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Stepping Stones of Emptiness – Lions Roar

The teachings on vacancy had been studied, debated, and refined at Nalanda. They come to life now, says Gaylon Ferguson, within the progressive deepening of our meditation apply.

© Franz Grünewald.

Photo by Franz Grünewald.

Realizing vacancy, shunyata, lies on the coronary heart of the Maha­yana journey to enlightenment, however how does that occur? What examples and directions are there to observe that make the conclusion of vacancy genuine expertise reasonably than an imagined state of blankness? We can start with the “Perfection of Wisdom” scriptures—the Prajnaparamita sutras—which reward nice bodhi­sattvas as courageous beings totally devoted to awakening for the profit and effectively-being of all. They’re praiseworthy not just because of the deeds they carry out, however as a result of they’ve regarded into all of the darkish corners of their expertise, to free themselves from delusion, and but they willingly stay in samsara to liberate others. They embody the chic union of huge, compassionate motion with the profound knowledge of vacancy.

Such deep trying into the character of expertise is intimately linked with the good students of the Nalanda custom—corresponding to Chandrakirti, and the brothers Asanga and Vasubandhu, to call a number of. Within this monastic college, they actively engaged in meditative and interactive inquiry into the character of thoughts. They intensified the illumination of the Mahayana teachings. They didn’t, nevertheless, give attention to mental mastery—the first emphasis of up to date scholarship. Instead, these practitioner–students used mind to information and maintain their contemplative practices, corresponding to meditations on the selflessness of individuals and the vacancy of phenomena. We observe of their footsteps to at the present time, and the spirit of Nalanda continues in practices that lead us to the knowledge of sunyata in ever-subtler methods till we totally embody it within the methods we act on this planet.

First Steps

We would possibly start treading on the trail of vacancy meditation with the Foundations of Mindfulness Sutra, wherein the Buddha invitations us to put our naked consideration on the physique, emotions, thoughts, and sense perceptions. We are inspired to be conscious of the physique whereas sitting, standing, strolling, or mendacity down. In meditation, we carry mindfulness to emotions of attraction, repulsion, or indifference. We take be aware of sights, sounds, smells, and tastes, in addition to our discursive considering.

These 4 foundations of mindfulness are sometimes taught as half of the apply of shamatha or “peaceful abiding” meditation, studying to stick with the physique as physique, emotions as emotions, and so forth. These 4 objects of meditation present a helpful foundation for cultivating stability, steadily creating the thoughts’s inherent energy. There are additionally hints right here pointing to egolessness, the absence of a stable sense of self.

In this apply, the Buddha suggests putting consideration on the bodily kind of the physique respiratory, whereas taking be aware of the assorted sensations and feeling tones (nice, disagreeable, impartial) that come up and dissolve. Reading this sutra, considering its that means, and meditating are steps on a path of creating discernment, distinguishing somatic from emotional dimensions of expertise, noticing variations between psychological chatter and sense notion. These numerous facets of expertise will not be one large stable block, a looming monolith. Practicing on this method, preliminary perception into the components and particles of our expertise is shut at hand.

What we name me or I or myself has each bodily and psychological components. As even a fast look reveals, the physique will not be a singularity however a various multiplicity of ft, legs, torso, arms, head, and shoulders. In flip, the foot has toes and a heel, legs have ankles and knees, fingers have fingers and a thumb, heads have eyes and ears, a nostril and mouth.

The psychological dimension of our being is equally plural. In a single session of sitting meditation, we could expertise likes and dislikes, fantasies and regrets, anxieties and hopes, reminiscences and anticipations. We are supplied a feast of conflicting feelings. The predominant level: there isn’t a single I to be discovered on this swirling, dynamic composition we name me, myself, I. We are clearly composite beings. We are continually shifting configurations of habits, impulses, artistic inspirations.

This early exposition of the Buddhist mindfulness teachings gently leads us into considering a number of basic, existential questions:

What is our true nature?
Are we impartial, stable unities as our use of the one pronoun (me) suggests?
When we glance rigorously, the place within the physique or thoughts do we discover this core inside self?
Can we level to it?
Where is it situated?
Is it within the head or the chest?
Does our sense of self develop bigger after we are praised and smaller after we are criticized?
Look, then look once more. The “answers” to those and comparable questions are to be present in our expertise.

Seeing Change Everywhere

Next, we transfer to think about emotions of being everlasting, unchanging selves. Here the apply of mindfulness of respiratory offers a perfect entrance into perception. Mindfulness of respiratory is commonly taught as a method of cultivating regular, non-judgmental consideration. Yet mindfulness can also be experiencing every breath because it arises and dissolves. Mindfulness is the alternative of a “seen one breath, seen them all” method. Through sustained apply, we uncover that every breath is totally different, distinct, by no means the identical. Breathing itself is a altering course of as in-breath and out-breath alternate. Breathing is change. Where on this continually flowing alternate is there an impartial, everlasting self? If the self is identical as respiratory, then clearly what I’m adjustments. If there’s a self some place else, how is that self associated to this pulsing, rhythmic, again-and-forth course of?

