The moment I stepped foot in the stunning IKRC temple last June, pictured here, I felt very peaceful — the blessings palpable. As no one was around, I decided on impulse to do a thought experiment: could I make myself miserable and develop delusions while sitting in this Pure Land on earth? I gave it a good go – I tried to think of several depressing and annoying things — but my mind didn’t shift. Blessings have this power – it’s one reason why people have such a good time at the International Festivals.
Mahamudra: the union of great bliss and emptiness
Through the practice of relying on Guru Sumati Buddha Heruka we receive blessings that help us gain the realization of the union of Heruka and all the realizations that lead up to that. As Venerable Geshe-la said:
Many of Je Tsongkhapa’s disciples, and their disciples in turn, became enlightened Buddhas in their lifetime by attaining the realization of the union of great bliss and emptiness through practicing the instructions of the Ganden Oral Lineage.
One of the pre-eminent qualities of Je Tsongkhapa’s doctrine is that he made it relatively straightforward to realize the true nature of reality, the union of great bliss and emptiness. This is where all our practices are leading us. Genla Dekyong, the General Spiritual Director of the NKT and a beautiful Kadampa teacher, spoke a lot about this last year at an International Festival in Malaga and the NKT teachers are passing this on; so you’ll no doubt find out more from her or your local Kadampa teacher. In Prayer for the Flourishing of the Doctrine of Je Tsongkhapa, the great scholar Gungtang says:
The emptiness that is explained in Buddha’s Sutra teachings
And the great bliss that is explained in Buddha’s Tantric teachings —
The union of these two is the very essence of Buddha’s eight-four thousand teachings.
May the doctrine of Conqueror Losang Dragpa flourish for evermore.
(“Losang Dragpa” is Je Tsongkhapa’s ordained name.) And Venerable Geshe Kelsang explains:
In Je Tsongkhapa’s teachings, we find a clear, unmistaken, and complete explanation of emptiness and also a clear, unmistaken, and complete explanation of great bliss.
Experiencing the union of bliss and emptiness is what’s going to solve all our problems once and for all. We need to understand the object emptiness and generate the mind of bliss, and then mix these together so they become non-dual. The sooner we do this, the quicker it’s going to happen for us. So here are a few thoughts on emptiness.
Like a dream
What does our present life mean to us? What are we thinking about all day long? Do we find ourselves all caught up in the minutiae of what’s going on – wondering and discussing what’s happening at work, what everyone’s up to, what did they say, what will I say, how can I do this, get there, sort this out, etc etc? Or do we question where, when, and how all this detail can be taking place at all?
If we knew we were dreaming, would we be sitting around and discussing the particulars? Would we be getting caught up with every detail as if it was concrete and real? Or would we be contemplating where all this is coming from and where it all goes? And, since it all depends on my mind, what can I do with my mind? How far can I take this understanding to change my reality? How can I help others with this knowledge?
For example, last night, I had a pretty mundane dream in which I was just fiddling around with things in a dusty old drawer, wondering whether or not I needed to pack them in order to go somewhere. People were trying to hurry me up, and I was a bit like, “Don’t hurry me! I have to go through this entire drawer, I have to see what I need to take.” And it was just everyday items like pencils, nothing valuable at all (and within a dream, what is valuable?!); but I felt stressed about it, pressured to hurry up and pack or they’d go without me. As soon as I woke up, it was, “Well, that didn’t happen! What was I concerned about?”
Looking ahead then to the day and all the things I needed to do, I could see that none of these details was really going to happen either. There is nothing going on outside the mind. So, of course, I can deal appropriately with conventional or relative reality and go through my to-do list, but with a very light touch because it’s all dream-like and what matters most is my mind or my intention — WHY I’m doing the things I’m doing. Is this helping others? Is this helping to liberate my mind?
One thing to consider: When we are dreaming, our mind is clearly functioning like a projector. When we are awake, why would our mind change from a projector to a camera?
With attachment to just this life, which is generally where our mind is at before we meet Dharma, I think we do just think about the details of this life. We can easily wrap ourselves up in knots of conceptual thinking – tie ourselves down so that we cannot soar, we cannot fly. We don’t feel light, we don’t feel particularly happy a lot of the time, we are weighed down by our own thoughts. When we start thinking about impermanence and death, this wakes us up a little to the fact that this life is perhaps a mere pinprick in the tapestry of time. These words are a magic pill to let go of being so preoccupied and worried with details: “I may die today.”
Being preoccupied with this life alone, I think, is like being preoccupied with the things in a dream. The outer boundaries of our existential reality, as far as we see it, are just the confines of that dream – and it is the same for the confines of this one short life. When we understand the continuum of consciousness, we can see that we have countless lives; and that upon leaving this dream-like life we’ll be going straight to another. This already starts to open new doorways in our mind.
