The Context for Understanding Emptiness

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Voidness (emptiness) ̱̱is a very difficult topic, but a very essential topic. In order to approach it, we need to see where it fits into the general presentation of the Buddhist teachings. As we all know, Buddha taught his understanding, his realization in terms of what is known as the four noble truths. These are four facts, which are seen as true by any arya. An arya is somebody who has had non-conceptual cognition of voidness. So ordinary beings like us, we don’t see these things as true. These facts are not so clear to us or obvious. But those who have actually seen reality straightforwardly, these aryas, have seen that these facts are true. So what are these four facts?

The Four Noble Truths: True Suffering

The first is the fact of suffering. When we speak about suffering, we are talking about problems or unsatisfactory situations. We have three varieties of suffering. The first of these is just ordinary, gross suffering, the suffering of pain. Ordinary difficult situations that we all experience in terms of physical pain, mental pain, growing old, getting sick, dying, all these usual things. The wish to overcome these types of sufferings, to avoid them, is not something terribly special. Even animals have that wish not to have physical pain. Some animals will store away food for the winter so they won’t be hungry. We can do much more than that to avoid this type of suffering.

The second type of suffering is called the suffering of change. This is referring to the ordinary type of happiness that we experience. Although this ordinary type of happiness may be nice, it may be pleasant, it doesn’t last and so we are always frustrated when it ends. And it never satisfies: we always have to have more. It is not sufficient to just eat once, but we always want to eat again, don’t we? There is no security with it. We have no certainty of what we’re going to experience next, whether we’re going to have more happiness or whether we’re going to have pain. Now to wish to overcome that, to avoid that, to get to a situation that is free from that, is not particularly Buddhist either. There are many non-Buddhist religions that teach paths to get to some sort of paradise, some sort of everlasting happiness that will be beyond, and much, much better than the so-called worldly happiness.

To follow the Buddhist path just to overcome the first two types of suffering is really not taking the full essence of the Buddhist path, as we might overcome them in other ways as well. Although of course we could question “can you really overcome completely the first two types of suffering with other paths?,” but that is a big debate. In any case, Buddha was not emphasizing overcoming these first two types of suffering, because everybody else was talking about that as well. Buddha was pointing out a third type of suffering, which is much more serious and a deeper problem.

This is what is known as the all-pervasive suffering. This is the underlying problem behind the first two, which is namely that every moment of our existence is conditioned by, or affected by, or arises from our basic unawareness of reality, our confusion. Each moment of our existence is mixed with this confusion. And because of that, each moment of our experience perpetuates or produces more moments mixed with confusion. That’s the real problem, because if everything is coming from confusion, mixed with confusion and produces more confusion, then what we experience because of that, we experience the ups and downs of samsara. Sometimes we have pain. Sometimes we have the worldly pleasure that doesn’t last. It goes up and down, up and down. Just staying in this situation, which is going to go on forever, this is called samsara. “Samsara” means uncontrollably recurring existence with no beginning. It is going to go on forever, unless we stop it. So that’s the true suffering, that’s the true problem, this all-pervasive problem that we all have. That’s the real thing the Buddha was speaking about with the first fact, this first noble truth.

The Four Noble Truths: True Origin of Suffering

The second fact is that this problem of recurring, recurring confusion, recurring difficulties and so on, comes from a natural cause. It’s not coming from no cause. It’s not coming from a cause which is completely irrelevant or from some higher power that is punishing us. But it’s coming from a cause which is in harmony with what the problem is. And that cause is our unawareness of reality. Often, that is translated as “ignorance.” The connotation of that word in English is “stupid.” And it’s not that it’s “stupid”: there is no connotation within that that is “stupid.” But in Russian "nevidya" – that's much closer, because you have a negation word "ne" and then you have "vidya," which means "to know." It's the same thing in German. "Unwissenheit." It's a Sanskrit word. The Sanskrit word here is "avidya," which starts with the negation prefix "a" plus "vidya," also meaning "to know." So this is much closer to the original meaning.