Mindfulness of respiratory leads immediately into glimpses of impermanence: arising, being, ceasing, arising, being, ceasing. Through shut attending to respiratory, we’re launched time and again to alter, altering, adjustments.
As we sit, we additionally discover that our emotions change. Along the best way, we could hear a voice of resistance: “Okay, my body is composed of parts, and these parts are themselves changing, but the real inner me—that’s always here, right? That must be my true self, my feelings.” Mindfulness of feeling affords ample proof on the contrary: a sense of pleasure arises and ultimately fades, then a sense of dislike arises and in addition ultimately dissolves. None of our emotions final perpetually. If they did, the sensation of pleasure would displace all different emotions, now and forevermore. In our expertise, this clearly will not be the case. Mindfulness of feeling reminds us of the reality of impermanence, lack of a stable, enduring inside self.

Similarly, the mindfulness of thoughts reveals us the altering move of discursive ideas, typically like a sluggish river, typically like a speedy brook, however at all times transferring, now accelerating, now decelerating. What we name “mind” typically behaves like an espresso-charged grasshopper, first touchdown right here, then there, then elsewhere. At different occasions, thoughts is sluggish, torpid, nearly too drained to maneuver. Using imagery from nature, meditators have described their expertise of thoughts to be like encountering a waterfall, a geyser, an avalanche of ideas. Our expertise of thoughts throughout sitting meditation doesn’t recommend assembly a set, everlasting entity: “my mind.”

That which sees confusion will not be itself confused. This is the revolutionary discovery of consciousness.

With all this expertise-primarily based proof from meditation and contemplation, why can we cling to the concept of being a single, everlasting, impartial self?

In Progressive Stages of Meditation on Emptiness, Tibetan meditation grasp Khenpo Tsültrim Gyamtso explains:

The query will not be whether or not or not the particular person, character, or ego is a altering, composite prepare of occasions conditioned by many complicated elements. Any rational evaluation reveals us that that is the case. The query is why then can we behave emotionally as if it had been lasting, single, and impartial…. When in search of the self, you will need to bear in mind it’s an emotional response one is analyzing. Our mistaken notion will not be a easy cognitive error that may be instantly and simply adjusted within the face of proof on the contrary.

We are deeply and emotionally invested within the ideas and concepts of a stable, everlasting, unitary self, although, as Khenpo Rinpoche clarifies:

Clinging to the concept one has a single, everlasting, impartial self is the foundation trigger of all one’s struggling.

It’s All within the Mind?

The dangerous information that the Buddhadharma presents us with is that we’re struggling, born in struggling, dwelling in struggling, making struggling worse by habits of denial and aggression. The excellent news is we’ve got an innate capability to see struggling clearly. That which sees confusion will not be itself confused. This is the revolutionary discovery of consciousness, a transparent mirror wherein all our expertise might be seen simply as it’s, nothing added, nothing ignored.

We could uncover consciousness within the midst of cultivating mindfulness of thoughts. What is it that is aware of when the eye is with the physique respiratory and when consideration has wandered into fantasies of the previous or future? What is that this clear and current understanding of our thoughts states? Awareness. Without this inborn capability for precisely discerning the position of our consideration, we couldn’t domesticate steady mindfulness in any respect. In the sitting apply of meditation, we uncover the innate richness of jewel-like consciousness. The important significance of thoughts seems in all Buddhist traditions, going again to the primary verses of the Dhammapada: “If the mind is clear, whatever you do or say will bring happiness that will follow you like your shadow.” In one other translation: “We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts.” The instructing of the six realms of confused existence (people, jealous gods, hungry ghosts, hell beings, animals, gods) is predicated on totally different varieties of psychological states. In the normal instance, one being gazes calmly at a peaceable lake, whereas one other being—indignant and full of hatred—sees this as a lake of raging hearth burning throughout. Meanwhile, hungry ghosts understand a pond of scrumptious milk and honey with a thirst that may by no means be quenched. In every case, the figuring out issue is the state of thoughts of the perceiver. The central perception?

Mind issues.

Through the sitting apply of meditation, meditators grow to be painfully accustomed to ceaseless psychological migration by means of the six realms. We are like everlasting hitchhikers. Intensive apply classes typically embrace intervals of dwelling in every of the realms, maybe for an hour, a day, possibly even a complete day. Intimacy with the thoughts’s biking by means of totally different psychological states is one other step towards realizing vacancy.

If the thoughts is the supply of our heavens and hells, cravings and distastes, then dependable effectively-being can’t be discovered by means of exterior issues and occasions alone. This decisively shifts the emphasis of our religious path from what appears to be occurring “out there” to our personal state of thoughts and being. All issues are impermanent and contingent, topic to causes and circumstances. Despite numerous advertisements suggesting in any other case, there isn’t a everlasting pleasure to be present in getting and spending. Seeking solutions outdoors won’t ever carry liberation. What issues most are inside qualities of consciousness and consciousness.

