What’s stopping us from dissolving everything into emptiness?!

As quoted in this previous article, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso says that if we have some experience of emptiness:

Geshe Kelsang at Madhymaka Centre, early 1980s

“Everything becomes very peaceful and comfortable, balanced and harmonious, joyful and wonderful.”

Countless meditators before us have had this experience and there seems to be no reason to think that Buddha or our kind teachers are just making this up. Once we’ve had teachings on emptiness, we do generally get the sense that it is the answer to all our problems, don’t we? Also, while compassion is arising strongly it is a major motivator for realizing emptiness, as I saw when looking after Ralph the kitten.

So my question is, “Why don’t we just go for it?”

A lot of you answered this question on the previous article, thank you.

Samsara or freedom?

I think the major reason we don’t go for it in earnest — a reason even underlying our other reasons and sabotaging our compassion — is because we are attached to inherently existent things. We don’t particularly like the idea of our house, for example, being burnt up in the fire of exalted wisdom. We’ve worked years for that house and we really quite like it! We need it! We want it to be real. Not to mention our partner, our children, our enjoyments, our vacation, our money… Have you ever lost your wallet? This is a very significant absence. We don’t like it. Why would we want to meditate on the absence of inherent existence of our wallet and everything else?!

“Why, oh why, didn’t I take the blue pill?”

In the first Matrix movie, Cypher wants to return to the unreal world of false appearances because he is attached to it. Cutting up a juicy steak in a restaurant in the Matrix (of mistaken appearance) with Agent Smith (self-grasping ignorance), he ruminates that he knows the steak is merely the simulation telling his brain that it is delicious and juicy, but after nine years he has discovered that “ignorance is bliss.” He strikes a deal with the enemy Agent Smith because he wants to be rich and powerful, “an actor” maybe.

Years ago I saw a Star Trek episode where Captain Kirk entered a dream-like world. He knew he was dreaming and he had control over his dream, but he didn’t like it. He spent the whole episode trying to get back to “real” life. He could not enjoy the creative freedom of being able to make up his own world, and the movie supported his view that it is better if things are solidly real.

And I’ve often wondered why brilliant Western scientists who have delved into quantum physics for a lifetime haven’t realized emptiness directly. (I’m assuming, for the sake of argument, that most haven’t). They seem so close — they have almost entirely de-constructed an objective world. But they haven’t got to the point of acknowledging that, no matter how much money they spend on particle accelerators blowing tinier and tinier things up, they will never find the ultimate constituent of the universe. Why? Because there isn’t one. There is nothing out there, not even the smallest gluon, tachyon, or neutrino. Everything is projected by mind (even mind itself).

Granted, this is just my theory, but I think they’ll keep looking because they are attached to an inherently or objectively existent universe. They don’t want to dismantle it entirely because they’re attached to it being real. (Their assumption is also part of the Western creator view of a first beginning and a final end, but that’s another story.)

Buddha’s teachings are so clear on the subject – I think it could be easier and quicker to realize emptiness than spend a lifetime becoming an expert in quantum mechanics, string theory, parallel universes and so on! Yogis — who are experts in the field of the mind and of emptiness — are free and blissful all the time. Therefore, Buddha is not just positing a theory, for what he says has worked in practice for millenia to free the mind. Scientists, on the other hand, are as brainy as can be, but are also as neurotic as the rest of us.

We need renunciation, the mind of liberation

Buddha said that a pre-requisite for realizing emptiness directly is the non-attachment of renunciation. That is the only way we can enter a supramundane spiritual path – without at least renunciation we will remain trapped in samsara indefinitely. Some people wonder why we need renunciation – why, if we are intelligent, can’t we realize emptiness first and then develop aversion for samsara?! After all, the teachings on emptiness can seem more fun to begin with.

However, I think this is only because we’re not clear what it is we are actually renouncing. Yes, we are renouncing the places, enjoyments and bodies of samsara, but this is because we apprehend them as inherently existent. What we are actually renouncing is the ignorance in our minds.

