Emptiness Is 'Empty'
by Peter Holleran
“Only the sage has the strict right to call this world an illusion. If anyone else does so, his talk is mere babble.” (1) - Paul Brunton (PB)
"The sravaka is enlightened but going astray; the ordinary man is out of the right path and yet in a way enlightened.
The sravaka fails to perceive that Mind as it is in itself knows no stages, no causation, no imagination.
Disciplining himself in the cause he has attained the result and abides in the samadhi of emptiness itself for ever so many kalpas. However enlightened in his way, the sravaka is not at all on the right track.
From the point of view of the bodhisattva, this is like suffering the torture of hell.
The sravaka has buried himself in emptiness and does not know how to get out of his quiet contemplation for he has no insight into the buddha-nature itself." - Shih-Tou
"Unwise people think that in the world of essence there should be no bloom of flowers and no fall of roses." - Zen Master Dogen
"The essence of the Tao consists in a void, clear and cool.
But what is this void except being the whole day like a fool?" - Po Yu chein
It will be stated up front that as we advance in age we like Taoism more and more, and view the latter quotation as a welcome antidote for what tends to be a very serious topic! Nevertheless, we will try to be as inclusive and exhaustive as we can, to make that point of view even more attractive and lucid.
The great Buddhist Nagarjuna's famous commentator, Chandrakirti, went so far as to say that those who take shunyata or 'emptiness' as a point of view were philosophically doomed, and destined "to land in a self-condemned void." Nagarjuna himself said, "Believers in emptiness are hopelessly incurable." One modern writer called it the "suicide of enlightenment." What these men were saying is that traditional attempts to transcend, conquer, avoid, or ignore the relative world as the conceived source of our bondage were even centuries ago inappropriate and fruitless, leading not to true spiritual realization, but rather nihilism and real emptiness of spirit. This is becoming even more evident today. While in this paper we will more or less academically discuss: the concept of emptiness, Madhyamika Buddhism or the 'Middle Way' as an attempt to re-align itself with the original absolutism of the Buddha, its elaboration in the doctrine of shunyavada teachings of Nagarjuna, common misconceptions and traditional assumptions on the nature of realization, and also the nature of emptiness in these various traditions, we will also try to be practical and discuss what this doctrine really means in our modern world. "To incarnate or not to incarnate, that is the question" might be our central theme. Out of fear up to this point most have said we have incarnated too much, while out of love others now are saying that we have incarnated too little. This apparent dilemma is really at the heart of our discussion of emptiness, and on the subject of maya or illusion as well.
This article is fairly long, for which I ask in advance that the reader won't shoot me. "When you are condemned by the gods to write," said Arthur Machen, "you can't leave off." There is much to consider here, and this is meant to be a 'consideration'! There will also of necessity be some overlap between this and its companion piece, Maya Is 'Maya', (which treats its subject from the point of view of Hinduism and Buddhism, along with extensive ontological discussion of Islam and Taoism as exemplified by Ibn al 'Arabi and Chuang Tzu - and a bit of esoteric Christianity as well). Here we will offer the reader a mix of traditional scholastic and practical writings and also contemporary renderings of the subject matter. It is a serious subject, but we will also try and inject a bit of levity where possible.
“Real people do not speak or write to no purpose. The reader must pay attention line to line, phrase to phrase, not letting a single word pass by lightly. - Liu I-ming, Commentary on Ch’ang Ch’un’s Journey to the West (13th c.)
"A fixed idea is like a cramp in the foot; the best thing to do is to stomp on it." - Soren Kierkegaard
"We shall read these old texts not to treat them as final authorities but to verify our own thought, and we shall quote them only to illustrate it." (2) - PB
Three ways of looking at 'emptiness'
'Emptiness’ can be confusing as it may be taken in three different ways: one, as a methology of negation, wherein the inherent self-exiting nature of an objective phenomena is seen as illusory, that is, as a dialectical methodology of understanding the non-entitification of things, with no part existing in itself but only in relation with, or interdependence on, the whole; two, as a meditative trance state, a void of self-existing consciousness supposedly without attributes (we say 'supposedy' because even in formless nirvikalpa samadhi or its Buddhist equivalent state, while without phenomenal objects it is not entirely without content - the unmanifest archtypal world image is still there, for the very definition of consciousness implies a content present to consciousness); and, three, as a name for the non-conceptual, nondual, Reality Itself, in which emptiness and form are seen as two aspects of the same indescribable Essence. In Zen they might say that our empirical world represents 'being', while a state of meditative void is 'non-being', and Reality beyond the polarized categories of both being and non-being is the 'Ultimate Void', where even 'Emptiness' is recognized as 'empty of emptiness' inasmuch as it is also a construct of the mind. As such, 'Emptiness' is perhaps one of the most misunderstood concepts in Buddhism. Hopefully, it will become clearer as one proceeds through this article.
The biggest error is in reifying emptiness, that is, making it into any kind of ‘thing’ whatsoever, however subtle:
"The Great Way is alive. It is not stuck in the realms of being or nothingness. To be stuck in the realm of being means to be attached to appearances. To be stuck in the realm of nothingness means to be attached to emptiness. Neither attachment to appearances or emptiness is the Way of the creative flow of heaven and earth. Nor are they the sages' Way of true emptiness and subtle being." - Lu Yen, the Complete Reality School of Taoism, 7th century. (3)
Origins of Madhyamika Buddhism and similarities with Vedanta
First let it be stated that there are six main schools of Indian philosophy, of which Buddhism is one. All schools of Indian philosophy use Nyaya logic, created by Gautama, and all schools, including Vedanta and Yoga, likewise employ various elements of the Samhkya philosophy of Kapila. The Buddha studied Samhkya extensively, and interesting enough his birthplace, Kapilavatsu, was the center of an ancient monestary of Kapila's. (4) Further, the Four Noble truths are found in the yoga sutras of Patanjali's, and the word 'Nirvana' is found in the Vedas and was not original to the Buddha. Therefore, it is no surprise for there to be much similarity between the teachings of the Buddha and the ancient rishis.
What was seemingly unique in emphasis in the Buddha's teaching was the doctrine of anatta, or 'no-self', which is where we will then begin. First we state that the doctrine of anatta, or anatman, popularly called that of "no-self" or “no individul soul”, might better be called “no-separate self”, as “no-self” is simply the polar opposite of “self”, and therefore inadequate except as a pointer to a non-conventional notion of self. “No-separate-self” leaves open the possibility of a true nature of self without pre-emptively denying it. The Buddha himself said that he never denied there was a soul, only that it was indefinable. And for all their insistence on there being “no-self” the Buddhists speak a lot about the need to have faith in and respect for the law of action and reaction, or karma, they have a strong interest in relocating their reincarnating adepts, and they believe in transcendant perfection stages of enlightened bodhisattvas: some where in all that there is a self of some kind! It may be grounded in emptiness of phenomenal reality, there maybe no separate entity to grasp onto, but there is a self. “He who denies his own existence is a fool,” said the Dalai Lama. The question only is, what is its nature? - Nothing that we conventionally conceive it to be, yet something real.
So, emptiness teachings essentially started with the Buddha, but were rejuvenated by the great sage, Nagarjuna, whose famous Madhyamika Karika, commented on by Chandrakirti, begins with his famous ‘eight-fold negation’: no origination (ajatavada); no cessation; no permanence; no momentariness; no identity; no difference; no bondage; no liberation. If the reader finds similarity of these statements with those of Ramana Maharshi it is no surprise, because the Madyamika doctrines and methology of negation are very similar to those of the Guadapada and the Vedantins. Also for Nagarjuna, the wheel of samsara or birth and death symbolized by dukkha (suffering) is due to beginningless avidya or transcendental illusion which covers the real and projects through its innate thought-forms the world of phenomena. This is nearly identical with the maya doctrine of Vedanta. The difference being that the Madyamika do not positive an absolute Self as the substratum for the empirical reality, but go about asserting the same in a more round about way, while the Vedantins generally assert that maya is a relative power or aspect of the Absolute. Nagarjuna used the four-fold logic rejecting 'eternalism', ‘nihilism', both, or neither.’ Or, in laymens terms, ‘it is, it isn’t, it’s both and neither. His principle purpose was to refute the nihilistic and eternalistic views of the Hinayana Buddhists, who had corrupted the anatman doctrine as well as transcendental absolutism of the Buddha. For the Hinayanists, there had come to be believed that there were no individual souls, but real objects. The Madhyamika view was that both the empirical self and objects were devoid of inherent existence. The question of whether there was an individual soul was left unanswered by the Buddhists, but the Hinayanists converted the doctrine of no fixed empiritcal self to mean no self or eternal essence of any kind. For Nagarjuna, however, there was a transcendental reality, it just wasn’t as it usually seems. So while he deconstructed the universe, using the argument of the Buddha that the universe is beginningless and endless, and something that does not exist in the beginning nor in the end can have no existence in the middle either, therefore, the universe was unreal (an argument also used by Guadapada), Nagarjuna was not content, contrary to popular opinion, to leave it as simply negation (after all he was a great tantric adept, but added that the Real wasshivam, or ‘pure bliss,” and beyond all conceptual categories of the mind, what Buddha called pratityasamutpada or what he called as shunyata.
The argument of the Buddha that there was no beginning and no ending, and therefore no middle, was stating negatively the Western counterpart that truth was in the beginning, middle, and end, i.e., therefore it is one, eternal. However, its advantage was that it voided the substantiality of both the ego and the objective universe, and its realization leads to the indistinguishableness of emptiness and compassion.
Restating, use of the term shunyata or ‘emptiness’ was particularly emphasized by Nagarjuna who used the term to describe the absolute as having the characteristic of being ‘empty’ or ‘void’ of a self-nature or other eternally permanent characteristics. All phenomena, even spiritual phenomena, are ultimately relatively ‘fleeting manifestations in a stream of endless transformations’. Emptiness can be considered, therefore, a characteristic of existence because it points to the lack of an eternal substance distinguishing one thing from another, while it is also the true nature of the individual self. True actualized realization of these two yields a seamless flow of blissful reality. Again, the appearance of ‘essence’, even self-essence, is actually temporary and changing. All that persists is the uncharacterizable absolute – so the realization of the ‘emptiness’ of all impermanent phenomena, even the ‘self’, is the same as the realization of its true nature, which is Buddha-nature (or the same as the Vedantic 'Self').
According to Buddhist metaphysics, the subtlest element or sixth skhanda is self, self-essence, or consciousness in this relative sense, sometimes actually equated with the discriminative part of mind or buddhi (4a). Although it is the subtlest, most universal and apparently enduring (of the nature of 'clear light'), it, too, is one of the conditioned elements and is therefore part of samsara or transitory phenomena. [However, in some places, such as the Saddha-tu-Sutta, this sixth skhanda is termed vijnana, andis considered as consciousness in its true sense, and not subject to change or death, so one needs to read these texts with some understanding). The Buddha said “There is, monks, something which is neither earth, nor water, nor fire, nor air, neither boundless space, nor boundless consciousness….”. That is why, too, the Buddha taught the doctrine of anatta or anatman, or non-atman, which is essentially the teaching that Nirvana is not to be confused with the jiva-atman or spiritual self (atma or atman in the theosophical and not the Vedantic sense). Beyond all elements (which in early Buddhist philosophy there are actually seven: four with form and three formless) is Emptiness or Voidness, which is the context for all phenomena and their ultimate nature. The term Emptiness in this ultimate sense, therefore, does not mean that reality or nondual is missing or lacking something, only that its nature is so transcendent that it is not possible to attach any limiting label or characteristic to it. This negative formulation or method of description is typically Buddhist. The Buddha and Nagarjuna chose this method because assigning a positive characteristic tends to have connotations of limitation. For example, 'the 'absolute' may suggests lack of an ongoing process'; 'Brahma' may mean that perfection is here already, and 'God', well, that is a whole other ballgame - more conceptual limitation. So they settled on emptiness, or shunyata, which has no boundaries, yet is not nothing but no-thing, which is not really empty, but indescribable fullness, which is also called nothing! Get it? It is ‘empty’ of conditional or limiting characteristics, yet is the very ground or ‘substance’ of all phenomena. Like any other name for the transcendent reality, of course, it is inherently limited and has strengths and weaknesses when considered only conceptually or outside of a life of practice. Such practice yields more and more the characteristic of life as like a dream, which is a sign that one is getting closer to the reality (not that you can get closer to reality, or that life is a dream); it is an experience that one can have that in itself produces as a byproduct a sense of calm and relief from the dukkha associated with separate existence.
Just a few words on dukkha. This is a Buddhist version of a common idea in many traditions of an existential core pain or 'wound' of separation - the root wound or pain at the essence of all dualistic experience. This root pain is at the foundation off all relativity, and is embedded in every being, every form, every elemental, every atom and subatomic particle. As the Buddhist's would say, every 'being' and 'element' of samsara is fundamentally rooted in impermanence and dukkha. This comes to full expression and consciousness in beings such as humans who experience their relative existence with self-consciousness, though dualistic consciousness pervades all relativity in some form. So no being or particle of relativity is not rooted in this core existential reality of dukkha or dualistic pain. Even if one attains trance samadhi, they will return to a personality that is still not fully liberated from this core pain. If they go further and acheive sahaja samadhi, then their state of 'ordinary awareness' will have been liberated from this 'core wound', but the remaining karma of their relative nature, as well as the very particles of nature that make up their lower bodies, will still be tainted with this 'core' pain, though now deeply illumined and embraced by the sahaja presence of the liberated soul that dwells within. According to various tantric paths as well as Dzogchen, if the individual goes further in profoundly integrating this nondual state with the relative bodies, they will finally be so deeply and thoroughly liberated from the core pain of dualism that even the very elements that make up the lower nature will be fully embraced in this state, which will result in 'the rainbow body' or 'light body'. This world will not be able to understand and relate to such a being, and so, from the point of view of those still too identified with this world, such a being will appear to no longer exist here. But that is not really true. They 'didn't go anywhere'. They, including their 'bodies', down to its very cells, are just no longer conditioned by the dualism and the core pain or dukkha of relativity/separation.
The purpose of emptiness teachings is to help one know this dukkha without a doubt as inherent in one's dualistic constitution and be able to lessen its grip. This takes time, with many vicissitudes and trials along the way. It requires a revolution in the innate way one perceives oneself and the world. It is not just a self-contained intellectual exercise.
The true meaning of the 'Middle Path' was not just the avoidance of the extremes of asceticism, etc., but avoiding the extremes or polarities of sat and asat (being and non-being), one and many, eternalism and nihilism, purity and impurity, as well as avoiding the 'middle' also. Nagarjuna was not a nihilist, agnostic, positivist, or sceptic; he was a spiritual absolutist who accepted a nondual, unlimited, unalloyed blissful Nirvana free of all thought-constructs and not just the negative elimination of suffering. Asanga called it pure self (shuddhatma), universal self (mahatma), and highest self (paramatma). So for all this emphasis on negation the Buddhists also assigned positive terms to reality. Which is only natural as the Buddhist roots are essentially found in the ancient Vedas, same as the Hindus.
Simply put emptiness is a (non) position between the extremes of "everything exists independently', and 'nothing exists'. It is the absence of all conceptual viewpoints, and, as such, points to reality itself. On the one hand, it means that, due to dependent origination, every-thing has no fixed empirical or phenomenal identity. And secondly, the apparent subjective entity or ego is empty as an entity. In contemporary terms, there is 'no-separate-self' and total interdependence or 'oneness'. When this is realized - a key point - our reality is known as emptiness/clarity, emptiness/awareness, emptiness/appernces, or emptiness/bliss. However, while this is a higher point of view, it is not complete without the element of compassion, or bodhicitta, which is both to be cultivated always - from the beginning, as well as realized in a transcendental or perfect form at the fruition of the path. The reality then is not just a blankness or voidness - emptiness alone - or even emptiness/clarity, the true nature of the mind - but emptiness, clarity, and compassion. This is most clearly emphasized in the Vajrayana, and especially Dzogchen teachings. This they call the Great Perfection.
