By Lama Shenpen Rinpoche / 2001 - Ljubljana (Slovenia)
We will try to see a brief overview about Emptiness. When I say 'a view', it is because it's a very large topic that deserves a few days of teachings and such a topic will deserve a better teacher than me.
So... It is clear already for most of you that what we do perceive and what might be the reality are different things. Lets take the example of the fruit, let's take the apple, and we say: "Oh, that's a good apple". But if the apple would have the qualities of goodness from an objective point of view, it would be good for everybody. But since it is not good for everybody it means that apple might not hold that quality from its ownside. And we could apply such example about most of the phenomena.
Nevertheless, on most of the phenomena we will give the attribute of: "this is good and this is not good". And coming from that perception of this is good and this is not good, we create a lot of projections. And coming from those projections we might experience some happiness or some unhappiness.
We could even go a little bit further, thinking that what we might think to be happiness at one moment can revel itself as being unhappiness latter on. From a scientific point of view, what we do perceive outside like colours are not a real phenomena and it is clearly understandable, because some people might perceive one colour in one way and some people might perceive it in another way. So we can really ask ourselves, wonder, if what our senses do perceive is exactly what is existing.
Because of the perception we have of the phenomena around ourselves we develop attachment for some things and aversion for some other things, obviously not based on what they are but on what we think they are. But it's not the type of the reflection we have most of the time when we feel very attracted by something or very repulsed by something else. Our mind just get caught instantaneously when we do perceive something. But in front of strong attractions or strong repulsion we could be able to have a little step back, we could have a little analysis about what we perceive. And if we could do this analysis we might perceive the phenomena in another way.
Now I can introduce the concept of two different realities: the conventional reality and the ultimate reality.
The conventional reality does contain all the conventionalities, which means all the names, all the labels and all the things that we are able to put a name on it.
While, from an ultimate point of view, we might have a complete different understanding. But most of the time we don't make this distinctions, because since all our life, this life and past lives, we don't try to see what is behind the objects. We try to use them, we try to name them, we have the habit to love them or dislike them. By the power of the habits in a way we are blind and we follow only one way and we can see that that way of grasping every phenomena we enter in touch with, is what brought us a lot of unhappiness. And most of the times we just see different facts, we don't try so much to understand them, to analyse them, to search what could be real behind them. Not having that step back and not having this analysis, we get emotionally caught, emotionally involved and from all those emotions we might suffer quite a lot. On the top of a fact, we pile up various reactions and various projections, so, by the end, we don't see anymore the fact, we see only our projections and that is why it is often so difficult to analyse objectively the situation. We are not facing exactly what it is, but what we project it to be.
We can see that easily in a relationship. We first see a very attractive person and our mind is focusing on what is desirable for us and we see only that. And because we so strongly wish to believe that this is the person that we were looking for for so long, then our mind get blind about everything else. And, with the time, the focus on the most desirable part of that person will fade and we will start to see the person from another angle, with another point of view, and we usually say that the person became like this, became like that, but that person was probably exactly the same the first time we met him or her. It is only the strong desire which you had the first time which made you blind and has faded with the time and you started to perceive a little bit more about that person. And because we are not really able to understand that, and we are not able to balance such a new perception, after some time a kind of clash happens.
And somehow it might be the explanation for so much conflicts in relationships.
Some people think that nowadays there are more troubles in relationship. In a way we could say that it is so because people want everything now and immediately and don't take a time to have a clear analysis.
We can take the same example with the objects. For example you see the computer for the first time and it is wonderful, that it can do anything, your mind get completely involved and you spend hours and hours in front of this wonderful piece of technology. The mind is completely caught in that new object of desire, completely carried on by this strong desire. But then, after a few blue screens, saying "fatal error" your mind start to change a little bit and you understand suddenly, or more or less suddenly, that what you bought as the best piece of technology is just a "simple" piece of technology. But the computer hasn't changed from the beginning, it doesn't make more the coffee than before. So it might be your mind that has changed.
