From: ‘Heart-wood from the Bo Tree’, a collection of three talks given by Venerable Ajahn Buddhadasa
to the Dhamma study group at Siriraj Hospital in Bangkok, in 1961.
In the previous talk I spoke of emptiness as being an important subject but the occasion didn’t permit me to give it the special attention necessary for a thorough understanding. So, as some aspects of this subject of emptiness remain obscure, today I have come to talk about it especially.
Emptiness is the most difficult to understand of all the Buddhist Teachings because it is their innermost heart. Being called a heart it must obviously be something subtle and profound. Its understanding does not lie within the scope of mere conjecture or the sort of pondering that ordinary people are accustomed to. It can only be understood by determined study.
The most essential meaning of the word ‘study’ is of the unceasing, dedicated observation and investigation of whatever arises in the mind, be it pleasant or unpleasant. Only one familiar with observation of mind, can really understand Dhamma. One who merely reads books cannot understand and what’s more, may even go astray. But one who tries to observe things going on in the mind and always takes that which is true in his or her mind as a standard has no way to get muddled. Such a person will be able to comprehend Dukkha and the cessation of Dukkha and ultimately will understand Dhamma. Then if books are read they will be understood well.
From the moment of birth to the time of death we must train ourselves in this way, examining the contact of the mind with objects that surround it and the nature of the results of that contact, for in the natural process there will inevitably be both pleasure and pain and observing them will make the mind wiser and more resilient. To keep observing that nature of our thoughts generates a mind emptied of Dukkha, and so is the very best knowledge there is. Through it we gain familiarity with the realization or awareness of emptiness.
Our spiritual disease is not a disease of the brain or nervous system but is an illness affecting truth-discerning awareness (satipanna), that which knows our life and the world as they truly are. So it refers to Ignorance or the wrong understanding that springs from ignorance and causes the wrong actions that lead to Dukkha, even if physically and mentally we are quite healthy.
When we are suffering from Spiritual Disease with what must we treat it? We must treat it with emptiness. What’s more, emptiness (sunnata) is not only the cure for the disease but is also freedom from the disease. There is nothing beyond emptiness.
The medicine which cures the disease is the knowledge and practice that gives birth to emptiness. When emptiness has appeared it will be the sure of the disease and after the recovery from the disease there will be nothing save emptiness, the state void of Dukkha and void of the mental defilements that are the cause of Dukkha. This emptiness, which has that wide breadth of meaning, is self-existent: nothing can touch it, develop it or improve it, or do anything to it. Thus it is a timeless state for it knows neither birth nor death. Its ‘being’ is not the same as the being of things which are born and die but since we have no other word to use, we say that it has being characterized by immutable emptiness.
If anyone realizes, that is to say if anyone’s mind realizes this thing, then it will be the medicine that cures the disease, a state timelessly empty. It is true health.
Please keep trying to grasp the meaning of this word, or sunnata as it is in Pali, as I explain it point by point.
Firstly, consider the point that the Buddha declared that every word that he, the Tathagata, (one who is gone to Suchness), spoke referred to the subject of emptiness. He spoke of no other matter, either directly or indirectly. Any talk unconnected with the subject of emptiness is not the speech of the Tathagata but of disciples of a later time who liked to speak at great length to show how clever and articulate they were.
One can, if one wants to, add much more, for example: That emptiness is the absence of self or what belongs to a self for the word emptiness has a whole host of applications. Although the characteristic of emptiness remains constant, its expressions are innumerable. That being so, we will aim to examine emptiness only as the absence of Dukkha and the defilements that are the cause of Dukkha and as the absence of the feeling that there is a self or that there are things which are the possessions of a self. This is emptiness as it relates to our practice of Dhamma.
If we enquire which of the Buddha’s utterances dealing with this matter can be taken as authoritative statements we fill find in many places the Buddha taught us to know how to look on the world as being empty, as in the phrase “Sunnato lokam avekkhassu mogharaja sada sato” which means “You should look on the world as being empty”. If you can be always aware of the emptiness of the world, death will not find you.
These words of the Buddha enjoining us to see the world as being empty show that it is the highest thing. Anyone who wants to be without problems concerning Dukkha and death, should look on the world, i.e. on all things, as they truly are, namely as empty, neither “I” nor “mine”. The statements of the Buddha that follow on from this show the benefits: ‘Nibbana paranam sunnam’ and ‘Nibbanam paramam sukham’, which translate as ‘Nibbana is the supreme emptiness’ and ‘Nibbana is the supreme happiness’. You must understand that Nibbana, the remainderless extinction of Dukkha, means the same as supreme emptiness, and that it is possible to know and realize an emptiness that is not supreme, an emptiness that is in some way deficient or false. The truth-discerning awareness must be so impeccably clear that one has not the slightest feeling of “self” or “belonging to a self” for it to be called paramam sunnam, supreme emptiness. Supreme emptiness is Nibbana because it completely extinguishes the things that are on fire, the stream or whirlpool of flowing and changing phenomena. Thus the supreme emptiness and the supreme extinction are one and the same thing.”
“These words of the Buddha enjoining us to see the world as being empty show that it is the highest thing. Anyone who wants to be without problems concerning Dukkha and death, should look on the world, i.e. on all things, as they truly are, namely as empty, neither “I” nor “mine”. The statements of the Buddha that follow on from this show the benefits: ‘Nibbana paranam sunnam’ and ‘Nibbanam paramam sukham’, which translate as ‘Nibbana is the supreme emptiness’ and ‘Nibbana is the supreme happiness’. You must understand that Nibbana, the remainderless extinction of Dukkha, means the same as supreme emptiness, and that it is possible to know and realize an emptiness that is not supreme, an emptiness that is in some way deficient or false. The truth-discerning awareness must be so impeccably clear that one has not the slightest feeling of “self” or “belonging to a self” for it to be called paramam sunnam, supreme emptiness. Supreme emptiness is Nibbana because it completely extinguishes the things that are on fire, the stream or whirlpool of flowing and changing phenomena. Thus the supreme emptiness and the supreme extinction are one and the same thing.
As for the saying that Nibbana is the supreme happiness, it is an expression in the language of relative truth, a sort of enticing propaganda in the language of the common man used because in general people are infatuated with happiness, they want nothing else. So it is necessary to tell them that Nibbana is happiness and what’s more, is the supreme happiness. But truly speaking Nibbana is greater than happiness, beyond it. It is emptiness. It can’t be said to be either happiness or suffering because it lies beyond both the suffering and the happiness known by the common man. But when one speaks like this, people don’t understand, and so it is said instead, in the language of the worldly, that it is ultimate happiness. This being so, when using the word happiness you must be careful to use it in its proper sense. It is not the happiness that people generally see or aspire to. It is a different sort of happiness, it is the state empty of every single thing that proliferates, flows and changes. Thus it is truly lovely, truly refreshing and truly desirable. For if there is still flowing and changing, a constant swaying and rocking, how can there be happiness?
Thus the feelings of pleasure arising from contact with the various sense-objects are illusory, they are not ultimate happiness. The happiness of the common man is not the supreme happiness of Nibbana that is emptiness. So in hearing the phrase ‘Nibbana is the supreme happiness’, don’t go jumping to the conclusion that Nibbana is exactly what you are looking for and start dreaming about it without taking into consideration that it is also the supreme emptiness.
The saying of the Buddha which deals with the practice in regards to emptiness is the one that is the heart of the Buddhist Teachings; ‘Sabbe dhamma nalam abhinivesaya’ which translates literally as ‘No dhamma whatsoever should be grasped at or clung to’. If one amplifies the meaning a little it may be rendered as ‘no one should grasp or cling to anything as being I or mine’. ‘No one’ means that there are no exceptions; ‘should grasp or cling’ means to give rise to ego-consciousness; ‘as being I’ refers to the feeling called ahamkara, the grasping at a (nonexistent) soul or abiding ego-entity; ‘as being mine’ refers to the feeling called mamamkara, the grasping as phenomena as being connected to ego. So don’t have ahamkara or mamamkara with regard to anything at all starting from a worthless speck of dust up to valuable objects such as diamonds, sapphires, gems and the objects of sensual desire and on to things higher than that – Dhamma, it’s theory, practice and attainment, the Path-Realization, their Fruits and Nibbana. Nothing whatsoever should be clung to as being “I” or “mine”. This is the heart of the Buddhist Teachings and was affirmed to be so by the Buddha himself.”
So don’t have ahamkara or mamamkara with regard to anything at all starting from a worthless speck of dust up to valuable objects such as diamonds, sapphires, gems and the objects of sensual desire and on to things higher than that – Dhamma, it’s theory, practice and attainment, the Path-Realization, their Fruits and Nibbana. Nothing whatsoever should be clung to as being “I” or “mine”. This is the heart of the Buddhist Teachings and was affirmed to be so by the Buddha himself.
He said that to have heard the phrase ‘sabbe dhamma nalam abhinivesaya’ is to have heard every phrase of the Teachings, to have put it into practice is to have done every practice; and to have reaped the fruits of that practice is to have reaped every fruit of the Buddhist Teachings. So we don’t have to be afraid that there is too much to understand. The Buddha made the comparison that the things he had realized were as many as all the leaves in the forest but those which he had brought out to teach were a single handful. The ‘single handful’ he was referring to was this principle of not grasping at or clinging to anything as self or as belonging to a self.
To have heard this phrase is to have heard every phrase because all subjects are condensed within it. Of all the things that the Buddha taught there wasn’t one that didn’t deal with Dukkha and the elimination of Dukkha. Grasping and clinging are the cause of Dukkha. When there is grasping and clinging there is suffering. The practice is to make the non-arising of grasping and clinging final and permanent, so that the mind is unceasingly empty. Just that is enough. There is nothing else to do.
‘This practice is every practice’. Try to think if there’s anything that remains to be practiced. At any moment that any person, whether it’s Mr. Smith or Mrs. Jones or anyone at all, has a mind that is free of grasping and clinging, what will there be present in their minds? Please think it over. We can take it step by step from the Triple Refuge to virtuous conduct, samadhi and the discernment of truth, on to the Path Realizations, their Fruits and Nibbana. At that moment they have reached the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha for to have a heart free of the mental defilements and Dukkha is to be one with the heart of the Triple Gem. They have reached them without having to shout out ‘Buddham saranam gacchami’ or any of the rest of it. Crying out ‘Buddham saranam gacchami’ and so on is just a ritual ceremony of entrance and is an external matter; it doesn’t penetrate to the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha in the heart. If at any moment any person at all has a mind empty of grasping at and clinging to ‘I’ and ‘mine’, even if it is only for an instant, it means that the mind has realized emptiness. It is pure, radiant and at peace. It is one and the same thing as the heart of the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha. Thus at any moment that one has a mind empty in this way one has taken refuge, one has reached the Triple Gem.”
If at any moment any person at all has a mind empty of grasping at and clinging to ‘I’ and ‘mine’, even if it is only for an instant, it means that the mind has realized emptiness. It is pure, radiant and at peace. It is one and the same thing as the heart of the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha. Thus at any moment that one has a mind empty in this way one has taken refuge, one has reached the Triple Gem.
To move onto giving dana (alms) and making donations. The meaning of giving dana and donations is to relinquish, to end all grasping at and clinging to things as being ‘I’ or ‘mine’. As for giving in order to receive a much greater reward, such as a tiny amount and asking for a mansion up in heaven, that’s not giving, it’s just a business deal. Giving must be without strings attached, a casting off of things that we grasp at and cling to as being ‘I’ and ‘mine’. At the moment that one has a mind empty of ego-consciousness then one has made the supreme offering, for when even the self has been given up, what can there be left? When the ‘I-feeling’ has come to an end then the ‘mine-feeling’ will vanish by itself. Thus at any moment that a person has a mind truly empty of self, when even the self has been completely relinquished, he or she has developed giving to its perfection.