We are renouncing, or wishing to give up, our self-grasping ignorance apprehending inherent existence because we know that it is the source of all our other delusions such as anger and attachment, and of all our suffering. If we are renouncing the mind of ignorance, we are also renouncing the object of that mind – inherently existent things. We want neither the conception nor the appearance of inherent existence any more, whatever these are associated with – nice things or nasty things. That is real renunciation, it seems to me.

And it is the minimum motivation we need for realizing emptiness. With it, we are delighted to spend time in emptiness, dissolving mistaken appearances away. Without it, we are at best half-hearted. And we just want to go lay on the real beach, followed by a real juicy steak, and a movie.

nobody can make us happy…

Unless we start developing some non-attachment for inherent existence, we’ll be lucky just to get glimpses of the possibilities of the spiritual path. Through blessings and/or good karmic imprints, we may have one or two good meditation sessions — letting go and abiding in a peace we’ve never experienced the like of before. But then due to our habitual attachment we will allow ourself to cling again to inherent existence, thinking of it as innocuous or even desirable.

Do you agree? (Especially the scientists among you who are reading this?!)

Author: Luna Kadampa

Based on 40 years' experience, I write about applying meditation and modern Buddhism to improve and transform our everyday lives and societies. I try to make it accessible to everyone anywhere who wants more inner peace and profound tools to help our world, not just Buddhists. Do make comments any time and I'll write you back!

41 thoughts on “What’s stopping us from dissolving everything into emptiness?!”

  1. Wonderful article! I agree we are needing renunciation before we actually benefit from Emptiness in our daily life. I think we are attached to ‘things’ and to samsara generally. What I found helpful a while back was hearing someone make the point that we have a meta addiction – an umbrella addiction (or attachment) and that is to our mind. We actually like most of the activities of our minds, our habits, tendencies, views, opinions, appearances. Maybe we need to develop a renunciation for our ordinary gross minds?

  2. I can’t imagine Buddha attaining enlightenment without actually renouncing everything he knew. If we observe the lives of accomplished Buddhist masters we learn everything we need to know. In modern Buddhism we learn changing our lives completely isn’t necessary because with wisdom and compassion we can transform everything and everyone we meet. But this can further fuel our duality even if we do remember emptiness. We talk more than we meditate which is simply a reflection of our modem world. You can say we are attached to talk talk talk. Yes, we need conceptual minds, especially initially, but for true realization of emptiness we need longer meditation sessions, longer retreats, less words, and eventually we can hope for no conception. If we are in the world we need to keep our mind in retreat. Hard to do but there is a time for everything, isn’t there? Not motivated by attachment to peace but simply observing the examples of enlightened beings like whom we want to become.

      1. Great question. What helps me is to remember the teachings on emptiness and think “This is inside my mind not outside” so although externally nothing is different I get to actually experience everything like a dream, just like it actually is. Another analogy that helps me is to “fire” myself from the role of director or even actor in my own movie and just be a spectator for a while. I’ll even say “Bring on the popcorn, let’s see what happens.” This was something one of our professors used to do in the class… I know this sounds like negligence but it works better than reactivity, in my experience. Even when I need to help others, which is often, I resist the temptation to direct their movie. This never stops my compassion, in fact it enhances it. Hope that helps.

        1. I love your analogy………looks like the cast and crew of my movie need to be changed. Thanks for the clarity.

  3. What is keeping us from dissolving everything into emptiness? Asking the question this way as opposed to just remembering that everything already is empty of inherent existence can keep me thinking I need to do something versus not do something. Why do I keep beating my head against the wall by reifying things as opposed to relaxing into their actual nature? It helps me to remember that everything is already dissolved into emptiness I just need stop ignoring this fact.

  4. I think you are setting up a scientific strawman. Many of the great physicists were also mystics. What a lot of scientists are doing is trying to understand the parts that we are imputing things on.
    There is no inherent the existent physical world or any inherently existent mental world.
    I believe it is a big mistake to see quantum physics as a means to understand or explain Buddhas teachings on emptiness. What happens when the physical understanding changes does that mean that we now don’t believe Buddhas teachings?