So, you can see through many daily examples that is not the phenomena which is implied, but clearly the way we perceive them.
Now from the karmic point of view: everything that we do perceive is the creation of previously accumulated Karma
. Some people might take this explanation as if just the main phenomena are coming from karma, but in fact it goes much deeper and everything that we perceive from the single colour till a person is coming from what we have created in the past. The most common example to talk about that is a glass. We can ask ourselves why do I see this glass? Does this glass appeared by itself to me and if I would not be existing, would this glass be existing? We can answer to this by two different ways.
The first explanation is about the interdependence of the glass. it is obvious to us that the glass does not appear like this. But this glass didn't appear like a glass, which means that it has been built by a succession of phenomena. Some people have extracted the primary material and they have refined it, they have mould it, they have packed it and put some design on it. So we can say easily that the glass does not exist by itself, that it comes by a succession of events that make it.
Then, we say that the perception that we have of the glass could not be if we would not have created the karma for it. I have a small story to tell you about this.
In India there was one man, who heard about the pilgrimage to a very holy being and he decided to go to this place. So he has been walking and walking and walking and finally arrived in the place where the holy being was supposed to be. He was able to see a lot of people but they were all facing a wall. So then he decided to seat and he said: "OK, probably the Master has not yet arrived and we just have to wait for him". And he decided to do some Purification
practice and Merit
accumulating practices. For one day, two days he was practicing hard, reciting mantras
and prayers and one day when he arrived in front of the wall he suddenly saw the seat. And he said to himself: "something will soon take place, because now they brought the seatt for the Master". But there was still no Master, so he continued to recite a lot of mantras, a lot of prayers and the next day when he came, there was a cushion on a seat, but still no Master, so he continued to recite mantras and recite prayers and following the next days he could progressively see the Master appearing on the seat! The knees and the legs and finally with the head of the teacher. But still the teacher was not talking. The disciple thought that maybe the Master is waiting that they are ready for receiving some teachings and that he might not be ready enough and he continued to recite mantras and prayers. In the next days he started to hear the voice of the teacher. One of the first words, the explanation he got from the teacher, was about the relation of cause and effect and the student understood that actually the Master was there since the beginning he arrived on the place, but because he hadn't collected enough positive karma to receive the teachings, he could not perceive it at first.
And this happens on a more simple basis when you have a group of people entering a room; then they all come out and you ask them what they have seen. And sometimes there is something so obvious in the middle of the room, but one or two person didn't notice it. Such an easy example might have to do with whether the karmic causes have been collected for it or not.
We are creating every moment some very similar type of imprint, because we create very similar type of thoughts, like: attachment, desire, jealousy, anger and so on. But if I ask to a few of you to describe the glass, I will probably get every time a slightly different version, which means that we can create some very similar karma, but yet not exactly the same. And the result of this is that we perceive globally some similar objects, but we see them slightly differently.
According to this understanding, we could say that the glass might exist according to the karma you have created. It exists because your senses perceive it, we can say that it exists conventionally. But if you have understood well that it exists conventionally because of the karma you have created, you might understand as well that ultimately it does not exist.
There is a difficulty to see different realities. Then we talk about conventional reality and ultimate reality, because our mind most of the time is trained only in one way since lives and lives and lives, so it is difficult to have any other view than what our five senses are grasping.
But if we apply a type of meditation on the subject, if we focus a little bit more our mind on the existence of the glass for example, than gradually we might have a different perception. We take for example the chair. We can ask ourselves where the chair is. Is the 'chair' in the legs? In the transversal piece of wood? In the flat thing on which we sit? Where is the chair? The chair is clearly a gathering of different things; each of them are not the chair, just the collection of all of them makes the chair. If we do not think, if we do not analyse, we take a gathering of objects as a chair, without asking ourselves deeply, where is the chair, what we do call the chair. The chair by itself, the chair from its own site might not exists. The chair as a concept, as a label, exists because our mind put such concept on it, on gathering of pieces.
