The other day I was sitting among exotic plants, hearing the trickling of a small waterfall and the call of wild birds. Could this be Florida?! But a quick glance upwards reminded me that I am still in Denver — this was not a “real” tropical paradise but a giant greenhouse at the Botanical Gardens. Rather like a virtual reality tropical forest, like Avatar the movie or something. But I was sitting there feeling just as blissful as I do when I am in the tropics, experiencing this beauty as arising from a blissful mind, beauty that could be found nowhere out there. So it got me thinking, What is the real difference? Where is the real difference? I’ll leave you to ponder that and let me know in the comments.
First clear some space
When thinking about Buddha’s wisdom teachings on emptiness, it is a good idea to do so from the standpoint of some flexible wisdom and good motivation rather than graspy ignorance and self-cherishing. We can clear some space first – drop from our thinky head into our heart center and let some of our grosser conceptions dissolve away into the peaceful spacious clarity of our own mind. Imagine, if you like, that all your water-bubble-like thoughts melt back into the water-like-consciousness from which they arise and of which they are made, in the ocean of your root mind at your heart. We can invite Buddha to join us there.
Then we can remember why we don’t WANT things to be real in the first place, and how clinging at our own thoughts & projections as if they are independent of the mind binds us needlessly to suffering, like tying ourselves in knots in the sky. We can develop a warm heart thinking how utterly wonderful it will be when our friends and everyone else has transcendent mental freedom and bliss, having let go of grasping.
Emptiness is naturally beautiful. It will free both ourselves and others. If we appreciate that beauty with admiring faith, we want to drink it in, spend time with it, rather than see it as a spiritual chore that is a struggle to comprehend.
Now we are ready to think about emptiness!
(I am carrying on from this article, Appearance and Reality.)
Emptiness has a specific meaning; it is not nothingness. Emptiness is the lack of inherent existence, not the lack of existence. This is where contemplating appearance and reality comes in handy because we can say that things do exist but they exist as mere appearance. There is nothing behind the mere appearance. There is nothing we can point to and say, “There it is!”
So what our ignorance does for us is that it grasps at a reality behind and within things. It grasps at a thingy-ness. Everything seems to have a thingyness. There is something really there. I think that “thingyness” can be a helpful way to describe inherent existence, which is the technical term.
The truth or thingyness behind appearance. There is something out there and it is appearing in a certain way. Buddha is not arguing that there is no tree at all. Our problem is that we think there is something that is REALLY the tree. That the tree is more than just mere appearance or reflection, there is a real tree there.
The reality is that there is nothing behind the appearance of tree but what our ignorance does is grasp at a thingyness or (it)self of tree – it is called “self-grasping ignorance” and it grasps at things as if they exist in-and-of themselves. Because our mind is grasping all the time at things being real – at real bodies, real tables, real annoying people, really delicious pizza, really horrible death — we suffer. All our delusions come from grasping at things to be more solid or real than they actually are. The wisdom realizing emptiness is the opposite of self-grasping because it realizes there is no thingyness anywhere to be found, and that lack of thingyness, or that lack of inherent existence, is emptiness. The mere absence of thingyness is emptiness itself.
As mentioned, emptiness does not mean a lack or absence of everything. Emptiness is not nothingness. There is still a tree, but it’s just not a real tree. Identifying what it is we are grasping at, which is inherent existence, is called “identifying the object of negation” in Buddhist meditation on emptiness. And I think considering appearance and reality helps us to make this identification.
For example, let’s say that at birth you’d been injected with a purple dye and because of this you saw everything as purple. You see things like doors, your house, your friends, and even yourself as purple. And always have done since birth. Then someone comes along and says, “Ahem, you’ve got some strange pollution in you and it’s causing everything to appear purple. Things are not purple.” And you think, “OH, she’s saying nothing exists. If things aren’t purple, how can they exist?” But, in fact, she is not saying that things don’t exist at all, but that purple things don’t exist, or that things don’t exist in the way that they appear, ie, purple.
Likewise, what Buddha is saying when he says that things are empty of inherent existence is not that things don’t exist at all, but that inherently existent things don’t exist, or that things don’t exist in the way that they appear, ie, inherently existent.
All these things still exist, but they are not purple. The appearance of purple is misleading us into thinking that things are really purple. But they are not really purple. It is distortion in the mind that is causing everything to appear purple. It is a pollutant or contamination in the mind, and to decontaminate or purify the mind we need to see things as they are. What is that pollution, that distortion? It’s ignorance, the root of all suffering.
In Modern Buddhism, available as a free download, there is a beautiful chapter on emptiness called Training in Ultimate Bodhichitta. It is well worth the time to read the whole chapter slowly, deliberately, and contemplatively and take it to heart because it is liberating wisdom from Buddha. There is a section in this chapter called What is Emptiness? (p. 104)
Emptiness is the way things really are. It is the way things exist as opposed to the way that they appear.
If we are still an ordinary being who has not yet realized emptiness …
we naturally believe that the things we see around us, such as tables, chairs, and houses, are truly existent, because we believe that they exist in exactly the way that they appear.
They are true as opposed to fake because their appearance and reality coincide, and this means that they are real because they appear real.
