A unique approach to finally understanding sunyata that actually works for practice, growth, and Enlightenment.
Struggling to understand Emptiness? Read this.
Emptiness is an challenging topic for the uninitiated and it presents an almost impossible learning curve to beginners who are just starting to explore the Buddhist path. In this article we make some sense out of it and understand its place in your practice toward Buddhist Enlightenment.
I have problems trying to understand Emptiness. I even struggle at finding a better way of putting the idea of Emptiness or No-self as it is explained in dharma books and dharma talks into my own words. I suspect the causes will be in no small part because I am not fully understanding the subject in enough depth and therefore struggle in putting it into my own words, like the bowl with the holes in it, I discover it has all seeped away and just isn’t happening yet! I also don’t want to just parrot back words, I want to understand it enough to understand it with confidence and some insight.
Emptiness -- whether it's referred to as emptiness, nothingness, voidness, no-thingness, nonself, or no-self -- is another one of those poorly-translated words that does a disservice to English-language Dharma students and Western meditation knowledge-seekers alike; and I generally suggest sticking with the Sanskrit word, sunyata, and other words that break down the ancillary parts of the concept (avidya, moha, anatman, pratityasamutpada, etc). The Sanskrit words can be read and understood without conveying any of the cultural baggage that comes along with many of the poorly-translated Western words used for deep concepts such as suffering, ignorance, rapture, renunciation, et cetera.
The funny thing about Emptiness is that understanding it invariably will come as a natural by-product of deeper levels of insight meditation practice coupled with a dedicated and properly-structured dharma studies curriculum. That is to say, if you work the Buddhist Path effectively enough, you will come to innately understand what Emptiness is whether you try to understand it, or not; and trying to intellectually understand what Emptiness is, without directly experiencing it, is not a valuable use of time beyond acquiring a general idea of the concept behind it (e.g., no-self, dependent origination, etc.) to support a solid foundation from which to base a consistent practice. It would be like trying to understand what it's like to be a parent from books or other people's stories having never even seen a real child before; it simply cannot be done. But unlike being a parent, many beginners, or otherwise unprepared practitioners waste a lot of time trying to get their heads around this strictly cerebral concept, and sadly their teachers should know better.
Why should teachers "know better"? Because exploring Emptiness without proper understandings or guidance can be harmful to your practice and will almost certainly impair your progress. So much so that the Buddha actually forbade monastics from teaching it to unprepared minds.... something that I tend to agree with quite a bit.
"Form is Emptiness. Emptiness is form." This is from the Heart Sutra, a fantastic and powerful piece of work. But what exactly does that mean, "form is emptiness?" Millions of people spend their entire lives studying, reciting, and meditating on the Heart Sutra and the topic of Emptiness, never really coming to understand them beyond an academic understanding, at best. For most people, it's a waste of the precious time we have to practice. And the reason we practice is to attain Awakening so that we can start down the path of Enlightenment and through its various stages to realising actual Nirvana; that can't ever happen for the many millions of people who get stuck in the metaphysical eddy that is Emptiness. That time-spent in order to get closer to Enlightenment would be much better served if they spend that time meditating instead, or cultivating their patience and compassion. The Heart Sutra will make sense only to those who have already experienced Emptiness directly; its meaning will never truly make sense to those who haven't, and yet, sadly, so many people spend so much time trying to... it's a spiritual tragedy.
Coming to understand "Emptiness" is about directly experiencing it. It's not something you can "learn." However, you can create the causes that make the direct realisation of Emptiness an almost certain possibility by cultivating your skills with more advanced levels of samatha and vipassana meditation, and through your continued study, and practical application, of the dharma every day. The only thing that prevents people from attaining Enlightenment and directly experiencing Nirvana in this lifetime is insufficient instruction and/or practice. Directly experiencing Emptiness is an important attainment during the early stages of Enlightenment, and Path and Fruition knowledge cannot be complete without it. The nice thing about this regimen is that it's same way the Buddha, Arhats, Bodhisattvas, and all the other enlightened people around us did it. :)
I think it's important enough to re-emphasise the futility of trying to understand what Emptiness is from books or from other people. That would be like trying to learn from someone else what "Colour" is when you've only ever seen in black-and-white and you have no concept of what "colour" is... again, it simply can't be done. The only way to understand it is to experience it directly. At some point, wise practitioners will come to accept Emptiness as just another one of the many immaterial concepts that must be experienced directly to be understood innately and that it will come in time.
At this point, you're probably thinking that everything I wrote above is just metaphysical balderdash; and for now, you'd be right. That's because Emptiness is intangible and it's a nebulous and nonphysical concept and, as such, it sends a lot of people's mind spinning. That's to be expected. It simply means you're not ready to approach it yet.
But alas, all is not lost, this is actually good news! It means you're off the hook, for now.
Here's my practical advice to you:
Try not to get too hung up on Emptiness. Keeping it within your curriculum is important, but whether or not you understand it right now doesn't affect your studies or your practice. Keep working the dharma and meditating on what you are learning. And keep working on being mindful and putting the dharma into practice in the real world.
As you do these things, and continue to go deeper with your studies and practice, your insights into Emptiness will inevitably develop and come into their own as a natural by-product of the other work you are doing. This cannot be overstated; you will come to understand what Emptiness is as a natural by-product of continuously going deeper with your meditation and dharma practices. So it goes without saying at this point that how and what you learn and practice will have a direct impact on how quickly you come to experience Emptiness directly. This is where having a skilled meditation trainer or dharma coach can really help you stay the course and progress properly.
Nevertheless at this stage in your journey, I would recommend that if you find yourself struggling with a concept that is beyond your grasp, put it aside for now. Why rush it when there are so many other more practical things you can focus on, such as developing your understanding and skills in patience, compassion, and happiness? Try not to focus on Emptiness when you can work on those other things, it will be a better use of your time. Besides, the happier you are, the easier it is to directly experience Emptiness -- they are all connected, which is why, and how, insights into Emptiness come naturally.
By the way, I put topics aside too, sometimes. If I am thinking about approaching a dharma topic that I know I am not prepared for, I remind myself that I have plenty of time and that there are still plenty of topics within Buddhism that I can work productively with as I make my way to approaching more complex topics. The point of all of this is to transform our mind and rewire it for a deep sense of inner-peace and well-being; not to be all-knowing Buddha-scholars. So there's no rush; and from this simple act of stepping-back springs a real world practice/exercise in developing your capacity for patience, which is a skill that we can never develop too much of.
Letting go of grasping at an immaterial concept is one of the best ways to really come to understand it in time, especially in Buddhism. :)
I hope this was a benefit to you.
Buddhist Ācariya and Anagārika
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The Sagacious Buddhist Blog
Michael Turner is a pre-monastic ariya-puggala and a full-time Buddhist anagārika; and he is also a deeply accomplished streamentry mentor and applied-dharma teacher. He emphasises and teaches the practical application of the Buddha's teachings in our everyday lives to overcome our human problems that stand in the way of making measurable progress toward Buddhist enlightenment and he is particularly adept at explaining them in ways that can be easily understood and practiced by Western Buddhists. He has been meditating and cultivating the views and techniques that generate indestructible resilience, inner-strength, and direct experience for almost 30 years and has helped countless numbers of students and peers enhance and course-correct their practice to make veritable progress along the path toward Nibbāna.
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