To move onto Sila (Virtuous Conduct), one who has an empty mind, free of grasping at and clinging to a (non-existent) self, is one whose bodily and verbal actions are truly and perfectly virtuous. Any other sort of sila is just an up and down affair. We make resolutions to refrain from this and abstain from that and then we can’t keep them. It’s an up and down affair because we don’t know how to let go of self and the possessions of self right from the start. There being no freedom from self there can be no real sila, or if there is, it is inconsistent. It is not ariyakantasila, the virtuous conduct that is of contentment to the Noble Ones, it is worldy sila, continually up and down. It can never become transcendental sila. Whenever the mind is empty, even if it is only for a moment, or if it’s for a day or a night or however long, for that length of time one has true sila.
As for samadhi, an empty mind is the supreme samadhi, the supremely focused firmness of mind. The straining and striving sort of samadhi isn’t the real thing and the samadhi that aims at anything other than non-clinging to the five khandas is micchasamadhi (wrong or perverted samadhi). You should be aware that there is both micchasamadhi and sammasamadhi (right and correct samadhi). Only the mind that is empty of grasping at and clinging to ‘I’ and ‘mine’ can have the true and perfect stability of sammasamadhi. One who has an empty mind has correct samadhi.
Here we reach panna (the discernment of truth). It is clearly indicated that knowing or realizing emptiness, or being emptiness itself is the supreme panna because at the moment the mind is empty it is supremely keen and discerning. In contrast, when delusion and ignorance enter and envelope the mind causing grasping at and clinging to things as self or possessions of self then there is the supreme foolishness. If you think it over you will easily see for yourself quite clearly that when these things have left the mind there can be no foolishness. When the mind is empty of foolishness, empty of ‘I’ and ‘mine’, there is perfect knowing or panna. So the wise say that emptiness and panna, the discernment of truth (or satipanna-truth-discerning awareness) are one. It’s not that they are two similar things, they are one and the same thing. True or perfect panna is emptiness, absence of the foolish clinging of delusion. Once the mind is rid of delusion it discovers it’s primal state, the true original mind which is panna or truth-discerning awareness.
The word “mind” (citta) is being used here in a specific way. Don’t confuse it with the 89 cittas or 121 cittas of the Abhidhamma. They are a different matter. That which we call original mind, the mind that is one with panna refers to the mind that is empty of grasping at and clinging to self. Actually, this state shouldn’t be called mind at all, it should be called emptiness, but since it has the property of knowing we call it mind. The various schools call it by various names but strictly speaking it’s enough to say that the true fundamental nature of mind is satipanna, truth-discerning awareness, absence of grasping and clinging. Thus emptiness lies in perfect panna.”
If at any moment any person at all has a mind empty of grasping at and clinging to ‘I’ and ‘mine’, even if it is only for an instant, it means that the mind has realized emptiness. It is pure, radiant and at peace. It is one and the same thing as the heart of the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha. Thus at any moment that one has a mind empty in this way one has taken refuge, one has reached the Triple Gem.
Now we are going on to the Path Realizations, their Fruits and Nibbana. Here the progressively higher levels of emptiness reach their culmination in Nibbana, which is called paramasunnata or paramam sunnama -supreme emptiness. So now you may see that right from taking refuge onto dana, sila, samadhi and panna there is nothing other than emptiness, non-clinging to self. Even the Path Realizations, their Fruits and Nibbana itself do not exceed emptiness, but are its highest, supreme level.
Consequently, the Buddha declared that having heard this teaching is to have heard all the teachings, to have put it into practice is to have done all the practices, and to have reaped the fruits of that practice is to have reaped all fruits. The meaning of the word “emptiness” is an essential point that you must try to keep in mind.
Now let us consider that all things are included in the word ‘dhamma‘. ‘Dhamma’ means ‘thing’, sabbe dhamma means ‘all things’. You must be clear when you use the term ‘all things’ as to what it signifies. ‘All things’ must refer to absolutely everything without exception, whether worldly or spiritual, material or mental. Even if there was something outside of these categories it would still be included in the term ‘all things’ and would still be a dhamma. So I would like you all to observe that:
The worlds of material objects i.e. all realms of material objects are dhammas. The mind that is aware of all worlds is a dhamma. If the mind and the world come into contact, that contact is a dhamma. Any result of that contact whether it be feelings of love, hate, dislike or fear or satipanna, the clear seeing of things as they truly are, these are all dhammas. Right or wrong, good or bad, they are al dhammas. If satipanna, gives rise to various interior knowledge’s, those knowledge’s are dhammas. If those knowledge’s lead to the practice of sila, samadhi and panna or any other type of practice, that practice is a dhamma. The results of practice, abbreviated as the Path Realizations, their Fruits and Nibbana, even these are dhammas.
To sum up, all things are dhammas. ‘Dhamma’ encompasses everything from the truly peripheral, the world of material objects, up to the results of Dhamma practice, the Path Realizations, their Fruits and Nibbana. Seeing each of these things clearly is called seeing ‘all things’ and regarding all things the Buddha taught that none whatsoever should be grasped at or clung to. This body cannot be grasped at or clung to. Even more so the mind; it is even a greater illusion. Thus the Buddha said that if one is determined to cling to something as self, it would be better to cling to body because it changes more slowly. It is not as deceptive as the mind, that which we call namadhamma.
‘Mind” here does not refer to the mind previously spoken of as being one and the same thing as emptiness, but to mentality, the mind known by ordinary people. The contact between the mind and the world results in various feelings of love, hate, anger and so on. These are dhammas which are even less to be grasped at or clung to than the dhammas of form because they are illusions, born of an illusion rising in the realm of defilements. Grasping and clinging to them is extremely dangerous.
The Buddha taught that even truth-discerning awareness should not be grasped at or clung to because it is merely a part of Nature. Attaching to it will give rise to fresh delusion; there will be a person who has truth-discerning awareness, there will be MY truth discerning awareness. Due to this attachment the mind will be weighed down with grasping and clinging, and lurch about in accordance with the changes that these things undergo; then there will be Dukkha. Knowledge should be looked upon as simply knowledge. If one deludedly grasps at or clings to it, it will give rise to the various kinds of ‘Attachments to Rites and Rituals’ (samyojanna) and one will experience Dukkha without realizing why.
Practicing Dhamma is similar -its just practice. It is a truth of nature that results always arise in proportion to the practice done. If one grasps at or clings to it as being ‘I’ or ‘mine’ then one falls into more error, creates another spurious self, and experiences Dukkha no differently than if one were clinging to something as gross as sexual desire.
Reaching the Path Realizations, their Fruits and Nibbana; They are dhammas, parts of nature that are ‘such-as-they-are’. Even emptiness is part of nature. If one grasps at it or clings to it then it is a false Nibbana, a false emptiness because Nibbana, true emptiness, is ungraspable. Thus it may be said that on grasping at Nibbana or emptiness one deviates from it immediately.
All these examples demonstrate that there is absolutely nothing at all apart from dhammas.
The word “dhamma” signifies nature. This interpretation is in line with the etymology of the word, for the word dhamma means ‘a thing which maintains itself’. Dhammas are divided into two categories -those which flow and change and those that do not. Those that flow and change due to some generative force maintain their existence within that flow and change i.e. they are the stream of transformation itself. That which being devoid of the necessary causal factors does not flow and change is Nibbana or emptiness. It is able to maintain itself without change i.e. it is the state of changelessness itself.
But the sort of dhamma which undergoes transformation and the sort that doesn’t are both merely dhammas, things which maintain themselves in certain states. So there is nothing more than nature, nothing more than the elements of nature, and how can mere dhammas be ‘I’ or ‘mine’? In this context, ‘dhammas’ means nature, the natural, or in other words, dhammas are tathata, they are as they are, they can’t be any other way. There are only dhammas. ‘All things’ are nothing but dhammas; there are no dhammas apart from ‘all things’.
True Dhamma, no matter what part, topic, level or kind must be one with emptiness, completely void of self. Therefore we must look for emptiness in all things, or as we call them for short, dhammas. To speak in terms of logic:
all things = dhamma
all things = emptiness
dhammas = emptiness
It can be put a number of ways, but the important point to understand is that there is nothing apart from our empty nature. Nothing whatsoever should be grasped at or clung to as being ‘I’ or ‘mine’. So from this it can be clearly seen that emptiness is the nature of things. It is only by ending every kind of delusion that it can be discerned. To see emptiness there must be panna that is undeluded and undefiled.
There is a further category of dhammas – the dhammas of avijja, of false knowing, reactions arising from the contact of the mind with the world of materiality. As was said earlier, when the dhamma which is mind comes into contact with the dhamma which is materiality, a reaction takes place in the form of feeling. In regards to that feeling one may follow either the path of avijja or of vijja (clear knowing). Its form will depend in the external conditions and the nature of that group of sankharas (dhammas). Thus it’s just another dhamma, a dhamma of ignorance, the grasping and clinging to an illusory self and to things as belonging to self. Don’t forget that it’s just a dhamma. it’s true essence is emptiness.
Avijja is emptiness just as much as are vikka or Nibbana -they are all equally dhammas. If we look on them this way we will see their emptiness of self continually. Dhammas of this level, even though they are one and the same thing as emptiness may still result in avijja, may still cause the illusion of self to arise in consciousness. So we should be aware of the dhammas of grasping and clinging and ignorance, which are also included in the phrase ‘all things’.
If we really know all things, this ignorant grasping and clinging won’t take place. If we don’t know them and just blindly follow our stupid and deluded animal instincts, it opens the doors to the dhammas of avijja over and over again.
We who have grasping and clinging like an inheritance that has been passed down for an immeasurable time may see that from the moment of our birth we received training from those around us, some intentional and some unintentional, solely in the ways of ignorance, solely in the ways of grasping at self and the belongings of self. Never once have we trained in the ways of selflessness. Children receive that sort of training. They are taught only in terms of self. Originally, at birth a child’s mind doesn’t have much sense of self, but it learns it from it’s environment. As soon as it open’s it’s eyes or is conscious of anything, it is taught to cling to it as my father, my home, my food, and even the dish it eats from is MINE, no one else can use it. This unplanned process, the arising of ego-consciousness and its continual development and growth, follows it’s own laws. As for the contrary feeling of selflessness, it never arises. Thus by the time the child has grown up and aged he is stuffed full of grasping and clinging and the mental defilements which are their cause, so that for him or her, ego is life, life is ego. When the instinct to clinging to self is ordinary life, that life is inseparable from Dukkha; it is heavy and oppressive, entangling, constricting, smothering, piercing and burning, all symptoms of Dukkha.
When the instinct of clinging to self is ordinary life, that life is inseparable from Dukkha; it is heavy and oppressive, entangling, constricting, smothering, piercing and burning, all symptoms of Dukkha.
So it follows that if there is grasping and clinging, even if it’s to goodness, then that is Dukkha. In this sense that which is the world assumes to be goodness is false or evil. Goodness is still Dukkha, it has the Dukkha appropriate to it, because it’s not empty, it’s disturbed. Only when there is emptiness and one is beyond goodness can there be freedom from Dukkha.
Therefore the main principle of the Buddhist Teachings, as elucidated in the phrase ‘sabbe dhamma nalam abhinivesaya’ is nothing other than the complete elimination of the grasping at or clinging to things as being self or as belonging to self. There is nothing beyond that.
When we are completely identified with grasping, when we and grasping are truly just one thing, what can we do? Who can help the mind when it is in such a state? The answer to this question is again nothing else but mind. It’s already been stated that there is nothing other than dhammas: falseness is a dhamma, correctness is a dhamma, Dukkha is a dhamma, the extinguishing of Dukkha, the tool to remedy Dukkha is a dhamma, the mind is a dhamma and the body is a dhamma. Therefore, there being nothing other than dhammas, the answer must lie in the mind itself, depending on a mechanism compatible to it.
Whether there is merit or demerit is up to us. If contact with the world leads to truth-discerning awareness then it is merit (punna). If contact with the world leads to an increase in foolishness and delusion than it’s demerit (papa).