Due to our beginningless grasping at things as being real, at the moment whatever appears to us appears to exist from its own side. It appears to be real. A bit like you’ve been injected with purple dye at birth and that is all you’ve ever seen, so you have deep familiarity with that. In the same way, through our familiarity with self-grasping, not just in this life but in countless previous lives as well, the imprints of this ignorance are causing everything that appears to us to seem to exist from its own side, under its own power. A thing unto itself. But in fact no thing exists like that.
It is our ignorance that causes us to perceive things in that way and then to grasp things in that way. There are two things going on. First off, due to our previous ignorance and the imprints of that ignorance, everything already appears to us as if existing from its own side. I’m over here, you’re over there, stars and planets are over there. This thing we’re reading seems discrete, independent of the mind — we don’t feel our mind has had anything to do with bringing it into existence. It just IS. A minute ago, before you logged onto the blog, you had nothing to do with this article – then it suddenly appeared from its own side and generated a consciousness of itself.
That’s how things appear at the moment. Even we ourselves appear that way to ourselves. We feel real. Our body and breakfast feel real. Everything appears real to us. That’s the first thing that happens.
Then, instead of distrusting that appearance and wondering if things really are as real as they appear, our ignorance immediately latches onto that appearance and assents to it, “Yes. This is how things are.”
It’s just a deep-seated almost instinctive grasping — it’s not like we’re going around saying, “That’s how are they are, that’s how they are.” We are just blindly assenting because we haven’t yet examined to see if they really do exist in that way. A bit like just grasping at things being purple rather than ever examining to see whether things actually are purple.
This carries on here …
I read modern buddhism, and was having a hard time wrapping my head around this concept. I live in Salt lake City, and we get horrible inversions every winter. I used this analogy below to help me understand: (excerpt from my journal)
So if I understand this correctly, our self, I, is like a constant blanket of inversion that the sun cannot break through. Sometimes the sun breaks through and we feel the light, love, and happiness from Buddha, but most of the time the inversion (self-cherishing, self-grasping ignorance) prevent us from being happy (experiencing the sunlight of love, knowledge, peace of mind, etc). If you are above the inversion it is easy to see, but when you are in it, there is physically nothing there to see, touch, feel.
So the idea of meditating on emptiness, is the removal of the inversion, as it doesn’t exist, then meditating on the emptiness where it was that allows the sunlight to break through? I no longer have an inversion (fear, sadness, anger, sorrow, confusion, loss, anxiety, tears, unhappiness, mental anguish) as it doesn’t exist, it never existed.
Interesting. The dictionary definition for inversion: a change in the position, order, or relationship of things so that they are the opposite of what they had been (samsara, ignorance?). And regarding weather: a condition in which air close to the ground is cooler than air above it.
The self-grasping, self-cherishing ignorance has blocked our peace of mind from being freed. Once this inversion has been removed, the warmth of love and kindness breaks through the inversion of lies and warms our souls.
I had pictures, but couldn’t paste them, but there are plenty of examples of images from Little cottonwood canyon with and without inversion to illustrate the point. You can physically see a portion of the air that normally doesn’t exist.
I am very new to Buddhism, so please tell me if I am on the right track. I am going to read the rest of your articles on this concept, but I was excited to have somewhat of an aha moment and to share it.
I like this very much! I have never heard of inversions before so I googled Cottonwood Canyon — they are quite something! It’s really good to come up with our own creative analogies when we meditate, making meditation work for us as you have done here.
I hope you keep exploring — sounds like you are on it 🙂
Pingback: That reminds me… To pay attention to signs | Daily Lamrim
Hi Yogini and Luna,
I just noticied something… Yogini, you said in your post “It’s like having to restructure every single concept I thought I knew, rethink every relationship, restablish every action and its motives, retrain my response to every perception…”
REstructure, REthink, REstablish, REtrain.. in Lunas later article, ‘There is no depth other than emptiness’, Luna states that we REify, make everything solid and real.
A friend of mine was on ITTP when Ocean of Nectar was being taught. He said he would leave each class thinking that he was getting closer to an understanding of emptiness only to feel that the next day the rug was being pulled from right under him. Then he had a mini realization… emptiness is not something to ‘get’.
In his story I can imagine him putting a lot of ‘RE’s’ in his questioning of how things really exist only to eventually arrive at the understanding that what he could do instead was to simply stop REing. Does that make sense?
Yes, makes a lot of sense.
A lovely and easy to understand explanation of one of the most important and profound aspects of buddhist practice. Thank you.
I’m glad, thank you 🙂
Thank you for the lovely article. Emptiness has been my favourite teaching from the start but at times I feel numbed, almost a dispair for not being able to recognise this truth that is staring me right in the eyes, it seems so vivid, so right and yet so masked by my deep ignorance. It’s like having to restructure every single concept I thought I knew, rethink every relationship, restablish every action and its motives, retrain my response to every perception, to be able to accommodate this understanding; it can become such an internal revolution I want to shout really out loud and follow the sound simply to find that is nowhere to be found. Then I end up pacifying that with mundane stuff, feels momentarily grounding and soothing but I know it is deceiving. I am not sure I am making any sense but if you have any advice on how I can go about to make this transition a bit more peaceful, I would really welcome it. Thank you, with love.
I think faith will help, just loving emptiness, trusting all will be revealed. Ask for blessings too when you feel despairing, and remember the story of Sadaprarudita 🙂
Does anyone else have any advice on this?
Thank you Luna, I will try. Love
insight-fully inspires me
to get into nature 🙂
into the real nature of things, their emptiness 🙂
A lovely read. Thank you.