Now, there are two meanings of this word "unawareness," which would be the closer English equivalent. The first is the meaning that we find in the abhidharma texts. These are the texts from the Sanskrit that deal about topics of knowledge, special topics of knowledge. In those texts, we find this “unawareness” defined as simply not knowing, “we just don’t know,” either cause and effect, in terms of our behavior, or how things exist, mostly how we ourselves exist. When we don’t know the actual effects of our behavior, understand cause and effect, then we act destructively, and that causes our gross problems of suffering. So, although that type of unawareness does produce true suffering and problems, it’s not the deepest level. But because we are unaware of how we exist, or if we look at it in a Mahayana, larger context of how everything exists, then that produces our all-pervasive problem, this more serious, underlying problem. That is the first understanding of this unawareness: we simply don’t know. It’s not that we’re stupid. It’s just that it’s not obvious. Our minds make things appear to exist in all sorts of ways that don’t correspond to reality, like for instance that “I am the center of the universe.” We have this little voice going on in our heads and even when you close your eyes, that voice is still going. So it appears as though “obviously, I am the center of everything out there, I can just sort of shut it off by closing my eyes.” It is confusing: we just don’t know that that isn’t really how things exist.

Another Indian master, Dharmakirti, defined “unawareness” differently. He defined it as “knowing things in a reverse, or inverted, type of way” – in other words, knowing things in a way which is opposite to the way in which they actually exist. So that means that it’s not just simply that we don’t know how things exist, but we believe that they exist in the wrong way, the way that is exactly opposite to how it actually does exist.

We can see that this is actually a much more serious cause of problems than that “we simply don’t know.” We are very convinced of what is incorrect. So we can add, on to our naivety about not knowing, things like being very stubborn and antagonistic to anybody that tries to say that what we believe is wrong. It’s just complete garbage. We think, “What do you mean I am not the most important person? Of course I am the most important one. I have to get the best seat. I have to get the best of everything. I have to get my own way.” We can get quite an antagonistic attitude in terms of this.

The Four Noble Truths: True Stopping of Suffering

The third fact, the third noble truth, is that it is possible to achieve a true stopping (true cessation) of these first two facts, the problems and their cause. In other words, the nature of the mind is something, which is pure of this cause of our problems and therefore pure of the problems and suffering itself. In other words, this recurring uncontrollable situation, the confusion just goes on and on and on – and that confusion itself is not part of the nature of the mind. It is possible to get rid of these things and it is possible to get rid of them forever, so that they never recur. To understand that and to be actually convinced that it is true is not easy, because it requires understanding the nature of the mind. It requires understanding a great deal, actually, in order to become convinced that this third fact, true stopping, is actually possible. But Buddha didn’t say, “Just shut up and believe it.” He said that this is something which can be experienced, it can be understood through logic, and so we need to work on it. But unless we are actually convinced that it is possible to achieve this true stopping, then our work on the path to achieve it is something which is going to be insecure. We are not really convinced that we can achieve it, that it is possible.

The Four Noble Truths: True Path of Mind

That brings us to the fourth fact, which is true path. When we call it a path, we have to understand what we mean by path. It doesn’t mean something that you walk on. It refers to a mind, a mental state, a type of understanding. That mental state will act as a path, or in English it comes out much more nicely if you call it a “pathway” that will lead us to a goal. So I call it in English “a path of mind” or “pathway mind.” So there is an understanding that will actually bring about that true stopping and also the resultant state of mind which has achieved that true stopping.

What is the way of understanding? What is the type of mental state that will bring about this true stopping? It needs to be one that is exactly the opposite of the state of mind that is producing all the problems. Not just the opposite like “black and white,” not like our opposites, which allow for the grey in between. But it has to be a state of mind that is mutually exclusive with the state of mind that is causing our problems; in other words, if you have one you can’t have the other.

If we speak in general, we could say that if we understand our unawareness to be simply that we don’t know how things exist, then what would be the opposite of that would be to know how things exist, and to know correctly with total conviction, based on logic and experience and so on, so it’s not just blind belief. And we need to be able to sustain that understanding all the time, so that the lack of understanding never recurs. That’s where the understanding of voidness comes in, because when we know voidness and we are convinced of voidness, then that is the opposite of the unawareness of how things exist.

