and transformation that is life.
But to experience this transformation, we must call this object something. We must understand that the illusion, the house, is of dependent origination – created from equally illusory objects such as two-by-fours, wooden pallets, and clay.
That said, by learning to skillfully use these illusory objects, I was able to build a house that provides warmth and shelter to people during cold winter days.
It is the marriage of form and void, and it exists in every aspect of our lives. Like a chef who brings together different foods and spices to create a meal, when we understand the overall nature of our illusions, we can construct them in ways that make life better.
We can rebuild the “houses” of our lives and make them happy places for ourselves and others.
Namu Amida Butsu