  5. Hi Luna,

    As both a Scientist and Buddhist I agree with your hypothesis. More and more Scientists are turning towards eastern philosophies following realisations brought about by quantum entanglement and non-duality – that all is one and is inherently void of form. There is no escaping this in Science now; and as you may recall ‘I’ am an advocate of merging both disciplines for our future benefits 🙂 It seems to me inevitable though.. It was actually Quantum Physics that turned me to Buddhism; so I am sure others have/will too. Going out on a limb here, but I think Science explains emptiness with more clarity that ancient Philosophy. But ancient philosophy is the only guide we currently have in what to do with that knowledge/ realisation.. I think an embrace from both sides will propel us towards unification and maybe in some instant – universal equilibrium.. I ponder that it will probably result in Scientists giving up looking deeper; but would switch to them applying emptiness, and nurturing Science instead…. Still very happy to share my (wish there was a less egotistical word) paper on this – would love to see the NKT take an interest.. Much Love, Neil xxx

  6. Spot on – attachment to samsara is the main obstacle for getting our act together on liberation, let alone enlightenment

  7. I love quantum theory! They’re so very close yet so far away from Buddha’s truth. If they could only push their very sharp logic enough on subtle impermanence and things being ‘mostly empty’…..

  8. I ain’t no scientist, just a Kadampa trying to be happy and agree with you 100%. I have been telling people 4 years thst without renuncation we are not on a spiritual path leading to liberation.

  9. I agree that part of the problem is our attachment to wordly things (it certainly is with me). But emptiness meditation is concerned with the basis of this attachment, a mind that so completely conceives inherence that we (i) cannot control it, even if we are aware of it, and (ii) projects itself onto all reality as default behaviour.

    We are like a dysfunctional robot with a hard-wired program that we cannot shut down. Personally, I think that We have no idea what it is like to live without it. Imagine, for example, our waking experiences appearing like a dream. This is like when we have strong, clear thoughts of someone or something, hurried imagery, massive maneuverability, a lack of consitency, and so on. Things wouuld appear to be ’empty’, or ‘not really existent’ .. like our imagination. Compare that with our self-grasping waking mind! And even our dreams are ‘contaminated’ with self-grasping!

    Whatever the intellectually intriging, horrifyingly difficult, or blissfully inducing aspects of emptiness we are considering, we would do well to realize that the purpose of this teaching is to reduce the power of the self-grasping mind, and to practise emptiness is to deliberately, fastiduously, and single-pointedly undermine it’s power, whether meditating on it’s negation directly, or by using strategic forms of argumentation that undermine it’s self-conviction, the method that Nagarjuna developed. Only then can we might get an idea of what it’s like to exist without it.

    Teachings on emptiness are difficult (and even sometimes seem inconsistent), and there are many aspects that are still unclear to me. But we must not abandon the motivation to meditate or the will to engage in debate and intellectual discourse about emptiness, trying to remember the point of talking about it whilst we are doing that. I have compassion for those not predisposed to all the intellectual hoohah, but I still strongly encourage them to consider their own self-grasping mind, the basis of other delusions, and how the emptiness teachings are aimed at undermining it.

    1. Crikey, this could be a blog article in itself 😉 Thanks. I do agree that it is important we study emptiness.

      I think the magic of the chapter on ultimate bodhichitta is that, in truth, Ven Geshe-la has managed to explain incredibly profound truths in a way that is instantly accessible and extraordinarily clear — but it requires careful (and slow) reading, and reading many times.

      If people are then curious to know more, Heart of Wisdom is probably your best next stop. Then, if people want to know even more, aim at studying Ocean of Nectar. Ideally you’d study these with a teacher 🙂

  10. My house caught on fire and all I could think about was the teaching that was given to me by Geshe-la. It was only a house, we can get a new one. What an amazing experience of impermanence. Things that appear are ever changing. Nothing exists inherently. Let it all go…. be free in the clear blue sky mind.

  11. Just seeing that beautiful picture of Geshe La melted that solid old world away.
    Thank you

    1. It was taken at a tea party in the garden at Madhyamaka Centre circa 1982, before Madhyamaka Centre moved to Kilnwick Percy Hall in 1986. (The centre was based in WH Auden’s old house in York at the time).

