Namo Dharmaya !
Hail to the Teachings
"A human being is part of a whole, called by us the
'universe', a part limited in time and space.
He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separate from the rest
- a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness.
This delusion is a kind of prison for us,
restricting us to our personal desires and to affectation for a few people near us.
Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion
to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty."
Conventional and ultimate wisdom
Why trying to understand it?
Perception and objectivity
The philosophy of emptiness
How does this relate to me?
How to practice?
Some final notes
From Living Buddha, Living Christ by Thich Nhat Hanh:
"Enlightenment for a wave in the ocean is the moment the wave realises that it is water."Wisdom in Buddhism can refer to two types of insight: conventional wisdom and ultimate wisdom.
Conventional wisdom relates to understanding the conventional world, or the world as we know it. Traditionally it refers to understanding the way in which karma functions; to understand which actions bring us happiness and which bring us suffering. Conventional wisdom covers all understanding of the world as it functions, including science, but apart from ultimate wisdom.
Ultimate wisdom refers to a direct realisation which is non-dualistic,
and contradicts the way in which we ordinarily perceive the world. The
experience of ultimate truth or emptiness is beyond duality.
It is important to remember that emptiness here does not refer to nothingness or some kind of nihilistic view. Emptiness refers to the fact that ultimately, our day-to-day experience of reality is wrong, and is empty of many qualities that we normally assign to it.
Describing this non-dual experience in words is not really possible as language is based on duality and contrasts. Trying to explain this experience - which contradicts our normal perception - is a bit like explaining colours to someone who is born blind; difficult to say the least.
WHY TRYING TO UNDERSTAND IT?
If it can not really be explained in words, why bother writing about it?
According to the Buddha, as long as we do not realise emptiness directly - especially of our idea of how our "I" exists - we do not properly understand how the world functions and we will continue to create causes for our own misery.
As Shantideva expressed:
"How much suffering and fear, and
How many harmful things are in existence?
If all arises from clinging to the "I",
What should I do with this great demon?"
Merely starting to doubt our perception of the world is invaluable if we ever hope to break the bondage to uncontrolled cyclic existence and suffering. In order to familiarise ourselves with this all-important experience, we can try to familiarise ourselves with it on an intellectual level. When we would experience emptiness, we would then be able to recognise it. Instead of believing we have suddenly gone mad, recognition would encourage us to enhance the experience and achieve liberation from suffering.
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The wisdom of emptiness refers to a lack of something: 'inherent existence'. 'Inherent existence' means that things appear to exist independently, in- and out of themselves, from the side of the object, by way of its' own character, self-powered, autonomous. Ultimately however, things exist in dependence upon causes and conditions. For example, a human being ceases to exist in a vacuum, we would instantly die when all conditions for life are suddenly gone. On another level, a human being needs to come into existence by the combination of a sperm from the father joining an egg from the mother and all the right conditions to grow into an embryo. So, considering ourselves as independently existing, fully autonomous is a mere illusion and does not accord with ultimate reality.
Ultimate wisdom can be compared to eco-thinking in biology: a century ago,
biology focused mainly on categorising species of animals and plants and
describing their specific aspects. Plants and animals were cut to pieces to
analyse how they function.
However, nature also functions at a completely different level; as relations and processes between living beings. Ecology appeared as a new branch of biology, more dealing with relations, cycles and interdependence of living beings. This is somewhat similar to the view of emptiness. Instead of focusing on differences and individuality, the realisation of emptiness is about realising that nothing exists by itself alone, but depends on other things. Just as all living beings rely on other living beings - at least their ancestors, so do even inanimate objects depend on other objects and processes to arise and disappear.
The fact that we normally do not realise emptiness and the relatedness of
things is directly related to our perception. As soon as we perceive
something in the outside world, it feels different from our own body or mind. We
feel as if other things are "out there", separate from "my self", which is "in
But are they really separate? To begin with, if the outer object would not somehow "relate" to us in the form of sound, smell, light etc., we would be unable to perceive it. So our perception of objects depends on interaction, rather than the fact that we are separate. To put it simple, our perception of the world is only possible because of interaction, interrelation, dependence and exchange of information.
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PERCEPTION AND OBJECTIVITY
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Our labeling leads to problems like anger and attachment, but
also to the more basic problem that we think we are somehow separate from the
outside world. But are we separate from the outside world?
When we see something - for example a table - it appears to be separate from the rest of the world, just standing there by itself, but is that correct? How could the table stand there without the ground supporting it? How could the table exist without a carpenter making it from pieces of wood? The pieces of wood come from a tree, which comes from a seed, water, soil, air, the sun and its nuclear fusion of hydrogen atoms etcetera.... Every object needs causes and conditions to exist, just like we need our parents, food, air, clothes and many more things. Apart from that, our perception of an object is strongly coloured by our own senses, mental state and memories. In this way, it becomes impossible to maintain that I am separate from the outside world, however much it feels that way.
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THE PHILOSOPHY OF EMPTINESS
Buddhism teaches that things are:
1. Dependent on their partsTo prevent misunderstanding, we must avoid the "two extremes", that is, believing that:
2. Interrelated, not isolated
3. Merely labeled
1. Things are permanent, independent of their parts, and independent of our labeling
2. Things do not exist at all (nihilism).
This view has consequences when it is applied to whatever I call "I" and "mine":
I am not isolated from my surroundings and other living beings.
I "create" the world with my own concepts and ideas.
The world is like an illusion: how I see the world depends on my own ideas.
This world is "my" film, "my" projection, I run the show, so I can change my experience of the world.
I can change the world, if I start with my own mind.
I can change, as "I" is only a concept, impermanent and dependent on causes and conditions, just like all phenomena (even emptiness itself).
Although I can understand this intellectually, I don't perceive the world that way until I directly realise emptiness!
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To realise emptiness, externally we need a qualified teacher, and internally
we need enough merit (or karma), purification, practice of ethics, keeping our
vows and generating single-pointed concentration.
In the Tibetan tradition: first one tries to intellectually understand it, then later the realisation can ripen in the well-prepared field of our mind.
It is advised to analyse the "I" first, and then later one analyses other phenomena in the same way, for example using the "fourfold analysis":
Advice from Lama Zopa Rinpoche:
1. Identify object of negation: inherently existent "I"
2. Determine possibilities of how the "I" exists: is it the body, the mind, both or different? (We can say, "I have have a body and a mind", which would indicate that the "I" is something different from the body and the mind, but is that possible?)
3. Is the "I" same as body and/or mind?
4. Is the "I" other than body and mind?
"While you are meditating there is an "I" (representing the Self) which appears to exist from its own side. Right on top of that think, the I is merely labeled Just meditate on the meaning of the I being merely labeled I is a name; a name does not exist from its own side, a name is given, imputed by the mind. We can completely agree with that. This I is merely labeled; concentrate on just that. Try to feel that. This automatically eliminates eternalism, the view of a truly existent I."
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With this explanation, you may be tempted to think that emptiness is all about playing with words and doing complicated mind games. However, it is said that realising emptiness directly can solve all our problems, as all our problems are caused by our misunderstanding of the world. As all our communication is based on words which cannot express the ultimate truth, please try to discover the real meaning behind the words for yourself!
Another thing that should be kept in mind is that when one directly experiences emptiness, the mind cannot perceive anything dualistic, meaning it cannot perceive anything of the "normal" world. This is why discussions on emptiness often tend to go astray and may have an "otherworldly" feel to them. It is said that only a fully realised Buddha can experience emptiness and ordinary existence simultaneously.
For meditations, see the List of Sample Meditations.
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Last updated: April 28, 2001