For whom emptiness is possible, everything is possible


During an idyllic mountain retreat on the emptiness of the mind not long ago, we spent all weekend looking for our mind and failing to find it; and then I drove home. On the way I picked up a watery coffee in a garage, thought, “I guess I should just practice WIFI.jpgcontentment with this horrible coffee”, but then a few miles down the road was magnetically drawn into a passing Starbucks against my will. This was in a distant mountain town called, rather charmingly, Loveland.

A first-world problem

As it happens, giving into my attachment like that might have been a mistake. I walked from the car to the coffee shop, ordered my flat white, oh yeah!, and then glanced down at my hands. They were holding a credit card, but that was all.

I looked at my empty hands and thought “Oh dear, help!” The barista looked at me staring strangely at my empty hands and thought “That is a mad woman.” She just saw empty hands. But I saw a very significant object, the lack of car keys.

A very meaningful absence

driving-homeNew terminology alert! Bear with me for a moment …

Emptiness is also known as a “non-affirming negative phenomenon”. It is the mere absence of inherent existence or, to put it another way, the mere absence of the things we normally see. It is “non-affirming” because it does not affirm any other phenomenon.

For example, if I tell you, “My cousin is not female”, that would be called an “affirming negative phenomenon” as the object you perceive is the lack of my cousin being female with the implied observation that my cousin is male. (It is called a “negative phenomenon” not because it is bad, by the way, but because you have to negate something else to get to it, namely a female cousin).

But if I say, “There is no elephant in this room”, all that brings to mind is the lack of an elephant in this room, it does not imply there is a bishop, for example, here instead. You’re just left looking at a mere lack or absence of an elephant in this room, without any other object being implied or affirmed in its place.

Some absences or lacks can be quite significant. If you park your car, do some shopping, and then go back to the parking lot with heavy bags to find an empty space where your car was, what are you seeing? Are you seeing an empty space or are you seeing a lack of car? A mountains-1passer by will be seeing just an empty space, but you will be freaking out because what you are seeing is a very meaningful absence. Not dissimilar to the absence of car keys in my hand.

This sounds a bit technical, I know, but it is actually exceedingly helpful to know that “emptiness” (also known as “selflessness”) is just a mere lack of something. What exactly? Emptiness is the mere lack of everything we have ever thought existed! Knowing this lack is quite significant, to be honest – it is profound knowledge that will free our mind if we become familiar with it.

Why? Well, you know that thing you are worried about? It’s not there. That person you are so hung up on? They are not there. That body which feels sick, not there. The politics you are so mad at, not there. They only appear to be really there because of our ignorance. Everything exists in a state of freedom. Everything is mere appearance to our mind with no substantiality, nothing behind the appearance. So, change your mind, change your world.

It takes time to get a direct or non-conceptual realization of emptiness, at which point all our problems are over forever; but even a slight taste gives us a liberating sense of possibility.

Centered in the solution

After this recent article my dad said: “Still trying to understand what the following means. ‘Buddhas never focus on the problem out of the context of being centered in the solution.’”

mountains-3What is the solution? The simple answer is that it is the realization that everything depends upon the mind, so change the mind and the worry goes away. We already know this a bit because when we are able to calm down and get perspective, for example by taking a few minutes out to breathe and connect to the peace in our heartand perhaps connect to blessings, the situation always seems to improve, become manageable. This means not just that our perception of the situation improves, but the situation itself improves, because there is no situation outside of our perception of it, as explained here.

At its most profound, the solution is realizing emptiness, the mere absence of the things we normally perceive. Because the things we normally perceive are not there at all – which is a meaningful non-affirming negative or absence — we don’t have to get upset, worried, anxious, angry, etc., on our own or others’ behalf, any more than we have to get upset in a dream, if we only knew we were dreaming. For when we wake up, we realize that the situation that seems to be so real is not there — it is mere appearance with no existence from its own side. This doesn’t mean that situations, whether asleep or awake, don’t exist at all, but it does mean they exist in a state of fluidity and freedom, and that just by changing our thoughts we will change the situation.