The understanding of voidness is stronger than the understanding of confusion, because although the understanding of confusion is supported by habit and our understanding of voidness is not supported by habit, because we did not understand it before; nevertheless, the understanding of voidness is supported by logic, and reason, and valid perception, valid cognition. The more we analyze and investigate our confusion, the more we see that it is incorrect; it falls apart. Whereas the more that we analyze and investigate the understanding of voidness, the more we see that it is actually true. Even more convincing is the fact that the more we believe in our unawareness, the more problems and sufferings we create for ourselves. The more I believe that “I am the center of the universe” and that “I have to always get my way,” the more problems we have. Whereas the more convinced we are of the understanding of voidness, to put it very simply, that “no one is the center of the universe and we are all here together and have to live with each other,” then the less problems we have. After all, that is what Buddha is talking about: what kind of understanding we can have that will enable us to get rid of all our problems so that they will not recur again.

But simply to replace “not knowing” with “knowing” is not as deep as we could go. The most sophisticated level of the Buddha’s teachings prefers Dharmakirti’s definition of unawareness, which is “to know things in an inverted way,” because this is a much more active way of approaching the problem, eliminating the problem. This gets us into the topic of phenomena which we can call negations. They are things that we negatingly know: we know them by negating something else. For instance, there are certain things that we know in an affirming way and other things that we know in a negating way. Like for instance “apple” we know in an affirming way, but there is something else that is “not an apple.” How do I know that this is not an apple? To know “not an apple,” that is something we know in a negating way. We’ve negated “apple,” “it is not an apple.”

Emptiness as a Negation Phenomenon

This is a very interesting question from the point of view of cognitive science. How does a baby learn the concept of “not food?” In the beginning, the baby thinks that everything is food. But eventually, it learns the concept of “not food.” In order to know a negating phenomenon or negation, what you need to know first is what’s being negated and then you have to exclude or preclude it. First you have to know an “apple” in order to know “not an apple.”

So the same thing is true in terms of our unawareness of reality. With this approach based on Dharmakirti’s definition of unawareness, then, we have to recognize first “what is this crazy, confused way in which I think that things exist, which my confusion makes me believe is true?” Then I have to negate it, exclude it and say, “That’s not right! That doesn’t correspond to how things really exist.” That negation phenomenon, that negation of this incorrect way in which things exist – that is voidness. “There is no such thing as this garbage that my mind is producing, no such thing as a real referent of it.” When our mind is thinking in this way, “There is no such thing as this garbage,” and we cut it off very, very decisively and we are able to focus with that and stay with that forever, then there is no way we can think in this distorted, confused way. Then we really achieve a true stopping.

When we talk about voidness in Buddhism, we are talking about what is it that a true path of mind understands that will bring about a true stopping? It’s not that first you understand this and then, one moment later, you achieve a true stopping. That understanding is the attainment of a true stopping. It’s not that you turn the light on and then the next moment the darkness goes away. Turning on of the light is equivalent to the darkness going away.

So we have that mind that understands “there is no such thing!” and we cut off this confusion: that is the true stopping. So when we speak about voidness, the real phrase that we have to understand – what is it talking about – it is talking about “no such thing,” “there is no such thing as this garbage that I am thinking, that my mind is projecting. There is no such thing; it is not referring to anything real!” The projection of course is occurring, the projection of confusion is occurring, but it is not referring to something real. That’s what we are cutting off, a real referent to it. It’s like this small child thinks there is a monster under the bed. That fear, that belief that there is a monster under the bed of course causes the child to be very afraid, but that projection is not referring to anything real. There is no monster under the bed.

This is the basic structure, the basic context within which we approach the study of voidness, namely the structure of the four noble truths.

[See: Negation Phenomena: How to Focus on Emptiness]

A Full Understanding of Emptiness to Rid Ourselves of the Two Obscurations

And we need the full understanding of voidness to overcome two sets of obscurations. We see the habit, the constant habit – it’s going on every minute – of believing in this nonsense that our mind produces. That habit causes our minds to project appearances and confusion; it makes the mind think that there are monsters under the bed. So, first we have to overcome our belief that this projection is referring to something real, because when we believe it, then that produces all sorts of disturbing emotions, like the child having fear, because it believes there is a monster under the bed. When we stop believing in this garbage, then we gain what is called liberation or nirvana.

