Red Thread Zen: Humanly Entangled in Emptiness

Red Thread Zen: Humanly Entangled in Emptiness

by Susan Murphy


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Love, attachment, the passions, gender, carnality, birth, bodily being, mortality, belonging, suffering, hope, despair, personhood, imagination, vitality, the struggle to be fully human – how do these things dwell wholly in emptiness, how do we reconcile their vivid life with 'no–thingness'?

The red (or 'vermilion') thread originally connoted the color of the silk undergarments courtesans were obliged to wear. Most spiritual traditions do their best to distance themselves as thoroughly as possible from such direct and intimate contact with the fact of impassioned human bodily being, if not to declare open war upon the flesh, and the female body that most plainly bears flesh into the world. Spirituality has trouble dealing with the fact that we arrive here covered in blood.

But the red thread can never be cut. Why not? Why would no perfectly accomplished saint ever even dream of cutting it?

Red Thread Zen will set out to explore every corner of the magnificent koan of being 'still attached to the red thread, or 'line of tears'. This is an argument against the bloodless and socially disengaged form of 'Buddhism' that is generally being gestated in the West, one that shades too readily into the blandest of bland self–help.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781619027831
Publisher: Catapult
Publication date: 10/11/2016
Pages: 240
Sales rank: 828,064
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 6.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Susan Murphy is the founding teacher of Zen Open Circle in Sydney, Australia and leads Sesshin training in Sydney and Melbourne. She is also a filmmaker and producer. Her first book was Upside–Down Zen, Finding the Marvelous in the Ordinary. She was authorized to teach by Ross Bolleter and John Tarrant, both dharma heirs to Robert Aitken of the Diamond Sangha branch of the Harada–Yasutani lineage.

Read an Excerpt



This very place is the Lotus Land, this very body, the Buddha.

— Hakuin Ekaku, Song of Zazen

Aman writes a poem about boarding a ship to cross the Atlantic. It's the twenty-first century, so the ship is entirely steel, the deck uniformly hums with machinery, and there is no creaking of rope and timber in sympathy and conversation with the roll of waves. A steel ship is stringently immune to life, yet a ladybug has accidentally stowed away in his cabin, tiny ambassador of all living things, trapped in a cold steel world. He makes what he can of a home for her in his all-steel desk of his all-steel cabin and brings her gifts of water and food.

However impossibly red her wings, and amazingly black her magic spots, still she dies soon in her all-steel world. The burial at sea that follows is in a matchbox — the sole remnant of living wood he could find on the ship.

Such insentient immunity to the sentience of all life is voluntary solitary confinement away from our human selves. "What is the true self?" asked Kodo Sawaki Roshi (1880–1965). "It's brilliantly transparent like the deep blue sky, and there's no gap between it and all living, bodily beings."


The immediate and visceral carnality of the red thread is evident in this very body — yours, mine. It leaves out nothing of blood, tears, umbilicus, birth, baby tending, sensuality, lust, the double helix of DNA, shit and piss reality. Could Zen be any kind of practice if it withdrew to a safe distance from embodied life?

Practice is a deep and ultimately wordless conversation between body and mind. Zazen allows the persistent "I" of the mind and the more humble "me" of the body to reattune, come into synch, and fall away together into the deeper knowing that is not-knowing. Discursive mind can be very persuasive, but the body has no need to offer anything but what it is; it is by nature unable to be anything other than genuine.

When mind and body are opposed to each other, this irreducible honesty of the body becomes part of the trouble. Traditionally, uneasy distaste for the troublesome body was evident from earliest days in organized Buddhism. A corpse — to be exact, the corpse of a young and once beautiful woman — now corrupt and oozing with worms and decay was long considered the obvious and perfect meditation subject sure to turn monks away in horror and mistrust from lust and life. But the red thread koan assures us no one can cut free, this side of death. And that even death is it! More deeply, it lets us see how the wise ones consciously embrace and embody this fact.