If we observe, we can see that everyone is born equal -each and everyone of us have eyes, ears, a nose, a tongue, a body and mind and outside each one of us there are forms, sounds, smells, tastes, tactile and mental objects: everyone of us has the opportunity to contact those things and we all contact them in exactly the same way. So why is there this division between those who follow the path of foolishness, of demerit and harm, and those who follow the path of wisdom, of merit and benefit?
There is a good side to it in the sense that these harmful dhammas are a real protection for people, on the principle that if we experience suffering we become chastened, we remember it. It’s like the child who tries to take hold of the fire. Once it has seen the consequences it is unlikely to do it again. With material things it is easy, but as for taking hold of the fire that is grasping and clinging, the fires of greed, aversion and delusion, most of us aren’t even aware that we’re taking hold of the fire at all. On the contrary, we misguidedly believe them to be loveable and desirable and so we are not chastened, we don’t learn our lesson.
There’s only one remedy and that is to be aware of the true nature of these dhammas, to know that THESE DHAMMAS ARE A FIRE, THAT THEY CANNOT BE GRASPED OR CLUNG TO. This is to be on the path of truth-discerning awareness, learning one’s lesson, remembering that whenever anything is grasped at as “I” or “mine”, fire is ignited. It is not a fire that burns the hand, but a fire that consumes the mind and heart. Sometimes it burns so deep that we aren’t even aware that it’s a fire at all or that it is burning, and so we sink into the fiery mass that is Vattasamsara (the round of birth and death). It is the very hottest fire there is, hotter than an electric oven. If we don’t look on things like a child who has tried to take hold of fire and refuses to do so again, it can be like that.
Thus the Buddha explained that when the painful consequences of grasping and clinging are seen, the mind will relax its grip. So the question is, have we seen the painful consequences of grasping yet? If we haven’t, then we haven’t relaxed our grip, then we are not empty. On another occasion, the Buddha taught that whenever one sees emptiness, then one finds contentment in Nibbana. Only when one begins to see the non-existence of self will mind learn to find contentment in the ayatana of Nibbana. Anything which can be known through the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body or mind is called an ayatana. Nibbana is called ayatana here because it is merely an object of knowledge. How can we be so foolish as not to see it? We will be able to know it from the moment that we see the state empty of self, because on the relaxation of grasping and clinging we will be content with the ayatana of Nibbana. But it’s difficult, for as I’ve said, our life is one of constant grasping and clinging and when there is no abatement of that grasping there is no emptiness and so no contentment with the ayatana of Nibbana.
We can see the truth of this point by taking a look at other religions. Other religions do not have the word attavadupadana (grasping and clinging to dhammas as being ‘I’ or ‘mine’). Why is this so? It is because they teach a self to be grasped at and clung to. Not regarding such grasping as wrong it becomes right, in fact it becomes the goal of the religion or sect. They teach the attainment of Self. In the Buddhist Teachings however, attavadupadana is specified as a defilement, as foolishness and delusion, and the Buddhist practice lies in complete relinquishment. Consequently the teaching of anatta is found only in Buddhism. Unlike the sects which teach a self to be grasped at or to be attained, we teach the complete destruction of self-consciousness so as to perceive the state of anatta, the state empty of self in all things.
So anatta is talked about only by Buddhists. Knowledge and understanding can arise only in those people who have been taught that all things are anatta and should not be grasped at or clung to. If one is taught that there is a self that must be grasped at and clung to, then there is no way that one can practice to realize the non-existence of self.
Thus we must examine the point that just as it is necessary to see the danger of fire in order to be afraid of being burnt, so also must we see the dangers of those things which are the root-causes of all fires, the fires of greed, aversion and delusion, of grasping and clinging, in order to become gradually bored with and averse to them, and be able to relax our grip on them without thought of lighting any more fires.
Here we reach the word ’emptiness’ of which it was said that having seen it one will find contentment in Nibbana, We must thoroughly understand that on the first level of emptiness is absence of the feeling of ‘I’ and ‘mine’. If those feelings are still present then the mind is not empty, it is ‘disturbed’ by grasping and clinging. We will use these two words to help our memories: ’empty’ meaning free of the feeling of self or that things belong to a self; and ‘disturbed’ meaning confused, depressed, in turmoil with feeling ‘I’ and ‘mine’.
What are the characteristics of the state empty of ego-consciousness? In the scriptures there is a teaching of the Buddha which lists four points:
Na aham kavacini – feeling that there is nothing that is me. Na kassaci kincanam kisminci – without worry or doubt that anything might be me. This makes one pair, the second pair is: Na mama kavacini – feeling that there is nothing that is ‘mine’. Kisminci kincanam natthi – without worry or doubt that anything might be ‘mine’, (Anenjasappaya Sutta, Majjhima Nikaya)
We are aware that there is nothing that is ‘me’ but sometimes there is a remainder of anxiety that there is something that is ‘mine’. We feel there is nothing that is mine but we can’t help doubting that there may in fact be something. There must be an absolute, unshakably clear awareness that there is nothing that is self and nothing that we need to worry about as possibly being self; there is nothing that belongs to self and nothing we need to keep worrying about or doubting or waiting for as being ours.
At the moment that anyone’s mind is freed from these four things the Buddha held that to be emptiness. The commentary sums it up concisely as ‘ne attanena’ – not taking things to be self and ‘na attaniyena’ – not taking things to belong to self, and that is sufficient. Try to imagine what it would be like for grasping consciousness not to be present. One doesn’t look on anything anywhere as ever having been, as currently being, or as having the potential to be a self or belong to a self. There is no self in the present and no basis for anxiety regarding self in the past or future. The mind has realized emptiness through seeing clearly that there is nothing at all that can fulfill the meaning of the words ‘self’ or ‘belonging to self.’ All things are dhammas, simply parts of nature. This is the mind that is identical with emptiness. If we say that the mind has attained or realized emptiness it leads some people to understand that the mind is one thing and emptiness another. To say that the mind comes to know emptiness is still not particularly correct. Please understand that if the mind was not ONE AND THE SAME THING AS EMPTINESS there would be no way for emptiness to be known. THE MIND IN ITS NATURAL STATE IS EMPTINESS, it is an alien foolishness that enters and obstructs the vision of emptiness. Consequently, as soon as foolishness departs, the mind and emptiness are one. The mind then knows itself. It doesn’t have to go anywhere else knowing objects, it holds to the knowing of emptiness, knowing nothing other than the freedom from ‘self’ and ‘belonging to self’.
It is this emptiness that is the single highest teaching of the Buddha, so much so that in the Samyutta Nikaya the Buddha says that there are no words spoken by the Tathagata that are not concerned with sunnata. He says in that sutta that the most profound teaching is that which deals with emptiness, any other subject is superficial. Only the teaching of sunnata is so profound that there must be a Tathagata enlightened in the world for it to be taught.
In another section of the Samyutta Nikaya the Buddha says that emptiness is the dhamma that is always of the most benefit and support to lay people. There is the account, one that I have related many times in other places, of a group of wealthy laypeople going to visit the Buddha and asking for dhamma that would be of eternal benefit to householders, those hampered by wife, husband and children, wearers of sandlewood paste and perfumes. In reply the Buddha taught them this sutta, taught about sunnata. When they objected that it was too difficult he came down only to the level of Sotapattiyamka – the practice leading to stream-entry (entry to the stream that flows to Nibbana, attainment of the first stage of holiness) i.e. the genuine realization of the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha, and of ariyakantasila -the virtuous conduct that is of contentment to the Noble Ones. In fact they were being lured into a trap by the Buddha and were neatly caught in the snare. To speak in coarse every day terms he completely swindled them. They said they didn’t want sunnata so the Buddha gave them instead something which could not escape it, the lasso that would pull them into it. For there is only one way to truly realize the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha and to have the virtuous conduct that is of contentment to the Noble Ones, and that is to be continually seeing the futility of grasping and clinging.
Now do you think the Buddha was wrong in saying that sunnata is a matter for lay people? If He was right, then these days we must be crazy, utterly wrong, because we believe that sunnata is not a matter for us householders, but is a matter for those who are going to Nibbana, wherever that is. That’s how people talk. But the Buddha is talking in a different way, saying that this subject of sunnata is of direct benefit and welfare to lay people. So who is right and who is wrong? If the Buddha is right then we must agree to investigate the truth of His words and the way to do so is to examine which people have the most suffering and distress, whose minds are most in the middle of the blast furnace. It’s none other than lay people. That being so, who most needs something to extinguish that fire, to completely destroy Dukkha in every aspect? Again, it is lay people. Those that are in the heat of the fire must look for the means of extinguishing it here in its midst, because there is no place to struggle and escape to, everything is fire. Thus one must find the point of absolute coolness right here in the midst of the fire. That point is emptiness, the absence of self and belongings of self, sunnata.
Lay people must try to discover sunnata and dwell within its sphere. If one is unable to live right at its central point, at the very least one should dwell within its sphere, have a reasonable knowledge of it. This then is counted to be of eternal benefit to laypeople.
This group of people asked what would be of eternal benefit to them and the Buddha answered: ‘sunnatappatisamyutta lokuttara dhamma’ – dhammas endowed with sunnata transcend the world. To transcend the world is to transcend the fire. To be endowed with sunnata is to be empty of clinging to things as self or as belonging to self. So the saying sunnatappatisamyutta lokuttara dhamma is a gift from the Buddha directly to laypeople. Please consider anew how necessary it is that one gives attention to this subject and whether it is in fact the only subject that needs to be spoken of. In the Samyutta Nikaya it is clearly affirmed that sunnata is Nibbana and that Nibbana is sunnata, the freedom from defilements and Dukkha. Therefore Nibbana, too, is a fit subject for laypeople. If laypeople still don’t know the meaning of Nibbana, if they have not yet dwelt within its sphere, then they live in the midst of the fire more than any other group.
The meaning of the word Nibbana clearly extends to the absence of mental defilements, the causes of Dukkha. So that any moment that our minds are empty of ‘self’ and ‘belonging to self’ then that is Nibbana. For example, at this moment as you sit here I will attest that everyone, or almost everyone, has a mind empty of the feelings of ‘I’ and ‘mine’ because there is nothing engendering them. In listening attentively you give no opportunity for self-consciousness to arise. So look and see whether or not the mind is empty of ‘I’ and ‘mine’. If there is some emptiness (and I merely use the word some, it’s not completely or unchangeably empty) then you are dwelling within the sphere of Nibbana. Even though it is not absolute or perfect Nibbana, it is Nibbana just the same.
Dhammas are of many meanings, levels and stages. The Nibbana-dhamma lies in the mind of each one of you at the moment that you are to some degree empty of the feeling of ‘I’ and ‘mine’. So please be aware of this ego-less feeling, remember it well and keep it with you when you return to your home. Sometimes when you have arrived at home it will feel like you have entered someone else’s house, or doing some work at home you will feel like you are helping out with someone else’s work, at someone else’s home. This sort of feeling will increase more and more and the Dukkha that used to be associated with home and work will be no more. You will abide with a mind empty of ‘self’ and ‘belonging to a self’ at all times. This is to take Nibbana or sunnata as the holy charm constantly hanging from our neck. It is a protection against every kind of suffering, danger and ill-fortune. It is the genuine holy charm of the Buddha, anything else is just a fake.
Speaking to you like this you will soon be accusing me of giving you a big sales pitch. Don’t think of me as someone hawking the wares of the Buddha in the marketplace, think rather that we are all companions in Dukkha, in birth, old age, sickness and death and that we are all disciples of the Buddha. If anything is spoken to stimulate interest it is with good intentions. But if anyone has any truth-discerning awareness they will be able to see for themselves without having to believe me, and that seeing will more and more open the way for further study towards the ultimate truth. If that is the case, then we must move out study onto the subject of dhatu (elements).
The word dhatu has the same meaning as the word ‘dhamma’. Etymologically the words have the same root ‘dhr’, which means ‘maintain’. A dhatu is something that can maintain itself. Just as with dhammas, changing dhatus maintain themselves through change and unchanging dhatus maintain themselves through changelessness.