Why must bodhicitta be cultivated always, especially in the beginning when one may not feel it? Because if it is not so cultivated then when and if one realizes awareness/emptiness, bliss/emptiness, or clarity-luminosity/emptiness (as some teachers respectively say in the head and heart space - then compassion may not be the spontaneous or automatic accompaniment, as the manifest self has not been so trained. One may be tempted to stay immersed in the bliss of the inner state, having, so to say, realized one's soul and been liberated from the lower nature, but not go on to complete what PB called the 'harder of the two tasks', i.e., to realize or actualize the Great Perfection of the bodhisattvas and Buddhas, which is full nonduality. The Tibetans even further propose ten bodhisattva levels or bhumis of this (transcendant perfections, that is, perfections based in emptiness, and thus not ordinary dualistic virtue), and in some systems even more than ten. Stated plainly in the Sikh tradition by Guru Nanak, "truth is above all, but higher still is true living." With compassion only, we remain in samsara. With emptiness only, we do not have the full realization. Both are necessary. Some call this full reality the principle of Emptiness. But to avoid confusion it is probably better to conceive of emptiness as one aspect of the true nature of self and things. In any case, this stage represents a positive rebirth, beyond that of the pratyekabuddha or Arhat stages, which are both a kind of nirvana, a partial nirvana - free from birth and death, i.e., the belief in ego, and negative emotions - but not the full nonduality of buddhahood - the realization of our eternal buddha-nature, which always exists, but for practical purposes does not exist unless it is realized!
This teaching on emptiness and bodhicitta is the pith of the matter, and we could justifiably stop here and the reader would be well served. However, to eliminate all doubts as far as possible we wish to examine emptiness from several more angles and its seeming equivalent in several more traditions to get as full a picture of this as we can.
First, however, we restate the by-now obvious fact that we should not think we can get to the position of the high Buddhist and advaitic paradoxes, which belong more to the end of the path, not its beginning, without honoring and passing through the primordial or archypal forms of the mind representing the intermediate levels of practice. It is easy to confuse intellectual understanding with realization.
It follows from all of this, however, that for the realizer bondage and liberation, samsara and nirvana are, in a sense, the same, and equally unreal as conceptual overlays on what is, or, as the Buddhists put it, part of a magical illusory display. From the realized point of view, which is no point of view at all, per se, this is indeed so. One remains 'non-dwelling' on either samsara or nirvana, time, space, causation, self, object, difference, identity are all constructions of thought which are due to avidya or apparent obscuration. However, for practical purposes we must accept that Nirvana points to what is truly real - and that samsara as samsara is very real, until realized to the contrary. Simply intellectually equating the two is a conceit of the highest order, an attempt to bypass the truths of the path entirely, and to act from a position of evolution of mind that is not true for oneself. Sayings like the following should be understood as 'ultimate statements' pertaining to the realized condition, not as a skillful means or short-cut for the entire journey out of ignorance"
“The arising and the elimination of illusion are both illusory. Illusion is not something rooted in Reality; it exists because of your dualistic thinking. If you will only cease to indulge in opposed concepts such as “ordinary” and “Enlightened,” illusion will cease of itself. And then if you still want to destroy it wherever it may be, you will find that there is not a hairsbreadth left of anything on which to lay hold. This is the meaning of: “I will let go with both hands, for then I shall certainly discover the Buddha in my mind.” - Huang Po (5)
Coming at this from a different angle, anadi points to reality as what he calls 'absolute objectivity.' While it is generally considered that there is no subject without object, for effect and to make a point the following analogy holds well and is consistent with our definitions of Emptiness when meant as Reality and not an empty void :
"In the discipline of hard science, the term 'subjective experience' generally denotes an experience that is relative in nature, and there-fore cannot be objectively described or confirmed. In contrast, the term 'objective experience' signifies an occurrence that is factually verifiable, and as such, independent of our individual experiences or opinions. The 'subjective observer' is therefore seen as an impediment to empirical analysis. However, in the science of spirituality, the subjective essence is understood to lie far deeper than the relative subjectivity of the mind and personality. Our true subjectivity is in fact absolutely 'objective' because it reflects the eternal light of universal I am."
"Despite the fact that in the language of meditation and consciousness the term 'objective' usually points to something external to I am, we should not assume that the reality of objects and appearances is in existential opposition to pure subjectivity. This is true only in the case of an unconscious person in whom the light of subjectivity is lost in ignorant identification with phenomenal existence. When pure subjectivity is fully realized it transcends the polarity of inner and outer, containing them both in the space of all-pervasive oneness. Ultimately, there is only one reality — nothing exists outside of all-that-is." (5a)
[Note: within 'all-that-is' Anadi distinguishes between the 'I am' and the 'universal I AM'; he, so to speak, asks us to imaginatively posit a transcendental 'relationship' of 'subject-Subject' between soul and God. Absolute Subjectivity and Objectivity are not separate. The soul is not itself consciousness, per se, but has consciousness. Similarly, all-that-is also includes consciousness. See Dual Non-Dualism for more on his teaching, which is different than standard advaita or other nondual schools]
For the Vedantists, the ‘indescribability’ of Brahman doesn’t means ‘absolute indescribability’, but only indescribability as either real or unreal, both, or neither, which itself brings out the self-contradictory nature of avidya, and as such is its very merit, not a defect. The Vedantins found the shuyavada of its day as regarding everything including consciousness as indefinable and unreal and therefore relational and false; the Vedantins, however, considered Consciousness as pure, eternal, nondual, self-shining, the undeniable foundation of Reality.
In essence, the Madhyamika method of negation of the not-self was much like that of the Vedantins, in an attempt to get at the underlying essence of Reality. They employed a ‘four-fold logic’ much as did Guadapada: not this, not that, not both nor neither. The chief difference in the two schools was that the Vedantins were not averse to pronouncing this substratum as the Self, in a positive sense, through the use of ‘Maha Vakyas’, such as ‘Thou art That’, ’I Am Brahman’, etc., whereas the early Buddhists had only seen the absence of a fixed empirical self and fell into nihilism, which the Madyamika teachings were designed to correct. By calling the Nirvanic truth - the original Absolutism of the Buddha - ‘Emptiness’, it was not meant to imply that Ultimate Reality was an experiential Void, or a separate state to be known. Rather, ’emptiness’ meant the deconstruction of the empirical self into its constituent elements, or five skhandas, revealing its relative absence or void-nature, with the Reality Itself to be revealed as the obvious [nevertheless, this reality was also sometimes referred to as the Great Void or Emptiness). This, however, for the Buddhists, was not just a philosophic exercise in discrimination, but,as mentioned above, was to be accompanied by many practical and spiritual disciplines and meditations (indeed, four meditations (dhyanas), four meditative joys (Brahma-viharas), three higher meditations (samadhi) six excellences (paramitas), whereas for the Vedantin, the same was achieved through the philosophic discipline and the transmission of the adept or rishi. It has been debated whether yoga meditation was a necessary adjunct of this or not (see The Question of the Importance of Samadhi in Modern and Classical Advaita Vedanta). However, to set to rest any doubt that qualifications were required to engage in vedantic study under a master, Sankara says, in his commentary to the Kena Upanishad:
"The concentration of the body, the sense, and the mind are the means, for it is found that the knowledge of Brahman arises in a man who has attained the requisite holiness by means of purification of the heart through these. Knowledge,as imparted by the Vedas, dawns on one whose mind has been purified by concentration, etc., either in this life or in many past ones, as mentioned by the Vedic verse: 'These things get revealed when spoken to that high-souled man who has supreme devotion towards the Effulgent One, and the same devotion to the teacher as to the Effulgent One' (Sv, VI.23). And this is borne out by the Smrti, 'Knowledge dawns on a man on the eradication of sinful acts.' (Mbh,Sa. 204.8)." (6)
This Upanishad, somewhat like the Buddhists, also suggested that consciousness was a relative term. In commenting on the verse, "Brahman is consciousness," Sankara states:
"Truly this is so. But even so, that aspect is indicated by such words as consciousness, not from the intrinsic point of view, but merely with reference to the limiting adjuncts - mind, body, and senses..But in reality, the conclusion will be: 'unknown to those who know well, and known to those who do not know.' (7)
Thus Sankara, too, points to the transcendental absolute as beyond the categories of thought and conception.
Nagarjuna, as mentioned, not wanting to be left with no pointer to the absolute, conceeded that it’s attribute was bliss. However, the Madyamikas held to the view of the world as neither real nor unreal, but transcendental illusion; the earlier Buddhists a nihilistic shunya; whereas advaita held that reality cannot be the negation of an illusion, and that maya therefore essentially didn’t exist as other than Brahman. Maya was basically a concession to a lesser point of view that insisted on a causal relation between the absolute and the relative, but from the ultimate point of view, both of these are categories of the mind. Thus, ‘emptiness’ and ‘manifestation’ were meant to be seen as two polarities within relativity, on the principle that ‘something cannot (causally) come out of nothing.’ Those who envision the great Void as the pregnant womb from which all manifestation is born are involved in relative languaging and choosing one side of two relative polarities. The term ‘Emptiness’, however, is also used by some schools of Buddhism to mean the Ultimate Reality itself, beyond all polarities. As such, to repeat (and I realize there has already been quite a bit of repetition, but that is all right and in fact an ancient teaching method!), it is not really an experiential void, although such a state, devoid of distinguishing characteristics, is realizable in meditative trance as nirvikalpa or nirodha. But emptiness is indistinguishable from fullness, and as such is beyond all concepts.
All this is a pointer to truth, but it should also be re-emphasized that the path is not simply a matter of 'getting it'. In all Buddhist schools there is placed much emphasis on the fact that there are stages of evolution of the mind, including purification of negative emotions and other obscurations, wherein 'expedient' views are supplanted through practice by superior or true views. And to get to the point of realizing the higher truth, one must practice to gain the 'two accumulations': merit and wisdom. These include an ethical base: cultivation of virtues (generosity, patience, compassion diligence, concentration, and wisdom) - most importantly bodhicitta or boundless compassion for all beings; receipt of the blessings of others; and the power of discrimination, much the same as required in Vedanta and all true teachings. In The Words of My Perfect Teacher, a book highly praised and recommended by both the Dalai Lama and the venerable Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche for all practitioners, both beginning and advanced, Patrul Rinpoche goes as far as to say,
"Until one has completed the two sacred accumulations,
One will never realize sacred emptiness." (p. 203)
For emptiness without compassion is not sacred, but dry and incomplete. In short, this indicates the need for maturity of relative wisdom and bodhicitta for others, in hopes of realizing with any stability the great truths of the path. Dagpo Rinpoche (also known as Gampopa, disciple of Milarepa) likewise said:
"Even when your realization transcends the very notions of there being anything to accumulate or purify, continue still to accumulate even the smallest amounts of merit." (Ibid)
This means that one practices the 'two truths' - absolute and relative, until a very high stage, which for most of us means essentially as long as there is breath. Merit (i.e., favorable karma) and wisdom assures a congenial environment for practice to continue to fruition in this and future lives. It also is the recognition of the seamless interdependence of the relative and absolute domains.
And Patrul Rinpoche says that the most efficacious and only way to accumulate much merit is to make patience or endurance the main practice in our lives. As an example he reminds us, “How could we practice patience if there were no one who made us angry?” See Khanti Yoga - the Yoga of Endurance for more on this essential virtue. Many a practitioner has lost his precious insight from the failure to remember this core aspect of the path. Even today I see a posting that teaches one can forget ethics as long as he remembers to just 'see consciousness.' Yet how many really can do that all the time? Being true to oneself is a key virtue.
The Void and Emptiness
“The Void must not be misunderstood. Although it is the deepest state of meditation and one where he is deprived of all possessions, including his own personal self, it has a parallel state in the ordinary active non-meditative condition, which can best be called detachment...After all, even the Void, grand and awesome as it is, is nothing but a temporary experience, a period of meditation...The awareness of what is Real must be found not only in deep meditation, in its trance, but when fully awake.”
“It is not the annihilation of being but the fullness of being.”
“That which is called the Void, Emptiness, is not the total annihilation of all things, but the total lack of that matter of which they were supposed to be composed.”
As applied to a meditative state, he says:
“The Void is not a mere nothing as ordinarily meant; nor is it something the mind can hold for unlimited periods.”
But as denoting the ineffable Reality, he writes:
“The Void is the state of Mind in repose, and the appearance-world is its activity. [In other words, the Void-Mind doesn’t ‘do’ anything; the appearance is not different from the Void. There is no causal relation between them]. At a certain stage of their studies, the seeker and the student have to discriminate between both in order to progress; but further progress will bring them to understand that there is no essential difference between the two states and Mind is the same in both.”
“In a precise scientific sense, the Void is beyond explanation since it is not really a Void at all. It is a perpetual paradox.”
“On the one hand there is the emptiness of the Void, on the other had there is the fullness of the cosmos which comes into being to occupy it.” (8)
PB makes this point in a different way in the following quote:
"The absence of the ego is the presence of the Overself. But this is only a surface impression in the person's thought, for the Overself is always present." (9)
Huangbo Xiyun stated:
“People are scared to empty their minds
fearing that they will be engulfed by the void.
What they don't realize is that
their own mind is the void.”
And the great Hui-neng himself said:
"The world should be transcended right in this world
Do not depart from this world
To seek the transcendent world outside." (9a)
In other words, 'nothing truly 'hides' Reality'! (10) Further, PB here points out that the true displacing element upon ego-transcendance is not, as is commonly presumed among nondual teachings, directly the ultimate reality or the 'One, but the divine Soul (or Overself), which, too, is of the nature of 'void' or 'empty', while not the deepest principle of 'Emptiness' Itself meant as the Absolute. [More on this important distinction is discussed in PB versus Advaita on the Soul found on this website]. So, Buddhists and Advaitins, do not be too quick to dismiss the notion of soul or a higher individuality as merely ego!
So one can see that the Void, Emptiness, Shunyata, MInd, Reality is always the case, whether one ‘experiences’ a relative void, the so-called Void as Mind-in-repose, or any of the states of manifestation. As such it is ‘beyond duality and non-duality’ or any such conceptualization as Dattatreya proclaims in his Avadhuta Gita:
“The whole universe is shining as One,
Without any split or break, or separate parts.
The idea of 'Maya' is itself the great delusion;
Duality and Non-duality are merely concepts of the mind.”
The ‘empty Void' as void or nothing is also ‘empty’. Thus, one comes to Reality.
Adyashanti beautifully states:
"To find out that you are empty of emptiness is to die into an aware mystery, which is the source of all existence. It just so happens that that mystery is in love with all of its manifestation and non-manifestation." (11)
PB also said:
He who thinks that the nature of emptiness, the void or ultimate reality is dry and lifeless needs to think again. While the way through the desert of understanding may be like that at times, IT itself is not like that! Rather, it is home.
To recap the first two uses of the term emptiness listed at the outset of this article, Jackson Peterson writes:
"We have two philosophical uses of the word "emptiness". One is to use it as it is used in Madhyamaka and "Emptiness teachings. That one means that all phenomena have no independent and inherent existence or origination, and are all dependently originated. We see their "self-nature" is empty of any independent and ultimately valid entity-ness. This applies to "self" and also "things".