My dad also asked what was mean by Nagarjuna’s quote, “For whom emptiness is possible, everything is possible.” You know that scene in Kung Fu Panda where Po defeats Tai Lung wuxi-finger-hold-1after a lot of tedious fist fighting. They are fighting each other “out there” to begin with — pretty tiring and tiresome if you ask me — but then with a little twist of Po’s finger, the Wuxi finger hold, everything is dissolved away in all directions. I find that a nice visual for the power of realizing that everything is empty and therefore depends entirely upon our mind, meaning we can change everything effortlessly and immediately if only we realize this.

Does that answer your questions, Dad? If not, let me know 😉

That’s why as soon as we realize we are mere appearance not other than the emptiness of all phenomena, like Buddha Heruka, we can send light rays out to purify and transform HUM.jpgeach and every living being instantaneously and effortlessly. For they are not outside the mind. (And I may as well point out that we are not outside our mind either, and nor is our mind outside our mind – a subject for another day.)

Emptiness — the mere lack of the things we normally perceive — can be accessed through searching for things with wisdom, through reasoning our way into reality in the traditional meditation on emptiness. You can read how to do this search in Transform Your Life and other books, and I’ll try to come back to it later if I live long enough.

Back to my predicament …

Back to my predicament in Loveland… Well, I ran out to look for the car keys and, dear reader, I had parked all of 100 feet away but they were nowhere to be found. Nowhere — even when another young barista decided to come out and help me comb the grass for them. So then, in my usual turn-to when I lose something, I started saying Tara mantras, requesting her help. Immediately a charming man appeared and, hearing of my predicament, helped me look and then said he’d stay and call people for me.

Because of course I had left everything in the locked car, including my phone. And mountains-2including, as it happened, every single telephone number that I might ever have use for. That is one moral of this tale. Failing to dredge up even one phone number from my computer-addled mind, we tried emailing the only two emails I could remember. To no avail. We stood there for a while, me foolishly, both wondering, and then a cop showed up randomly.

Happened they knew each other. And then the cop started googling for break-in companies because he said he was not allowed to break into cars himself any more. But then Tara blessed his mind or something, for he changed his mind, “Hang on, I think I have a colleague who will break in for us.” (Yes, he really said “us”.) So I then had one charming man and half the Loveland police department trying to solve my problem, and lo and behold they did break safely into the car. Whereupon I was able to call one of my usual guardian angels, who appeared a mere 45 minutes later with a spare set of keys. During which 45 minutes I managed to memorize all of 3 phone numbers, including my own, for future eventualities. I wonder if I still remember them …

Moral of the tale

Okay, what was all that about? That mini-first-world panic went to demonstrate:

(1) A great example of a meaningful absence.

(2) The kindness of strangers and how we ALWAYS depend on others, it’s just that we can forget that when seemingly ensconced in our comfort zone cocoons/cars.

(3) An external problem doesn’t have to lead to an internal problem and can even be a source of happiness. For I was happier after all this happened then before it started, and I was already in a great mood from the retreat. I could not help but feel the warm fuzzies due to those 5 Lovelandy men spending their Monday afternoon helping me. And in another twist there was a huge thunderstorm while I was waiting in the car, but instead of being a problem it actually cleaned the car beautifully from the red sticky dust of the unpaved mountain roads.

(If my skin had been a different color it may [or may not] have been a different story – I was conscious of that too; and it gave me some more ideas for an article I have been wanting to write on the subject of discrimination.)

More articles on the emptiness of the mind coming up soonish. Meanwhile, your comments are most welcome.

Related articles:

Emptiness of the mind 

The kindness of others 

The non-thingyness of things 


Who deserves credit for Kung Fu Panda 2 and the rest of our life?!

