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To review (from last week)
The Buddha’s teachings on emptiness define emptiness in three distinct ways:
- as an approach to meditation
- as an attribute of the senses and their objects
- a state of concentration.
Emptiness as an Approach to Meditation
Emptiness as an approach to meditation is the most basic of the three kinds of emptiness. In the context of this approach, emptiness means “empty of disturbance”—empty of stress.
You bring the mind to concentration and then bring awareness to your state of concentration to detect the presence or absence of disturbance or stress still lingering in that state of concentration. When you find a disturbance, you bring awareness to that disturbance — recognition it. Then, you release your awareness from it in favor of a more refined awareness, a more wholesome state, one leading to meditation that is empty of disturbance.
In the discourse explaining this meaning of emptiness (MN 121), the Buddha introduces his explanation with a simile. He and Ananda are dwelling in an abandoned palace that is now a quiet monastery. The Buddha tells Ananda to notice and appreciate how the monastery is empty of the disturbances it contained when it was still used as a palace — the disturbances caused the exchange of goods, elephants and horses, assemblies of women and men. The only disturbance remaining is that caused by the presence of the monks meditating in unity. Taking this observation as a simile, the Buddha launches into his description of emptiness as an approach to meditation. He describes a person meditating in the wilderness who is simply noting the awareness of wilderness. The mind is allowed to concentrate on and enjoy the perception, “wilderness.” Then one steps back mentally to observe and appreciate that this mode of perception is empty of the disturbances that come with perceptions of the village life left behind. The only remaining disturbances are those associated with the perception, “wilderness”—empty of any disturbances of emotional reactions to the dangers that wilderness—only “There is this wilderness.”One enters into a meditative emptiness that is pure and undistorted.
Then, becoming sensative to the act of focusing on “wilderness,” the monk drops the perception of “wilderness” and replaces it with a more refined perception, one with less potential for arousing disturbance. One chooses the earth, banishing from his mind any details of the hills and ravines of the earth, simply taking note of “earthness” He repeats the process he applied to the perception of wilderness — settling into the perception of “earth,” fully indulging in it, and then stepping back to notice how any disturbances associated with “wilderness” are now gone, while the only remaining disturbances are those associated with the singleness of mind based on the perception of “earth.”
He then repeats the same process with ever more refined perceptions, settling into the formless meditative absorptions (jhanas):
- infinite space
- infinite consciousness
- infinite nothingness
- neither perception nor non-perception
Finally, seeing that even this formless meditative concentration is fabricated and willed, one drops one’s desire to continue mentally fabricating anything at all. In this way one is released from the mental proliferations — sensual desire, becoming, views, ignorance — that would “bubble up” into further becoming. One observes that this release still has the disturbances that come with the functioning of the six senses.But this release is empty of all mental proliferations, that are the source of potential for further suffering and stress. This, concludes the Buddha, is the entry into a pure and undistorted emptiness that is superior and unsurpassed. It’s the emptiness in which he himself dwells and that, throughout time, has never been nor ever will be excelled.
Throughout this description, emptiness means one thing: empty of disturbance or stress. The meditator is taught to appreciate the lack of disturbance as a positive accomplishment, and to see any remaining disturbance created by the mind are to be released.You may view disturbance as a subtle form of harm.
As you sense disturbance, you can change your mental action, moving your concentration to a more refined perception, until ultimately you can stop the fabrication of mental states altogether.
At the heart of this practice is honesty: the ability to be free of embellishment or denial, adding no interpretation to the disturbance actually present, while at the same time not trying to deny that it’s there. An integral part of this honesty is the ability to see things simply as action and result, without reading into them the conceit “I am.”
Also at the heart of this practice is compassion — the desire to end suffering — in that you keep trying to abandon the causes of stress and disturbance wherever you find them. The effects of this compassion extend not only to yourself, but to others as well. When you don’t weigh yourself down with stress, you’re less likely to be a burden to others; you’re also in a better position to help shoulder their burdens when need be.
This process of developing emptiness of disturbance is not necessarily smooth and straightforward. It keeps requiring the strength of will needed to give up disturbances and attachment. This is because an essential step in getting to know the meditative perception as an action is learning to settle into it, to commit whole heartedly to it, enjoy it thoroughly.The process of releasing disturbances can be a very enjoyable one filled with tranquility. Learn to enjoy the meditation enough to keep at it consistently, grow the benefits of it. become familiar with it and insight will arise.
- Emptiness as Attribute of the Senses &Their Objects
Whereas emptiness as an approach to meditation focuses on issues of disturbance and stress, emptiness as an attribute focuses on issues of self and not-self. And whereas emptiness as an approach to meditation starts with tranquility, emptiness as an attribute starts with insight.
The Buddha describes this kind of emptiness in a short discourse (SN 35.85). Ananda asks the Buddha: In what way is the world empty? The Buddha answers that each of the six senses and their objects are empty of one’s self or anything pertaining to one’s self.
The discourse gives no further explanation, but related discourses show that this insight can be put into practice in one of two ways.
- Reflect on what the Buddha says about “self” and how ideas of self can be understood as forms of mental activity.
- Develop the perception of all things being empty of one’s self as a basis for a state of refined concentration.
When talking about “self,” the Buddha refused to say whether it exists or not, but he gave a detailed description of how the mind develops the idea of self as a strategy based on craving. In our desire for happiness, we repeatedly engage in what the Buddha calls “I-making” and “my-making” as ways of trying to exercise control over pleasure and pain. Whenever you engage in them, you should check to see whether they lead to affliction; if they do, you should abandon them.
If you learn to approach your I-making and my-making in the light of the Rahula instructions, you greatly refine this aspect of your education, as you find yourself forced to be more honest, discerning, and compassionate in seeing where an “I” is a liability, and where it’s an asset. On a blatant level, you discover that while there are many areas where “I” and “mine” lead only to useless conflicts, there are others where they’re beneficial. The sense of “I” that leads you to be generous and principled in your actions is an “I” worth making, worth mastering as a skill. So, too, is the sense of “I” that can assume responsibility for your actions, and can be willing to sacrifice a small pleasure in the present for a greater happiness in the future. This kind of “I,” with practice, leads away from affliction and toward increasing levels of happiness. This is the “I” that will eventually lead you to practice meditation, for you see the long-term benefits that come from training your powers of mindfulness, concentration, and discernment.
However, as meditation refines your sensitivity, you begin to notice the subtle levels of affliction and disturbance that I-making and my-making can create in the mind. They can get you attached to a state of calm, so that you resent any intrusions on “my” calm. They can get you attached to your insights, so that you develop pride around “my” insights. This can block further progress, for the sense of “I” and “mine” can blind you to the subtle stress on which the calm and insights are based. If you’ve had training in following the Rahula instructions, though, you’ll come to appreciate the advantages of learning to see even the calm and the insights as empty of self or anything pertaining to self. That is the essence of this second type of emptiness. When you remove labels of “I” or “mine” even from your own insights and mental states, how do you see them? Simply as instances of stress arising and passing away — disturbance arising and passing away — with nothing else added or taken away. As you pursue this mode of perception, you’re adopting the first form of emptiness, as an approach to meditation.
(Next week Emptiness as a State of Concentration + The Wisdom of Emptiness)