"Then we have a different "emptiness" as used in Dzogchen and Mahamudra. This one means the above, but also brings in the sense of empty space. The ultimate nature in these teachings is described as "empty aware space" as Dharmata or Dharmakaya. That's the essential nature. However, the examples used point out that "like empty space, the fundamental nature of "being" as awareness is changeless, non-dependent and non-arising." So we need to understand which model we are talking about and which nomenclature applies." (blog post)
Let's put this in another context. Adyashanti said that the spiritual types are often more afraid of the world than the spirit. There may be many reasons for this: lifetimes of seeking based on the belief that the world is the source of illusion and bondage; a culture that does not welcome one into the world as infinite being-consciousness; a heightened sense of mortality, a wounded ego or psyche. In order to fully embrace the world in a non-dual way, therefore, the seeker must have the realization of himself as infinite consciousness or emptiness. Otherwise, the fear of involvement and pain of limitation will always be there, even if unconscious. Getting 'stuck' in emptiness can, however, lead to a form of dissociation. On the other hand, those more apparently successful in the world, but without realizing emptiness, also remain in some degree dissociated and not fully in their bodies or heart. Neither, it might be said, are living from a condition of 'basic sanity'.
Some spiritual teachings 'permit' or allow the ego to exist, while basically considering it irrelevant and unreal: they say, "forget all 'personal stories', desires, fears, thoughts, and dreams, they are illusion." However, while this is a bit better, it gets even more subtle: know only consciousness, and don't reject the world, but absorb the world in consciousness - sounds like classic sahaja. But at all costs, however, don't be sullied by actually experiencing oneself alive in a world of limitation and relating to others whom one might not be familiar with in a relative sense rather than just seeing them all as the 'non-dual Self'! This can still be a form of self-protection and hinder a truly integrative non-dual actualization.
PB emphasizes this 'dynamic' second half of the emptiness equation:
We also suggest this view of things. In this understanding we posit indescribable Brahman, as the absolute or ultimate, and in which there are relative (Saguna) polarities: consciousness/phenomena (maya), emptiness/manifestation, impersonal/personal, etc.. Thus, the realization of emptiness and its inseparability from phenomena is a form of non-duality - but still a 'Saguna' or relative form, with attributes like 'Sat-Chit-Ananda. Nirguna non-duality transcends these characterizations. It is both empty and full, and neither empty nor full. Nirguna has no attributes. Some teachers superimpose 'unmanifest' on Nirguna Brahman. This is one of the most common errors that many nondual philosophers fall into. Nondual 'experiences' can come in all kinds of flavors, being conditioned by the relative aspects of a person's nature. For it is their relative 'self' which focalizes this realization within relativity as a 'nondual awakening' or realization or whatever. So that relative self, in its many layers, will necessarily condition how the nondual is experienced. So sometimes it will feel full, sometimes void-like, sometimes blissful, sometimes sublimely cool, sometimes transcendent, sometimes immanent. And all of these are 'true' and facets of a realization that includes and transcends them all. So it is not unmanifest. That would be more dualism.
Nirguna is simply not describable in human terms and has no attributes. This would be true emptiness or Shunyata, the Tao, and only experienced (a relative and inadequate word) in glimpses until a high degree of relative actualization of the non-dual vision is achieved. By this is meant becoming more and more refined and integrative of the non-dual vision with subtler and subtler states of the body-mind - either within or without the body - with more and more universal spiritual qualities like love, compassion, discrimination, and the like becoming part of one's character. This is to begin to live a form of 'enlightened duality' as a bridge to non-duality. In Sufism it is being available to the grace of a master or other liberating presence, and inculcating the virtues, each of which form a 'spiritual station', which is a permanent advance of the soul. It is also what is meant by embodying the Christ Consciousness, which exists in both individual and cosmic forms, as both one's inner conscience and guide (the higher personality) and as a universal enlightening presence within relativity. Even Sri Nisargadatta seemed to be of a mind with this:
“There is a power in the universe working for enlightenment and liberation. We call it Sadashiva, who is ever present in the hearts of men. It is the unifying factor. Unity - liberates. Freedom - unites. Ultimately nothing is mine or yours - everything is ours. Just be one with yourself and you will be one with all, at home in the entire universe.” (14)
[What is interesting is that Maharaj’s teaching here sounds much like Christianity when it speaks of “the true light that lighteth every man who cometh into this world”, and that it suggests there is a ‘liberating presence’ or ‘power’ within relativity, call it Logos, Cosmic Christ, Adi Buddha, Masters, Archangels, the Overself, etc., that is a helping bridge beyond relativity. Moreover, there is a ‘we’ implied in the phrase 'everything is ours’, and where there is a ‘we’ there must be an ‘I’ or form of individuality hiding out also, or, at the very least, it is an open question. So much for the simple ‘absolute beyond consciousness’ or a ‘solid block of reality’ that Nisargadatta is famous for !]
What we are taking about is basically that aspect of the soul, personal and universal, which seeks enlightenment or liberation, to be of service, etc.. At the highest levels of relative existence one's soul becomes in touch with what in many traditions is called Spirit (i.e., Atman) and becomes even more impersonal and universal and, being less veiled, imbibes the essence of the non-dual more directly. All spiritual traditions have this intermediate phase, means, and methods, bridging the relative and the absolute. All of the planes and bodies of manifestation are illusion from the standpoint of Maya, but reality from the side of the Absolute. The process is, in relativity, of actualizing the Absolute or non-dual. For most, it is a gradual process. There are relative laws which must be respected and also embraced within non-dual understanding.
One more thing. Some schools maintain that non-duality has to be united, merged, fused, or integrated with duality. This can cause problems. Various stages of spiritual awakening, beyond the stage of awakening to even a little degree to the reality of the nondual, are really just, stage to stage, unfolding realization of the 'true' nature of the nondual. It does not require integrating or uniting nonduality with anything, as some schools suggest. That is just another explanation of what nonduality already means. Nonduality inherently integrates every conceivable polarity, including our own belief or experience that it is somehow different from anything else. So, for instance, if we have an internal nirvikalpa realization, then that is a type of nondual realization, but if our experience of it includes a sense that it is away from the physical world, or requires negating or transcending Relativity to experience, or that it makes us special, or that it is on another plane, and so on and so forth, then it is a limited version of nondual realization. Then, as we gradually ripen the realization, nondual realization 'integrates' with everything, not because it in itself needs to be integrated, united, brought down, or infused. But because our realization of the true nature of nonduality grows, it is experienced as doing all these things. But it is not. That is our story of how we are understanding what we think is happening based on our current level of realization of what nonduality is. But it is all just unfoldment of nondual realization. Imo, any belief or experience otherwise is a misunderstanding of nondualism. For instance, there is no need to unite nonduality with anything. The nondual is already nondual and not separate from 'duality'. The perception of nonduality as needing to be balanced with duality is a misunderstanding of the nature of the nondual. This is potentially a huge problem, and has a domino effect that can cause flaws in the rest of any such system.
Medieval sage Ibn Al' Arabi, however, in a passage as eloquent as anything from Advaita, tells us that the experience of Truth is veritably non-dual and not a form of monism, with a radical naughting of the individuality not required:
"If you know yourself as nothing, then you truly know your Lord. Otherwise, you know him not. You cannot know your Lord by making yourself nothing. Many a wise man claims that in order to know one's Lord one must denude oneself of the signs of one's existence, efface one's identity, finally rid oneself of one's self. This is a mistake. How could a thing that does not exist try to get rid of its existence?...If you think that to know Allah depends on your ridding yourself of yourself, then you are guilty of attributing partners to Him - the only unforgivable sin - because you are claiming that there is another existence besides Him, the All-Existent: that there is a you and He...Our Master, the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him), said: “He who knows himself knows his Lord.” He did not say: “He who eliminates himself knows his Lord!” (15)
Shaikh Mawlay Al Arabi ad Darqawa confirms Ibn 'al' Arabi's insight:
"Extinction also is one of thine attributes. Thou art already extinct, my brother, before thou art extinguished and naught before thou art annihilated. Thou art an illusion in an illusion and a nothingness in a nothingness. When hadst thou Existence that thou mightest be extinguished?" (16)
One only feels the needs to get rid of something if he believes it is real. The ego is in the category of being neither real nor not real, therefore, to try to get rid of it is a fruitless, yet paradoxical, task. It is a trick of the ego to convince you to try to get rid of it, but it is also a trick of the ego to convince you not to try to get rid of it! Neither side is right; better to embrace and transcend while also trying to develop and perfect it, as PB and others have advised.
For the Sufi, the mystery is not as simple a matter as rejecting illusion and affirming reality, as the illusion is an important aspect of the soul becoming conscious of Itself - the search for the 'hidden jewel of the divine treasure'. It was an illusion for Arabi, however, to think that one was ever separate from God, for we would have no being or consciousness if we were truly apart from or other than the Reality. Called a 'son of Plato' for his indebtedness to neo-Platonic philosophy, he believed in the Oneness of Being-Perception and also the Creative Imagination of the Intellectual, which is the closest he got to a concept of maya. W.J. Austin writes:
"Thus, ultimately, whether we throw ourselves into the infinite ocean of cosmic "illusion," in conformity with the all-creating Will, or whether we annihilate our identity in the absolute truth of His identity, in conformity with the all-commanding Wish, we can never be, in reality, other than the Real, on pain of absurdity."
"[Arabi] said, "It is part of the perfection of being that there is imperfection in it." (17)
The growing consensus, then, seems to be that the ego and/or personality is and/or must be wedded to “consciousness” from which it has apparently divorced itself for a true existence to be actualized. It is too easy to say that the ego is 'empty', for what is it exactly? An "I"-thought? A 'bunch of thoughts'? A 'fire-breathing dragon'? What is its function? Is it really only negative and illusion?
"Many seekers are confused and not able to comprehend the apparent paradox of transcending the ego without annihilating it. In Buddhist psychology, there is a concept of so called five skandhas. This concept is missing the elemental understanding that our body-mind operates as an alive and coherent organism of intelligence in a purposeful and meaningful way. The ego cannot be found anywhere as such, for the one looking for it - is the ego. it is too close to be found, but certainly it is always there."
"The ego-personality not only participates and promotes the shift of our being into the deeper dimensions of reality, from the state of presence to resting in the Absolute, but it also allows us to comprehend our post-Enlightenment situation. Enlightenment is not the end of our growth. The understanding of the Enlightened state and its relation to the ego as well as to the manifested reality is constantly evolving. The ego and Enlightened state co-exist in a very interesting way - they relate to each other...Even after realization, the ego and our essence are in a very rich and dynamic relationship - they are simultaneously present."
"Those masters who claim that they have no ego, prove to have a certain psychological ignorance; or they're using the term in an improper way. They are most likely victims of certain idealistic, linear and simplistic logic. The transcendental logic embracing the apparent paradox (the co-existence of the ego and the egoless state), goes beyond this simple logic in the apperception of the truth which is not conceptual but alive. The goal of Enlightenment is not to eliminate the ego, but to enlighten it. How could we possibly enlighten it if we deny its very existence? To enlighten the ego is to create within the personal intelligence a clear understanding that our personality, with all its limitations, and our timeless essence, is an indivisible, dynamic whole. It is here that the humility, intelligence and the highest spiritual realization meet. Ego, the operative center of our personality, even after melting with the Source, must face this never-ending challenge of fulfilling the dynamic balance between its participation in the manifested reality and of resting in the Absolute. The absolute dimension and human perspective are truly one. But although they are one, they give birth to one another in the continuous process at arriving at wholeness." (18)
So, this debate about the ego and the faculty of reasoning has been going on a long time. Rumi decried reason as taking one to hell. Ibn Arabi, on the other hand, felt that, in its proper use, Reason along with what he called Imagination could (along with a few other things, like the virtues, devotion, etc.) take one to the Intellectual or the Nous, the World-Mind. But, practically speaking, why do we have a problem, especially with the ego? Here is another way of looking at it.
We are first born, according to the Sufis, into the stage of egotism, where everything is about 'me': food, sustenance, comfort, etc.. We may at first, it is true, as the psychologists say, have no sense of existence apart from the mother, and then explore the outside world, and only at age two or so experience the arisal of a self-referral in the mind, but it is still 'all about me'. We gradually learn to reason and discriminate and appreciate the presence of others and a world outside of ourself. In this necessary evolutionary stage we are really expanding, but also generally lose something precious: not only contact with the 'angelic realms', but also our innate love of ourselves. Therefore we hold on tighter to what we feel will fill that sensed hole or lack or emptiness. Our wounded ego develops or continues its age-old habits: 'bad' ones, and also efforts to 'become good'. Traditionally the path has then been portrayed as a battle against lower tendencies: vasanas, 'nafs' in Sufism, 'the mind is the slayer of the real', and all that. And there is good reason for this: blind identification with phenomenal reality is binding and painful. So we are told to identify with Spirit and get rid of the "I", or find a bigger "I". Unconsciously we first take to that quest as a way to fill the emptiness, not realizing we must at some point go into it in order to become human. This understanding is given in most mature paths, but the ego finds ways to co-opt the understanding for its own sake.
However, realizing that emptiness, that consciousness, is still only half-way to completion. We must then integrate that with the world to become whole. Some will say thay there is nothing to integrate, for their is no separation to begin with. They would negate all yoga, meditation, and the path itself. They are entitled to their point of view. But we choose to be practical. The others will say that it is they who are being practical. So be it. In any case, this can be a long haul, or somewhat shorter if we can embrace both sides simultaneously: Overself/consciousness and self/ego, which is not necessarily easy, because of a lack of self-love in a positive sense, and lack of a supportive culture in which to have such reflected back to us. To some extent that is changing, thank God. We do need a base in consciousness to have the real well-being to so embrace the world, however, so until that is stabilized and integrated there is an inevitable battle, to some extent, with both our old self-centeredness, and also with allowing the more positive side of the ego to exist. So, we in our fear run from existential emptiness, but it is that emptiness that not only allows everything to be, but its realization allows us in human terms to embrace the relative world in a real, living way.
The ego, therefore, as ego, is certainly 'empty' of inherent existence, but it has real relative existence as a function, not just of division but of intelligence; it is also inseparable from the 'emptiness' of consciousness, as Soul, of which it is a projection, which in turn is inseparable from the 'emptiness' of Ultimate Reality.
PB argues that the ego is 'a bunch of thoughts around a fixed but empty center' (the latter in this reference being the higher self), from which it - the "I" - gets its sense of reality, and as such, in itself, the ego is empty and impermanent, as the Buddhists argue.
Yet as a projection of the Soul it is also what, in a paradoxical sense, gets enlightened, after maturation and balancing of the functions of feeling, thinking, and willing and their fusion into a superior faculty he calls 'insight'.
This is highly conceptual, but an outcome of revelation of two great sage for our benefit. Hold it lightly, but try to understand. There are three higher principles constituting Reality, for Plotinus the One, the Intellectual Principle or Nous, and the Absolute Soul.
For PB they are Mind, World-Mind, and Overself.
The Intellectual Principle or Divine Intellect or World-Mind (thought of as a One-in-Many) projects a World-Idea through the Absolute Soul (considered as a One-and-Many, that is, a 'mother' principle of Soul or Overself) and countless individual Souls; none of the three Hypostases are separable in truth, but represent distinct Principles nevertheless.
However, it is more complex than just that. The Void-Mind or Emptiness characteristic of the Nous contains not only the principle of Soul or consciousness but a divine emanation or World-Idea that is projected through each individual Soul, becoming the sensible world.
The Soul, simultaneously, while eternal and one, an undivided whole of infinite consciousness-intelligence (or Mind as the Buddhists refer to it) is nevertheless a 'unit Mind, as it is Many while also One, projects a ray of itself into that World-Idea (which is within itself) in order to experience that World-Idea in a particular way.