How can this be humbly and richly lived while not indulging the dream of a separate self? Where, except in the brief and unlikely marvel of a human body, can realization ever take place? And if what is realized at that moment is sometimes called our "great body," a fullness of being that leaves nothing whatsoever out of it, what on earth is to be done with that?

This very body, uniquely yours or mine, able to suffer and bound to change and die, is our first and continuing point of intimate connection and free interchange with every other living being, and with the wholeness of the web of sentient life. It is the place and context of waking up. "All beings, by nature, are Buddha/As ice by nature is water. /Without water, there is no ice," says Zen Master Hakuin (1686–1768) in his Song of Zazen. "Without beings, no Buddha." The essential nature of all beings is seamless, empty, and complete, he is saying. Even clouded human beings — necessarily embodied as we are in mortal flesh and encumbered by self-consciousness — are at every point, and just as we are, fully resolvable back into original congruence with the nature of mind we call "Buddha," meaning fully awake in reality. And that it is the matter of beingness itself that "creates" Buddha — or permits the marvel of waking up to be the necessary possibility for every human being.

We are born not only covered in blood, vernix, and amniotic fluid, expelled from the birth canal of another warm, mammalian body, but still connected to the still pulsing "red thread" of the umbilical cord. That will be cut — first signal of our singular identity — but leaving its permanent trace upon the body, the belly button, the point on the stem where our individuation commenced. What a curious whirlpool of flesh is birth, signifying at once that we appear, like all that is, ultimately from nothing, and yet the singular lucky chance of existence is handed to us down through vast time from living body to living body.

Our human consciousness, with its gradual skein or membrane of self-consciousness, discovers itself in a highly socialized animal body. Socialized by skin-to-skin touch and profound dependence on an immediate, caring other, it also discovers itself in certain gradual strictures placed on the body that accord to social life, beginning in control of the bladder and anal sphincter muscles … and on it goes, the long passage of fledging into socially human identity. But from another point of view, this animal body is the wise fool here to continually inform human consciousness that it is grounded at all times in "right here, right now" — the place where we are, on the earth, warm, breathing, subject to gravity, and entirely mortal.

Yeats saw this as the melancholy human tragedy of being "sick with desire / And fastened to a dying animal." This particular animal achieves extraordinary feats — mortality-defying pyramids, gravity-defying skyscrapers, space-denying Internet, Earth-denying space probes. But still the red thread cannot be cut. Even technologically extended, we remain creatures embodied at every point.

Mercifully. For the body belongs without apology to the universe and is the royal road back to full self-recognition. Only the mind resists admitting it is equally guilty as charged!

This Very Body

It is not just "the body" but this very body, the only one you will ever have, that is "the Buddha," in Hakuin's Song of Zazen. Waking up is the business of this very body, which belongs to the earth and the stars as much as everything else does. We wake together with the earth even as the earth wakes us, and when it wakes us we find the earth fully awake.

We meditate in a body that constantly makes it clear that because it is here in ever-changing circumstances, it will not always be here, nor always entirely comfortable. Bodies hurt, bodies are deeply joyful and full of sorrow, and bodies surely die; what gradually becomes clear is the fact that the rigor of practice — the agreement to be here willingly and to stay with that moment by moment by moment — is a loving act, provoked into being by these very facts.

On this planet at least it seems that only a being with a human body can experience loyalty to the inconceivable and let that ripen into waking up. Buddhahood is being-hood, conscious being-hood. Which is a consciousness shaped by being ignited on earth. So let's take "This very body, the Buddha" as the human-shaped koan. There is nowhere to awaken but in this mortal bag of flesh and bone; therefore it is very good to take to heart what a miraculous business is this breathing body. And how mysterious, what it is, and does. Under the steady gaze of nonjudgmental awareness, this very body becomes very capacious and ceases to feel limited to the one who bears our name.

