The spirit of Soen Roshi’s laughter is the spirit of liberation. It’s like a Zen master banging his staff on the ground – THIS IS IT!
During a retreat a some years ago, Zen teacher Lou Nordstrom told a story about the famous Zen Roshi, Soen, an eccentric and deeply realized Zen master who spent some time in America during his later years when Lou was a young student. Lou claims there are not many real Zen teachers, but that Soen Roshi was undeniably one of them. Lou told us Soen often appeared to be in another world. One day the two of them were driving by a motel on the side of the road, and Soen Roshi noticed a sign that read No Vacancy. He began to laugh and said in his heavily Japanese flavored English, “No Vacancy, No Vacancy!” That was all he said.
What did this crazy old man mean? This story is a koan. In fact, if Western or American modern koans are ever collected, I would surely vote this one in. We think of the word Vacancy as an open space inside of something else. When there is No Vacancy, there is no such space, and therefore, no place to put anything. In the world of duality, there is inside and outside, and there is one object separate from the other objects, and countless others separated from all the rest. If we do not limit ourselves to a specific place, there is an infinite space in which to locate objects and create endless vacancies.
It seems to me that when Soen said “no vacancy,” he was referring to awareness or consciousness itself. We are so conditioned to think dualistically that when we hear the words awareness or consciousness, we create a concept of something outside of us. Our creation is just a fantasy. Where can you find its reality? In our dualistic minds, awareness becomes an object of thought. This object is only a thought, but awareness cannot be grasped by thought. Thought arises. Awareness makes it possible. Awareness expresses itself while thought arises and morphs into many new forms.
Soen Roshi spent so much of his life inquiring about the source of awareness that eventually his identity shifted from the perspective of an individual mind and body to that of the open space of awareness from which all manifestations of a separate mind and body flow. The spirit of Soen Roshi’s laughter is the spirit of liberation. It’s like a Zen master banging his staff on the ground – THIS IS IT!
For Soen, taking a drive in a car on a highway was not any different from hanging out in outer space. He embodied the unity of the world of form and infinite space. The world of form is a manifestation of infinite space, not at all separate from it. No Vacancy, then, means the infinite possible expressions of form are one with the substance of space, of universal mind. There are no gaps in boundless space. The Dharma body, our true body, pervades everything. No Vacancy also means nothing can come in from the outside because there is no outside.
When we realize that whatever manifests is one with space, we are no longer confined to a human body. The body of infinite space is what we are. There is nothing separate from this infinite body of awareness, which has no beginning nor end, and no locale, nothing separate. No space separates phenomena. What was humorous to Soen Roshi was that whoever posted the motel sign referring to an empty room was unwittingly declaring the condition of the cosmos.
It is impossible to create any true separation. The universe expresses itself as a unified whole, with diversity as one color of its rainbow. The universe is a component of the whole. Ungraspable, totally vacant, this wholeness contains no vacancy. It is always full and complete, as is, and there is always room for everything.