The Soul, then, has a higher part (although it is really unpartable), and a lower part, its emanation, that conjoins with a body which is part of that World-Idea and the two together constitute the ego.
It is only a problem when it takes itself to be separate from the whole. So, the ego is 'empty' as 'ego', but the sense of 'I' that we associate with it comes from the higher knower within, which is the lower phase of the Soul which may be said to incarnate.
Both together constitute our true being. And neither is ever separated from the other. It is all very paradoxical because, as mentioned, the World-Idea is within the Soul while a ray of the Soul enters or associates with that very World-idea within it!
We will return to this concept of the three Hypostases in the section of this article entitled "Levels of Emptiness'.
"Where is man's free will? He is free to choose whether he will conform to the pattern of the World-Idea, whether he will obey or not obey the higher laws."
"What he wills in his highest moments is both a free act and a necessary act. In these moments the conflict vanishes, the paradox appears. In them alone the ego attains its fullest power yet falls also into complete powerlessness." (19)
This issue of the ego is explored in more detail in the article, The Great Uniqueness, on this website.
Sankara's and Buddhist methodology: epistemic, not ontological negation
Sankara's method of 'neti, neti' (‘not this, not this’) is also often misunderstood.
In it the sheaths or upadhis are supposedly rejected one by one as 'not-self' in order to reach the Self. Guadapada, his predecessor, had often, in fact, as previously mentioned, been accused of being a 'crypto-Buddhist' as the dialectic used by him was nearly identical to that of the Madhyamikas.
Rather, the method of analysis there was wholistic, in which one successively realized each sheath as the Self, incorporating each in turn within the other, until nothing was known apart from the bliss of the Self.
Sankara used a provisional negation, an epistemological method of negation, yes, as a first stage to find the self apart from the world, which some have interpreted as ontological negation, looking for an essence apart from that which was not real.
That is, Sankara would use 'neti neti' to strip away one's attachment to everything perceivable; then, when one had become so detached, he would ask one to reintroduce the negated elements into the one Self.
Sometimes Ramana Maharshi, for instance, would say things that implied that for the sage whose jiva-hood was gone there was no world, thus misleading some people into an incorrect view of non-dualism.
A bhakti method, on the other hand, such as espoused by Anandamayee Ma, would say 'wohi, wohi' ('all is He') rather than 'neti,neti'. Either way works in the end.
As mentioned above, we still have to solve the conundrum of whether the Self, Atman, and Brahman are the same, or not. The Vedantic traditions are confusing. This is discussed at greater length in The Primordial Ground:
Part Two, and also, once again, The Great Uniqueness on this website.
Sankara, then, like many teachers in different traditions, such as Dzogchen, for instance, used a two-phased approach, in which the ultimate realization was attained through a pinnacle shift and/or practice after certain preliminaries had been achieved.
For Sankara, one endowed with dispassion, discrimination, mental discipline (composed of six factors, including arguably the most important, shraddha or faith in the words of the scriptures and the teacher), and a burning desire for liberation, then went through a mental discipline.
mithya), then Brahman is declared as the real (and sometimes experenced as such through yogic trance, but not in 'pure' advaita), then Brahman is declared to be the world. [Supposedly this lets one see the jiva and world as none other than Brahman also.
The usual Vedantin doesn't really do this, but still somewhat holds back to avoid lingering 'contamination. More on that later].
This total procedure or method is said to yields a nondual result.
In the more fast track school of Dzogchen, while one is to have already engaged or embodied the preliminary or ngondro practices of virtue, samatha ('calm abiding') and vipashyana (insight meditation), the 'introduction to the view'
or important transmission of the non-dual awareness (rigpa) is given at the start by the guru and becomes one’s primary practice, ‘self-liberating' all conditions as they arise and as one more deeply integrates the nondual vision.
The Buddhist approach to a degree is the reverse: first analyze relativity, then practise based on a vision of truth (right view). The end result, however, is the same: a transcendental truth beyond all categories of thought.
the law of karma or dependent origination, and emptiness, and the tendency of some non-dual teachings to insist that there is no 'doer', or 'no one to do anything', can often lead to confusion and spiritual stagnancy.
As Greg Goode writes:
Therefore, there is no necessity to refute it.
"On the other hand, if inherent existence were not refuted, then too the Buddhist path would not be possible. Inherently existent things are independent of everything and therefore causeless, untouchable and eternal.
If one is established in the witness position he has achieved disidentification with himself as an 'entity'.
It may be a necessary first step, getting established in the witness.
It may occur spontaneously, if the witness identification is strong (see Greg Goode on collapsing of the witness into non-dual awareness), or it may take a passage through fear, followed by a radical letting go, as well as metaphysical understanding - or, for some, perhaps just a withering away of the search.
It is the harder of the two steps, according to PB, and could take a long time after the exclusive inner self or witness is found. The first advaitic step alone, stabilization of the true witness, is profound, and, as Anthony Damiani once forcefully told me, "could take you fifty years!"
It is an individual matter, as profound as the fruition of the mentalistic discipline, the realization of the 'emptiness' of objects or the 'de-objectification' of the external world, transforming age-old habits. And, for most of us, it cannot be done in a cave; we must learn swimming in water.
This is because it is not merely an intellectual exercise, but one that requires some effort, patience, endurance, feeling, and discrimination in daily life with all of its ups and downs, twists and turns. Therefore, it is said traditionally that to be truly ready for emptiness teachings requires that one burst into tears at the mere mention of the word 'emptiness', or that its contemplation will make ones 'hair stand on end'. The Dalai Lama has even said that if studying the teachings of emptiness doesn't at some point turn your world upside down one has not taken the teachings to heart. Traditionally, there was given a warning to disclosing such a teaching:
"This profound subject should be taught to those who in the past have repeatedly established in their minds the propensity for understanding emptiness, and not to others. This is because, although those [others] may have managed to study the scriptures that teach emptiness, with their mistaken preconceptions about emptiness, teaching it to them will be utterly useless.
It is utterly useless because some of them, those who have no expertise, refute emptiness and go to unfortunate realms. Others, thinking that the meaning of emptiness is that phenomena do not exist, first generate the mistaken view that is nihilistic in regard to cause and effect. Then, without turning away from this false view, it grows larger and larger until, as a result of this, they are reborn into the Avici Hell...One goes to Avici not only by having a nihilistic attitude in regard to emptiness, but also by having a nihilistic attitude in regard to cause and effect. A multitude of reputable sutras and sastras all agree that to view causality as nonexistent is the cause of losing the roots of all of one's merit, and is also the cause of the degeneration of one's vows." ! (21)
In the Madhyamakavatara it states:
"Even though still at the stage of ordinary beings, when [some people) study emptiness, they experience great rapture and wonderment internally. Arising from this great rapture, their eyes well with tears, and the hairs of their body stand on end. Those beings have the seed of the perfect Buddha's mind. They are the vessels to whom reality is to be taught. it is to them that the ultimate truth should be taught." (22)
Combining Buddhism and Vedanta
We should add that for 'awareness' teachings, Consciousness, being noumenal, is not refutable (unless one considers it to be a 'thing') and therefore it is compatible with the teachings of emptiness. Anthony Damiani argues that one must combine the viewpoints of both Vedanta and Buddhism, consciousness and emptiness to get a clear picture:
"Soul in its nature or essence is of an unchanging consciousness. The ego, which is part of the World-Idea [a term used by PB. For a precise explanation of PB's terminology, which the reader will found scattered throughout this paper, please click here], is constantly changing from moment to moment. You've got to explain that. You've got to explain the Buddhist position and the Vedantic position. One is a psychological one and the other is more metaphysical. Understand the nature of consciousness that the ego represents - that is from moment to moment, and that would be the Buddhist position. Understand the nature of the consciousness which is always abiding, never changing, and that would be the Vedantic position. Now the two of them are together in every and any situation that you care to think about....If we say that the World-Idea - the world and all the bodies in it - is the product of this Mind which, from instant to instant, is manifesting this world, then body and the world have to be changing from moment to moment. And we're speaking about consciousness. I'm speaking about this body which is manifesting from instant to instant. I'm speaking about consciousness manifesting from instant to instant. That means that my body is this consciousness manifesting instant to instant. Inside that - and this is a colloquialism - inside that is this light of the soul which doesn't change. This is the light, so to speak, that becomes aware of change. It itself is unchanging. And I've got these two things together." (23)
Damiani argued that the arguments of Vedanta (i.e., Atman/Brahman, the Self) really should be combined with those of Buddhism (anatta or no-self) to gain a complete picture of truth. For the 'idealistic' view of Vedanta - whether the Self is asserted as per the method of the Vedas as the transcendental Reality to be known through direct insight and reliance on revealed scriptural pronouncements, or Maha Vakyas, and the jiva is considered to be phenomenal illusion, or whether it is proven through Reason using the method of affirmation and negation as per Guadapada and Sankara - comes to the same ultimate conclusion as the more 'realistic' Buddhist analysis where the phenomenal self is investigated and found to be impermanent leaving Nirvana as the transcendental Reality. Thus, Brahman of Vedanta and Nirvana of Buddhism point to the same truth. This somewhat analogous to Parmenides and Heraclitus of ancient Greece, the former saying that everything is always the same, and the latter saying that all is flux. One is speaking of the essence and one of the appearance.
Because the anatta or 'no-self' doctrine of early Buddhism had given fuel to the doctrine of nihilism, however, which Buddha actually refuted, Sankara came along with a mission of rejuvenating the earlier Brahmanical Vedanta and purifying India of such degenerated doctrines of Buddhism. While Buddha had been an improvement over the decadent state of Brahmanism, with its animal sacrifices and exclusive God-idea of the priesthood, and for which the Buddha emphasized pure reason and the cultivation of compassion, his neglect of religion left India bereft of guidance for the masses, and Buddhism did not take hold en masse there. Sankara came along and achieved two goals at once, both reviving religion while also refreshing and streamlining advaita vedanta for the higher minds of his time and for centuries to come. He was in agreement with many ideas of Buddhism, but contrary to critics did not borrow from them but took his ideas from the Sanatana Dharmic sources and his own genius. Because he didn't reject religion like Buddha had, his work was farther-reaching within India. Still, for many centuries both Vedanta and Buddhism were talk side by side in the ancient university of Nalanda, until the latter's destruction by the Moguls.
Sankara's formulation of Vedanta, like other paths, required the unerring guidance of a competent realized teacher who has embodied the teachings and can dispassionately and impersonally transmit grace, in the appropriate time and manner, to each individual aspirant. It wasn't a do-it-yourself path. Moreover, for Sankara there was no fundamental difference between bhakti and jnana. He even described bhakti as devoted inquiry into the nature of the Self. In the introduction to the Kena Upanishad he writes:
"May my limbs, speech, vital force, eyes, ears, as also strength and all the organs, become well developed. Everything is the Brahman revealed in the Upanishads. May I not deny Brahman; may not Brahman deny me. Let there be no spurning of me by Brahman, let there be no rejection of Brahman by me. May all the virtues that are spoken of in the Upanishads repose in me who am engaged in the pursuit of the Self." (24)
Who is the 'me' referred to by Sankara here?!
Earlier, Nagarjuna, seminal figure in Mahayana Buddhism and "emptiness" teachings also :
"distinguished the easy way of Faith [or devotion, bhakti) from the hard way of Wisdom." (25)
For those whose reasoning powers are limited in directly understanding emptiness, he said that if they devotedly follow the teachings of the Tathagata (on impermanence, the noble eight-fold path, compassion, etc.) they will come to an understanding of it gradually by faith:
However, the essence of the direct path to liberation for the Mahayanists is the practice and understanding of emptiness or selflessness. This, however, can be misunderstood. Selflessness is ultimately also selfless, just as emptiness is empty. It is beyond categories of thought. That is why to speak of 'no-self' or 'the Self' are basically attempts to point towards the inconceivable, from within relativity. It is difficult to speak of these things, and neither alternative adequately expresses the richness of truth. Each contains its own problems, and require the epistemological discipline, "how do you know?", for one to even begin to understand.
Combining emptiness teaching with Vedanta is also justified in order to answer the inevitable question,"how does one know the skhandas are ever-changing and empty?" Vedanta says there has top be an unchanging knower to know this. If one objects, similar to the British philosopher David Hume and say that any such knower is itself 'empty' of self, an idea(s) only, then there is still the need for another knower which is unchanging in order to know that. Thus, 'emptiness' logic will show the inherent interdependency of all phenomena, their lack of an inherent self-existence, and therefore the non-existence of an inherently independent phenomenal self, while Awareness teachings will show the 'empty' or noumenal substratum of Consciousness in which phenomena simultaneously arise. Phenomena are not conscious, but are the actualization of the World-Mind's World-Idea projected through the Soul or Consciousness, seated in the human heart, with which, upon Realization, they are non-separate, including one's very body itself. Ultimately, one comes full circle and realizes that all is non-dual Brahman, including the skhandas, ego, body, etc.. How to realize that condition? Ah, that is the most important thing, isn't it? We will touch on that, we must, but this is overall more of a philosophical essay to save the reader perhaps years of intellectual slogging through various old traditions.
A possible problem with awareness teachings is that their 'idealism' can lead to an avoidance of the world (but shouldn’t) while emptiness teachings, not being so idealistic (since they view any mind, or consciousness, or substratum, as 'empty'), actually in a sense 'liberate' the world while asserting its non-inherent reality, or reality only as dependently arising conditions or phenomena. One can take then emptiness teachings as a path unto themselves - the Middle Way of Mahayana Buddhism, as taught by the Buddha, Nagarjuna, as well as the Dalai Lama - or as an aid to the second half of the quest as taught by PB, the first being realization that one is consciousness, and the second being the realization of the non-separate nature of that consciousness with the world of manifestation. Either way or in combination one comes to selflessness, compassion, and non-duality.
There is a tendency for those into non-dual teachings, after disidentifying with self, other, the body, and their story, to still cling to the notion of an absolute (as an object), and thereby dismiss or avoid the uniqueness of all things. This is the old error of which in Zen they call being a 'one-eyed monster'; that is, holding to a One absolute by negating or avoiding the Many, rather than seeing the One in the Many and the Many in the One. In other words, one rejects the object, then the subject, and then the void or sunyata (!), finally re-entering life free of all discriminations. As they say in Zen, finally 'rivers are rivers and mountains are mountains" again.
Untangling terminology among Tibetan schools
There is room in the traditions for some confusion, for different Buddhist schools speak of ‘dependent origination’ and ‘emptiness’ in different ways. For instance, the Gelugpas say the mind is impermanent, while the Kagyupas and Nyingmapas say it is permanent. There is no contradiction, because the former is speaking of the relative mind in the world of objects, while the latter means the absolute mind beneath or behind objects. The ‘mind’ in this instance is the same as the Self of the Vedantins. Similarly, the Gelugpas refer to everything as subject to ‘dependent origination, while the Kagyupas and Nyingmapas do not. For them, absolute reality is beyond dependent origination, for Reality does not arise from ignorance. Again, merely a conceptual difference [sometimes it is called 'dependent origination', and sometimes 'interdependent origination'; it basically means the same thing: the individual objective thing exists only in relationship to the universal or the whole, and not by independently by itself]. On the nature of the Void, the Gelugpas speak from the point of view of non-buddhas, and focus on Void or appearance one at a time. Thus, the Void is a state. The Nyingmapas and Kagyupas, as well as Dzogchen, speak from the point of view of the buddhas, and do not separate the Void from appearance. In fact, the void or 'emptiness and its appearances form the primordial unity of the buddha state. This is most definitively realized at the time of death, when the Child luminosity of the meditators's consciousness meets the Mother luminosity or dark light of emptiness, from which every manifestation (including a buddha's pure abodes) appears transcendentally reborn from this primal unity. This teaching is interesting and worthy of a short note.