At the simplest level, it comes down to you. The whole of this comes down to you in your body. Your body is the original dharma gate and the very means by which you can be here. How did we ever become so commonplace about something like being here? Practice to a large extent is allowing the mystery of being here back into awareness at a properly haunting, informing, and transforming level.

The most ordinary everyday level is where the body is so generous and so helpful. It constantly provides us with this rounding earthy measure of bodily life. Bodily life on earth, birth through to death, is what conducts us through all the seasons and circumstances of waking up. Our birth and death are occurring throughout this life, even throughout a single day, being born into this moment, dying into that one.

Birth and death flow through this breathing body breath by breath. But so also does play and art and learning and sex and passions and love and tears and grief and illness and accidents — all the many miracles of being wash through this very body. No wonder this very body is the Buddha, vessel of awakening, and the one who wakes. And the dearest thing about having this very body is how it establishes indissoluble kinship with all beings and all kinds of beings, as well as trees, oceans, even puddles. There is a sense in which even a puddle is a kind of two- to three-day being, depending on local circumstances of weather …

So this very body is the locus of our sense of kinship, of our share in one great life, in which everything moves surely together — all of which rests in the fact of this very body being mortal, not long for this marvel of a world. Because we live in a mortal body subject to all the usual suffering of a sentient being, we share the red thread that connects all beings. All of us, saints and fools, equally attached to the red thread.

If we don't understand that this very body is the Buddha, we become marooned in a spiritual vacuum dangerous to all life. To the extent that the Western spiritual tradition has been afraid to love the body, it has also been afraid of women, who bring such bodies into the world. And mortally afraid of death, because the body will die, taking me with it.

To the extent that a spiritual tradition seeks to find some way out of the death-bound body, a kind of death sentence is unconsciously placed not just on this life but on the living world itself. The world is seen as deathly and corrupted, despicable. A deep, rich, full-blooded engagement with the beautiful mutuality of all life is bypassed. We see how our civilization substitutes a great many things — and I do mean things — for intimate experience of life, which must include sickness, aging, and death. Which means refusing to accord with the terms of the earth, which so clearly assures us: "This is a place where everything breathes and moves together, and everything passes through."

Practice takes breathing to heart for a very good reason; the breath rises and falls without clinging to anything, it teaches relinquishment breath by breath. By clinging to nothing it sustains life, while breath by breath accepting extinction. If you struggle to understand form and emptiness, the breath is patiently teaching it again and again right under our very noses!

This Very Body, the Buddha

When we say "body," how far does that reach? Zen is slow, decidedly indolent in fact, to limit sentience to animate life forms. This is not just because streamlets, creeks, rivers, glaciers, rolling waves, hills, mountains, ranges, pebbles, boulders, and cliffs all impress on the mind with evident character, presence, and those vivid creative powers we call "impermanence." It is not just because weeds, bushes, clumps, waves of grass, and most dramatically trees stand up strongly with their life and disclose the breath of the earth and the life of the soil with such ease. And it is not just because the ecological agreements or balance slowly forged between the participants in a given place becomes a shimmering web of relatedness that acts like a supervening intelligence, a kind of shared sentience actualized in the practiced genius of every detail of any ecosystem we can manage to discern. A "communion of subjects," as Thomas Berry puts it, "not a collection of things" at all.

It is because the reciprocal fact is this (and Dogen put it about as well as anyone can): "I came to see that mind is no other than mountains, rivers and the great earth, the sun and the moon and the stars."

His words have power to draw us toward the experience of a mutuality that has no outside to it. Even the briefest experience of this complete congruence, held out and honed by the mind of practice, is all but unspeakable — even while it can only sensibly be described as a state of brilliant sanity. To put it too soon or too much into words just divides it again.