By the way, when you are dreaming, who exactly is doing the dreaming? It is not the person who is wandering around in the dream world – that person is as dreamed up as the rest of the dream world. And when we realize this about our own life — that we’re just dreaming our world AND our self into existence — then it’s not hard to see how everybody else is doing the same. Everybody is stumbling through life relating to everything as real, when it’s not. Since this means that they’re creating suffering for themselves, we develop a wish to become an Awakened One (Skt. Buddha) ourselves so that we can wake everybody else up.
In How to Transform Your Life, after explaining how everything is like a dream, Venerable Geshe-la says:
If we think deeply about this, we will understand how we can cause all the unpleasant things that we dislike to cease simply by abandoning impure, deluded state of mind; and we can cause all the pleasant things that we desire to arise simply by developing a pure mind.
I don’t think this means that we can stop things happening as it were — appearances are still going to appear, such as sickness, annoying co-workers, and so on, due to our karma. We cannot go around waving a wand and literally change everything into bunnies and rainbows. (Actually, one day, when we have a direct realization of emptiness, maybe we can. Sort of. Depending on everyone’s karma. Subject for another day.) What it means is that we can reframe these appearances by understanding that they are mere karmic appearance of mind, mere imputation, not existing outside the mind — and so by changing our mind we change them. Our experiences of them change, and so THEY change. With this understanding, we can patiently accept whatever appearances are arising because we know we are able to transform them.
As a simple illustration of this … a friend was telling me yesterday that she is volunteering again at a homeless shelter. She used to volunteer there before COVID and before meeting Dharma, and she was very judgmental – she wanted to help, but at the same time she’d be wondering why the clients weren’t pulling themselves up by their bootstraps and also seeing faults in her co-workers. However, this time she is having a very different experience. She sees that everyone has Buddha nature. She sees that everyone wants to be happy and free just like her, and everyone is equally important, a Me. She sees love everywhere. “It is a completely different world”, she said, “almost like working in a Pure Land.”
Unfindability: the meditation on emptiness
Once we wake from the sleep of ignorance, we will know that nothing exists outside the mind. Before we wake up, however, how can we prove this to ourselves? We have to look for everything with wisdom. This is basically the meditation on emptiness.
I just saw a plane flying through the crystal blue Colorado sky. In The Perfection of Wisdom Sutras Buddha says that just as we cannot measure the depth of an ocean by shooting an arrow into it, so we cannot find anything when we search for it with wisdom. I sometimes think of that when I watch an airplane – we can never measure the depth of the sky with an airplane. There’s now an airplane going off in the other direction, also slicing through the sky with no trace, never touching anything.
Let’s take our body as an example of unfindability. It’s a good idea, if our body is no longer to our liking because it’s getting flabbier or older for example, to let that inspire in us the recollection that we are — thank goodness — not our bodies. For one thing, we stole this meaty thing from bits of other people’s bodies:
We normally say “My body, my body” as If our present gross body is our real body, but this is not our actual body because originally it was part of our parents’ bodies. ~ Geshe Kelsang Gyatso
For another thing, in so far as we did nab it off our parents, my body is still not “me”, it is my possession, “My body.” It is something I use, like my fork. I am not a fork or a body. I have a fork or a body.
And for yet another thing, there is no truly existent body to begin with — the body we normally see doesn’t exist at all, it is a total hallucination. Like the airplane slicing through the endless space of the sky, we cannot find our body upon investigation. Which means we can be satisfied instead with mere name or mere appearance body that is not other than its emptiness.
For these reasons, if we don’t like this body we normally see, it’s not such a big deal – in fact, we can let that motivate us to remember who we really are. This understanding of emptiness also helps us to see past other people’s impure or ordinary bodies and, along with those ordinary bodies, all their ordinary sickness and aging and death. This is just mistaken appearance, which means it is possible to stop grasping at it and impute or project pure bodies instead.
Nothing is findable. There’s nothing actually going on out there. For example, this house I’m sitting in right now has 7 rooms or thereabouts. One question I like to ask myself is “Where is the house that possesses 7 rooms?” And, for that matter, where is the body that possesses its arms, legs, and so on? Where is the self that possesses a body and mind? What happens when we try to point to it? Wherever we look, only space-like emptiness.
No longer boxed in
Through Dharma in general and through the teachings on emptiness in particular we come to realize that nothing is as solid, real, or fixed as it seems. There is a lot of space. Everything just is very spacious. As nothing exists from its own side, there is no depth other than emptiness. Normally our mind gets very crowded because it is so caught up with seeming externals, like a dog with a bone. We can’t let go of things and this leads to anxiety or depression, for example, because our mind feels so dark, so tight, so unspacious. But when we start meditating on Dharma, an infinite amount of space starts to open up in our mind; and with space we discover we can solve our problems.
Eventually we don’t feel boxed in by anything. We don’t feel boxed in by time, we don’t feel boxed in by space, and we don’t feel boxed in by any of the objects or supposed material reality that seems to be occupying that space. Everything is endless space.
Where is endless space and time?