But the habits are still there, the mind is still projecting all this garbage, and because of it projecting all this garbage, we are unable to really see – everything, to understand why somebody has this type of problem, what would be effective if I teach this person this, or that. Our mind is limited. We have to become so habituated to this understanding of voidness that eventually we get rid of the habit of this unawareness, which is causing that projection. Eventually, our mind stops projecting this garbage. That is the attainment of enlightenment – we overcome these obscurations, which are preventing omniscience. To do that, to overcome this second set of obscurations, the understanding of voidness is the same as what’s necessary for overcoming just the obscurations preventing liberation. The difference is this strength of mind that is behind that understanding.

To overcome both sets of obscurations, the second set particularly, what we need is the strength of what is known as “bodhichitta.” Bodhichitta is brought on by love and compassion, but it’s certainly not the same as love and compassion. Love is the wish for others’ happiness and the causes for happiness. Compassion is the wish for others to be free of their suffering and the causes of their suffering. Compassion has a little bit of a sense of responsibility, “I am going to help them to overcome that.” Then we have the extraordinary resolve. We resolve that “I am not going to help them just to overcome a little bit of suffering, I am going to really resolve to help them overcome all their suffering and to reach enlightenment” – a much larger commitment. On the basis of that, we have bodhichitta.

[See: The Two Sets of Obscuration: Gelug Prasangika]

The Need of Bodhichitta to Strengthen the Understanding of Emptiness

Bodhichitta is a mind which is focused on enlightenment. Not just on enlightenment in general. Not on the enlightenment of Shakyamuni Buddha, but on our own, personal, individual enlightenment, which has not yet happened, but which is possible for it to happen on the basis of our Buddha-nature factors that are part of our mental continuum. And of course it is accompanied by conviction and understanding that it is possible for me to achieve this. So it’s something way further down on our mental continuum, and it is possible for it to happen, for us to achieve it. It is very important to understand, we are talking about our own, personal, individual enlightenment, not some vague enlightenment up in the sky.

So we are driven by “I’ve got to be able to help everybody. It is something further down the line in time that I can actually achieve, that will enable me to really help everybody as much as I would like to,” and then the strong intention that “I’ve got to achieve that. I am going to work as hard as possible to achieve that and when I achieve that, I am going to help others as much as is possible. And all along the way I’m going to help others as much as is possible according to the level I’m at. When we have that as the driving force of our minds, which is our deep, deep intention even if we’re asleep, it doesn’t matter – you don’t have to be thinking about it – but it is so deeply ingrained that “this is my intention, this is what I am doing with my life,” then that understanding of voidness will have the strength behind it to cut through and eliminate and stop all these projections of garbage that are basically preventing us from being able to help others as best as is possible.

When we approach the study of the topic of voidness, we need to see it within two contexts. First we see it within the context of the four noble truths, that’s the most general context, which is common and shared between the Hinayana schools and the Mahayana schools. Then we need to see the understanding of voidness within the context of bodhichitta or the mind that we are going to use to understand voidness, which is the specific context within Mahayana teachings.

The Understanding of Emptiness in Tantra, Dzogchen and Mahamudra

If we want to go further into tantra, specifically the highest class of tantra, anuttarayoga tantra, then we have the shared context with Hinayana, the four noble truths. We have in addition the context of general Mahayana with bodhichitta, and we have another context, which is the context of the most subtle level of mind, which is called the clear light mind.

This most subtle level of mind, which we all have every single moment, is underlying every moment of our experience, including death. It is so subtle that it doesn’t have any of these disturbing emotions – it’s much more subtle than that. It is so subtle, it doesn’t even produce these projections of confusion. It is just providing the continuity from moment to moment of the basic nature of the mind.

Now, it doesn’t necessarily understand how things exist, if we go back to our “old,” original abhidharma definition of unawareness, it doesn’t know. You wouldn’t call it officially “unawareness,” but still it doesn’t know how things exist. “It doesn’t recognize its own face” is the jargon that is used for that. That's a terminology that is used in the dzogchen teachings, which is very descriptive, actually, of the situation. But, in this highest class of tantra, or if we speak in terms of dzogchen and the dzogchen teachings, then we want to gain that same understanding of voidness with this level of mind, because that is the most efficient level. It’s the same in mahamudra. Mahamudra is a division within anuttarayoga tantra; it’s an approach to anuttarayoga tantra.