In Dzogchen they teach that one who has achieved stabilization of the nondual 'view' of emptiness-clarity, can, at the time of death, be led to the Pure Lands of the Dharmakaya by easily 'merging the 'Child luminosity' of his absorbed mind with the 'Mother or Ground Luminosity', or clear light that arises at that time. This has been spoken of as like "pouring water into water." Patrul Rinpoche writes that for such practitioners:
"When they die and the process of dissolution, as well as the phenomena of 'clarity, increase, and attainment' have taken place, the clear light of the absolute body at the moment of death appears. This is the 'mother' clear light, the moment of the ground. They are led by the 'child' clear light, which is experienced in life. When the two clear lights meet they are liberated in the primordial purity, the original ground."
Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche adds, however:
"In fact there is nothing and no-one who leads or is led. It is simply the meeting of the 'mother' and 'child' luminosities.' (Words of My Perfect teacher (Boston: Shambhala, 1998), p. 400-401)
Here the questions become, "what is realized at this time? The non-dual Soul (the Overself), or the Absolute? And, are there really 'two' clear lights? Further, the Mother or ground luminosity does not get liberated, does it? That is supposed to be primordially present. And, what comes next - is there further evolution of the liberated being? Teachings vary. So it is somewhat confusing.
The Gelugpas teach a gradual process of eliminating the grosser levels of mind in order to reach the clear light mind, while the others go directly to the meditation on the clear light mind without dissolving the grosser levels first. However, even here, they usually have had experience with various energy practices (i.e., kundalini yoga, etc.) and thus face little resistance in dissolving the grosser levels automatically as they adhere solely to rigpa or the clear light void-mind itself. Finally, for the Gelugpas, ‘voidness’ actually refers to ‘voidness’, while to the Kagyupas and Nyingmapas ‘voidness’ is totally non-conceptual and beyond words.
To complicate things a bit further, the Advaitins use the word atma in the sense of the transcendental subject, pure consciousness, while the Buddhists use the word atma to mean an eternal individual substance, which they reject while retaining its empirical truth. Yet they also do not mean to deny the so-called absolute self, only denying that it falls within the categories of thought. To attempt to do so, said the Buddha, was to land in a 'wilderness of views' (ditthi-gahana), a 'jungle of theories' (ditthi-kantara), or in the 'net of thought constructions'. Indeed, shunyata itself is not a view, but the transcendance of all views (drsti-shunyata). Those who make it a view become 'hopelessly incurable' and 'philosophically doomed', because they deny the relative, empirical world, ending up with truly nothing. While thought is not the real, as a relative tool (samvriti) it can still indirectly point towards the truth. There is, in fact, no non-dual path! There are only relative means to point towards the non-dual. And paradoxically, for the Mahayana Buddhists, while emptiness is the transcendance or repudiation of all views, it is still important to have the 'right view'!
On the essentials, however, all of the above Tibetan schools have a Mahayana or Madyamika basis and are thus in fundamental agreement. This problem of diversity of interpretation doesn’t exist in Advaita Vedanta so much, except for those extremists who argue that the world doesn’t exist at all. As mentioned, this was never the position of Sankara, who, like the Madyamikas, always gave the world a relative or provisional existence, ending with the positive conclusion that the world is non-dual Brahman.
The basic Mahayana path is the backbone of all Tibetan schools. The Dalai Lama thus emphasizes virtue, concentration, and insight:
"This pattern of training in the path, training first in ethics then in meditative stabilization and then in wisdom is not just a pronouncement of the Buddha but accords with the actual fact of experience in training the mind. In order to generate the view realizing emptiness in any strong form, never mind that special level of mind called special insight realizing emptiness, it is necessary that the mind not be distracted, that it be channeled, that it be brought together and made powerful. Thus in order for the wisdom consciousness to be powerful and to be capable of acting as an antidote, it is necessary for the consciousness itself to be channeled. Thus meditative stabilization is needed for wisdom."
"In order to have meditative stabilization, in which there is a quieting of internal mental distractions, it is necessary prior to that to restrain coarser types of distraction of body and speech. Thus one engages in practices of ethics that involve restraint of these coarser activities of body and speech in order to lay the groundwork for meditative stabilization. Thus ethics is first, meditative stabilization second and wisdom is third in the order of the three trainings. This is certified by experience.” (27).
The Dalai Lama once said that if he had to choose between teaching about emptiness, or teaching about karma, he would choose the latter. What he meant by this is that if he had to choose (which he doesn’t) between focusing exclusively on a 'direct pointing' approach that emphasized nondual awakening, the so-called direct path, or focusing on the relative aspect of the teaching, which is based squarely on appreciating the story of the path, the process of becoming, the karmic processes of cause and effect, of cultivating character and virtue, of cleansing karma/thought-forms/vasanas, of healing trauma, of going through dark nights and the kind of karmic cleansings that Milarepa went through guided by Marpa, laboring, surrendering, suffering - he would chose the latter because that is where most people are at. Many so-called direct path teachings do not recognize the profound relative truth of the necessity, for most people, of much of this kind of thing. They often just want to gloss over it all. People who are having a hard time 'getting it' are made to feel they are doing something wrong, not forgetting their personal story, or simply dramatizing their ego. Whereas it is not recognized by many that the very coming to the teaching, meeting the teacher, and the awakening to truth are to large extent karmically determined. The Dalai Lama was not saying forget such paths, but was expressing the simple truth that between these two approaches, the so-called 'karmic' teachings are much more universally relevant and practically wise, and the direct teachings by themselves are of value to very few.
"I’ve also seen many folks shun basic bodhicitta practice for practices that deal in a more head-on way with emptiness; more secret practices, higher ones, implying that loving kindness is basic. Actually, it can be excruciating to try to be there for others. Kindness in the face of adversity, or aversion for that matter, is not as easy as reading a book about it. It can be much more convenient to rest in the thought that “my self-centeredness doesn’t exist, it’s empty of any self-nature”- therefore it’s unnecessary to really look at it in the face to see where it’s coming from." (28)
Like everything, these views must be balanced, and tailored to the individual. A good quote on glimpsing emptiness, as taught in many direct path teachings, with the caveat that it is still a half-way house to full recognition of what emptiness really is, is given by Anam Thugen:
"When we leave mind alone, we arrive at a point where mind dissolves and where we know nothing and we are left innocent like a newborn child. Then the ground of all things reveals itself. Emptiness reveals itself, just like when the clouds move away, the majestic mountain reveals itself. Then we glimpse the ground of all things without any veils, barricades, or walls between our consciousness and the truth itself. We glimpse it just as we glimpse everything around us. Then absolute truth is transparent, immediate, and luminous. But glimpsing the truth is just the beginning of our unfolding process of inner awakening. What is required is recognition of the truth, and that recognition is the supreme realization that liberates us.” (29)
To get to this recognition means that even a 'direct' path is a 'gradual' path, in that we must use skillfull means, and even 'lesser' practices, when we are not so easily able to glimpse 'emptiness' or presence. This is what the Dalai lama was talking about. Perhaps one needs to use mindfulness, or samatha practice, or japa, or karma yoga, when direct seeing is not possible or happening. This is not a sign of weakness. The 'best practice' is not necessarily the 'highest practice', it is whatever is true for us in any moment. In most cases, the direct teachings are supplemental to a fundamental traditional life of practice into which they become integrated gradually, not a complete path themselves. We need a raft to get us to the other shore. What did the Beatles sing? "I'm fixing a hole where the rain gets in, to keep my mind from wandering..where it will go o o o..." Were they not speaking of mindfulness?! This is one example of adapting as the need requires. Also, when even the Dalai Lama, Dogen, or Suzuki Roshi wouldn't say if they were realized, it makes one think before declaring that any new technique, anti-technique, teaching or anti-teaching guarantees one a rapid road to Nirvana.
"To walk safely through the maze of human life, one needs the light of wisdom and the guidance of virtue." - Buddha
“Emptiness is another name for the absolute, the uncreated energy. Certain mystics have realised that the original void or emptiness is the ultimate. This realisation is however not complete, as emptiness is not the whole of the ultimate. The secret within the absolute is the presence of the divine dimension. The divine is simply the heart of emptiness and, in truth, the very meaning of the absolute. The absolute represents the being aspect of the ultimate reality. The beloved is the unity of emptiness, love and inexplicable intelligence.” (30)
Is this really unique? Long ago it was said in the Heart Sutra, “form is emptiness, emptiness is form.” What is different for anadi is that ‘emptiness’ as the absolute state (a term of Sri Nisargadatta’s) is ‘beyond consciousness,’ or rather, the ground of being in which consciousness 'consciously recognizes its own absence', no doubt quite a paradox. Thus, by this explanation, emptiness is not consciousness as is commonly presumed. Traditionally, according to Mahayana Buddhism, the glimpse of emptiness is the first of ten stages to full enlightenment. It is recognised that the underlying nature of all these steps or stages is effortless, non-conceptual awareness. That is the precondition for progress. It is progress of the soul, not the ego [my emphasis]. Furthermore, it is taught in the Mahayana tradition that fixating on non-conceptual awareness may grant one rebirth in one of the formless realms, which themselves are still within conditional existence. Chandrakirti, said that those who considered ‘emptiness’ as a state were “philosophically doomed and destined to land in a self-condemned void!” This is what anadi and Nisargadatta have said about consciousness or awareness: by itself it is still in the realm of the (uncausally) created, per se, not the Uncreated. So, according to this view, among some of both the traditional as well as contemporary teachers of non-dual consciousness, it appears, there may be legitimate, but partial understanding: consciousness and form are polarities, inseparable from one another, but there may be more to reality than just consciousness. This is a complex, non-traditional argument found in detail in the four-part series Dual Non-Dualism on this website.
Dilgo Khyentse Rimpoche gives a more traditional explanation:
"Emptiness, the ultimate nature of Dharmakaya, the Absolute Body, is not a simple nothingness. It possesses intrinsically the faculty of knowing all phenomena. This faculty is the luminous or cognitive aspect of the Dharmakaya, whose expression is spontaneous. The Dharmakaya is not the product of causes and conditions; it is the original nature of mind...Emptiness of mind is not a nothingness, nor a state of torpor, for it possesses by its very nature a luminous faculty of knowledge which is called Awareness. These two aspects, emptiness and Awareness, cannot be separated. They are essentially one, like the surface of the mirror and the image which is reflected in it."
Adyashanti speaks of 'radical emptiness':
"To the extent that the fire of truth wipes out all fixated points of view, it wipes out inner contradictions as well, and we begin to move in a whole different way. The Way is the flow that comes from a place of non-contradiction - not from good and bad. Much less damage tends to be done from that place. Once we have reached the phase where there is no fixed self-concept, we tend to lead a selfless life. The only way to be selfless is to be self less - without a self. No matter what it does, a self isn't going to be selfless. It can pretend. It can approximate selflessness, but a self is never going to be selfless because there is always an identified personal self at the root of it."
"This is radical emptiness - where everything is arising spontaneously. There is no more need to discriminate with the mind between what seems to be the right thing or the wrong thing to do. In ego-land it's helpful to have an ego that can discriminate between right and wrong, but at a certain point, that's not what you are operating by. You are operating by the flow of the Tao, which is a higher order of intelligence. You don't need to intellectually discriminate anymore because the Tao discriminates without discriminating; it knows without knowing; it moves without moving. There is no sense of being enlightened or unenlightened. Since there is no self, there is nothing to be enlightened or unenlightened."
"We can talk about enlightened beings and non-enlightened beings, and conceptually that has a use. But when there is no self, when there is radical emptiness, the whole enlightenment thing is sort of irrelevant because reality has become conscious of itself, which is enlightenment. That's what is often missed. People believe that enlightenment is an improvement on reality, like becoming a super human being or God-knows-what. But enlightenment is when reality is awake to itself as itself within itself." (31)
Is this 'radical emptiness' - something new - or just basic 'emptiness', as decribed by Nagarjuna and the Buddha? I think it is the latter, with the word 'radical' put in there to make it clear for the new student that emptiness is not some kind of experiential 'nothing' by a 'somebody'. He elsewhere points out clearly that emptiness is not empty, but full, and that it 'is in love with its manifestations'.
He certainly has it right that emptiness requires that 'the fire of truth wipes out all fixated points of view'. The question is, how eager is one to enter that fire, and by what means?
Levels of emptiness?
V.S. Iyer points out in his commentary on the Mandukya Upanishad:
"Advaita...uses the term "unborn," in reference to the Atman, only to refute those who say it is born, i.e., created, produced. So we say it is "uncreated" in reply. For "birthless" is only a word, i.e., a thought...not the truth. It is a thorn to pick out the thorn of causal-grounded ideas." (32)
Thus, the ‘unborn is also used in two ways: one, as the unmanifest polarity to the manifest, and, two, as Ultimate Reality itself, which transcends the polarity of manifest/unmanifest. This is another possible confusion when studying the Buddhist doctrines. The soul has also been spoken of as unborn in the Upanishads, to further complicate the issue.
It has also been argued in different schools that there is a difference between states of emptiness, or awareness as reflected within the psychosomatic organism, and the great emptiness of the absolute, the beyond, which is much deeper. That there is claimed to be a profound distinction between the void nature of the soul and the void nature of the absolute, of which we will speak in depth shortly... The Taoists speak of transmuting human essence, vitality (chi), and spirit into purified yang-spirit (shen) which unites with the great Void or cosmic yang-spirit resulting in immortality. The Tibetan Buddhists, as discussed above, speak of a meeting of the true ‘nature of the mind’, or the 'Child Luminosity', with the 'Mother' or ‘Ground Luminosity’ at the time of death, in which one has a first opportunity for liberation before sojourning through the bardos and eventual rebirth. Among the different schools within the Vajrayana and Dzogchen traditions, they sometimes distinguish between the mind of clarity and the clear light of reality. According to Lama Yeshe:
"With the arising of the clear light, this very subtle mind mixes indistinguishably with emptiness in an experience of inexpressible bliss. For such a person, death has become the precious opportunity for perfecting the wisdom of nonduality." (33)
Our question remains: is that 'the end', or the beginning?
Joel Morewood of the Center for Spiritual Sciences has an interesting take on this phenomena or opportunity:
“By practicing effortless contemplation [in this meditation as he describes it, essentially one begins by calming and centering himself through the breath, and then observe perceptions, thoughts, etc., recognizing them as such, until one knows that they only arise to consciousness; one then keeps coming back to that understanding until it stabilizes; and then] you will develop a Realization that the self is (as the Buddhists say) "empty of any inherent existence." Thus, while objects continue to appear in Consciousness, the delusion that they are being experienced by some `one' will temporarily subside. This state of profound selflessness, or Consciousness-without-a-subject, is often a prelude to Full Awakening[In other words, one is in the Witness position but not full enlightenment). What is missing is the complementary Realization that not only does the `self' lack any inherent existence, but so do objects. Consequently, as long as objects still seem to exist in their own right, there is no Gnosis. However, if you can remain in a state of Consciousness-without-a-subject as you pass through Death's Gate, then, when Consciousness-without-an-object finally dawns in the seventh stage, you will Realize that the now vanished objects were, themselves, only imaginary projections of this objectless Consciousness. Furthermore, you will Realize that your own Consciousness-without-a-subject is, in fact, indistinguishable from (and thus identical to) Consciousness-without-an-object. In other words, you will directly and simultaneously apprehend not only the True Nature of your `self', but also the True Nature of all `objects' and all `worlds'—which is to say, Consciousness-without-an-object-and-without-a-subject. This is Enlightenment, the end of the path.” (33a )
What he is saying is that if one has attained the Witness position during life, but not nondual realization, then at the moment of death he will have an favorable opportunity of integrating his consciousness with the clear light that dawns in the first flash of the Bardo of Reality, which otherwise for most people is ‘over in an instant’. Two things need to be said here. One, this is not the same as the levels of emptiness that will be discussed shortly in quotes from Anthony Damiani, which pertain to the ‘Void of the void’, so to speak, a deeper Emptiness than that of the true Soul or Overself that one may potentially slip into at the time of death, and, two, we prefer not to assert that such a Bardo experience is the ‘end of the path’. It may be the end of dualistic seeking, but according to beings such as the Buddha, there are further degrees 'beyond' that are more or less inconceivable prior to this point. Moreover, one may only temporarily enjoy this enlightenment, for, being perhaps what is known as a ‘once-returner’, one may still need to deepen his attainment in a further incarnation. His nondual realization may not thus be permanent, full, and complete. But we thought this was a novel and interesting way of describing the merging of the Mother and Child Luminosities, an often confusing topic.