What sort of elements do you know that could correlate to emptiness? Students of physics and chemistry know only about the material elements, the pure elements of which there are over a hundred, and more being discovered all the time. It’s impossible for these elements to be emptiness, or at least it would take a profound interpretation of those things to see them as empty, because they are merely material elements or rupadhatu. But there are immaterial elements, arupadhatu, elements of mind or consciousness, which lie beyond the domain of physics and chemistry. One must study the Buddha’s science before one can know the immaterial, formless elements, which are a matter of mind and heart. So far then we have ascertained two groups of elements.
In which element will that which is called emptiness abide? If anyone thinks that emptiness is a material element his friends will die laughing. Some people think that it is an immaterial or formless element and here the Noble Ones will die laughing. Emptiness is neither a material nor immaterial element. There is a third kind of element which lies beyond the ken of ordinary people. The Buddha called it ‘nirodhadhatu’. The words vatthudhatu or rupadhatu refer to materiality whether visible forms, sounds, odors, tastes, tactile objects or whatever. Arupadhathu refers to the mind and heart, to mental processes, the thoughts and feelings that arise in the mind. There is only one kind of element not included in these two categories, an element that is their complete antithesis and annihilation. Consequently the Buddha sometimes called it ‘nibbanadhatu’ sometimes ‘nirodhadhatu’ and sometimes ‘amatadhatu’.
The words nirodhadhatu and nibbanadhatu both mean extinguish, it is the extinguishing element, the element that extinguishes all other elements. Amatadhatu means the ‘element that does not die’. All other elements die, it is their nature to die. Nirodhadhatu is not tied to birth and death but is, on the contrary, the utter extinction of the other elements. Sunnata is that which dwells in this element and so it might be called sunnatadhatu, for it is the element that brings all elements to emptiness.
If one is to understand those things called dhatu well enough to understand the Dhamma they must be studied in this way. Don’t be deceived into thinking that knowing the elements of earth, water, wind and fire is sufficient, they are a matter for children. Those elements were spoken of and taught before the time of the Buddha. One must go on to know vinnanadhatu, the immaterial consciousness-element, akasadhatu, the space element and sunnatadhatu, the emptiness element that is the utter extinction of earth, water, fire, wind, consciousness and space. The element of emptiness is the most wonderful element in all the Buddhist teachings.
To sum up: earth, water, wind and fire lie in the group of rupadhatu. The mind, consciousness and mental process lie in the group of arupadhatu. As for Nibbana, this sunnatadhatu, it lies in the group of nirodhadhatu. You must find a quiet time to sit and look at all of the elements and see clearly that there are only these three kinds. Then you will begin to discover Nibbana-dhatu and understand more of that anatta or sunnata that we are presently addressing.
So we may lay down the principle that in the grasping at and clinging to ‘I’ and ‘mine’ there is rupadhatu and arupadhatu and in their absence there is nirodhadhatu. To reverse it one may say that if nirodhadhatu enters the mind one sees only emptiness, the state free of ‘I’ and ‘mine’ manifests itself clearly. If another element enters one will see it as form, name, visible object, sound, smell, taste, tactile object, feeling, memory, thought, consciousness and so on, the whole confusing crowd, each one having a part to play in the arising of clinging, if not as love then as hate.
Thus we all have just two dominant moods -satisfaction and dissatisfaction. We are accustomed to only these two. We have only been interested in gaining that which is felt to be desirable and to flee or destroy that which is felt to be disagreeable. It is unceasing disturbance, the mind is never empty. For the mind to be empty we must go beyond, overcome all the disturbing elements and come to dwell in the element of emptiness.
Another way that the Buddha talked about elements in order to show their properties was to make a threefold division. He spoke first of nekkhamadhatu (the element of renunciation) as the cause for the withdrawal from sensuality; secondly of arupadhatu as the cause for the withdrawal from materiality and thirdly of nirodhadhatu as the cause for the withdrawal from the conditioned. Seeing nekkhamadhatu, the element of renunciation, is the cause for the withdrawal from sensuality because it is the antithesis. Seeing the element that is the antithesis of sensuality is called seeing nekkhamadhatu. Being unconsumed by the fire of sensuality is nekkhamadhatu. The mind that withdraws from sensuality is a mind that contains nekkhamadhatu.
Beings that are able to free themselves from sensuality attach to the beautiful and pleasurable things that are unconnected with gross sensuality but are still in the realm of form, albeit on a refined level, as for example, rishis, munis and yogis who get attached to the pleasures of rupajhana (absorptions of the Fine-Material Sphere). Or on a more mundane level perhaps we see old people attached to antiques or exquisite potted plants. Although these things are unconnected with the crudest sensuality, such people may be even more lost than those lost in sensuality, they are attached to material form and unable to give it up.
So what else will one get attached to if one can free oneself of the attachment to materiality? One will attached to causally conditioned things that lie beyond it, i.e. all the beneficial dhammas. We don’t have to talk of the harmful dhammas here, nobody wants them, but of the virtuous and virtuous actions that one projects will earn one a rebirth as a wonderful being up in heaven. People dream about this endlessly. But being born in heaven is sankhata ( a conditioned state). We are all so caught up in being this or that kind of self and having this or that possession of self. Being the self of an animal is no good so we want a human self. Seeing that being human is no good we want to become a celestial being. That’s no good so we want to become a brahma-god. Seeing that being a brahma-god is no good we want to become a mahabrahma-god. There’s a self there all the time, its all sankhata. Only on the discovery of nirodhatu can we withdraw from the conditioned.
Thus nirodhadhatu is the final element, it is the element of extinguishing. It is the utter extinguishing of ‘I’ and ‘mine’. If there is an absolute and final extinction (anupadisesanibbanadhatu) then one becomes an arahant. If the extinction is incomplete (sa-upadisesanibbanadhatu) then one becomes one of the lesser Noble Ones, for there is still a remnant of ego, it is not the true ultimate emptiness of paramamsunnam.
To summarize: we must know the dhatus, the true constituents of all things. Please understand them according to the main principle whereby there is rupadhatu: elements with form; arupadhatu: elements without form; nirodhahatu: the element which is the extinguishing of both the form and formless elements. We can confidently assert that there is nothing outside the scope of these three words.
We are learning something about the Buddha’s science, the science that encompasses the physical, mental and spiritual spheres. It enables us to have an utterly thorough knowledge of all things that precludes any further grasping at them. And it is this that must be the meaning of emptiness for us.
Now I’ll expand on a few points in order to round off our understanding of emptiness. In the Uppannasaka Sutta of the Majjhima Nikaya the Buddha calls sunnata ‘mahapurisavihara’. This translates as meaning that emptiness is the abode of the Great Man. The Great Man does not have a wandering restless mind that spins this way and that, as does the mind of the ordinary man. The Great Man has a mind that dwells in emptiness, with emptiness, is itself emptiness. That being so, sunnata is the abode or temple of the Great Man i.e. of the Buddha and the arahants. To say that emptiness is their abode means that they live it and breathe it.
The Buddha stated that He, the Tathagata, dwelt and passed His life in sunnatavihara. When he was teaching Dhamma His mind was empty of ‘self’ and ‘belonging to self’. When he was on alms-round or doing his daily tasks His mind was empty. When he was enjoying Himself in His free time (divahara or sukhavihara) He was dwelling empty of ‘self’ and ‘belonging to self’. Thus He affirmed to Sariputta that the Tathagata passed His life in sunnatavihara.
Here we are not talking about the ordinary unenlightened person but of the Great man, of the Buddha -how He lived and in what abode He dwelt. If you want to see the Buddha’s dwelling place, don’t go thinking that it’s a building made of bricks and mortar or something in India. You should think of the abode called sunnatavihara or mahapurisavihara.
The supreme emptiness is not the momentary flash that we may experience sitting here, which has disappeared by the time we get home. Sunnatavihara refers to the ultimate emptiness and so another word is used, a rather long one – paramanuttarasunnata. It is composed of three words: parama + anuttara + sunnata, and it means “supreme unsurpassable emptiness”. In the technical literature of Dhamma, this point relates to the cetosamadhi devoid of nimttas (mind-created phenomena that may occur when the mind is concentrated) where the mind lacking any nimitta is radiantly pure to the extent of being free of the asavas (cankers, intoxicants, outflows, mental defilements defined in terms of the way they flow out in response to conditions – asavas of sense-desire, for existence, views and ignorance.) This condition may be of a kind that can be regressed from or it may be permanent. If at any moment that there is this kind of cetosamadhi where there are no nimittas to be clung to as self or as belonging to self, then that radiant mind, free of the asavas, is called paramanuttarasunnata and is the natural, unforced state of the arahants.
If we unenlightened people are ever going to be true adepts we must be able to attain this cetosamadhi. Even if we don’t end the asavas once and for all it will be an occasional freedom from them. It will be borrowing something of the Buddha and the arahants to have a look at so we don’t lose heart. For that which we call emptiness or enlightenment or Nibbana is both of the sort that is obtained absolutely and finally and is also of the temporary uncertain sort that we ordinary folk may know. There is even a third sort, which occurs by coincidence. At times when our surroundings are particularly conducive the mind may be empty for an hour or two. But the important thing is that we set our minds on practicing to the best of our abilities to make the mind empty.
The term paramanuttarasunnata as used by the Buddha means the utter destruction of greed, aversion and delusion, the grasping at and clinging to things as self or as belonging to self, and thus has the same meaning as samucchedapahana or ‘final abandonment’. Consequently when speaking of the highest level of sunnata the Buddha used this term, supreme unsurpassable emptiness.
If we gradually lower our eyes from this summit of emptiness we will be able to understand its lesser levels. Directly below the peak of paramanuttarasunnata are the following:
Looking downwards from the summit it is hard to understand so we will start from the bottom and gradually raise our eyes to the peak.
The very first level is arannasanna, which means the perception of forest. For example, If we live where it is noisy and confusing and then imagine it to be a forest as if it truly is one and we really have entered it. We can imagine the forest to be empty and tranquil, free from disturbing noises. Merely imagining the forest is already one sort of emptiness, but an emptiness that is child’s play.
Higher than arannasanna is pathavisanna, whereby we, for example, create the perception of earth. We can become conscious of all phenomena as being merely the earth element. Pathavisanna can eradicate craving for the sense pleasures of visible forms, sounds, odors, tastes and tactile objects. It is something the young should try.
Here if we wish to ascend further we must create the perception of akasanancayatana, i.e. create the feeling that there is nothing but infinite space. Space is indeed one kind of emptiness but it is not true sunnata. Sunnata is of a higher order than vacant, empty space. You don’t have to be interested in that sort of emptiness. Pay attention to the subtler level of sunnata whereby we can create the perception that there is nothing but infinite consciousness. The perception that there is nothing but the infinite consciousness element is called vinnanancayatana. If we ascend even higher we reach the kind of sunnata called akincannayatana where we mentally create utter nothingness. We don’t allow the mind to focus on anything, we fix it on nothingness. However there still remains the feeling that there is nothingness.
One step further on lies nevasannanasannayatana, non-perceiving perception. It’s said that it is neither like being alive nor being dead. To say that there is perception would be false. To say that there is no perception would also be false. There is no labeling or interpretation of experience. There is awareness without perception. It is so subtle that to call a person in this state alive would be false, to call him dead would be false.
These six levels of emptiness are not the same as paramanuttarasunnata. The Buddha spoke of them merely to demonstrate the various gradations of emptiness. None of them are the emptiness that is the abode of the Great Man. They are the sorts of emptiness that rishis and munis had been groping after since before the time of the Buddha. Once having discovered them they would get stuck in them, unable to get beyond them. It was like that until the Buddha found the true sunnata which is the abode of the Great Man, the supreme unsurpassable emptiness that I have been speaking of.