Po and five

Po’s father

I went to Kung Fu Panda 2 3D yesterday with my father. (He insisted!! Or perhaps that was me?!) Either way, it was even better than I thought it would be – both entertaining and inspirational. I will write an article on it soonish but, before I do, I want to start at the end. Which is also the beginning…

Remembering the kindness of others

At the end of the movie, the closing credits rolled for many minutes; page after page of people who were responsible for writing, directing, producing, filming, editing, designing, composing, visual effects, animating, modeling, supervising, engineering, and all round awesomeness!!

Thousands of people were kind enough to bring this one and a half hour movie into creation for our enjoyment. We may even notice and acknowledge a few of them, e.g. Jack Black and Angelina Jolie🙂 But though I decided this time to stay to the very end, everyone else in the auditorium had left long before the credits finished rolling.

Thousands of people are also involved in bringing an hour and a half of our regular life into creation too – in fact we are dependent upon the kindness of thousands of people at any given moment. We may even notice a few of them, at least every now and then, and if they are obvious enough!

People left the cinema the moment the action stopped most likely because where the action actually came from didn’t seem sufficiently relevant to them, and besides they had things to do and their own lives to get on with. In a similar way, in our busy lives, in our personal worlds, with our own individual priorities and conceptual thoughts, it is rare to acknowledge everyone who has been involved one way or another in giving us literally everything we need to live moment by moment. Our self-grasping ignorance is in fact telling us that we are independent and don’t depend that much on others, that we are somehow self-made, that our world revolves around us as the main protagonist with everyone else being a bit player.

Take this moment. Perhaps you feel that you are moreorless alone in it, reading this – you’re not bothering anyone and likewise no one is bothering you. We’re all somehow separate. But if we look carefully we see that we are never alone and that every breath, every thought, every cell comes entirely from others.

You are looking at this on a screen on some magical electronic gadget, which in itself is the result of the imagination and work of many thousands of people; and the infrastructure that supported them involved many more people. You are able to read this because people taught you to read and because you have eyes that depend on your parents and on all the food and medicines you’ve taken throughout your life to keep you alive. I’ll assume you’re wearing clothes, which if you check the labels you will see come from people all over the world and the families who support them. And so on, ad infinitum.

Even our ability to contribute depends on the kindness of many others. For example, our education, our money, our skills, our job, our audience, our supporters and our responsibilities only exist due to the kindness, generosity and willingness of others. When we find ourself in a responsible or exalted position, it is easy to develop a pride thinking that we are rather special and higher up because others depend upon us, not the other way round. But the fact is that the more we are in a position to contribute, the more we depend upon them, even as the objects of our contribution, and therefore the more cause for humility we have. If they were to withdraw their support, our infrastructure would crumble and we would be nothing. So we might as well get off the fragile pedestal constructed by our pride and join everyone else on level ground. (It’s more fun down here anyway😉

It is rare to be grateful for more than a fraction of the kindness we have received from others. The kindness of others is not new information – it becomes obvious as soon as we take anything more than a superficial egotistical glance at the apparently solid uncaused infrastructure of our lives! There is a meditation in Buddhism called remembering the kindness of others. We only need to remember something if we’ve forgotten it in the first place. You can learn this meditation in Modern Buddhism, now available completely free, no strings attached, as an e-Book due to the kindness of the author and, one way or another, the actions of thousands of other people past and present:

We are able to make use of many things with very little effort on our own part. If we consider facilities such as roads, cars, trains, airplanes, ships, houses, restaurants, hotels, libraries, hospitals, shops, money and so on, it is clear that many people worked very hard to provide these things. Even though we make little or no  contribution towards the provision of these facilities, they are all available for us to use. This shows the great kindness of others. Both our general education and our spiritual training are provided by others. (p 67 ff)

If we had a closing credit for each moment of our lives, it’d be at least as impossible to keep up with reading all the names as it was in Kung Fu Panda.

The Kadampa Temple for World Peace, Sarasota, Florida

The other day I attended the Florida New Kadampa Tradition temple opening. For nine years I was very much involved at that center, during which time the temple project was started and much money was raised. The Je Tsongkhapa statues were imported, painted and filled, and the five lineages of Dharma Protector Dorje Shugden created from scratch by talented artists at Manjushri KMC, and dedicated from the start to KMC Florida. I and many others prayed every day for a long time for this temple to arise.