In any case, what I want to point out here is that this understanding of voidness is a central theme, which we find in all aspects of Buddha’s teachings, because it is that understanding of voidness that will bring about the true stopping of our problems, true stopping of our inability to help others, which is what we need, which is what the Buddhist path is. It’s not just to enable us to no longer have any pain in your back or to always get hungry, because what will happen after you eat, you will get hungry again. But, an understanding of voidness will get rid of the all-pervasive problem, that our samsara just continues over and over again, and as a side thing, of course our back won’t hurt anymore and we won’t have problems of being hungry all the time. An understanding of voidness will enable us to overcome having what is known as a “limited mind.”

“Limited mind” is a term that is found in the expression “sentient being.” Sentient being is someone with a limited mind. Limited mind does not mean someone who is mentally deficient or low IQ, but it describes anybody’s mind who is not a Buddha. The way I like to describe that is like, “We are in a submarine under the water and we are looking through a periscope. And what we are able to perceive is very limited, just what is within the boundaries of that periscope.” So, we are not able to see all the causes for what is happening, going all the way back with no beginning and we are not able to see all the consequences of anything that we might do or teach somebody all the way in the future. We are limited. We are terribly limited. The hardware is limited. This body can only see out of these two holes in the front of the head; it can’t see behind you. And the hardware, the brain, wears out after a certain number of years and then you have to replace it with yet another body and then that’s going to break as well, there is no guarantee. So we have a hardware problem that is causing our all-pervasive problem – this type of body, this type of limitation – and we have a software problem as well, because the programs that we are running in each of our lifetimes is all sorts of weird concepts that are also garbage.

If we can gain this understanding of reality and overcome the habits of believing in it, what happens is that we are free from this second set of obscurations that I was referring to that’s causing us to see things through a periscope, to be limited. Then we become omniscient. That is the mind of a Buddha, because the mind, not constricted by the limitations of hardware and software, is capable of being omniscient. It’s able to perceive everything and know everything, because there is nothing preventing it from doing that.

This understanding of voidness is very central within all these different contexts. And before we get into a more detailed discussion of what actually voidness is referring to – what is this garbage we have to refute – it is important to understand this general context and the importance of understanding voidness. It is important to not look at voidness as “Oh, it’s very difficult to actually study this topic,” but to see how it really is very central if we want to get rid of our suffering and if we want to help others. Without that understanding of voidness and correct understanding, that all-pervasive problem is uncontrollably recurring moment-to-moment in samsara. We will go on forever. No matter what we do, we will continue to have problems, because our whole way of interacting and doing things is just perpetuating more and more problems, because it is based on this unawareness. As much as we want to help others, we are very often not going to be very successful in that, because we really don’t know what is the best thing to do to help someone. So that is the basic introduction.

Perhaps we can take one or two minutes to just let that sink in. Try to think about what we have just said, in terms of true problems, true causes, true stopping of that, and true mind, a pathway mind, the understanding of voidness that will bring about that stopping, and that, with the understanding of voidness, we have to cut off completely this garbage of our confusion and our confused beliefs and the confused appearances, and the necessity to have the force of bodhichitta behind that, “I’ve got to get rid of all this garbage. I’ve got to make my mind stop producing all this garbage, so that I can help others. Otherwise I am filled with fear and insecurity and all these things that are just obstacles.” Think about that for a moment.


The Objects Refuted by Emptiness

The garbage you mentioned before, the garbage we must discard – is it only concerned with the mental creations, like thoughts or concepts, or does it also concern objects, objects that we find around ourselves?

What we need to get rid of is basically coming from the side of the mind. The problem is not the table. The problem is my attitude toward the table, that “This is my table. Don’t you use it, and if you use it, I’ll get very angry, especially if you break it.” It starts to get very complicated very quickly when we look into what is the relationship between objects and the mind, because all we can really talk about or think about are objects of the mind. If we are talking about it, it is an object of mind; we are thinking about it, it’s objects of mind. So we can’t really speak or conceive of an object totally independent of mind or totally independent of a relationship to mind.