The commentaries call the experiences of sunnata ‘sunnataphassa‘. We know only the contact (phassa) of the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body and mind with visible forms, sounds, odors, tastes, tangible and mental objects. We have never had sunnataphassa, the contact with sunnata because we know only of the rupadhatu and arupadhatu, we know nothing of nirodhadhatu.
When we come to know nirodhadhatu we will experience a new sensation, that which the commentators call sunnataphassa. It is the name of the Noble Path on the level that truly destroys mental defilements. When we have developed our practice to the point that it is destroying defilements, there is sunnataphassa. It is like touching sunnata with our hand, our minds come into contact with emptiness.
Emptiness as contact relates to the Noble path of one for whom anattanupassana (the insight that there is no self nor anything belonging to a self, that there are merely dhammas and natural process) is growing continually. If the Noble Path is of this nature it is called sunnato and any contact that takes place on that path is called sunnataphassa. Anattanupassana, the cause of that state, is a consequence of Dukkhanupassana, the insight into Dukkha. Dukkhanupassana is like having once tried to take hold of fire knowing that it’s not at all something to put your hand in, or knowing that no dhammas whatsoever should be clung to because once taken hold of, they become a fire. If spiritually we are well conversant with the way fire burns and consumes, how it constricts, envelops, pierces and entangles then that is Dukkhanupassana.
Here we must consider that some people object that if you haven’t reached Nibbana you can’t know anything about it, just as if you’ve never been to Europe you can’t even have seen it. But Nibbana is not a material object, it is a matter of the mind and heart. As I have said, right now most of your minds are empty. This is already a taste. Be diligent in seeing that.
Consequently in the scriptural exposition of the practice of mindfulness of breathing, in the section dealing with cittanupassana where it discusses the method of looking intently at the mind, it says that if mind has lust one knows that mind has lust; if mind has aversion one knows the mind has aversion; if the mind has delusion one knows the mind has delusion; if the mind is depressed then one knows that the mind is depressed; if the mind is not depressed one knows that mind is not depressed; if the mind is released then one knows that mind is released (vimutti); if mind is not released one knows that mind is not released.
If the mind is released then it is empty. If it is not released then it is not empty. Let us look at our mind that is either released i.e. empty of all things or caught i.e. grasping at and clinging to something. Even at the initial level of practice the teaching is to look at the mind that is empty or vimutti. It is something that is there to be seen within, it is not something to be figured out according to books that we’ve read.
Nibbana or sunnata is there for us to see, even while we are still unenlightened. There is the emptiness called tadangavimutti that just happens to arise, as it is now, when the external conditions are right. If we concentrate the mind in the correct way so that it is completely undisturbed and at ease (more so, one may say, than experiencing any kind of worldly pleasure) then this is vikkhambhanavimutti, release by suppression. So even without the samucchedavimutti or final release of the arahant, we still have a sample of emptiness to examine, a sample of the wares of Buddha. If you are interested you can find such a sample yourself.
Therefore, we should practice mindfulness of breathing stage by stage, developing kayanupassana (contemplation of body) vedananupassana (contemplation of feelings) cittanupassana (contemplation of mind) and dhammanupassana (contemplation of mind objects) It is a constant tasting of emptiness from start to finish. Finally, we will understand emptiness through seeing the painful consequences of grasping and clinging.
Then the mind will immediately turn to find contentment with the ayatana of Nibbana. So in this way we are able to see emptiness continually, before actually reaching the supreme level. There is a progress that follows its own law or the law of nature itself. When having firmly comprehended something by oneself the resulting knowledge is firm. It does not sway unstably like false knowledge or knowledge gained by listening to others.
We don’t have to do anything very much to make ourselves happy, we don’t have to go to any great trouble. All we have to do is empty our minds of greed, aversion and delusion, or in other words to make it empty of grasping at and clinging to ‘I’ and ‘mine’. When the mind is empty of greed, aversion and delusion, then it is truly empty and all Dukkha comes to an end. Even kamma will of itself come to an end.
In the Anguttara Nikaya, the Buddha states that when the mind is empty of greed, aversion and delusion, empty of ‘I’ and ‘mine’ then kamma ends by itself. This means that kamma, vipaka (its result) and the mental defilements which are the cause for the creation of kamma, spontaneously and simultaneously come to an end. So don’t be afraid of kamma, to fear that means we are ruled by our kamma. Rather, we should take an interest in emptiness. If we have created emptiness with regards to ‘I’ and ‘mine’, kamma will utterly disintegrate and there will be no way that we will have to follow its dictates.
It’s due to this very point that someone like Angulimala, a murderer, could become an arahant. Don’t explain wrongly as is often done, the Buddha’s reply to Angulimala, “I have already stopped. It is you that have not stopped.” Don’t explain that ‘not stopped’ means that Angulimala became a saint because he stopped killing people. Anyone that explains like that is badly representing the Buddha because when the Buddha used the word ‘stop’ here, he was referring to the stopping of ‘I’ and ‘mine’, to the stopping of clinging and grasping, or in other words to emptiness. So it is emptiness that is the stopping and it is the only kind of stopping that could have made Angulimala an arahant. If it was just stopping killing people that would make one an arahant why are not all those people who do not kill arahants? It is because cessation, the true stopping, is the emptiness where there is no self to dwell anymore. That is true stopping. If there is still a self then you can’t stop.
So we should understand that the word ’empty’ is the same as the word ‘stop’, the single word by which the Buddha was able to enlighten Angulimala, even though the killer’s hands were still red with blood and around his neck hung the 999 finger bones of his victims. For kamma to end by itself, to reach the stopping, we must rely on this single term: empty of ‘I’ and ‘mine’, not grasping at or clinging to dhammas.
This action of making the mind empty may be called Buddhist yoga, for ensuring that there is emptiness in our action is raja yoga, the highest level at the summit of yoga (spiritual endeavor). But although we borrow the word raja yoga from Vedanta, in that tradition it is concerned with the realization of an ultimate self. However the Buddha taught that yoga means ariyasaccadasanna, which means that there is yoga in the Buddhist teachings but it is the clarification of emptiness, making it manifest. So any action that is conducive to the manifestation of emptiness may be called yoga. If one wishes to use the word yoga or is interested in it in any way it should be understood in this manner for it to be Buddhist yoga, i.e. causing the manifestation of ultimate truth. It should be taken in and used in every mental action so as to stop the grasping at and clinging to ‘I’ and ‘mine’. Thus we take the word yoga from another tradition and adapt it’s meaning ‘appropriately’. Take for example the word kammayoga – being unselfish, acting unreservedly for the benefit of others, we too have this yoga. If there is no ego-consciousness then whatever we do will be kammayoga. Even with this very basic kind of yoga – making merit, doing good, sacrificing for others and helping mankind, these actions must be performed with a mind empty of ‘I’ and ‘mine’. So we don’t have to seek after other kinds of yoga for they all come down to this one yoga, the spiritual endeavor of putting an end to self and the belonging to self, or in other words, making emptiness manifest.
All this rather lengthy explanation has been aimed at elucidating the single word emptiness. To be empty of defilements is to be empty of this feeling of ‘I’ and ‘mine’ and then the emptiness that is freedom from Dukkha is assured, for to be empty of defilements is to be empty of Dukkha. To be empty of ‘I’ and ‘mine’ alone is to be empty of all things. That state of emptiness is not the element of earth, water, fire or air or any of those kinds of things. It is only nirodhadhatu, voidness of ‘I’ and ‘mine’, the extinction of kamma, the defilements and Dukkha.
The last point that we must consider is that, as was said at the beginning, emptiness exists in relation to all things. Don’t forget that ‘all things’ are nothing other than dhammas and that dhammas are nothing but nature or suchness. They are already empty of self or the belongings of self. The dhammas of foolishness, delusion and ignorance emerge continually, because our culture and the way we live encourages the dhammas of ego and unknowing. They don’t encourage the dhammas of knowledge. Consequently we undergo the punishment for our ‘original sin’, our original misguided action, continually and automatically from the time of its occurrence wthout ever learning our lesson. The young aren’t conscious of it, the middle-aged aren’t conscious of it and even many of the old are unconscious of it. We should at least be able to realize it in middle age or old age so as to escape the punishment, emerge from the cage of vattasamara and reach that boundless place of clarity and space.
When the Buddhist Teachings spread to China, the Chinese of those days were intelligent and wise enough to accept it and there arose teachings such as those of Hui Nang and Huang Po in which explanations of mind and Dghamma, of Buddha, the Way and emptiness were extremely terse. There emerged the key sentence that mind, Buddha, Dhamma, the Way and emptiness are all just the same thing. This one sentence is enough, there is no need to say anything more. It is equivalent to all the scriptures. Now, that is a statement that particularly those of us studying and practicing in the old style have no way at all of understanding. It might be beneficial for us to feel a little ashamed on this account. The Chinese went on to say that ’emptiness is by nature always present but that we don’t see it. I may prove this by saying once again that at this moment everyone sitting here has a mind that is by nature empty but not only do you not see it, but what’s more, you will not accept that this is emptiness.
Huang Po scolded that this is like someone having a diamond attached to their forehead without knowing it, who goes searching all around the world or perhaps outside the world in hell, heaven or the Brahma worlds, making an offering of a penny and expecting to go to heaven and satisfy every desire. Not seeing that which is stuck in our forehead, we seek all around the world, or if that’s not enough in other realms. So please, just for awhile, look very closely to see what is there at your forehead and how to go about putting your hands on it.
When speaking of the way to take hold of the diamond the Chinese teachers spoke even more profoundly, “There’s no need to do anything. Just be still and the mind will become empty by itself”. This phrase, “Just be still. There’s no need to do anything”, has many meanings. Our minds are naughty and playful. The mind wanders out of the eyes, ears, nose, tongue and body, gathering sense-objects, and having accepted them within, is stupid enough to allow the dhammas of ignorance to ‘climb into the drivers seat’, so that there is nothing but grasping and clinging to ‘I’ and ‘Mine’. This is called being naughty, refusing to be still.
‘Being still’ means not admitting sense-objects into the mind but being content to let them founder like waves on the shore. For instance, when the eye sees form, if there is merely the seeing, then that is called not admitting visible forms into the mind and similarly with the other sense organs. If you can’t do that and vedana, feeling of satisfaction and dissatisfaction arise, let it stop just there, don’t allow desires based on those feelings to develop. If it stops there its still possible to be still. But if we act to extend a feeling of satisfaction then in a moment ‘I’ and ‘mine’ emerge. Or if we act in response to a feeling of dissatisfaction then there will be Dukkha. it is called not being still.
So the ‘being still’ of Hui Neng refers to that very practice that the Buddha taught, of seeing that nothing whatsoever should be grasped at or clung to as ‘I’ or ‘mine’. If there is nothing whatsoever to be clung to, what possible purpose can there be in busying and confusing ourselves, rushing about after the things that disturb, rather than just being still?
We must look for this emptiness that is truly worthy of our aspiration. To say that there is a kind of emptiness that gives rise to cessation, purity, clarity and peace is still to be speaking in the realm of convention. Truly speaking, there is nothing other than emptiness, there is only this one thing. It is not the cause of anything else. It IS Buddha, it IS Dhamma, it IS Sangha, it IS the Way. It IS purity, clarity and peace. All these things are present in emptiness, because if we have reached the supreme, we don’t have to do anything. By being still the Buddha, Dhamma, Sangha, purity, clarity, peace, Nibbana -everything will be present in that very immutable state.
An extremely simple method that Huang Po used to teach dull people how to recognize emptiness was to give them a riddle (koan) ‘Look at the mind of a child before its conception’. I would like to present all of you with this riddle. Look at the child’s mind. Before it is conceived in the womb where is it? If you can find it you will easily be able to find emptiness, just as if taking hold of that which is already there in your forehead.
To sum up – this one subject of emptiness covers all of the Buddhist Teachings, for Buddha breathed with emptiness. Emptiness is the theoretical knowledge, it is the practice and it is the fruit of practice. If one studies one must study emptiness; and if one receives the fruit it must be emptiness, so that finally one attains that thing which is supremely desirable. There is nothing beyond emptiness. When it is realized, all problems end. It is not above, it is not below, it is not anywhere -I don’t know what to say about it, better shut up! Suffice to say that emptiness is the supreme happiness.
