Feb 4, 2019
In this episode, we try to get a feeling for emptiness, Buddha’s most profound teaching and the realization that leads to enlightenment. Buddha taught that the ultimate nature of all things is emptiness. When we say our glass is empty and ask for more, the glass is empty of something. This is the same with the emptiness of reality; it means our reality is empty of something. We ask then, “reality is empty of what?” Buddha taught that our reality is empty (or lacks) inherent existence. A Tibetan singing bowl, for example, is not inherently a Tibetan singing bowl. Someone might see it as a pot for planting flowers or a bowl for chips or salsa. The object is empty of existing inherently as a Tibetan singing bowl. This also means the bowl is full of possibilities for how it can exist. This is true of our self. If we even get a slight feeling for our self being empty, it opens up infinite possibilities for our us. We can be anything. We can exist in any new, healthy way we can imagine-- we can even become a Buddha. In the meditation, we contemplate emptiness and imagine that emptiness blows up any limiting beliefs we have about our self.
Emptiness is also referred to as ultimate truth. Ultimate truth is like one side of the coin of reality and conventional truth is like the other side of this coin. Here Buddha explains how things exist by convention. This is how we can relate to how things in the conventional world. However, conventional truth is not how we normally relate to things. We normally think things exist just as they appear, independent of our mind’s perception. In reality, how things appear to us depends completely on our mind.
Another aspect of conventional truth is impermanence. Sure, we can take the ten-year challenge on social media and compare pictures of ourselves today to photos from ten years ago and roughly understand impermanence (LOL). When Buddha points our impermanence, however, it is toward a liberating understanding of the totality of impermanence. For example, when Buddha said “knowing this body is like foam”, he illustrates the subtle impermanence of the body and self. Subtle impermanence means that everything is newly arisen in every moment. Logically, the person of this moment is caused by the person of the previous moment, and a cause and an effect cannot be the same. A seed cannot be a sprout. An acorn cannot be a great oak tree. Thus, we are not the same person we were yesterday. We are not even the same person we were a moment ago. How liberating! When someone is in a rut and feels bad about themselves, they are grasping at a permanent self (and perhaps one they don’t like very much). Conventional truth reveals that the self they are holding onto doesn’t even exist anymore.
Our past is created by the present moment. Our past is created by how we reflect on it presently. Wading a little into the truth, we can learn to let go of the past. We can learn to let go of who we think we are and make room for a new self. In the meditation, we imagined emptiness exploding our self. We tried to feel the infinite possibilities that realizing the emptiness of our self awakens. Then we reflected on the subtle impermanence of our self. We try to feel that, arising from emptiness, we are a completely new self. We are a completely different than the self we were yesterday. We will be a completely new self tomorrow, full of possibilities.
“Knowing this body is like foam,
Fully awake to its mirage-like nature,
Cutting off Mara’s flowers,
One goes unseen by the King of Death.”
--Buddha (Dhammapada, verse 46)
The Dhammapada, by Buddha. Translated by Gil Fronsdale. Shambala, Boston and London, 2011, pp. 12.
Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life by Acharya Shantideva. Translated into English by Stephen Batchelor. Library of Tibetan Works and Archives. Dharmasala. April, 1979. Pages 22-23.
Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment, by Je Tsongkhapa, Volume 3. Pages 1961, 2014, 2019. Translated by the Lamrim Chenmo Translation Committee. Joshua Cutler, Editor-in-Chief, and Guy Newlan, Editor.