Even space itself isn’t findable. Where is infinite space exactly?! Is it just off the M25?! Where is everything? As a friend wrote to me a few days ago:
“Science has become the new religion in recent years. Not that any of the big philosophical questions were ever answered, they’ve just been brushed under the carpet. And we’re concerned and fascinated by our apparent mastery of the minutiae of the observable universe. But excuse me please, in the bigger picture, where or how the heck is any of this existence actually taking place? 🤣”
For that matter, when is everything? When is beginningless time? When is endless time? The same friend was telling me he saw a 200 million year old (dead) dinosaur in the National History Museum and was trying to wrap his mind around that – where and when is 200 million years? How can that exist outside the mind? Not to mention the meteorite he also saw that was more like 200 billion years old — yet here he was looking at it in the present moment, and where now is its very long past? Time doesn’t stretch behind things like a railroad track, somehow independent of those things. As taught in Ocean of Nectar and mentioned in this article, there are only pasts OF things and futures OF things. All functioning things are necessarily present.
One of the best ways to loosen up our mind and get a feeling for emptiness is to keep coming back to the dream-like nature of things. The past has disappeared like last night’s dream; it is no more real nor substantial than that. As Geshe-la says in How to Transform Your Life:
The things that I normally see in dreams do not exist.
This proves that the things that I normally see when awake do not exist.
Since both of these things are equally mistaken appearance.
Where is space in a dream? Where is time in a dream? How can it exist outside of our mind? For example, imagine dreaming of a 200 billion year old meteorite. Where and when is it? It is just appearing in the present moment, as appearance to mind, but it possesses, or has, a past and a future. This is true of everything.
Through meditating on emptiness, our grasping at mistaken appearances diminishes and the mistaken appearances start to disappear. Eventually we attain enlightenment itself — the inner light of wisdom that is permanently free from mistaken appearances.
The best vacation
The more we contemplate emptiness, the happier we become. also for the article. So often we want to get away from our lives, they are overwhelming us, we need a vacation. And the very best way to get away from our lives is to meditate on compassion and wisdom. These give us all the space and time we need.
I was thinking how we often go through the day just hoping that everything will go our way or worried that it may not go our way. In a way, we want to reverse that so we’re not worrying about whether or not things go our way but are more interested in what we’re bringing to the day — how are we helping the people we meet, bringing love and wisdom to every situation? This takes a lot of worry out of the day because it actually puts us in control. Things don’t need to go our way. We’re bringing it.
The mind of spontaneous great bliss is naturally free from dualistic or mistaken appearances and therefore mixes with its object emptiness like water mixing with water. Venerable Geshe-la quotes a prayer by Je Tsongkhapa:
Through identifying the meaning of union correctly, may I be permanently free from mistaken appearance.
The union of bliss and emptiness is a non-dual experience. What does that feel like? We will only know this fully when we get our winds into the central channel to develop actual spontaneous great bliss; but in the meantime I think it’s really helpful to imagine it.
Whenever we see a world outside of our mind, it’s not because there IS a world outside of our mind. It is because we have dualistic thinking. When the winds are flowing in the left and right channels, they support dualistic thoughts, so everything appears out there, separate from us, me over here and everything else over there. But it doesn’t mean it is — it just means we’re seeing it that way.
When all our winds are absorbed into the central channel at the heart, there is no sense in which we’re somehow inside and everything else is outside. Everything basically dissolves into that clarity of great bliss, in which nothing appears inherently existent or independent — there is no self nor other, no here nor there, no inside nor outside, no up nor down, no now nor then. Everything is non-dual; and there is nothing whatsoever outside of that bliss and emptiness. Worth meditating on!
There’s that expression to describe someone like a Yogini or a Bodhisattva, they are: “In the world but not of the world.” Which is good as far as it goes. But my question is, which world are they not of? The things we normally see do not exist. The things we normally saw do not exist. And the things we normally will see do not exist.
Faith in bliss and emptiness
When we first hear about attaining enlightenment through developing our compassion and wisdom, maybe we think it’s a bit far-fetched or utopian. But as we start practicing Dharma and our mind becomes more peaceful and wise, we realize that it is possible to go all the way. In Understanding the Mind, Venerable Geshe-la explained that faith is like pure eyes that allow us to see beyond this suffering world. We believe that pure states of mind, pure beings, and pure worlds can and do exist, and that we ourselves can experience these. We need faith because there is no future in this world created by delusions – as the saying goes, we cannot make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. We need to have faith in our own and others’ capacity to purify and transform our minds – believing in this, admiring it, and wishing for it. As Geshe-la says in How to Transform Your Life:
I will never grasp at the things I normally see,
But just be satisfied with their mere name.
By doing this I will liberate myself permanently
From the sufferings of this life and countless future lives.
In this way I will be able to benefit each and every living being every day.
All of which is to say that the union of Heruka, enlightenment, would be a wonderful achievement; and over time, if we keep studying and meditating, we will probably come to want this more and more.