It is about waking up to what is real, about swimming with the current of reality, not fighting it. When you fight the current of reality, you always lose. We overestimate the solidity of things. We invest them with too much. They cannot support that degree of investment, of things being that concrete. They collapse continuously. It’s just that we are amazingly adept at recreating them and then investing in them again. They collapse. We suffer. And then we try to build a better mousetrap, a stronger, more convincing, invincible thing: emptiness; practice; realization-as-thing. So studying and realizing the nature of reality is not a philosophical endeavor. It is practical to the very bones of our being.

From the building blocks of attachment, ideas, and emotion, the impenetrable and convincing reality of things emerges. Investing in the skandhas, we objectify reality. We objectify people, which is probably the most painful thing that we can do. In objectifying people, we depersonalize. We take their lives away from them. In this amazing dance between this and that, self and other, we freeze this world and steal its life. Anything can be made into a thing, even emptiness. This is what Yanyang tries to present to Zhaozhou. When not a single thing is brought, when everything is seen as empty, when there is nothing but this utter clarity—then what? Put it down! Let go of that thing that began when “not a single thing is brought.” But there is nothing to be put down, Yanyang says. So, says Zhaozhou, go ahead, carry it with you.

Zhaozhou does the only thing he can do to help Yanyang become clear. First, he brings things into question. He allows for the possibility of the student releasing something. But if that doesn’t work, the teacher starts adding weight. Eventually, perhaps, the student will recognize that they are indeed holding on to something. If you are holding on to emptiness, I will keep adding a measure of emptiness to your burden until the moment that you crash under its weight.

What is the alternative to a relationship predicated on objectification and solidification? Recently, I invited people to take the Heart Sutra, with its continuous negation pointing to the emptiness of all things, and re-write it using the things that are most important to them. So imagine, “There is no wife, no kid, no house.” “There is no thing-that-you-love-most, no thing-that-you-hate-most.” Make it personal. Make it so you feel what you are trying to accomplish, so you illuminate the process of making things concrete. Purify and clean the ordinary bones of your life relentlessly, so you come to the realization that indeed there is no Heart Sutra. The very process that you’re undergoing itself has to be seen through. There is no attainment of these truths, and there is no non-attainment of these truths.