Great sages who have awakened to the subjective nature of the mind, such as Ramana Maharshi, Bankei, and Milarepa, didn't spend years in meditation, contemplation, and in some cases the company of other sages deepening, completing, and confirming their enlightenment for nothing. It is not the labor of a few weeks. There are many elements necessary, including, not only a cognitive shift of understanding and transcendental insight, but profound surrender and an energetic transformation in all the dimensions of the being, requiring the help of grace. However, the world is waking up; it may not be as hard as it used to be. New paths of enlightenment are emerging, or are they? Are new paradigms emerging, that can streamline one's quest by fifty-fold, as some seem to suggest, or is there just a streamlining of existing traditions, and an illusion of a new paradigm for something that has always been there, but available for only a relative few? This question is gone into in more depth in Why We Need A New Vision on this website.
Chang Po-tuan wrote one thousand years ago in the most important book of the Complete Reality School of Taoism, "Understanding Reality":
"The essence of true thusness is naturally real being as is - there is no effort involved at all. It is not material, not void. It is what is called unconsciously following the laws of God...If in spite of having understood it you do not know how to cultivate and refine it, your life does not depend on yourself and still depends on fate - when your time is up, you have no support, and cannot escape death and reincarnation...Not giving up the work of gradual cultivation after sudden enlightenment..you dissolve aggregated conditioning...In ancient times, after the sixth patriarch of Ch'an Buddhism had gotten the transmission of the fifth patriarch, he hid among hunters, mingling with ordinary folk, integrating his illumination, thus perfecting true attainment. Tzu-hsien realized complete pervasion suddenly, but he knew in himself it wasn't the ultimate, and he needed the transmission of Hsing-lin to attain the great achievement. People usually think it is just a matter of cultivating the great medicine, or that if one realizes true thusness this itself is enlightenment. Then what did the fifth patriarch transmit to the sixth patriarch, since the latter had already realized "there is originally not a single thing"? And why did Tzu-hsien seek out Hsing-lin after having suddenly realized complete pervasion? So we know that all-at-once understanding and gradual cultivation are both necessary. It may happen that one suddenly understands first and then gradually practices, or one may first gradually cultivate and then suddenly understand. Essence and life must both be cultivated; the work requires two stages."
"The path of cultivating essence is the path of nonstriving, nondoing...The path of cultivating life, this is the path of striving, doing. Practicing the Path is for oneself, practicing virtue is for others. Practice of the path has an end, but practice of virtue has no end. Therefore after spiritual immortals completed the Path, they always fulfilled three thousand meritorious deeds."
One might say that the illusion, in one sense, is that there is Being without Becoming; Emptiness, even a 'Full-Emptiness' (rather than an 'empty' witness, as some ancient versions of advaita assert as the nature of the Atman), in which to luxuriate, without seamless integration of that Emptiness with the world.
Something to think about. What does this really mean? It means, I might suggest, that dissociation, world-denying asceticism, 'other-worldly' ascension, or choosing the 'unmanifest' over the 'manifest' are not true ways of realization, but a historical development that served its purpose - for several millenia - in breaking us away from primitive shamanism and identification with nature, but now promise only to, at best - if one has extreme talent - grant one a blissful 'spiritual vacation' for a still finite period of time, or at worst, as Chandrakirti said, 'land oneself in a self-condemned void!' How to get out of this predicament? By, paradoxically, going into it. Frankly, that means pain. It means having no options left but to 'descend' from dissociative means into the pain of being a conscious human being. This separate and separative self is itself a product, in a way, of the entire evolutionary development that produced the experiment of trying to 'get out of here', or trying to 'control what is here', depending on one's leaning. It means entering the 'hole' to become 'whole.' What 'hole'? The existential hole or dukkha at the core of our separative sense of being. Alas, few as yet really want this, because the distractions and options of avoidance are so compelling that few even feel it. Even great saints and mystics don't always want this, depending on the success they have in reaching their particular kind of ecstatic freedom. This, to borrow a phrase from singer/songwriter Gordon Lightfoot, is for "rainy day people," or those who have been disheartened by the search to 'escape', and are willing or have no choice but to simmer in their own pot until the sun of their true being breaks out. This is what is meant by the term 'incarnational spirituality'. No separation. This, I propose, is one modern interpretation of what 'without the world, there is no Tao' might mean.
This is also why ascetics can not generally realize truth - they leave the world. And whatever you leave comes back to bite you, in particular your delusions.
But we promised earlier to explain more about the different dimensions of this void nature. As discussed, PB and Plotinus and in general the ancient neo-Platonic philosophers mentioned three higher principles beyond that of individual Soul or Atman: Absolute Soul, Intellectual Principle, and the One. When one has a glimpse of the soul, it is of unlimited consciousness. The ego is not there. It is void or empty to the human personality. A sage is one who has achieved union with his divine Soul. His egoism, or tendency to experience himself as separate from the whole is entirely subordinate to the soul. From this position, he can experience the deeper dimensions of the Void-Mind, of which there are the said to be three degrees. This is the great principle of Emptiness. Some of the Zen masters experienced this, some did not. Most mystics stop at the unity of soul. After all, it seems like the Absolute - and is not essentially separate from it. Nevertheless, there is more to be known, although we are now far beyond the dimension of subject-object experience. Anthony Damiani states:
"The whole issue is a little confusing. First of all, because the very nature of the Absolute Soul is Void, the individual soul as absolute is also void. PB points out that when the experience of the union with the soul takes place, one recognize that his soul or his mind is of a void nature. That nature is similar but not identical with the Intellectual principle or the World-Mind. When one is in that position, that union with the soul [which is a realization of nonduality), then he can receive the aura which is emanating from the World-Mind. And he knows - that is his soul knows - that that principle is"
"If we say that the experience of the Intellectual Principle can't exist, then the most that we could know is the existence of our soul a the absolute individual, and we would never know what Plotinus refers to as the three primal Hypostases, or even what PB refers to as the World-Mind. You couldn't know it. But because the very nature of the soul is similar to the Intellectual principle, it can receive the aura which is emanating from the Intellectual principle. And in that emanation the soul receives the fact or the revelation that God is, the existence of God...That individual soul, that sage, can even be directed by the Intellectual Principle...The reception of the Void, that Intellectual Principle coming into your soul, is utter silence. It's so silent it is deafening."
And this may account for differences among sages, such as Ramana Maharshi, or perhaps adepts in the Sant Mat tradition who have merged in Anami Lok and not only Sach Khand: they are directed by the divine, and agent for divine Power.
Damiani explains that among the Buddhists one doesn't find them speaking of the soul, but call it mind. They deny the soul (anatta) doctrinally, but what it really represents they refer to as mind:
"They speak of the direct transmission of No-Mind, and things like that. When Hui-neng, for instance, speaks about "from the first not a thing is,' he's speaking about the principle of his absolute mind, his individual mind [remember that, while infinite, the soul is a 'one-and-many'; it can be both one and many; therefore, the term 'unit soul' or 'unit mind' is used; there is no contradiction of logic here]. That's where he is coming from. He's not coming from the Intellectual principle, the principle of Emptiness. This is the position that all you could know is your own mind and that if you could experience it in its profoundest level it would be void."
"Your individual consciousness, even if distinguished from your ego, cannot directly go into the Intellectual Principle, cannot be receptive of the Intellectual Principle. It must do so through the unity of the soul, though the unity of your own mind."
"PB points out that each and every one of us has an Overself, and then there is the universal principle of Overself. Let's say there is a universal Self, and from it come all these individual Overselves. Each one of these individual Overselves is made of the very stuff of awareness, of which this is the universal principle. In other words, there's the mother Overself, the universal consciousness, the principle of awareness, and then each individual Overself is a unit of awareness, an absolute individual. And each one of these units of awareness he refers to a an Overself. Now if that's so, wouldn't it make sense to you that in order to make contact with the Universal Overself, the principle itself, you would have to do so through the intermediary of your Overself?"
"This would be the same as when Plotinus says that the Absolute Soul is the Soul Essence undivided and integral to the Intellectual Principle, and from it emanate individual souls. He calls then units of life. Now wouldn't it stand to reason that each one of these souls that emanates - or each one of these minds that emanates - has to be of the very essence, of the very nature of that Absolute Soul, that Universal Overself?...And the nature of her Overself, my Overself, your Overself is similar to the nature of that Univeral Overself, pure awareness. Now in order for me to become recptive of that Universal Overself, I first have to become the Overself itself, my individual Overself."
"The individual Overself is similar but not identical in essence with the Univeral Overself. PB makes that point quite often: there is a difference between every individual Overself and the source from which it comes....The important thing is this, that the only way you can receive or perceive the Void is to become that pure awareness that your Overself is, because it's that pure awareness of what your Overself is which is receptive to the Univeral Overself. There can't be any admixture in that awareness because it would interfere with the reception of the Void. So there can't be any kind of individual consciousness that receives the emanation from the Void. It's a cosmic consciousness, your absolute mind, that receives that."
"They don't have texts available on these things. When PB speaks of about what a philosopher sage is, he points out that the philosopher sage is a person who has achieved permanent union with his soul. he doesn't say that the philosopher sage is one who has achieved permanent union with the Intellectual Principle or with the Absolute Soul, but one who has achieved permanent identity with his soul. The soul that he speaks about, this is what he refers to as made in the image of God - in other words, the image of the Intellectual Principle. And that is what the philosopher or the jnani is, he's that soul. He knows his essence comes from the Intellectual Principle. He knows it, not intellectually,he knows it because his soul is a direct emanation from that, and the soul's self-cognition automatically includes the recognition of its principle - where it comes from."
"So it's true that the glimpse into your soul is of the nature of the Void. It's true. But it's also true that the essence of your soul, even though it is void, and the essence of the Intellectual Principle, which is also void, are distinct. Now what is the distinction between these two? When the philosopher sage says to you, "God is," he's not saying that my soul, even though it is cosmic and infinite, is God. He's speaking about the Intellectual Principle, and that's the experience that comes to the philosopher sage..." (34a)
"The ego of which we are conscious [as an object) is not the same as the mind by which we are conscious. He who perseveres until he can understand this, opens the first door of the soul's house."
Not the absolute, but the 'first door of the soul's house'. That is to say, consciousness, the witness to the ego, is not as some would affirm, the ultimate reality. While the immortal Overself or Soul, there are further stages possible:
"Immortality of the kind for which most human beings yearn can be found in one aspect of the Overself, which retains a kind of individuality because of its historical and psychological relation with its offspring. Hence, when it is written that the immortality of the true Self is relatively permanent, the term "relative" was used from the highest possible standpoint and not from the human standpoint. It is sufficient and quite true from the human outlook to accept the statement that the immortality of the Overself is true immortality, if not the ultimate, because the former must be attained first." (34b)
Seven hundred years ago German mystic Meister Eckhart alluded to this when he said to enter the stillness and go beyond thoughts and images, where, "being in not-knowing and ignorance, It shall be opened and revealed; we will then become aware of the Divine Ignorance, and our ignorance will be enobled and adorned with supernatural Knowledge; the enraptured soul will flee out of herself - for she is no more satisfied with what can be named - to her first Source, God Alone, the greatest wonder." Was this also what the sage, Sri Nisargadatta meant when he said that "In the Absolute, every I AM is preserved and glorified" ? Was the 'It' to be 'opened and revealed' through our not-knowing not the absolute as some direct path teachers claim, but the 'secret and hidden' divine path of the soul, which is said to pass through void upon void on its way to the realization known in Sant Mat as Sach Khand and Anami, an effortless, formless contemplation consisting of progressive divine Revelation? This is a serious question and one not easily to be dismissed. Lastly, Eckhart also made it clear that this was not just to be known in a contemplative state, but as the ground of our ordinary experiencing. Such is also consistent with the higher teachings within Sant Mat and other emanationist paths.
To summarize, the Soul as defined by PB and Plotinus is of the nature of infinite consciousness, but still there are - as gnawing at the craw of the advaitist as it may be - many Souls all of the same nature, abiding in the Divine Intellect, or Absolute Soul-in-the-Intellectual-Principal, which is inseparable from the One. All of manifestation is within the Soul, deriving from World-Idea of the World-Mind or Intellectual Principle in the Soul, including all bodies necessary in order to experience the sensible World-Idea and thus come to know its prior principle, the World-Mind! When one has achieved permanent identification with his Soul, he can then penetrate deeper into the Void-Mind and know the divine principles which eternally generate the Soul and which can be said to constitute the true principle of Emptiness. Furthermore, there is then not just "consciousness and its physical manifestation", but a whole hierarchy of emanated intermediate dimensions that are part of the World-Idea as well, and as existing cosmologies attest. They are all within the Soul, too, yet the Soul is not the Absolute, although it is rooted in it, as is the universe. So while all sages (and beings) are of the same 'stuff', there are paradoxically distinctions, and degrees of realization, amongst them. Thus there can be infinite interpenetrating while distinct Bodhisattvas active in the cosmos while abiding beyond the constraints of time and space! And no amount of confusion of relative and absolute levels will reduce this paradox. The path remains a practical one of actualizing realization within relativity. By the way, the Buddha never said there was no soul, he simply said that it was indefinable. The soul is beyond human logic, in that it is both individual and non-individual, infinite and not limited to subject-object distinctions. It has been spoken of as an 'entity', although an entity without dimensions, beyond time and space. The word 'entity' is just an expediency of language, it is not an entity in any way we can conceive. The traditional explanations from Buddhism, however, are just not adequate to deal with this.
Don't worry if this material is too difficult to grasp quickly; this is just an outline to stimulate thinking and intuition and offer another way of looking at the matter than more simplistic teachings offer. Just know that the advaitic and most common Buddhist theories are not the only ones that are available.
Dependent Origination, the five skhandas, and traditional teachers on emptiness
In Buddhism, the twelve links of dependent or interdependent origination (pratityamatpada)describe the workings of cause and effect, or,more precisely, since causation is not admitted in Buddhism, they describe the conditions that permit the chain of bondage to arise. To end the bondage to the cycle of rebirth (but not necessarily to repeal or end the cycle itself - which the Solitary Realizer, but not the Bodhisattva, may want to do) is to see the point at which the links of interdependent origination can be cut. For instance, feeling gives rise to craving, and craving gives rise to clinging; if the mind is stilled, feeling is stilled, craving ceases, and clinging ceases as well. An analysis of causation in which every cause is seen to be the result of another cause, and thus are all 'interdependent, is also a part of this. However, it is not as easy as it might seem. As the Buddha states in the Samyutta Nikaya:
“Even so, though a noble disciple has put away the five lower fetters [including the sakkayaditthi, the belief in something permanent in the five aggregates), yet from among the five groups of grasping the subtle remnant of the conceit of the ‘I’, an attachment to the ‘I’, and the lurking tendency to think ‘I am’ is still not removed from him.”