Young Jin No (foreground)

However I have been living elsewhere for the past three years, during which time the temple was constructed under the expert building direction of Young Jin No, an old student who had previously built another center in Florida. She showed me around, no detail too small to rejoice in.

offerings of light

The temple is magnificent. There is no doubt that the modern day Kadampa master Geshe Kelsang has given the Sunshine State the most outrageously wonderful gift. And thousands of man and woman hours have also gone into it. It depends entirely upon millions of causes created both in this life and no doubt in previous lives – take any one of those causes away and this particular temple would not exist. Apart from making prayers and rejoicing, I myself have been out of it for the past three years, during which time new people have become involved who don’t know me from Adam. This is true of a number of people who were previously entirely instrumental in the temple even in this life, not to mention previous lives! But although only a few people may now recognize our contribution, I realized during the opening ceremony that not one of the causes we created was lost. And that even if there had been a closing credit of us and everyone else who has ever helped bring this temple into existence, no one would have been much interested anyway – for how interested are we really in the people who built our house, made our roads, taught us at school, and so on?! Isn’t that ancient history?! Are we not mainly just interested in how we can personally use these things now, in the present?!

From my own side, it has always seemed a bit pointless seeking praise or reputation, or being upset and demoralized when I am ignored, misunderstood or criticized. I have found it far more constructive and rewarding to concern myself with developing positive states of mind and good karmic intentions. Being attached to praise and reputation are so-called “worldly concerns” that do nothing to help us overcome our pride and self-cherishing, which is why the great Kadampa mind-training master Atisha famously declared in his Advice:

“Words of praise and fame serve only to beguile us, therefore blow them away as you would blow your nose.”

(BTW, have you ever noticed how Geshe Kelsang blows his nose during the long-life prayer done for him at festivals?!)

On the other hand, remembering and acknowledging what others have done and do for us right down to the cellular level is a supremely powerful method for breaking us out of our own little worlds by seeing how dependent on others we actually are. Other people are, in fact, not bit players but the main protagonists in our life, deserving at least equal billing! This wisdom understanding interdependence gives us humility, gratitude and loving-kindness, and the wish to repay their kindness. It makes us happy and peaceful.

So me and dad stayed right to the end of Kung Fu Panda 2 and I mentally thanked everyone whose names were appearing on the screen — right down to the technical resource tester and post-production office supervisor — for the enjoyment they had given us! Moreover, though there was no visible screen of rolling credits at KMC Florida, I felt grateful the whole weekend I was there; and as a result I had a blast!

There is nothing to stop me or you from remembering the kindness of others every day, every moment, of our lives. Your comments, including how you do this meditation, are very welcome. And please share this article if you like it.

Kung Fu Panda and the Secret Ingredient

Po 4

Buddha teaches that everything is projected by our mind; and of course this is clear when it comes to movies! But we like to be drawn into them as we like a good story, just as we usually allow ourselves to be sucked up by the drama of our own lives even if we know it is not real.

For me movies can be a time-wasting distraction or they can be helpful. It depends on whether I’m watching them out of some delusion/unpeaceful mind such as attachment or laziness, or out of some positive motivation such as the wish to expand my horizons to empathize with others.

Nothing is completely untransformable if we have the wish, capacity and methods to do it – even violent movies could be seen as a battle against delusions. Of course, it is risky to watch movies that may engender unpeaceful, uncontrolled reactions such as hatred or anger in us, so it is worth being honest to ourselves about our level of mindfulness and our ability to transform appearances to stay peaceful. It is worth protecting ourselves by not straying over certain boundaries (as in the practice of moral discipline).

If we’re going to watch a movie, some movies are probably easier for us to transform and derive meaning from than others, and I personally count Kung Fu Panda as an example. I watched it on the airplane and found a lot of uplifting Buddhist teachings in it. So I thought I’d share a few seeing as Kung Fu Panda 2 is coming out on May 26 and no doubt some of you will be watching it, especially if you have the excuse of kids!

