Integrity + Emptiness | 9 . 17 . 2019 | Part Three of Three

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The Buddha’s teachings on emptiness define emptiness in three distinct ways: 

1. as an APPROACH to meditation

In this approach emptiness means “empty of disturbance” — or empty of stress. You bring the mind to concentration and then examine your state of concentration in order to detect the presence or absence of disturbance or stress still inherent within that meditative state.

2. as an ATTRIBUTE of the senses and their objects

The Buddha describes this kind of emptiness when 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.

3. a STATE of concentration

using insight into emptiness as an attribute of the senses and objects as a means to attain release. One sits in a quiet place and intentionally perceives through the senses all objects as empty of self or anything pertaining to self.This concentration takes one to formless meditation (jhana) of nothingness, along with strong equanimity.

Emptiness as a State of Concentration

The third kind of emptiness taught by the Buddha — as a state of concentration — is essentially another way of using insight into emptiness as an characteristic of the senses and their objects. One discourse (MN 43) describes it as follows: One goes to sit in a quiet place and intentionally perceives the six senses and their objects as empty of self or anything pertaining to self. As one pursues this perception, it brings one’s mind to a emptiness state— to the formless jhana of nothingness, which is accompanied by strong equanimity. 

In another discourse Buddha pursues this topic further, noting one may relish the equanimity. If one simply keeps on relishing it, meditation goes no further than that. But if one learns to see that equanimity as an action — fabricated, willed — one can look for the subtle stress it causes. If one can observe this stress as it arises and passes away simply on its own terms, neither adding any other perceptions to it nor taking anything away, one is again using emptiness as an approach to meditation. An by dropping the causes of stress wherever one finds them in one’s meditation, one ultimately reaches the highest release, empty of all mental fabrication.

The Wisdom of Emptiness

Whether we interpret emptiness as meaning 

empty of …

disturbance (suffering/stress) 

– or empty of self

…whether these practices encourage insight through tranquility or tranquility through insight,

all culminate in a practice geared toward the four noble truths: 

1. comprehending stress, 

2. abandoning its cause, 

3. realizing its cessation, 

4. and developing the path to that cessation. 

Completing these tasks leads to release.

What’s distinctive about this process of release is the way it grows out of the teaching of action-purification that the Buddha taught to Rahula—applying these practice to every step, from the most elementary to the most refined. As the Buddha told Rahula, these practices are the only possible means by which purity can be attained. Although most explanations of this statement define purity as purity of virtue, the Buddha’s discussion of emptiness as an approach to meditation shows that purity here means purity of mind and purity of wisdom as well. 

Every aspect of practice is purified by viewing it in terms of actions and consequences, which helps to develop integrity-— the willingness to admit to unskillful actions, and the mature goodwill that keeps aiming at consequences entailing ever less harm, disturbance, and stress.

This is where this sort of emptiness differs from the metaphysical definition of emptiness as “lack of inherent existence.” Whereas that view of emptiness doesn’t necessarily involve integrity — it’s an attempt to describe the ultimate truth of the nature of things, rather than to evaluate one’s actions — the Buddha’s approach to emptiness requires honestly evaluating your mental actions and their results. Integrity is thus integral to its mastery.

In this way, the highest levels of wisdom and discernment grow primarily not from the type of knowledge fostered by debate and logical analysis, nor from the type fostered by bare awareness or mere noting. Wisdom grows from the knowledge fostered by integrity, devoid of conceit, coupled with compassion and goodwill.

The reason for this is so obvious that it’s often missed: if you’re going to put an end to suffering, you need the compassion to see that this is a worthwhile goal, and the integrity to admit the suffering you’ve heedlessly and needlessly caused throughout the past. The ignorance that gives rise to suffering occurs not because you don’t know enough or are not philosophically sophisticated enough to understand the true meaning of emptiness. It comes from being unwilling to admit that what you’re obviously doing right before your very eyes is causing suffering. This is why awakening destroys conceit: it awakens you to the full extent of the willful blindness that has kept you complicit in unskillful behavior all along. It’s a chastening experience. The only honest thing to do in response to this experience is to open to the awakening. That’s the unerstanding of emptiness that’s superior and unsurpassed.

In building the path to this emptiness on the same principles that underlie the more everyday levels of action-purification, the Buddha managed to avoid creating artificial dichotomies between conventional and ultimate truths in the practice. Beacuse of this, his approach to ultimate wisdom helps validate the more everyday levels as well. When you realize that an undistorted understanding of emptiness depends on the skills you develop in adopting a responsible, honest, and kind attitude toward all your actions, you’re more likely to bring this attitude to everything you do — gross or subtle, conventional or ultimate. You give more importance to all your actions and their consequences, you give more importance to your sense of integrity, for you realize that these things are directly related to the skills leading to total release. You can’t develop a throwaway attitude to your actions and their consequences, for if you do you’re throwing away your chances for a true and unconditional happiness.

The skills you need to talk yourself into meditating when you don’t feel like it, or into resisting a drink to take the edge off—these skills are the same ones that will eventually lead to an undistorted realization of the highest peace.

This is how the Buddha’s teachings on emptiness encourage you to exercise wisdom in everything you do— for the highest good in each moment of daily life and for the highest good for your ultimate liberation.



– The Buddha


Better it is to live one day 

virtuous and meditative 

than to live a hundred years 

immoral and uncontrolled.

Better it is to live one day 

wise and meditative 

than to live a hundred years 

foolish and uncontrolled.

Better it is to live one day 

strenuous and resolute 

than to live a hundred years 

sluggish and dissipated.

Better it is to live one day 

seeing the rise and fall of things 

than to live a hundred years 

without ever seeing the rise and fall of things.

Better it is to live one day 

seeing the unconditioned

than to live a hundred years 

without ever seeing the unconditioned.

Better it is to live one day 

seeing the supreme truth 

than to live a hundred years 

without ever seeing the supreme truth.

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