We can take a being for example. Where is Shenphen? Is it in the nose, is it in the ear, is it in the arm? It is almost impossible to find something that we can name as Shenphen. Is it just the consciousness which is inside?
If we think that it is the consciousness which is inside, then we have to think that this consciousness pass from a life to another, having every time another name and another label on it. If it is based on the body, then it means that one might completely disappear when he will be dead.
So where am I? You could ask the same questions about yourself. Are you in your nose, in your ear or in any part of your body? Or are you just the consciousness which is inside?
In a way it seems that we are both, but it appears that we are so different entities at the same time, that we are neither one nor the other.
Here, it could bring a huge confusion. Suddenly you wonder where you are. Surly it is possible to find Shenphen in the conventional world, here and now, as each of you do exist in a way in this conventional world. So this type of analysing is when you try to search for the 'inherent existing' "you". That is why it is very important to make the difference I was talking before: I do not say nothing exists, I'm just saying that nothing exists inherently.
It helps us to avoid the two extremes of nihilism and eternalism. Our mind has to find and to remain on the Middle way
. If we start to analyse, If we start to have such approach toward beings, objects and all phenomena, than we will generate much less strong emotions, because every time we will tend to have strong desire for something, we will wonder about its true existence, we will "relativize" this, and by doing so our mind will be less caught in a Duality
. Being less caught and having fewer emotions, we will then experience much less unhappiness and unsatisfaction. This is the way we can apply it into the daily life.
Since the things do not exist from their own site, why should I be so caught by the appearances that reach my senses? From the meditation point of view regularly we can ask ourselves such a question. We can take an object and we can try to find it truly, really. You can take a glass and you ask yourself where the glass is. If you dissect the glass, you won't be able to find the glass and than you will come closer to the Emptiness.
Emptiness is not just the absence of the object; it should not be compared to voidness. You can not meditate on the Emptiness of the water in an empty glass. The glass will be empty of water, but you can not meditate on the Emptiness of the water.
It is clearly not an easy subject. If things are not clear for you now, do not think ever that his subject to far too complicate for you! It's a matter of time and meditation. Meditation is the key word to pass words, intellectual understanding into "experience".
Do not run away from the subject because it is a bit difficult to grab. The understanding and realization of Emptiness is your key for freedom! Understanding of "non-duality" is the door for Liberation, the way to reach the end of Karma, the end of the conditioned rebirths. And that way, along with Bodhicitta, it will also give you the possibility to be so much more helpful for many many more Sentient being
Question: We can meditate on Emptiness if the glass is full of water?
Answer: If the glass is full of water, you can meditate then on the Emptiness of the water in the glass.
Question: What is the difference between voidness and Emptiness?
Answer: Voidness is the simple absence of something. Emptiness is the understanding of the non-inherent existence of something or someone.
Question: Does voidness contains the Emptiness and the Emptiness contains voidness?
Answer: In order to find the Emptiness of something, we have to perceive that thing; so is it possible to perceive voidness?
Question: If a space is without anything, so there is a sort of the voidness?
Answer: There is voidness, but voidness is not by itself something that we can focus on. We can only understand that if there is no object of perception than it is void, but we can not search for the Emptiness of voidness, because voidness is just the absence of something.
Question: Is not really the Emptiness something where fullness appears? When you are meditating on nothing, then you loose the feeling of me and then you become nothing, but in reality you become one with everything.
Answer: In a way, because if you meditate on every object that exists, trying to find its inherent existence, you will find every time the Emptiness of that object, which means that if you can understand the Emptiness of one phenomena clearly, then you can apply it to all the other phenomena. You can understand by this way that everything that we can perceive has exactly the same basis, which is Emptiness.