And in the Digha Nikaya, after his disciple Ananda said that the concept of interdependent origination was easy, the Buddha replied:
“Do not say that, Ananda. The teaching of interdependent origination is indeed deep and subtle...It is because of not understanding and not penetrating this Dhamma that this generation...does not go beyond transmigration.” (35)
Sustained contemplation and grace are necessary to remove this conceit of ‘I’. The links of interdependent origination reveal the ‘emptiness’ and interconnectedness of all things, that is, the lack of a permanently existing entity or self anywhere. The realization of all things being interconnected gives rise to Bodhichitta, or universal love. The way of the Madhyamakas is the path followed by the Dalai Lama. His Holiness gives a very succinct description of these teachings:
“Ignorance is conquered by understanding the interdependence of all phenomena, or, in other words, “interdependent origination.” So what is the meaning of interdependent origination? “Whatever is dependent on something else, that thing is not independent,” adds Aryadeva. We cannot talk about a self in any other sense apart from this. That means that something that comes about in dependence on something else is not an independent entity. Hence, this “self” is not an independent entity...And that which is interdependent is called empty. This is the Madhyamaka, or middle path...Nagarjuna said, “For me, emptiness is equivalent to interdependent origination. Whatever is interdependent, that is empty..As long as there is attachment to the Five Skandhas, there will be clinging to a self.” The individual identifies with the skandhas as being 'I'...Yet, there exists no such substantial self. It is empty of substantial existence. There has never existed a self that the individual can base is or her pride on...The Buddha said that the idea that things arising from causes and conditions are existent is ignorance.” He also said that something that is not dependently arisen does not exist. Therefore a non-empty thing does not exist.”
This is typical speach of the Gelugpa sect, where dependent origination is spoken of in relationship to the phenmenal world. For the Kagyupas and also in Dzogchen, the clear light void mind of reality is independent of this chain of dependent origination. They emphasize the absolute, not the relative. Thus, the Dalai Lama must add:
“Non-existence, however, does not exist either. Unless this is clear, the refutation of existence is just words. The skandhas, the basis of our notion of a personal self, do not exist at all. This does not mean that no individual exists. If there were no individuals at all we could not speak of samsara and nirvana, of happiness and suffering. Thus the absence of a self contradicts our direct experience. We do exist in some way. But the basis on which a self is imputed does not have the slightest true existence.”
“There is, however, what is called “nominal existence” or “merely a name.” There is something that the name refers to, but that thing cannot be found. Merely a name is found. It is quite odd, isn’t it? This is the “emptiness of emptiness” or natural emptiness. Nirvana can also be analyzed in this way. Although nirvana is a very famous thing, it is actually the emptiness of nirvana that is found, not nirvana itself.” (36)
One might also say that this realization reintegrates the ‘five skhandas as 'not-non-self’, but rather inclusive of the self. That is how the higher Vajrayana/Dzogchen schools look at it. But provisionally, as a methodology of discrimination, the negation of the skhandas comes first. That is the Madyamika way. That is also the Upanishadic way of 'neti, neti'. Some awareness teachings say finding the "who" comes before the "what", but deconstructing our ages-old naive realism - viewing the external world objectively - comes first in Buddhism. PB called this the 'mentalistic' discipline, a complete turn-about in perception that can take lifetimes to make real for oneself. This approach also comes naturally to a child: first he is interested in what is outside him, only later does he make a self-referral. Without this grounding in emptiness, seeing things as devoid of inherent self-existence, as changing mental impressions arising in consciousness, simply meditating on the source of the self often isn't enough to truly liberate and free us of the 'innate mind' that gives us our basic sense of self - a sense of self we even share with animals. That is, we can't fully eliminate the sense of subjectivity unless we first eliminate the sense of objectivity. mKas grub dGe (1385-1438), disciple of Tsong kha pa, argues:
"From among these two, [that is, from among the subjective aspect eliminated by means of the path and the objective one refuted by means of reasoning] the chief thing to be refuted is the object, [that is, the incorrect mode of existence,] and not the subject, [the mind grasping at this incorrect mode of existence) for unless one undermines this mode of existence as it is grasped by mistaken conceptualization no other method brings an end to this mistaken conceptualization. Having witnessed the understanding of that [mode of existence), one ascertains that in fact [things] do not exist as they are apprehended by the mistaken conception; and by the force of constantly meditating on this, one is able to destroy from the root the very seeds of mistaken conceptions." (37)
Both of these tasks can be achieved through emptiness teachings, but combining emptiness teachings with awareness teachings is another and logical way to go. To add another perspective to the analysis and rejection of the skandhas and their re-assimilation as part of reality, PB writes:
"In contacting the Overself, he does not really sense a bigger "I." He senses SOMETHING which is. This is first achieved by forgetting the ego, the personality, the "I". But at a later stage, there is nothing to forget for then he finds that the ego, the personality, and the "I" are of the same stuff as this SOMETHING." (38)
Thus, the 'empty' skandhas (bodies, sheaths, etc.), once having gone through the discipline, are known as also part of Reality and the need for radical negation has served its traditional purpose.
Remember, the Dalai Lama did say that we “exist ‘in some way”. The Buddha, in the Diamond Sutra, also pointed out that exactly because of the teaching of the Void (‘No-thing exists’) that every-thing exists in some manner. And His Holiness once said, “He who denies his own existence is a fool.” Suzuki Roshi echoed him when he said:
"How can you practice zazen? Only when you accept yourself and when you really know you exist here. You cannot escape yourself. This is the ultimate fact, that "I am here." (39)
PB echoes him when he writes:
"If he himself is a mere nothing who does not exist, who then is it who takes all the trouble to prove it?" (40)
This must be understood in the right way. It is not ‘understanding’ or knowing per se, but beyond both knowing and not-knowing dualistically considered. Just like with all conceivable polarities. It is 'beyond' duality and nonduality, being and becoming, emptiness and manifestation. It Is what it is. This 'we exist in some way' is why one who has realized the 'full-blown' nature of emptiness wants to help others. Why would he do so, if there are no others, no 'self' even? One could say because that is simply the nature of the non-dual reality itself, or you could say because 'he' or 'she' still feels that there are others who don't know that there are no others! You could also say because such a man or woman's heart bleeds for humanity and all creation. This is why many emptiness teachers for centuries have said that even though understanding and practicing the emptiness or the lack of inherent existence of a person is the basis of the path, it is also necessary to practice awakening the boddhicitta or altruistic mind [not as a means to relieve one's existential despair or emptiness, which must be felt and known well as the essential human condition and as a right of passage to one's true nature, but because, as it is an aspect of one's true nature and therefore where 'one is headed' anyway, one may as well practice it ahead of time even though one may inevitably fail! You can't fail, and you can't do it wrong], which they (the Mahayanists) call 'the superior method', leading to full buddhahood, or one who has achieved the 'four stages': stream-enterer (awakening to emptiness or no-self of phenomena and personhood), once-returner, non-returner, and Arhat). mKhas grub dGe said:
"The elimination of the obscurations to omniscience cannot be accomplished by wisdom alone. It requires that the wisdom that perfectly meditates on the selflessness of phenomena be conjoined in a complementary way to the inconceivable special features of method that belong to the Mahayana." (41)
In other words, without one needing to accept hyperbole, he means the combining of understanding emptiness ('ultimate emptiness', 'emptiness of essence', and 'emptiness of emptiness' !) as well as the law of karma as explained in the doctrine of dependent origination, and the cultivation of boddhicitta. [Note: if one's heart sinks at the immensity of such a task, through all of these readings, I suggest that he may actually be close to making real progress on the Way. It takes real ripeness to reach such a stage. We must while examining these heroic historical expositions hold them lightly in our hearts and minds; we stand on the shoulders of giants, but may not have to go through what they went through in a distant place and time).
The Bodhicittavivarana of Nagarjuna states:
"Having realized that all phenomena are empty We still rely on the doctrine of karma and effects. Among all amazing things, this is the most amazing. Among all astonishing things, this is the most astonishing." (42)
He also emphasizes that philosophical reasoning, understanding impermanence, even "understanding the refutation of the fact that subject and object are different substances [the doctrine of non-duality)", (43) is not the same as meditating on the selflessness or lack of inherent existence of all phenomena, and will not be enough to make a significant dent on the 'innate mind' of self that we have had for countless ages. At best we will temporarily quiet the obscurations to clear-seeing:
"At the time of realizing selflessness, the notion of a permanent self is eliminated; But in this regard we do not in the least regard the apprehension of the self to be permanent as the apprehension of an ego; Hence, it is quite surprising that you should claim that understanding such a naive kind of selflessness Can subsequently destroy the view of a self." (44)
mKhas grub dGe wrote sarcastically of the 'quietist' practitioners of his time and their illusions of attainment and lack of insight, especially those who didn't have the necessary foundation method and understanding of 'emptiness':
"All of these great dialecticians who argue on a variety [of topics], such as the emptiness of self and the emptiness of other, and on whether reality truly exists, do not differ in the least when it comes to practicing the meaning of the profound (emptiness). Whether they believe that they are practicing the idiot's meditation of not training in anything whatsoever, the practice of the great Master of the Tripitaka, or that they are practicing the profound completion stage of the anuttarayoga tantra, they all concur on this one point: they posit that no (mental) object should be established, that the mind should apprehend nothing. This will be seen to be a great den of iniquity when looked upon by those of sharp faculties...They hold [to the doctrine) that to create nothing within the mind is to meditate on reality, and thus err in so far as they end up not being able to meditate on selflessness. They repudiate the practice of the path that is the counteractive measure against the way in which [we] grasp at a self, the root of cyclic existence. They exert themselves in a kind of practice that does not the slightest harm to the way we grasp at self. Hence, one should be aware of the fact that although many of our own Tibetan practitioners pride themselves on having meditated assiduously on reality for the whole of their lives, that they have not managed to put even the slightest dent in their grasping at a self... Because they believe that when it comes down to meditating on reality one ought not to create anything in the mind, they must of necessity believe that when they set forth reality they ought not to set it forth even in terms of selflessness. In the same way, they must accept that one ought not to put forth even a theory of reality...This is an infinite source of faults..."
"The great meditators of today, who are inexperienced at guarding against mental excitement or lethargy, even if they attain single-pointed concentration on the nature of the mind, by meditating on silence and blankness as their object, they are in actuality accumulating a subtle form of mental lethargy. By accustoming themselves to this for long periods of time, the dispersion of air (rlung) within their bodies gives them a certain type of lightness and ease in action. It seems as though they are abiding like space in the midst of space, or as if, having pushed their minds into a state of nakedness, they are emerging from the skin of a snake. It appears to them as though they are making their home on the pinnacle of Mt. Meru and that they are no longer solid as before, but are now like a rainbow. This leads to extreme elation and to thinking that one has traversed a variety of stages and paths, causing these masters to claim that the teachings of the Mahamudra, which perceives the nature of the mind are the most important and profound instructions of the Buddha, that they are the teachings which will allow one to attain the state of buddhahood in this very life."
"In response to this the great lord Tsong kha pa and most of his followers have stated that the single pointed equipoise on the nature of the mind is only a slight mental avoidance of the self of the person or the self of phenomena and is only a slight break in the proliferation of conceptualization in regard to other things. Hence, they say it does not eliminate on the least either the delusion or the self-grasping that has arisen innately from beginningless time in samsara, since it does not in the least negate the object that appears in grasping at true existence...So please distinguish carefully between not meditating on a self and meditating on selflessness!" (45)
Sound slightly familiar? Lest the practitioner get into arguments over whether Hinayana or Mahayana (or Vajrayana) is better or the sole way to enlightenment, or the worst error - the reification of emptiness - mKhas grub dGe adds many examples from existent scripture to redirect the vagaries of attention and understanding, such as to the fact that the emptiness of inherent existence is to be affirmed to be the ultimate liberating force, and that as such even reality is 'truthless' - meaning empty. Example of this was given in the Lankavatara Sutra where, perhaps most important for the trenchant criticism of the sravakas and pratyekabudha's desire for liberation for themselves, thus effectively taking them 'out of circulation', instead of being bodhisattva's dedicated to lives of service, understanding that true liberation is liberation of the whole and not only the part, it also mentions that certain teachings of the Buddha were meant as 'provisional' ones to prevent great fear from arising in those not ready to face the full brunt of emptiness, such as by speaking of a tathagatagarbha, or buddhahature, that everyone 'has': a pure, clear light, as a 'nonconceptual object', where in reality no such 'thing' exists inherently. This point was also made by PB who wrote:
"The Long Path is taught to beginners and others in the earlier and middle stages of the quest. This is because they are ready for the idea of self-improvement and not for the higher one of the unreality of the self. So the latter is taught on the Short Path, where attention is turned away from the little self and from the idea of perfecting it, to the essence, the real being." (46)
Yet, even in this quote the teaching of the self as unreal is provisional (!), for where in the continuum of our personal self, our inner subtle psyche or soul nature, and our 'real' Conscious-Being can we separate out one part and say 'this is ourself'? It is all ourself. We do exist. The self as unreal is only from the empirical point of view. PB repeatedly points out that there is some form of 'higher' or 'true' self, even though it is 'shrouded in mystery' and not easily defined in words:
"It is hard to tell in words about the wordless, hard to formulate in intellect-born phrases what is beyond the intellect. To say that the higher self is or is not individualized is to distort meaning and arouse misconception."
"It is a kind of impersonal being but it is not utterly devoid of all individuality."
"He enters into a state which is certainly not a disappearance of the ego, but rather a kind of divine fellowship of the ego with its source."
"There is still a centre of consciousness in him, still a voice which can utter the words or hold the thought "I am I." The ego is lost in an ocean of being, but the ego's link with God, the Overself, still remains."
"He loses his ego in the calm serenity of the Overself, yet at the same time it is, mysteriously, still with him."
"The dictionary defines individuality as separate and distinct existence. Both the ego and the Overself have such an existence. But whereas the ego has this and nothing more, the Overself has this consciousness within the universal existence. That is why we have called it the higher individuality."
"The Overself (Soul) is an emanation from the ultimate reality but is neither a division nor a detached fragment of it. It is a ray shining forth but not the sun itself."
"In contacting the Overself, he does not really sense a bigger "I." He senses SOMETHING which is. This is first achieved by forgetting the ego, the personality, the "I." But at a later stage , there is nothing to forget for then he finds that the ego, the personality, and the "I" are of the same stuff as this SOMETHING." (47)
He seems to be saying that it is paradoxically distinct but not separate, in contrast to the dictionary definition of individuality as being 'distinct and separate'. Even the Buddha, while teaching anatta or 'no-self' - meaning no inherently existing empirical self - in order to refute the eternalists, did not explicitly denounce the existence of such a soul:
"Even in this present life, my brethren, I say that the soul is indefinable. Though I say and teach thus, there are those who accuse me falsely of being a nihilist, of teaching non-existence and annihilation of the soul. That is what I am not, and do not teach." (48)
PB even goes so far as to say that while the ego is displaced from its place of sovereignty in the realization of the Overself, it is not altogether lost; after all, it is the Overself's projection:
"He enters into a state which is certainly not a disappearance of the ego, but rather a kind of divine fellowship of the ego with the source."