  12. Hi Luna,
    Thanks for an interesting article. As regards the refutation of inherent existence, both Geshe-la and particle physicists are in agreement that ‘fundamental’ particles are not ‘things in themselves’ , but are collections of ever-changing aspects and relationships. A fundamental particle exists as a set of mathematical relationships, and it only becomes ‘real’ for the brief moment that it is observed.

  13. Hi Luna, is that the main reason, that we are so attached to the things we are familiar with? And so we really need a good deal of renunciation to have any hope of making progress with emptiness? What if we had strong determination and doggedly persevered with the meditation day after day and became very familiar? Would this still not have the power to really change our minds, due to lack of strong motivation?

  14. In my dream last night I was saying “I get it now, its just mere karmic appearance”.

    I am working with the dream analogy a lot trying to understand and experience how it is just like my waking experience. I think where people get confused, and by people I mean me, is that if I dream of a beautiful new master bathroom I don’t get up in the morning and go buy new towels for it. I get that, it was an appearance to the subtle mind, It disappears completely. But the bathroom in my waking world, which is not nearly as nice, keeps appearing and I do have to buy towels for that.

    Its the consistency that throws me off.

    1. Yes, we are more mindful when awake, so things appear more consistent, they seem to last longer. Plus we have more collective/shared karma ripening while awake, so it is easy to find people to agree with our perceptions.

      As Shantideva says, whether a dream lasts for a minute or a thousand years, when we wake up it is still just a dream. That is what our death will be like. Remembering death and impermanence is one of the very best ways to understand how our waking world is like a dream.

      (Doesn’t mean we don’t have to keep the bathroom supplied with towels 😉 But our motivation is different.)

      1. I hope it isn’t too late to enter into this discussion–I just discovered the blog post and enjoyed it very much. I, too, have trouble wanting to give up the “real” world although I often feel sick at the thought of having to start over again in yet another incarnation.

        I love Shantideva’s picture of death as awakening from a dream.

        In my humble attempt at understanding emptiness, it seems to help if I think of how the different atoms and sub-atomic particles of my body are definitely not my body. They have merely come together temporarily because conditions (karma) happen to be right for that to occur. (And the things making up those particles happen to come together in the same way, right down to absolute nothingness and right up to things like suns and galaxies.) It seems to me that conditions just remain “right” a little longer in this “waking state” than in the dreaming state. My understanding is that our intentions are what produce the precise conditions for one incarnation after another.

        I’m thinking it just all depends on how far back we’re able to stand to observe things. From a certain point of view, a lifetime would not last much longer than a single dream, and would be just as ephemeral.

        Maybe once we’ve gotten a little taste of emptiness through meditation we will eventually wean ourselves away from producing the intentions (karma) that lead to incarnations and instead work our way slowly toward intentions that bring us to emptiness. It may be that all this only seems to take a long time from our limited point of view. From another point of view, it may seem to be just an instant.

  15. Brialliant article once again, thankyou Luna. I definitely agree with you, and have often wondered myself what is holding me back from letting go? How perverse that we are so attached to grasping at the inherent exsistence of objects. It feels to me like it is fear of really changing our mind and letting it abide in emptiness, which is the complete opposite of our otherwise habitual grasping. Hooray that Guru Wisdom Buddha has come to the rescue!

  16. This morning I was having thoughts like “how can we own the sky, the air, trees, the ground we walk on, etc? And by that logic, how can we own our thoughts, our body our mind?”
    I think I was trying to get to an understanding of the generic image of the body and mind, in order to know how to abandon it, which is the beginning of renunciation.
    And then I received your article on going for it and dissolving everything into emptiness.
    I’m wondering if I dreamed your article to appear at this time to help me with this understanding.

    1. “There are no accidents.” (ha ha, i just watched Kung Fu Panda 2!)

      We are abandoning the generic image of an inherently existent body and mind, its true. Self-grasping superimposes inherent existence on our (existent) body and mind.

      You can read more about the view of the transitory collection conceiving mine in Ocean of Nectar, explaining how we can meditate on the emptiness of I in possessive mode (of me or “I’s”). No inherently existent I or me means no inherently existent mine or I’s, which means no inherently existent objects owned by me.

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