The emperor, who was a devout Buddhist, invited a great Zen master to the Palace in order to ask him questions about Buddhism. “What is the highest truth of the holy Buddhist doctrine?” the emperor inquired. “Vast emptiness… and not a trace of holiness,” the master replied. “If there is no holiness,” the emperor said, “then who or what are you?” “I do not know,” the master replied.
Here we have a devout Buddhist emperor inviting a Zen master to his palace in order quiz him about Buddhism. It’s quite a common mistake for people to think that Zen and Buddhism are one and the same. The truth is that they are poles apart. Buddhism is an organised religion, although also a way of life, non-dogmatic and closer to the truth than most of the world’s major religions. Zen, in my humble opinion, is something that happens to you; it is an awakening. Most people experience their spiritual awakening in subtle stages that just happen without any prior warning. There is no such thing as Zen philosophy either, so the emperor was on a hiding to nothing in asking the master, “what is the highest truth of the holy Buddhist doctrine?”
The answer came, “vast emptiness… and not a trace of holiness.” This is very profound and clearly not understood by the emperor. Vast emptiness refers to the inner reality; infinite consciousness, which is One. The Indian yogi, Paramahansa Yogananda, would on occasion refer to this as , “the uncreated wilderness of bliss”, which is the same as vast emptiness. What the master is saying is that the “highest truth” is to return to the state of “nothingness” from which we came. This is the non-dual state, therefore “and not a trace of holiness” means that in consciousness there is only consciousness and nothing else. In the dualistic world, if something is deemed holy, it implies that it will have a relative opposite somewhere that is deemed unholy. This is duality and ultimately an illusion, so in the vast emptiness there will be no trace of holiness.
The emperor then came back with, “If there is no holiness then who or what are you?”
“I do not know,” the master replied.
The master answered the emperor’s question in the most perfect way possible; “I do not know.” Enlightenment is the shedding of all knowledge. All knowledge relates to the past and is of the mind-created world. In “vast emptiness” there is no knowledge; only pure knowing.