For a while now, I’ve been laying out what Dogen, the founder of Soto Zen in Japan, called “the eight awakenings of great beings.” We’re now at the eighth: “not to be engaged in hollow discussions.” This awakening, he says, is “to be free from discriminatory thinking, with thorough understanding of the true mark of all things.” When I hear that I shouldn’t be engaged in hollow discussions, I assume it means there are kinds of conversations I shouldn’t participate in. But Dogen is saying this isn’t just an act of pushing away or rejecting; it’s a way of viewing the world, one that understands the true mark of all things.
We can interpret this “mark of all things” in a couple of ways. The most classical interpretation would take us to the three seals of existence: dissatisfaction, impermanence, and nonself. The second—which Dogen might have endorsed—is to interpret that “true mark” as impermanence. Dogen taught that to see with the eyes of impermanence is the key to awakening. But either way, we arrive at a similar place.
Of course, we all engage in hollow discussions, or at least silly ones. We joke, we kick around dumb ideas, we speculate about things. That’s natural, and it can be fun. But the point here is more about how we understand those discussions.
When I read the news, everything is drama. And the framing is, this means that. What happened, what was said—it means something, and we’re confident what that means, so we should be caught up in it now, invested in it now. This is true not just of news, of course, but also gossip. It’s when we speculate about our boss and say he always does that thing, and then we look for it, and he does it and we make eye contact with our coworker, because there it is—we both know what that means.
When you’re looking at your life from the direction of going forward, you strategize. You try to arrange things just so, so everything has the right meaning, so they fall into place the way they need to. You try to arrange the dominoes just so. But when you look back on those same things, you don’t think that way. You see the strategies and plans and the meaning you attributed to this or that, and you recognize how, over and over, you were wrong. Impermanence becomes obvious.
To see through the eyes of dukkha is the same. To really see the suffering in others cuts through the story of what we think they’re really trying to do, or what they mean, because we know—we know what they’re experiencing, and it’s the same as us.
And it’s the same when we look through the eyes of nonself. All these things that seem so real, that seem unbreakable, that seem like if they were held just so they’d be preserved just as they are—looking back, we see they never could have been, because they were never what we thought.
Hollow discussions are discussions that ignore the things that we know to be true—of everyone. They set aside what we know about impermanence, suffering, and how things come together in order to tell a story that is simpler and more exciting, where the stakes are higher and everything means something right now. All day, whether watching the news or talking with a neighbor, this is how we’re asked to engage. We’re told, don’t look through those other eyes, the ones that see a bigger picture. Put that big view aside, because this is the exception—this is the story that matters as a story. You should get sucked into this.
We all do it. But with time and with maturity, sometimes through wisdom and sometimes through exhaustion—and importantly, sometimes by choice—we lose our ability to get so wrapped up, to get so hooked. We step beyond the hollow discussion, whether for a sustained period or just for a flash, and we see things not for what they mean but for what they are.
Koun Franz is a Montana-born Soto Zen priest who trained, taught, and translated in traditional monasteries in Japan. He is the guiding teacher of Thousand Harbours Zen in Halifax, Nova Scotia (his talks can be found on the their podcast) and former editor of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Guide.