Masters and students

My favorite theme is the transformative relationships between the Masters and their students. The Panda Po says to Master Shifu, “You are not my master!”, but that changes when he believes he can learn to be a great Kung Fu warrior and that Master Shifu can teach him. Similarly, we only need a Spiritual Guide if we decide we want to follow in his footsteps along a spiritual path.

Shifu maintains great devotion to his own Master Oogway, even when he seems to be behaving erratically and appointing a very odd choice for the Dragon Warrior. He questions his Master but listens carefully to his replies and is inspired by them. “Obeying the master is not a weakness” says Shifu to the snow leopard Tai Lung. Tai Lung shows the treacherous contrast of what happens if we let our pride and self-cherishing run out of control, and how feeling superior to our own teacher inevitably ends up sooner or later in hubristic disaster.

What can we control?

Master Oogway says we have to accept that we cannot control everything. Shifu replies that we can control some things and shows this by hitting the Sacred Peach Tree of Heavenly Wisdom to get the peaches to fall and planting a peach seed from which a tree will grow. Master Oogway points out that we can only get a peach tree not an apple tree from that seed, teaching the definite relationship between cause and effect (karma). But then he shows the manner of passing away into the Dharmakaya Truth Body by dissolving into emptiness, showing that for whom emptiness is possible, anything is possible, as the famous Buddhist teacher Nagarjuna said.

Just believe

Po is lumbering and clumsy, at least for as long as he identifies with “me”, a limited self, in his case a big fat lazy Panda. But he doesn’t want to be “me” any more, he wants to change. And Master Oogway gives both Master Shifu and Po the confidence to believe in Po’s ability to do it, and believing is what we need to do if we are to let go of our ego, fulfill our potential and make spiritual progress. (However, unlike in the movie, we are all “chosen”). And Master Shifu also realizes there can be no cookie cutter approach to teaching one’s students, especially these days. The teacher and student sometimes need to think out of the box and find other ways, even if these are unconventional (and involve dumplings).


Po’s humility is what enables him to succeed. He has an ingenuousness and zest for life that is very refreshing for the five great and good warriors who have gotten slightly institutionalized and by the book in the Jade Palace. Po is down to earth and unobsequious but at the same time entirely and humbly in awe of Kung Fu and its masters. For me he was an example of staying fresh on our spiritual path, devoted to the teachings, teachers and living beings but not rigidly going through the motions, becoming sycophantic and/or developing a superiority complex in an ivory tower. We need discipline, but we also need lightness of touch and the ability to respect each others’ differences.

Even at the end when Po has defeated Tai Lung and the whole valley are prostrating to him and chanting “Master”, he doesn’t develop a trace of pride or identify with that praise. That word simply reminds him of his own master, so he turns around and rushes back up the steps to see him.

What is the secret ingredient?

And the other thing is that Po realizes something very important when he enters the mystery of the dragon scroll – he does not need to add anything at all from the outside to fulfill his potential. As his father, the goose Mr. Ping, finally confides about his Secret Ingredient Soup, the secret ingredient is …. that there is no secret ingredient! We don’t need a secret ingredient. We don’t need to be someone “special”. We all have the potential already to be great. This is our Buddha nature.

Movies and us

Okay, I know, I have read far too much into this movie! And a cartoon to boot! But I guess that’s the point; we can and do see anything anywhere because nothing is really out there, it is all projection of our own minds. I cannot find a world outside of my experience of the world, and when I change my mind, my world itself automatically changes. In Joyful Path of Good Fortune, my own Master Geshe Kelsang Gyatso says:

Milarepa said that he regarded everything that appeared to his mind as a Dharma book. All things confirmed the truth of Buddha’s teachings and increased his spiritual experience.

So, if we are going to watch movies, we might as well make them into spiritual teachings!

Have you got a favorite example?

By the way, if you want a free Buddhist meditation book from a world-renowned Buddhist master and author, you are in luck! Click here:

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