That doesn’t mean that everything exists just in my head. This relates to a very deep and extensive discussion of the relationship between mind and appearances and objects and so on. Basically, we think that the problem is on the side of the object, but it’s not on the side of the object, it’s on the side of the mind. If confusion existed out there, there would be very little we could do to change that. It’s the confusion in our mind that we can affect. It’s a very deep topic and I can’t answer that question in just a few sentences, but it’s exactly the topic that the investigation of voidness leads into.

The Relation between Conceptual and Non-conceptual Cognition of Emptiness

What is the relation between conceptual and the non-conceptual cognition of voidness, and is the non-conceptual cognition in some sort of trance state?

When we speak about the conceptual cognition of voidness, first of all we have to speak about a correct conceptual cognition and not an incorrect one. And the relation between that and a non-conceptual cognition, the difference between those two is that with a conceptual cognition, we are focusing on voidness through the category “voidness.”

“Category,” this is what conceptual cognitions are all about. I look at this object in front of me and I think of it and understand it as “a glass.” So, I’m thinking of it and focusing on it through the category of “glass.” There are many, many objects that could fit in that category. There are two types of categories. One is a category, which would be a sound-category or it could be a picture-category – a sound, like the sound of a word or just a mental picture of what “a glass” is. Then there is the meaning category, which is the meaning of these things. Usually they are mixed, but they don’t have to be. I don’t have to say “glass” in my head to see this object as “a glass.” I can look at this object and know that it is a glass, without having to say it in my head, “glass.” I am thinking of the meaning of that category “glass.” It’s a meaning category.

We shouldn’t think that a conceptual mind is one that is mentally verbal. It’s not limited to that, it can be that, but it is much wider than that. Becoming non-conceptual is not simply quieting the voice in our head; that’s a very superficial level. It’s very difficult to quiet the voice in our head, but it’s still a superficial level of being non-conceptual. So when we have non-conceptual cognition, that is perceiving something not through a category, which is very hard to recognize. It is difficult to recognize, because in our ordinary sense perception it occurs only a microsecond before one looks at this object and understands it as “a glass.” “I know what it is. It is a glass. I know what to do with it.”

It could also be in the category of “something I don’t know what it is.” Non-conceptual is without a category, no categories, but that doesn’t mean we don’t know what it is. That’s why I say that it is difficult to recognize what is non-conceptual cognition of something.

So it is the same thing in terms of conceptual and non-conceptual cognition of voidness. One is through a category, primarily the meaning category of voidness; the other is not. After all, each moment of our experience of focusing on voidness, and each time that we focus on voidness, does that fit into the category of “we focus on voidness,” or not? It becomes very complex. Is each moment still the understanding of voidness or is it something completely different? So the conceptual cognition is necessary as a step to gain the non-conceptual one. The difference between the two, as described in the texts, is the difference in vividness of the perception, but what that really refers to in terms of experience, I don’t know.

“To have some understanding of voidness that you get in some trance” – now that of course depends very much on what we mean by trance. If it is just sort of spacing out on a drug, or spacing out on God knows what, chances are that that is an incorrect understanding of voidness, not a correct one. In order to have an understanding of voidness, as I was getting into in our discussion of negation phenomena, requires certain steps, and we will get into this later on in the weekend.

Voidness is speaking about “an absence of impossible ways of existing.” First, we have to perceive the basis for it – what is it that doesn’t exist in impossible ways – whether are we talking about “me” that “I don’t exist in an impossible way” or the table. In the next phase, I have to recognize the impossible way that I think exists, the impossible way, in which I believe that it exists, that is being projected onto it. The third step is that then I have to decisively cut that off. This is the negation phenomenon, “This is garbage; this is not referring to anything real,” and very actively cut it off. And then focus on “there is no such thing.” That is the understanding of voidness. It’s a very active state of mind that is built in phases; it’s not something that one would have in sort of a spaced-out trance that just comes from some karmic reason or something like that. That’s always a big danger that people think that they have gained an understanding of voidness, whereas in fact what they have gained an understanding of is “nothing.” Voidness (emptiness) is not nothing.