And yet words themselves are part of the undivided nature of this reality. Just as much as the trill of a honey-eater, spoken words (it doesn't matter what they say or who says them) are also who I am. The red thread of living emptiness runs through them too like fire, though the fact that words have "meaning" tends to capture and lock on to our attention with formidable power. An open response that comes close to touching "no me, no you" — even in the presence of abusive words coming from the other — knows the empty nature even of such words, and abuse has trouble finding lodging.

The apparent indirectness of Zen — its radical leaps, the natural stretching and troubling of the way the mind habitually likes to proceed — flows directly out of the enormous fact of the marvelously free and empty character of all that is so immediately apparent. Empty, and yet immediately conscripted by the mind into words and categories at least once removed from all that's here, which is real, brief, and extraordinary — an inexhaustible mystery that addresses us most intimately and personally.


Dogen's words point to what is sometimes capitalized as Mind — or consciousness as it discovers itself when the strictures of separate mind and body fall away from us. When we see clearly, there is nothing at all that can be separated out, taken apart, or opposed. In Case 5 of The Blue Cliff Record, Master Xuefeng (822–908) says, "When I pick it up this earth is like a grain of rice in size." Have a look — a grain of rice is the size of the earth — indeed, of the universe — in implication. To pick up something is to embody the whole earth; there's no choice in that matter. Even to think of the earth is to pick it up entirely. All this is the nature the great dream consciousness shares with the earth.

And that it is the universe that shapes this consciousness is an understanding that can be tracked to its resounding conclusion. We have a universe-shaped mind, or as Thomas Aquinas put it, we are "universe capable." When it becomes not a discursive path of fact but indelible experience in this very body-mind that Mind is Universe — that's Dogen's "the dropped-away body and mind." Not dropped away as in transcended. Dropped away as in realized as edgeless, timeless, seamless, unending.

More humbly, just to breathe, to stand on the earth, to walk on it, to pick up its steady mutual conversation through feet and skin, to slide into it bodily in any body of water, to let any supposed boundary between earth-body and this-body grow more sweetly misplaced, to allow the full sense of "all beings, one body" to slip in unawares when the guard of thought is briefly off duty — all are intimations of Dogen's dropping free from the insular self. This is the red thread that cannot be cut, the ever-present simple welcome back to where we all are. One body, home itself.

This very body that sits down and walks about also has its own ecology, hosting innumerable organisms throughout the body and all over its surface — a very striking way of understanding Daowu's words, "All over the body are hands and eyes," or Yunyan's "Throughout the body, hands and eyes." If you doubt me, examine some magnifications of the specialized mites, gut flora, bacteria, and parasites that occupy every niche of the terra infirma of this very body. Ridley Scott's Alien begins to look harmlessly derivative!

But consciousness participates in its own microecologies in every breath-moment. The breath itself is spirit of mutual exchange with where we find ourselves: We breathe in the world and breathe out our "selves." But the skin, too, drinks in the world: this tiny movement of the air, the swirl and caress of water, that small pocket of cool under a tree. Eyes, ears, nose, and tongue enter the continual "communion of subjects," the living current of relatedness, that relieves us forever from the tedium of being part of any "collection of things."

The local sense of "one body" emerges, too, with any glimpse of the intimate weave of innumerable relationships composing even the tiniest ecological system, a rock pool for instance. For that matter, a human family and its entire tissue of genetic and emotional relationships, extending far back in ancestral time, implicitly helps form any human individual. That person — you, me — is a singular visible focal point in a fluid network of relational impulses ("your life is also my life"), passing to and fro in constant interchange of creative energy, both more and less consciously between family members through generations.


Excerpted from "Red Thread Zen"
by .
Copyright © 2016 Susan Murphy.
Excerpted by permission of Counterpoint.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

prologue: zen's saving grace,
chapter one: body,
chapter two: sexuality,
chapter three: you,
chapter four: passion,
chapter five: care,
chapter six: torn,
chapter seven: dark,
chapter eight: mortal,
chapter nine: laughter,
chapter ten: hands and eyes,
epilogue: the teisho of the actual body,

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