Consider Suzuki Roshi’s analogy of the spacious meadow as meditation instruction: “To give your sheep or cow a large, spacious meadow is the way to control him.” The sheep and cows are all momentary thoughts-states, psychological formations. They present up within the meadow, eat some grass, chew their cud, and ultimately get lost. These cows and sheep are like psychological occasions—altering, conditioned, missing in solidity. Trying to manage them solely produces extra struggling.

What in regards to the meadow? It’s not a psychological occasion or momentary formation. The meadow appears to be an underlying floor that may spaciously accommodate all phenomena. This meadow appears an apt picture for what Suzuki Roshi referred to as “Big Mind.” Here, the meadow sounds fairly much like vacancy.

The temptation right here is to solidify thoughts itself as an essence, a concrete factor. We could really feel relieved: finally, we’ve got arrived at some floor. We’ve discovered a house floor not “out there,” however “in here.” In a case corresponding to this—after we’re getting caught someplace that appears like a snug vacation spot—participating contemplative inquiry could also be helpful to softly nudge us alongside the trail. Here, perception meditation means asking and taking a look at thoughts immediately for experiential steerage:

What is consciousness?
Does it attain out to the sounds I hear, or do the sounds come towards it in order that they meet someplace within the center?
Does consciousness have a form or coloration?
Does it come up and stop?
Look, look once more, and see.

This is a path of perception into thoughts’s true nature, past all our ideas. Mind will not be a factor. It can’t be objectified. It’s by no means an object. As Suzuki Roshi commented, “The big mind in which we must have confidence is not something which you can experience objectively. It is something which is always with you, always on your side.” If you see thoughts in a small method, he goes on to say, you might be “restricting your true mind, objectifying your mind.” Just as our earlier perception journey confirmed us that types and emotions are composed of components, impermanent, and never stable, right here we uncover that thoughts isn’t stable both. Only our confused ideas appear to make it so.


Let’s return now to the Four Foundations, revisiting them this time as foundations for perception. Each is used as a foundation for making use of the tactic of contemplative inquiry. Our predominant questions are: What is “body”? What is “feeling”? What is “mind”? What are “sense perceptions”? The citation marks are wanted right here as a result of in every case we start with what’s referred to as “body” after which proceed to lean towards extra direct expertise past typical names and designations. We are steadily peeling away layers and layers of obscuring ideas.

Beginning with the physique, what’s it? We have scientific findings from anatomy and physiology, however that’s not the type of information we’d like on this case. We are inquiring into our personal expertise of our bodily kind: What is that?
Whatever arises (“my body is a material object in space with weight and volume”), we welcome that reply, and relaxation for a second.

Then we ask once more: What is that this “material object in space” actually? Receive the reply that arises gratefully, relaxation for a second, then inquire once more.

In this course of, we’re steadily leaning within the route of assembly what Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche referred to as “body-body.” He contrasted this with the dense conglomeration of opinions and ideas round our bodily types, which he referred to as “psychosomatic body.” But “body-body” isn’t a last reply right here both, only a method station for the following spherical of inquiry: What is “body-body”? Inquire, look, relaxation with no matter we discover, then inquire once more. Round and spherical we go.

Dropping our storyline means leaning towards our precise felt sense and texture of feeling, reasonably than elaborating extra narratives.

Similarly, we’d inquire into feeling—attracted, repulsed, impartial. What is it that we name “feeling”? Sometimes practitioners exploring need will say: “Well, it’s an energy, a warm energy.” Good. Let’s be thankful for that perception and relaxation for a second with it. Then, again to work: What is that this “warm energy”? Warm vitality is only a title for one thing. What is “warm energy” actually?

This course of of inquiry echoes some of the meditation directions obtained from Pema Chödrön and different academics to “drop the storyline” when intense emotions come up in meditation. Storylines about our feelings are normally both justifying (“It’s right that I feel this way. Look what they did!”) or negating (“What’s wrong with me that I feel this way, again?”). Dropping the storyline means leaning towards the precise felt sense and texture of feeling, reasonably than elaborating additional narratives about it.

This is a extra bare, direct method to our expertise.

Inquiring into the character of thoughts is like strolling over slippery terrain. At moments we really feel there actually is not any “mind,” only a phrase we assume refers to one thing actual and substantial. Yet expertise arises, and what’s that? Similarly, we could really feel—as names start to slide and slide—that there isn’t a “body,” no “feeling,” no “consciousness.” When we inquire into sense perceptions—are they actually on the market or in right here?—we glimpse one thing like no kind, no sound, no scent, no style, no contact. In this manner of experiential inquiry, we steadily draw nearer to the luminous profundity of the Prajnaparamita Hridaya (“Heart”) Sutra.

Insight past the veil of phrases and names reveals…what?

Neither presence, nor absence, not one thing, not nothing, neither true existence, nor empty void. In the ninth century, Ch’an grasp Hsuan-sha taught, “The whole of existence is one bright pearl.” We have approached this vibrant pearl steadily. Yet, all alongside this manner: no-self is vacancy; consciousness is empty of dualities; our bodies, emotions, minds are all emptily, vividly as they’re. In the fourteenth century, the mystic Catherine of Siena proclaimed, “All the way to heaven is heaven.”
Here, we’d say: all the best way to vacancy is vacancy. With every step we arrive.


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