But you must be very careful regarding the phrases ‘Nibbana is the supreme happiness’ and ‘Nibbana is the ultimate emptiness’. You must grasp their meaning correctly, don’t take the word happiness to mean the happiness that you have formerly enjoyed, like the sect before Buddha’s time who took
THE WAY TO PRACTICE IN ORDER TO ABIDE WITH EMPTINESS
In the last talk I explained all the various principles associated with emptiness. Now there remains only to speak of the ways to practice in order to abide with emptiness, ways that will be useful to all people, even those who are uneducated or haven’t studied the texts for themselves.
Regarding the matter of ‘abiding with emptiness’ we will have to look at the meanings of a number of words in some detail, in particular the words ‘know’ and ‘realize’ and the phrases ‘see clearly’, ‘abide with’ and ‘to be empty’. To speak in everyday language:
we know = we know emptiness
we see clearly = we see emptiness clearly
we abide with = we abide with emptiness
we are empty = we are empty with emptiness; i.e. we are emptiness itself.
How do all these phrases differ in profundity? In what way can they be looked at so as to have the same meaning or level of meaning?
First of all, to take the phrase ‘we know emptiness’, most people will think that means that we have studied and discussed it. If our knowing is merely that much then we don’t know emptiness correctly. The word ‘know’ in Dhamma-language doesn’t refer to the knowing that comes from study or listening or anything like that. Such knowing, even if we are sure that we fully understand, is not complete. The words ‘know’ and ‘understand’ in ordinary everyday language are solely a matter of reading and studying and listening, of thought and logical consideration. Those techniques cannot be employed to know emptiness. The knowing of emptiness refers to the awareness of emptiness in a mind that is truly empty. For there to be knowing of emptiness, emptiness must be experienced at the moment of knowing, it must be a moment of direct realization. This then is called ‘knowing emptiness’.
After we’ve heard something a couple of times, going off and thinking about it and then considering logically that it could be possible or that it may well be like that, is not yet the knowing that is meant here, it is the knowing and understanding of worldly language. Please take the word ‘know’ as it is used here in the particular sense it has in the Buddhist Teachings.
To know Dhamma means that Dhamma is truly present and that we are aware of it. Similarly to know emptiness means that emptiness is manifest in the awareness. So I have encouraged people over and over again that at any moment that the mind has any measure of emptiness, even if it’s not finally or perfectly empty, to keep recognizing it. Actually, on any one day emptiness is there repeatedly and even if its not a fixed, absolute emptiness it’s still very good, if we take the trouble to observe it. If we take an interest in this sort of emptiness right from the start, it will generate a contentment with emptiness that will make it easy to practice to attain the real thing. Therefore the phrase ‘we know emptiness’ refers to having emptiness manifest in awareness.
The phrase ‘seeing emptiness clearly’ is the same. It is seeing with more and more clarity and precision. When we have become aware of the mind’s emptiness we contemplate it, focus our awareness on it until there is a clear penetrative seeing of it, or in other words, a thorough knowing.
The meaning of the phrase ‘we realize emptiness’ is once again the same. It refers to the moment of realization. in conventional terms it’s said that ‘we’ realize emptiness but in fact it is the mind that realizes. It is awareness that is the ‘one who is aware’ and that realizes, emptiness.
As for the phrase ‘abiding with emptiness’ it refers to sunnatavihara. Living and breathing with constant awareness of emptiness is called ‘abiding with emptiness’.
The phrase ‘being empty’ means that there is no feeling of ‘self’ or ‘belonging to a self’, there is no feeling of ‘I’ and ‘mine’, the creations of craving and grasping. Being void of these things is ‘being empty’. What is it that is empty. Once again it is the mind that is empty, emptied of the feelings of ‘self’ and of ‘belonging to self’, both in their crude and subtle forms. If the mind is empty to the degree of being free of even the refined self it is said that the mind itself is emptiness. This agrees with the teaching of some other Buddhist traditions that mind is emptiness, emptiness is mind; emptiness is Buddha, emptiness is Dhamma, Dhamma is emptiness. There is only one thing. All the myriad things that we are acquainted with are nothing but emptiness. I will make this clear by looking into the word ’empty’ once more.
The word ’empty’ or ’emptiness’ is pointing at two things, two characteristics.
Firstly, it refers to the characteristic of all things. Please fix in your minds that the characteristic of all things is emptiness. This phrase ‘all things’ must be understood correctly as encompassing every single thing, both rupadhammas and namadhammas, everything from a speck of dust up to Nibbana. It must be well understood that in a speck of dust there is emptiness or absence of self, absence of a permanent, independent entity. Gold, silver, and diamonds have the characteristic of absence of a permanent, independent entity. Going on to the heart and mind, thoughts and feelings, each thing is characterized by emptiness, absence of a permanent, independent entity. The study and practice of the Dhamma has the characteristic of absence of a permanent, independent entity. Finally the Path realizations, their Fruits and Nibbana itself all have this same characteristic. Even a sparrow flying to and fro has the same characteristic of emptiness but we don’t see it. So who is to blame but ourselves? Please think this over, contemplate it, observe and ponder over it until you perceive that all things display the characteristic of emptiness it’s just that we don’t see it. It’s like the old Zen riddle, or koan as they call it, that ‘An ancient pine tree is proclaiming the dhamma’. That old pine tree is displaying emptiness, the emptiness that it shares with all things but people don’t see it, don’t hear it’s Dhamma teaching, its proclamation of the characteristic of emptiness. This then is the word ’empty’ in its first sense as relating to all things.
[NOTE: The word ‘to KNOW’- to directly perceive with the senses or mind, to recognize. (re-COGNIZE)]
The word ’empty’ in the second sense refers to the characteristic of the mind that is free from all grasping and clinging. Regarding this point please understand that ordinarily, although mind is empty of self, it doesn’t realize that it empty, because it is constantly enveloped and disturbed by the conceptual thought that feeds on sense contact. Consequently, the mind is neither aware of its own emptiness nor the emptiness of all things. But whenever the mind completely throws off that which is enveloping it, the grasping and clinging of delusion and ignorance, and detaches from it completely, then the mind through its non-clinging has the characteristic of emptiness.
The two sorts of emptiness, the emptiness of the non-clinging mind and the emptiness of all things are related. Because all things do truly have the characteristic of being empty of a self, a permanent, independent entity to be grasped at or clung to, we are able to see the truth of emptiness. If in fact they weren’t empty of self, then it would be impossible to see their emptiness. But as it is, on the contrary, although all things are empty we see everyone of them as not-empty. The mind that is enveloped by defilements and ignorance grasps at and clings to all of them as self, even a speck of dust. Even a tiny particle of dust is conceived to be an independent entity, a ‘second person’. We label the second person, the various things that surround us, as being this and being that, and in every case see them as being permanent independent entities.
Therefore we must know absolutely correctly the meaning of the word ’empty’ which to sum up, is to know that firstly it is the characteristic of all things and secondly it is the characteristic of the non-clinging mind. The first emptiness is an object of knowledge or realization. The second emptiness is the empty mind, the characteristic of the mind that is empty through realizing the truth of emptiness. Thus the mind seeing emptiness in all things disintegrates of itself, leaving only emptiness, everything as I have said from a speck of dust up to Nibbana. Material objects, people, animals, time and space, every sort of dhamma melt into emptiness through knowing the truth of this point. This is the meaning of the word empty.
What I have said so far should have been enough for all of you to have observed or grasped for yourself that the word ’empty’ is equivalent to the remainderless extinction of ‘I’ and ‘mine’, the utter destruction of self.
The self is merely a condition that arises when there is grasping and clinging in the mind. We don’t see it as empty, but see it as self, because that grasping and clinging with ignorance and defilement. There being ignorance or unknowing in the mind grasping arises by itself, it’s not that we make a deliberate effort or consciously establish a self. When the mind contains avijja, it inevitably experiences all things as being independent entities, with no need for there to be any deliberate intention.
If authentic knowing takes place, the seeing of all things as they truly are, then we will see the truth that emptiness is the remainderless extinction of self. So it can be laid down as a principle that ’empty’ means the remainderless extinction of self. That being so we should give some attention to understanding the ‘remainderless extinction’ correctly.
What is the extinction with remainder and what is the extinction without remainder? Extinction with remainder means a mere change of shape or form: although one form is extinguished there remains the germ of a new one. There is still grasping and clinging continually in the mind, first this thing and then that.
The truth discerning-awareness or knowledge of Dhamma which has not yet reached it’s peak, can only extinguish some types of grasping, sometimes. Some people may be of the opinion that dust is not an independent entity but that a sparrow is. Others may see that trees and animals are not independent entities but take people to be so. In seeing people as independent entities or as selves, some will say that the body is not-self but the mind is. This is called incomplete extinction; some aspects are extinguished but others are left behind as self. One may reach the point of saying that the mind is not-self but that some good qualities of the mind, such as virtues are. Or one may believe that if these are not-self then that which is beyond time, the Nibbana-element is self. This sort of extinguishing always leaves a seed. Whenever we sweep out the whole lot, even the Nibbana-element as not-self that action is called true remainderless extinction of ego or self.
Therefore the phrase ‘the remainderless extinction of ego’ means the non-arising of ego-consciousness. In terms of practice it means preventing its arising, and to practice in this manner consistently may also be called the remainderless extinction of ego. Correct or impeccable practice refers to the practice whereby ego-consciousness has no way of arising in the future, in other words, not allowing it to arise at any moment.
What has been said so far should be enough for everyone to understand the phrase ‘birth of ego’. Birth here does not mean the birth from a mother’s womb but the birth in the vastness of the mind. So please understand that the feeling ‘I am I’ that arises is born in the mind, and ‘birth’ is not the birth of the physical body.
It must be understood that even though the body has emerged from the womb, physical birth may be considered to be completely meaningless until there is a mental birth, a birth of ego-consciousness. The body is just a lump of matter until there is until there occurs the grasping and clinging to self. At that moment the birth of that lump of flesh is brought to completion. At the moment that self-consciousness arises in a child it is said to be born. As soon as that feeling is absent then it ‘dies’ and reverts to being a lump of flesh once more. As long as there is no other feeling able to stimulate the creation of self, there is no birth; it’s the same as if the child is dead. But all of a sudden if there is contact with a sense-object and self-consciousness arises again, then there is a new birth, and then shortly afterwards another death. So it can be said that in a single day a child is born many times.
The way to practice in order to live with emptiness lies right here, right in the practice of preventing self-consciousness arising in this lump of flesh. This is the main point. As for the details, one must look to see quite clearly how to do the practice and at what moments or occassions to practice. These two points must be explained together. Consequently, in order to facilitate our understanding we will divide practice up into three occasions or times:
- The ‘ordinary times’.
2. The moments of sense-contact.
3. The moment of physical death.
How should we practice on the first occasion in the ‘normal times’ when there is no association with sense objects? These ‘ordinary times’ are the occasions when we are doing some kind of work alone, relaxed and unconcerned, and perhaps at times performing our daily tasks or of practicing some kind of formal meditation. There is no problem due to sense-contact. We may be doing some worldly task, or if it’s in our spare time reading a book or even thinking about something, as long as the mind is undisturbed by sense-contact. At such times our practice must be the study and clarification of the way in which things are empty and the way in which to make the mind empty and undeluded by all things. Think about it, study it for yourself, enquire from others and discuss it regularly. Keep doing it.
There is another kind of short cut particularly for lay people who have never ordained or studied the scriptures and for those who cannot read at all. It has the same meaning and aim, the knowledge of the emptiness of all things, but with such people we don’t use the word emptiness or they will not understand. We tell them to make a point of contemplating what there is worth having and what there is that is worth being. Gaining wealth, possessions, prestige and power, what is worth gaining, what is worth having? Being a human being, being a millionaire, being a beggar, being a king, being a king’s subject, being a celestial being. what is worth being, what about it is worth being?