I'm not sure we can say that Emptiness is fullness; but once we realize Emptiness, we understand that everything is of the same subtle nature: Emptiness. Being in all at once, is not reached by the Realization of Emptiness, but when you reach the full Enlightenment
; you become then Omniscient and Omnipresent.
Question: She is saying that it is also possible, or easier, to explain this in the way how our mind is making divisions between things, how it is fixating on things.
Answer: Which means?
Question: Why are we making divisions, if the base is the same? Why is the intellect making this distinction, when everything is the same?
Answer: On the same basis things happen in a different way, because we have created different causes, karmicaly speaking. We could give a slight different approach.
From a physics point of view, everything is made out of energy. If we look at the glass we can come back to the molecules and we can go to the atoms and we can go even further to the quarks and if we go further we find basically nothing, nothing that we can measure, which might be a mere subtle energy.
When you look at one atom, between the nucleus and what turns around, there is some space like between us and the sun! Nevertheless, when I try to grasp an object, I can touch it; I don't feel a mere subtle energy.
Every time we think, every time we produce a thought, we are producing a kind of energy. Once the energy is produced it doesn't fade, we could say: until it gives a result. Maybe the result of the amount of energy that our mind is producing might shape a subtle energy, which gives the result into some objects that we can perceive with our senses. Coming from "nothing" appears an object, because we have created the causes for it. It is what from my little understanding the quantum physics is starting to point out.
Question: Is this Emptiness also potential for everything?
Answer: Yes, somehow. If some people have seen the movie Matrix, there is a little bit of this in it. We have to take out a lot of Hollywood stuff, but there are a very good reflections in it :-)
Question: Now, that we understand the Emptiness, what is the goal? Should we go back to this Emptiness or is the purpose of our mind to achieve something else?
Answer: First of all we have to say that just realising the Emptiness does not bring us to Enlightenment! It is surely one of the eminent steps, because is what does helps us to do not create further karma, and to do not be bound anymore to the Samsara
. When you understand that what is outside, is completely caused by what comes from inside, when you understand that everything outside perceived by your senses is of the same nature of your own mind, your mind does not work in a dual mode, so than you don't create more karma. Yet, on your consciousness you have your previously accumulated karma, which are still as latent imprint, and act as veil to the full Enlightenment. And you haven't accumulated enough merits to reach Enlightenment.
Many times when we hear about Buddhism people make the confusion between realisation of Emptiness and realisation of Buddhahood
. This is mainly because what the Small Vehicle ( Hinayana
) calls Buddhahood is realisation of Emptiness. But on the Mahayana
path, once the Bodhisattva
has realised Emptiness, he still has to purify the past karma and accumulates enough merits and wisdom to reach Buddhahood. This difference has to be clear to all. It is not because you realise Emptiness that you are a Buddha
Once we have realised Emptiness, we have this potential to do not create further karma, so we are not forced to take rebirth anymore in the Samsara. If we are in the Hinayana, we remain in that state of mind for a long time; if we are in the Mahayana we continue our path in term of purification, and as well we come back in order to continue to help all other sentient beings.
We could make clear as well, that, unless we are a Buddha, it is not possible to perceive directly both Emptiness and the conventional world. For somebody who realised Emptiness, while being in meditation on Emptiness, he perceive directly Emptiness; and when he comes out of that meditation, he perceives conventional reality. But of course while he comes back in the conventional reality, he remains on the full understanding of Emptiness.
We can make clear as well that, once we have realised Emptiness, it is not something that we can lose. We can not fall back from the realisation of Emptiness. In order to realise Emptiness one has to go through the practice of Shine
, the mental quietness, and to apply the single pointed concentration on the subject of Emptiness. And because our mind is supple enough and correctly concentred on that difficult topic, then we can proceed from the understanding to the experience of Emptiness.