First of all we must understand the words ‘have’ and ‘be’ correctly. These words refer directly to grasping and clinging. To fulfill the meaning of the words ‘have’ or ‘gain’ there must be a grasping at something to make ours. For instance if we take diamonds and jewels and pile them up so they completely fill a room and there is no clinging to them as being ours or that we are their owners, it’s the same as if there was no possession or gain. The pile of precious stones stands there without meaning. But if grasping at ‘I’ occurs, that ‘I have got them,’ ‘I have them and they are mine’, then that is having or gaining. Please understand these words in this way.
I’ll ask again, what is there worth having? What is there worth gaining? What is there that having been possessed won’t cause it’s owner to suffer? Every single thing that there is will burn up it’s owner, pierce, strangle and entangle him, envelop and oppress him should he start to ‘have’ or ‘to be’. But should the precious stones stand piled up filling the room and he has no feeling of having or being, then there is no burning, entangling and strangling of any kind. This is called not-having and not-being. So what is there, that having possessed it or having become it we will be free from Dukkha?
Once there is the feeling of having or being, we don’t have to be in the room with the stones, we can be in a forest or in a country on the other side of the world and the mind will still experience Dukkha. Try having children living in America, you’ll see that if you cling to ‘I’ and ‘mine’ they will be able to give you sleepless nights or even a nervous breakdown.
Please make it a habit to regularly contemplate what is worth having and what is worth being; what is there that once possessed or once become, will not cause us Dukkha. When we discover the truth that there is absolutely nothing that is worthy of the feelings of having or being, then we become even-minded towards all things. Whatever action we perform, be it arranging, having, collecting, using or whatever, we just do what needs to be done. So don’t let the mind have or become! Keep in mind the principle of doerless doing:
The doing is done but no doer is there.
The path has been walked but no walker is there.
This verse refers to the arahant, the one who has practiced Dhamma, or who has walked the Noble Path to its very end and who has reached Nibbana, but with no walker and no practicer to be found.
The principle of doerless doing must be taken up and utilized in our daily lives. Whether we’re eating, sitting, laying down, standing, walking, using, seeking, whatever we are doing we must have enough truth-discerning awareness to prevent the arising of the feeling of ‘I’ – the feeling that ‘I’ am the doer, ‘I” am the eater, the walker, the sitter, the sleeper or the user. We must make the mind constantly empty of ego, so that emptiness is the natural state and we abide with the awareness that there is nothing worth having or being.
Dhamma can be practiced in conjunction with our daily tasks and the to and fro that they entail. There is no need to separate Dhamma from everyday life. It is a very high practice. If there is mindfulness and self-awareness, not only will our work be successful and free from error, but at the same time, Dhamma in our hearts will develop and grow greatly. Not-having and not-gaining will be the normal state of the mind.
As for ‘being’ it’s much easier. Consider what there is that having become there is no Dukkha? This can be a formula for reflection. It is the essential point. The word ‘being’ just as with the words ‘have and ‘gain’, refers only to the being that is accompanied by upadana, by grasping and clinging to the ‘I am’. If a room is piled full of gold and we have no feeling of being it’s owner there is no gaining or having and no being. Although the ownership rights and social conventions recognized by laws of the world have a certain validity, in our true hearts we shouldn’t be misled into taking those relative truths to be ultimate. For instance when there is a birth it is, conventionally speaking, natural that the one who gives birth becomes a mother and the one born a child. However, if one doesn’t take oneself to be a mother then one won’t be a mother. Because one deludedly presumes oneself to be a mother one becomes one. Mother chickens, mother dogs, mother cows, all sorts of mothers consider themselves to be mothers and feel it natural to love their young. It’s not necessary for them to create or nurture such feelings, these are instincts natural to animals.
But those with truth-discerning awareness are on a higher level. They have the knowledge of the way to destroy the grasping and clinging that arises from such ignorance.
Now some people will think: “Not let us feel ourselves to be mothers! How cruel and heartless! Won’t you let us love our children?” Listen carefully: It doesn’t mean that at all. It means that it is possible to be a mother and perform a mothers duties with truth-discerning awareness. It’s not necessary to be a mother with grasping and clinging, the cause of every kind of Dukkha. It’s not necessary to suffer unhappiness, the heart break and tears. That suffering is indeed the price of not knowing how to be a mother, of being a mother is a way that does not conform with Dhamma
When one is a mother one must have the Dukkha of a mother; when one is a son or daughter one must have the Dukkha of a son or daughter; when one is a father one must have the Dukkha of a father. Try asking your self ‘Is being a mother a pleasure?’ Those of you old enough to have had a full experience of parenthood, think over what it’s like. How will you answer? Even if you don’t say anything outright, probably every one of you will shake your heads. Is being a mother a pleasure? Is being a father a pleasure? This is something that you should study and be naturally and habitually conscious of at the times when the mind is not occupied with sense-contact.
Is it a pleasure to be a husband? is it a pleasure to be a wife? Think it over for yourselves. Those who have fully experienced being husband and wives will all shake their heads.
Is it a pleasure to be male? is it a pleasure to be female? If your truth-discerning awareness is following step by step and becoming increasingly refined, you will all shake your heads. To be female is to have the Dukkha of being female. To be male is to have the Dukkha of a male.
Is it a pleasure to be a child? Is it a pleasure to be an adult? Young children will probably say, ‘Yes it’s fun’ but we who are now adults, we who are now old, look back and ask yourselves ‘Was it really a pleasure? Children have the Dukkha of children and adults have the Dukkha of adults if there is grasping and clinging.
To expand this further -is to be a human being a desirable thing? Is it worth being? Or is is worth being an animal? To be anyone of a pair of opposites or to be nothing at all, which is better? To be a man, to be a denizen of hell, are they worth being?
To take another pair: Is this person you are, worth being? Or is it worth being a deva in heaven? These questions are a measure of truth discerning awareness, of whether or not one sees grasping and clinging fully and truly. Those who have seen the painful consequences of grasping and clinging will shake their heads in the same way; for to be a person one must have the Dukkha of a person, if one is a deva one must have the Dukkha of a deva. If we are empty, not taking ourselves to be anything at all, then we are neither a person or a deva and so the Dukkha of being either of those things is absent. Those who have realized the truth will all shake their heads.
To be more specific, is it worth being a good person? Is it worth being a bad person? If one asks who wants to be a good person there is likely to be a forest of raised hands. Such people don’t yet see that if one clings to being a good person then one must have the Dukkha of being a good person. exactly in the same way that a bad person will have the Dukkha appropriate to being a bad person. When there is grasping and clinging at being, then there is not happiness at all, for that state of being will be weighed down by a heaviness of some sort or another. Even if some kinds of Dukkha do not show themselves openly, if there are pleasures and distractions there will be the Dukkha of having, being and gaining, of ambitiously striving to be this or that.
In truth, nature fools us into taking on Dukkha, an obvious example being the case of Dukkha that arises from propagating the species, from giving birth. It fools us so much that people actually enthusiastically volunteer. If they were to see the truth for themselves they would probably have nothing to do with this deception of nature. is it a pleasure to be a good person? Is it a pleasure to be a bad person? Think about it.
Coming even closer, is it worth it being a fortunate person? Is it worth it being an unfortunate person? The hasty and uncircumspect are likely to raise their hands immediately, saying that being fortunate is extremely pleasant, but those who have fully experienced good fortune will shake their heads. One who is fortunate must endure the Dukkha of one who takes himself to be fortunate in exactly the same way that the one who is unfortunate must endure the Dukkha appropriate to one who is unfortunate.
Coming closer still. Is it worth it being a happy person? Is it worth it being an unhappy person? There will be a real forest of raised hands here, even more than before, all asking to be a happy person. On the other hand, those who have been happy, who have fully experienced being happy, will shake their heads. You may not understand this section so let me repeat, people who are happy must have the Dukkha of people with happiness. Regarding this point you must bear in mind that it is the worldly who establish the conventions as to the nature of happiness: that the one who has money and power enjoys every sort of sense-pleasure is the happy person. But if we look closely we will see that such a person suffers Dukkha in an appropriate fashion, a ‘fishbone’ forms in the flesh of his pleasure. Even with the more subtle happiness that arises from samadhi and the meditative absorptions of the rishis and munis, if the feeling that ‘I am happy’ arises, then too it will form a ‘fishbone’ in the flesh of that happiness that will stick in the enjoyers throat. Those who grasp at and cling to the happiness of rupajhana suffer accordingly.
Consequently, there is the injunction to renounce lust for form and lust for the formless, the first two of the higher fetters (samyojana) that prevent us from becoming arahants. If there is clinging to the idea that we have happiness, even if it’s the happiness that arises from Dhamma, it will cause a fine kind of ‘fishbone’ to stay stuck in the throat, so that the true Dhamma cannot be discerned.
Grasping at Nibbana as being ‘my’ self or ‘my’ happiness is impossible. One may say, if one wishes, that Nibbana is the supreme happiness and that one grasps Nibbana as being ‘I’ or ‘mine’, that I have happiness of Nibbana or I have attained Nibbana. But these are mere rationalizations, in fact it can’t happen. One who still grasps and clings cannot possibly attain Nibbana. If anyone takes himself to be the enjoyer of the happiness of Nibbana it can only be counterfeit Nibbana. True Nibbana, is not of a nature that can be grasped that way.
So we drive out happiness! We drive it out right from the happiness of children, the happiness of adults, of young men and young women and the elderly, the happiness of the powerful and influential, right up to the happiness of being a deva, of having meditative absorptions and attainments and finally to Nibbana. If we deludedly consider ‘I am happy’ then we must suffer accordingly. Those who have realized the truth see this. Those who have not are in turmoil, ambitiously and hungrily striving for wealth, power and sense pleasures, or on a higher level, greedily striving for insight, meditative absorptions and attainments, pushing so much that some end up in a mental hospital. That in itself demonstrates the dangers of grasping and clinging to happiness. Young children will not understand this point but adults should.
Now we’ll give some thought to another pair of opposites. Is being born a pleasure? Is dying a pleasure? Choose one or other of the pair. Which is more enjoyable, being born or dying? If we really understand Dhamma we’ll shake our heads, we’ll want neither birth nor death. However, although people don’t usually want to die, they do want to be born. They want birth without death and what’s more, they want eternal life or if they must die they want to be reborn. This is indeed grasping and clinging. Only from the time when there is neither birth nor death, when the mind is empty, will there be an end to Dukkha.
Why not try thinking this over when you are lying down or walking, in the moments that the mind is not occupied by sense-contact. When you’re doing something or being something, why not try thinking in this way?
W hen you’re suffering and exhausted with being a mother, why don’t you ever feel that it’s unpleasant? Being a husband, being a wife, being any of the things that I’ve mentioned, when you are disturbed and upset by that state of being, why don’t you ever feel it to be utterly unpleasant? You still find it pleasant even when it brings you to tears.
We must contemplate well that we want neither birth nor non-birth, for neither is empty. If we cling to non-birth then it too is not empty. This section, concerning birth and non-birth, the final pair, is the hardest to understand and the hardest to practice. We want neither birth nor non-birth and through not grasping at or clinging to either of them there is an emptiness. having spoken continually of having and being, of not-having and not-being, we reach birth and non-birth and almost immediately grasp at non-birth. Thus at the final stage our practice must be to advance to the point that our knowledge of non-birth dissolves, without becoming an object of grasping and clinging. Then true emptiness will appear, that which is neither birth nor non-birth, or in other words true non-birth, the remainderless extinction. Speaking in this way may seem to be splitting hairs or quibbling but the meaning is unequivocal, there is the definite difference between those two kinds of non-birth. So don’t cling to the idea that Nibbana is non-birth and is wonderful and amazing in this way and that or that vattasamsara (the wheel of birth and death) is a plethora of fun filled births. There must be no grasping or clinging on either side for there to be emptiness and genuine non-birth. The practice at the normal times must be of this nature continually.
As for the moments when we are doing the great work of kammatthana, the most technical aspect of the practice of Samadhivipassana, whereby one examines the painful consequences of grasping and clinging, it too is a matter of being empty. A large part of kammatthana practice depends on following instructions, it’s not something an unlearned person can do on his own, and thus there are many guidelines and explanations. You may read these for yourselves or bring to mind those you have formerly heard. All of the points that I have been making here are included in the practice at the ordinary times.
The second occasion is the moment of contact with sense-objects. When visible forms, sounds, odors, flavors and tangible objects contact the eyes, ears, nose, tongue and body we must practice letting phassa stop at phassa and let vedana stop at vedana, in the way that I have previously explained in many places and many occasions at the beginning of these talks. Letting phassa stop at just phassa is an extremely high level of practice. On the ordinary level, phassa develops into vedana and then we stop it just there, without allowing the further development of craving and grasping, of ‘I’ and ‘mine’.
Some of the articulate talkers in monastery halls and teachers in Buddhist colleges say that stopping just at phassa is impossible, that there is always the development of vedana. That is because they cling to the written word. it’s not the truth.
In fact, the Buddha taught that when seeing forms there should be just the seeing, when smelling odors just the smelling, tasting flavors just the tasting and touching tangible objects just the touching. If you can do it then there is no you, the ego is not born. It is the end if Dukkha, immutable emptiness.
It is sufficient to observe one’s reactions at the times that we glance in the direction of some neutral form or other. Try casting you eyes on the door or a window and you’ll notice that there is merely phassa, there are no feelings of satisfaction or dissatisfaction. When visible forms, sounds, odors, flavors and tangible objects enter as contact let them stop there in the same way.
Let it be like the soldier asleep by the side of a piece of artillery. When a shell is fired he merely registers the sound without feeling anything and just goes on happily sleeping. No matter how heavy the shelling he is not startled or disturbed. There is just the sound of the piece of artillery contacting his ear and then ceasing.
Can you let phassa stop at phassa in that way when you hear the sound of a man or the sound of a woman or the sound of a loved one? If you can then you are really adept. Here animals may be more accomplished then we are because they lack all the excess mental baggage carried by humans. If we wish to reach the peak of excellence then we must train ourselves to let phassa remain as merely phassa.
But if you can’t do it and admit defeat, you can still stop at vedana. as soon as there is a feeling of comfort or discomfort, of satisfaction or dissatisfaction, then extinguish it just there, without giving birth to the various kinds of desire that spring from the urges of carving and clinging. This is the practice on the occasion of contact with sense-objects.
Now in the short remaining time I would like to talk about the practice on the third occasion, the moment when the mind is extinguished and the body breaks up and dies. How can we practice so as to be empty at that time? For this matter we must depend on taking ‘remainderless extinction’ as our basic principle in life.
The natural death of the aged is something definite and sure. When someone reaches old age it’s said that they have little time left. What can be achieved in that short remaining time? So as to be in time, those who are old and unlearned, who don’t have the time to study very much and whose brains aren’t as good as they were, can hold to this very principle of remainderless extinction of the ‘I’, that I have been speaking of.
Make it natural to yourself to see that being a person is not pleasant, being a deva is not pleasant, being a father or a mother is not pleasant, being a son or a daughter is not pleasant, a husband, a wife, a servant, a master, a victor, a loser, a good person, a bad person, a fortunate person or an unfortunate person -none of them is pleasant, none of them is any fun. Then the mind will hold no hope of having or being anything at all. The phrase ‘absence of hope’ may be used in regard to the attainment of arahantship, but it is not the designation of the foolish and lazy, it’s a different matter altogether. It is the absence of hope of one who with true wisdom sees that there is nothing in this or in any world that one would wish to have or to be.
So what path will be taken by the mind of a person without hope? It won’t take any path at all because it sees that nothing is worth wishing for. Thus it lays the way for its own death. There being no desire to have or be anything, it dissolves into emptiness. This is the skillful means to cheat nature a little. When the time of death has truly arrived, we give rise to the feeling that nothing anywhere is worth having or being. If that feeling is present in the mind at the moment of death then one will inevitably reach Nibbana through the act of dying itself. It’s really a good deal – putting down a tiny amount of capital certain of great results!
Let great scholars of the land come and test out what it’s like for the mind to meet death with the authentic feeling that nothing anywhere is worth having or being. Death will be disintegration accompanied by nirodhadhatu. The mind will be transformed into nibbandhatu through physical death. If a grandma or grand-dad are unlearned and inarticulate but have this single feeling it is enough.
When the time of death arrives let this single feeling that nothing anywhere is worth having or being be present. You should remember that close to death the mind will gradually slip away. As the body runs down nearing its end, consciousness will gradually disappear. You will forget more and more until you forget everything. You won’t know what time it is, whether it’s day or night; you won’t be able to tell where you are or whose house you are in, you won’t even be able to remember your name or even the most basic daily chants properly. But the way for you to stay as the companion of the mind until the end, is to be aware that nothing is worth having and nothing is worth being. Volunteer for the remainderless extinction! Let that feeling of volunteering for the remainderless extinction, that readiness to accept it, be a partner of the mind until the very end. With this skillful means the mind will be able to dissolve itself into the emptiness that is Nibbana. This is the practice at the moment of physical death for those of little knowledge. With it an unlearned grandma or grand-dad can reach the final extinction. We call it the skillful means of turning a fall from a ladder into a measured leap.
The body must inevitably break up, it’s old, it has reached its end. This is to have fallen from the ladder. As one falls one leaps on, leaps on to the remainderless extinction by establishing in the mind the feeling that nothing is worth having and nothing is worth being. It may be called leaping in the right direction. There is no pain of any sort. There is, on the contrary, the best possible results, attainment of remainderless extinction. It is to be adept. It is to know how to fall from the ladder. It’s not like the foolish people who, when they fall from a ladder, break their necks and all their limbs. Even those who have studied a lot and travel about, giving articulate talks in monastery halls, can still fall from the ladder and break their bones. They can’t compare with those who have been interested in the right way, even if it’s only in this one matter.
Now in the event of accidental death, such as getting run over by a car, having a building collapse on top of you, being gored in the rear by a bull or getting blown up by an atom bomb, what should you do? If you have even a little intelligence you’ll see that it’s exactly the same. If there is even a tiny amount of awareness left, in that moment resolve on the remainderless extinction. Through having previously developed the feeling that there is nothing worth having or being, until it is completely fluent and natural to you, on reaching the moment of death, you will be able to bring it to mind for a split second before the end. For example, someone run over by a car doesn’t die immediately, there is always an interval even if it’s only a fraction of a second or a single thought-moment, and for the flash of feeling resolving on remainderless extinction that is plenty of time.
Now suppose that death occurs in an instant with no feeling at all, well that itself is the remainderless extinction! As I have already explained we have already trained in the normal times to keep this feeling that nothing is worth having or being constantly in the mind, so that when the body meets death with no opportunity to think or feel anything, that awareness already being present there will be the remainderless extinction. But if there is even one thought-moment or half a second, then we can think comfortably. So don’t be cowardly, don’t be afraid! Don’t let cowardice and fear sap our strength: “please may I go with you doctor”, “take me to the hospital” and so on. If you go you’ll die there just the same, it’s a waste of time.
Against unnatural death, dying not wanting to die, dying unexpectedly, the sublime Dhamma can not only provide an infallible protection, but can provide Nibbana right here under the wheels of the car, beneath the collapsing building, at the horns of the bull or in the pile of bodies charred by the atomic blast. There is no violent unnatural death, instead there is Nibbana.
Those who have studied a little, know a little, right down to grandma and grand-dad who can’t read are all capable of understanding this teaching and should keep training in this correct understanding.
Now as for the death of those of perfect knowledge and truth-discerning awareness, those who have studied sufficiently and are proficient both in the theory and practice of Dhamma, for such people it doesn’t have to be a matter of leaping as they fall from the ladder. They are deathless from the start, from before any illness. Through having attained a high level of Dhamma since long before, they have no death.
If a person has such abundant knowledge then when the time of death truly arrives, his preparations will be much better than those who have to leap as they fall from the ladder. Knowing how to establish mindfulness and self-awareness that is incorruptible he may laugh contemptuously at death. it might be called descending the ladder rung by rung and is the way of the one with perfect knowledge.
Now I should like to talk about the way that the sick and diseased should prepare themselves for death. When one knows that death is inevitable, such as when suffering from a terminal illness like tuberculosis, one should make the very best of it with mindfulness and self-awareness, without cowardice or fear.
I’d like to relate to you an account I once came across of the way that people in the time of Buddha prepared for death. For those people who kept the precepts of Virtuous Conduct fasting was not at all difficult because they were used to abstaining from an evening meal on Uposatha days. When their illness reached the point that they felt that they had no more than ten days left they would stop eating. Not like us. These days, if someone is close to death we go out and look for the most expensive and delicious foods, so that some people even die prematurely from the food. Their efforts to avoid food were for the purpose of having a mind completely undisturbed. When the body starts to run down it loses it’s ability to digest food and so anything consumed turns to poison, making the mind restless and confused.
So they prepared themselves for death by abstaining from food and taking only water or medicine. As death got closer, they would stop taking even water or medicine in order to focus their mindfulness and truth-discerning awareness, so as to die in the way of remainderless extinction.
People who cling to goodness and virtue prepare themselves to die by clinging to goodness and virtue. The wise prepare themselves to let go and meet the remainderless extinction. There is nothing that they want: injecting drugs to extend their lives would be a great irritation. This is relinquishing the body (sankharas). Relinquishing the body while still alive they prepare to make the best of its disintegration by acquiescing in remainderless extinction.
As for us these days, we mill around the doctor in a tumult, sometimes until the room is packed tight, trying to get the dying person to take medicines or eat or have injections. We try to do so many things that the sick person becomes anxious and flustered and has no peace of mind. He doesn’t know how he is going to die or whether in fact he will die at all. There is nothing but doubt and anxiety. The sick person does not experience victory over death, he does not realize emptiness or the remainderless extinction that I have been speaking of.
Unlike the people of the Buddha’s time, people today usually look for the most comfortable bed, the most comfortable room, the most expensive foods and medicines, and then die with a great fuss. They want to go on living, to put off their death even if it’s only for a single minute. They start having all sorts of injections and treatments and die with no mindfulness or self-awareness. It is the action of delusion.
To die in the right way we must be brave with Dhamma and die having victory over death, die realizing emptiness in the last second of life. Please remember well, there is an opportunity right up to the last moment.
These then are the ways of practice divided into three moments or occasions.
- The ‘normal’ times when we are doing our normal tasks.
2. The moments of sense contact -how to deal with it so as to produce emptiness.
3. The moment of death – what to do when the five ‘aggregates’ khandas meet their inevitable disintegration.
These are things that should be brought up and thought about, spoken about and discussed regularly in the same way that we can chat about radio and television programs, and the general goings-on of the world. People who like boxing can get so excited talking about it that they can’t get the words out quickly enough. Why is it that we can talk about those things all day and night and yet when it comes down to something as important as this we don’t discuss it at all? Why don’t we ever talk about fighting with death, of having victory over it and being free of both death and birth? If we did it would become much easier straight away. If we talk about and discuss these things as much as we discuss other matters, in no great time the practice will become truly easy. If we follow the correct method everything will be easy, even attaining Nibbana or leaping as we fall from the ladder.
To sum up, we must understand correctly the meanings of the phrases ’empty’, ‘realizing emptiness’, ‘abiding with emptiness’, ‘being naturally empty’ and ‘being emptiness’ itself.
Emptiness is present in all things: it is their characteristic. If the mind is empty of grasping at and clinging to all things, then it is itself emptiness, the remainderless extinction of ‘I’ and ‘mine’ and there is no more birth.
Here I will bring to an end this talk on the practice that leads to ’emptiness’.