Meditation in all the cases is what brings us from the understanding to the experience. We can understand the subject very well, we can be able to describe it better then a book , but if it doesn't come to the experience it is nothing. Some people might be completely unable to explain Emptiness, yet they realised it, because they have meditated on it correctly. Generally speaking we can just give a brief explanation of how to reach the Emptiness, but we can not transmit the experience of it. It is like if you have never tasted the chocolate. I can talk to you about the taste of the chocolate for hours but I don't make you really to know it. But I won't take so often the example of the chocolate, because everybody seems to know the taste of chocolate already :-)
Question: I have this little problem about the Enlightenment. What is this? Does it have some Emptiness in it? Or what is it?
Answer: Not yet enlightened, I might have some difficulties to define it. We could say, nevertheless, that Enlightenment is the moment when there is absolutely no more Ignorance
concerning the perception of the phenomena. It's a drop of water coming back to the ocean. The consciousness has then absolutely no limit anymore.
To reach such a state, of course all the previous karmic imprints have to have been eliminated and the experience of the Emptiness has been deepen and deepen and deepen, till even the subtlest part of misunderstanding is eliminated. Having absolutely no limit, the consciousness becomes Omnipresent and Omniscient. That is basically all I can say about it.
Question: It seems quite nihilistic. If we get rid of everything, also karma or whatever perceptions, then there is nothing; this is the basis for nihilism, no?
Answer: No, because even if consciousness doesn't create karma anymore, it does not mean that the consciousness doesn't exists anymore. So it's not nihilism at all, because there is consciousness, but is working in a different way.
Question: You said that once we achieve Emptiness we don't have to take rebirth anymore. I thought it is necessary to achieve Budhahood?
Answer: Once consciousness realises Emptiness, following the Mahayana path, the consciousness is not forced anymore to take rebirth. Now, with our ordinary mind, when we reach the moment of the death, all the karmic winds, all the karmic imprints push us to the next rebirth, without our consent. If we have negative karma, we will take rebirth in a negative world.
Once you have realised Emptiness, because you do not create anymore karma from the moment of your realisation of Emptiness, then you do not experience any further karma. If there are no more karmic results, you don't have to take rebirth. But a Bodhisattva, out of his wish to help all sentient beings, will take, voluntary, the decision to come back. Although, he will choose exactly where he will come back, in order to be the most efficient.
So, realisation of Emptiness stops the cycle of conditional rebirth, but it is still not the Enlightenment. A Bodhisattva, somebody who has realised Bodhicitta, the Awakening Mind
, and who realised Emptiness, reach the first Bodhisattva Pure Land ( Bhumi
). Note that there are ten different Bhumis till a Bodhisattva's consciousness reach Enlightenment.
Question: You have been talking about Bodhisattvas, Jesus Christ and angels… Is it possible that such beings could be able to take away some of our karma or to directly help us to remove this karma?
Answer: If it would be possible for an Enlightened Being to take some of our karma, we would be all liberated already. The only way a Bodhisattva could help us to remove our negative karma is by teaching us how to do it. By the Compassion
, Bodhisattvas take numerous rebirths, in various forms, to help us, to teach us directly or indirectly. Dharma
is the key to get Liberated, then Enlightened.
Question: So, if Buddha comes back to the world and then all sentient beings gather together and He teaches everybody how to get rid of karma, then what?
Answer: There is a French saying which says that "with many 'if', we could put Paris in a bottle"! We don't know when such event could be and we don't even know if it will be. And it could be possible only if every being would collect enough merit and karma to be all at the same time by the Buddha, which brings us to "if, if, if"…
Question: Is there a difference between consciousness and soul?
Answer: We could say that, basically, it is the same; except that the word 'soul' has been described as eternal in Christianity, when in Buddhism it is clear that the consciousness is not something eternal, but something impermanent, changeable. A moment consciousness is, contain, the cause for the next moment of consciousness. We could precise that "a moment" is one sixty fourth of a finger snap.
I do hope that my poor knowledge has been able to give you the wish to go further into the study about Emptiness, to read or got listen at some teachings from a qualified Lama.