"The ego is lost in an ocean of being, but the ego's link with God, the Overself, still remains...He loses his ego in the calm serenity of the Overself, yet at the same time it is, mysteriously, still with him." (49)
[In the preceding quotes PB is using a broader sense of the term ego than just an empirical, evolutionary self-referrant, useful for practical discrimination and analysis; he means it more in the sense of higher personality, or such as theosophy uses the word Ego. In any case, so long as a man is in physical form the ego will be there; it is essentially a neutral mechanism: a necessary part of his unique human form of evolution, and active tool for the quest, but also an enemy when seen only in itself, as egoistic and not 'spacious' ego).
So what is empty, and what is not, becomes somewhat hard to define.
Moreover, the teaching that there are no inherently self- existing external objects, which PB held as well, is a traditional provisional one, to revert the mind back from excessive outward attachment, with the intention that eventually one would see that the mind that perceived those objects was empty of self-existence, and so 'attachment' was also a provisional teaching, being only an accompanying polarity of non-attachment. The essential instruction, however, was that tathagatagarbha, emptiness, 'foundation consciousness', all were 'empty' - non-conceptual - and yet denoted and affirmed ultimate Reality. Nagarjuna thus provisionally states, while fully intending to point towards the truth in the end:
"Since the compounded does not exist, how can the uncompounded exist?"
"When there is nothing that is not empty How could emptiness be said to exist? In the absence of something How can its opposite exist?"
"The Conquerors have taught emptiness To be the eradication of all views, For they have taught that those who perceive emptiness Have nothing to prove."
"The Great Victor opposed Both the view of self and selflessness."
PB call to our attention the need to hold the 'two truths', or what he calls 'the double standpoint', in mind simultaneously if all is to be right with us. In other words, as physicist Niels Bohr once stated, "Human beings are both actors and spectators in the world drama":
"from the first [the relative) standpoint we see the necessity and must obey the urge of undertaking this quest in all its practical details and successive stages. From the second one, however, we see that all existence, inclusive of our own and whether we are aware of it or not, dwells in a timeless, motionless Now, a changeless, actionless Here, a thingless, egoless Void. The first bids us work and work hard at self-development in meditation, metaphysics, and altruistic activity, but the second informs us that nothing we do or abstain from doing can raise us to a region where we already are and forever shall be in any case. And because we are what we are, because we are Sphinxes with angelic heads and animal bodies, we are forced to hold both these standpoints side by side."
"Only by accepting the double standpoint concurrently, rejecting neither the Real nor the Illusory, can we achieve Truth's wholeness." (50)
And further, in line with the Taoist quote above on performing 'one thousand meritorious deeds', befitting an enlightened person, which the Bhagavad-Gita seconds in advocating 'karma yoga' both before and after realization or obtaining jnana, PB writes:
"He cannot dwell in that magical state without transforming his experience in the world so that in some way or other it serves God's purpose, thus turning even outer defeat to inner victory." (51)
To speak of 'no-self' is as valid as speaking of 'self', as the two terms are mutually conditioning. More useful may to speak of 'no-separate-self', but as the Dalai Lama has said, "we do exist in some way, it is just unlike anything we can conceive of," therefore perhaps better to simply find out what the self is rather than just assume it is not there. Similarly, both self and selflessness are opposites and relative to each other. A truer way to speak might be to say 'no-no-self', but, since even 'no-no-self' is still somewhat conditioned by the complementary nature of the previously negated opposites, we must posit a final 'no [no no-self)' as the affirmation of a true transcendental reality. That is how Chuang Tzu handled it, although after much effort he lamented that he had doubt if his process of dialectic was of much value (as discussed further in "Maya Is 'Maya' " on this website). But it might be useful, so we try anyway. When truly meditated on, it might take ones head off.
We then do the same with 'emptiness'. If we first posit 'form', and then negate that as not being the reality, we posit 'emptiness'. But then, since 'emptiness - considered as 'no-thing' - is only emptiness relative to form - or 'some-thing' - we must negate that and posit 'no-emptiness'. Finally, since even 'no-emptiness' bears the conditioning of the previous two negations, we must make a final negation, affirming the reality, as 'no [no-emptiness]'!
The Jewish saint of India, Sarmad, expressed this by way of four 'renunciations'. He said that first he renounced the world; then he renounced the other world; then he renounced God; and finally he renounced renunciation. This brings him to nondualism. However, as this is a dependent form of ultimate renunciation, to be consistent with the prior formulations we might add renounce [renounce-renunciation]. This is truly non-conceptual and perhaps the farthest we can go with words as a pointer.
Finally, we can also do the same thing with the notion of subject-object. First we start with naive realism that posits an object 'out there'. But since that is never seen without a subject or perceiver to perceive it we then posit a subject by and in which the object is seen. We don't remain stuck in subjective idealism like Bishop Berkeley, however, and realize that since even this 'subject' is an subtle object or arising to consciousness or awareness, we must posit no subject-object. Some say this is non-duality and the transcendence of distinctions. Lest one think this is the final negation, however, since this no subject-object is still conditioned by the prior negation of subject-object, we must then posit no [no subject-object]. In other words, the consciousness we felt to be the very ground of reality is also seen to be a concept and 'empty', and it gradually ceases to hold our interest and falls away. This final negation gives us 'rivers are rivers, and mountains are mountains again', as the Zen saying goes. Not in logic, but in Reality. Fear of 'contamination' is gone. The Sun is shining through all.
Remember, without bodhicitta or compassion, these are mere words on a page. Realization of the nature of the mind and the self must include selfless love or there is no real realization.
While we are on this topic, we must make mention that following our logic we must say that the five skhandas are 'empty', the chakras are 'empty', the 'Logos is 'empty', and even Ramana Maharshi's famous 'Amrita Nadi' are 'empty'. In regards to the latter, Ramana proposed a terminal bend of the sushumna nadi from the sahasrar chakra back down into the heart felt relative to the body to be on the right side. However, once realized, that 'center' of the heart becomes 'no-center', and any Amrita Nadi or Atma Nadi vanishes into or becomes indistinguishable from the all-pervading conscious radiance of Being. There is, thus, no need for repetitive experiences of this type to prove or achieve anything. Nor is it absolutely necessary to have this experience even once. It is only a yogic possibility.
Yet, since, as we have seen, the true position is not 'emptiness', but 'no [no-emptiness], all of these structures do continue to exist in some way, for a time at least. Thus, a realizer can still be a yogi if he wants to or has the talent for it. There is no problem with that, no more than there is a problem with a tree, or a person.
A garland of verses on emptiness
"The Buddha is the essence of true emptiness which comes from nowhere and goes nowhere. True emptiness is not empty; so its body is most subtle. The essence of true emptiness basically has no body, but because it includes subtle existence, that subtlety is its body. Emptiness without this subtlety is nihilistic, indifferent emptiness; it is not the real emptiness of Buddha. How can it be omnipresent, how can myriad phenomena present no obstacle? because of its subtle nonvoidness, the body is omnipresent, all-pervasive; because it is empty yet real, myriad phenomena cannot obstruct it. Because it is omnipresent and unobstructed, it is also called the completely pervasive reality eye...IF YOU UNDERSTAND THE TRUE REALITY EYE WHICH IS COMPLETELY PERVASIVE, THEN YOU WILL KNOW THE TRIPLE WORLD [the desire, form, and formless realms) IS YOUR HOME."
"BUDDHA IS MIND, MIND IS BUDDHA: "MIND" AND "BUDDHA" ARE BASICALLY ILLUSIONS. IF YOU KNOW THERE IS NO BUDDHA AND NO MIND, THIS AT LAST IS THE REAL BUDDHA OF TRUE SUCHNESS. THE BODYLESS BODY IS THE REAL BODY; THE FORMLESS FORM IS THE TRUE FORM. NOT MATERIAL, NOT VOID, NOT NONVOID, NOT MOVING, NOT STILL, IT DOES NOT COME OR GO. NO DIFFERENCES, NO SAMENESS, NO BEING OR NONBEING, IT CANNOT BE GRASPED OR ABANDONED, CANNOT BE LISTENED TO OR LOOKED AT. INSIDE AND OUTSIDE ROUND AND BRIGHT, IT PERVADES EVERYWHERE."
"WHAT A LAUGH MY MIND IS - LIKE A DUNCE, LIKE A BUMPKIN, NOW UNMOVING, NOW EBULLIENT, CALMLY LETTING THINGS BE AS THEY MAY. I DO NOT KNOW HOW TO CULTIVATE SPIRITUAL PRACTICE, YET DO NOT DO ANYTHING WRONG."
"Even sages have the human mind, and even ordinary people have the mind of Tao. Sages have the human mind in that they cannot annihilate perception; ordinary people have the mind of Tao in that they have moments of lucidity." - Chang Po-tuan
"Do not rely on those who think they are Tathagatas or sravakas, Who accept themselves to be pratyekabuddhas or to be the King of the Doctrine. There is nothing to be obtained!" - Nagarjuna
"Subhuti spoke: Oh sons of the gods, if we say that even nirvana is like an illusion, then what need is there to mention other phenomena?"
"Subhuti, what do you think, does he who is a stream enterer think to himself, 'I have obtained the fruit of stream enterer'?" Subhuti spoke: "No Lord, he does not. And why is that? Lord, it is because he has entered nothing. It is because of that that he is called a stream enterer." - Buddha
"The boddhisattva understands that even consciousness is truthless." (52)
Yet this emptiness is the reason everything can exist. It is also said to be synonymous with nirvana or reality:
"Even though nirvana is profound, It is expressed by words. Nirvana is not to be found And neither is the word nirvana findable. Neither the word nor nirvana can be found. In this way it is empty phenomena that reveal nirvana."
"If what arises due to the condition of ignorance Is analyzed with proper knowledge One will perceive nothing, Whether arising or ceasing, The phenomena perceived then Is the actualization of nirvana."
"If everything was not empty Nothing could arise or cease. And it would follow for you There would be no four noble truths. Where emptiness is possible There everything is possible." - Nagarjuna (53)
This latter must not be misunderstood: emptiness is not the source or cause of phenomena or fullness; rather, the two are inseparable, and reality - what might be called 'true or ultimate emptiness' - is beyond both, as an earlier quote from PB implied.
Some points from Dzogchen
This is made the most clear in Dzogchen where all lesser practices than that of direct seeing of the nature of the mind - where possible according to the capacity of the student - are rejected as being bound to cause and effect. This includes the sutra teachings of the Hinayana and Mahayana, the way of the bodhisattvas, the lower and higher tantras (i.e., kriya/kundalini yoga, mahayoga, anuyoga) - all except "the treasure chest" of Ati Yoga or Dzogchen: rigpa, or pure and total consciousness beyond judging and analyzing. This seeing, they say, is our true nature, both the goal and the way. Just remember that it is a living process, and not only an intellectual or mind-based one - although that is all too often the traditional communication. The seminal Dzogchen text (centuries old) , Kunyed Gyalpo, states:
"Understand well! The teaching of the supreme source, teacher of teachers, whereby there is no need to train oneself in order to progress through the various levels, is not appropriate to all and is difficult to grasp...As all the phenomena of existence are one single thing in the ultimate dimension of the unborn, there is no distinction between the various levels of realization. Understand that there is only one level...For fortunate practitioners of the supreme yoga who have appropriate karma, there is no view, no commitment, no spiritual action, no level, no path, no generation of altruistic commitment, no meditation on cause and effect, no sadhana, no antidotes. They see that neither the absolute nor the relative exists and in this way they understand the fundamental condition of the mind." (54)
This is a pinnacle teaching and practice; it is not for everybody. Take heed of the notation that it depends on favorable karma. In the West we readily sympathize with a line from Carrie Fischer's book, Postcards from the Edge, "Instant gratification takes too long"! Everyone wants the 'best' or 'highest' practice, but the best or highest practice is the one which one is actually capable of practicing in any moment. As Anthony Damiani once said, "you can't kid the Soul." Therefore, we will present (without implicitly or explicitly recommending it) a simplified, gradual approach to a practice founded in emptiness later that makes more sense to many students. For now, however, we are still at the stage of defining and understanding. Namkhai Norbu summarizes the nature of the primordial state from the Dzogchen perspective:
"Self-arising wisdom, the essence of all the Buddhas, exists prior to the division of samsara and nirvana and is beyond the limits of transmigration and liberation. As it transcends the four conceptual limits [the dualism of "birth and cessation," of "eternity and nothingness," of "being and non-being," and of "vision and emptiness"] and is intrinsically pure, this original condition is the uncreated nature of existence that has always existed, the ultimate nature of all phenomena. It cannot be identified with a stable and eternal substance allowing the assertion "It is thus!" and is utterly free of all the defects of dualistic thought, which is only capable of referring to an object other than itself...As its essence is the purity of original emptiness, it transcends the limits of being an eternal substance: it has nothing concrete and no specific characteristics to display. As its nature is self-perfection, it transcends the limits of nothingness and non-being: the clarity of light is the pure nature of emptiness. Thus, this natural condition of primordial enlightenment, which is the immutable state of dharmakaya, does not entail subdivision into samsara and nirvana. Self-arising wisdom, primordially empty, is in a condition similar to space, and it pervades all beings without distinction, from glorious Samantabhadra down to the tiniest insect on a blade of grass. For this reason the total state of dharmakaya, the inseparability of the two truths, absolute and relative, is called "the primordial Buddha." (55)
Remember, this is our natural state, not far away - and perhaps more impossible to believe than to actually see. Yet it is apparently difficult to see, which is why the Dzogchen masters try so hard to point it out. Dzogchen is transmission-based, it must be repeatedly emphasized, and a teacher is necessary.
mKhas grub dGe is straightforward where the two truths, absolute and relative, and the twin teachings of dependent (or interdependent) origination and emptiness are leading us:
"The ultimate goal toward which every Mahayanist strives is the unity of the dharmakaya and the physical body. To obtain them, one must rely on the inseparability of methods that accumulate the two masses of merit and gnosis into a combined whole...Unless one has truly found certainty in regards to the workings of dependent arising whereby causes give rise in an orderly way to their individual effects, the accumulation of one's mass of merit will not be accomplished faithfully and from the heart..If one has not found certainty as to the fact that no phenomenon whatsoever has even the smallest atom of inherent existence even nominally, one will not be able to accumulate the true mass of gnosis [and] there is no way one will be able to assimilate the two masses into a combined whole. Such also is the fate as regards the accumulation of the two masses in that they will not be able to be accomplished by those who proclaim that "in our own system we accept no causality whatsoever, it being a temporary expedient for the sake of others." So finding this certainty, which is the deep belief in the ways of causality, is what the sutras call the mundane correct view; and the unmistaken ascertainment of emptiness is called the supramundane view." (56)
Can we simplify this ancient exposition a bit? Yes, I certainly hope so (!), but by outlining it from various angles more doubts can potentially be created. However, it might be said: every thing (object) has no inherent existence of its own, it arises interdependently, and in mind; the perceiver (subject) of things also arises in mind; the mind (or consciousness) itself is empty of inherent existence; and what is left is Reality! Assuming you have honored the relative reality in the process (the meaning behind the traditional notion of 'accumulating a 'mass of merit', which includes the inclination of other beings and intelligences to help you). The only conflict that may arise is between awareness teachings that maintain that consciousness is inherently self-existent and irreduceable, and emptiness teachings that say that consciousness itself is a subtle self-essence that itself is 'empty'.
An example of emptiness is given in a poem from 'Lu Yen's Stanzas' that illustrates how many Taoist masters absorbed Ch'an Buddhism. Considering its ancient shamanistic roots and later cultural exchange with Buddhism, it is not surprising that Taoism has taken many forms, which can be basically be reduced to three: alchemy (both false and true, including tantra), yoga meditation ('cultivating the 'golden elixer' between the eyes and raising the transmuted 'essence, vitality, and spirit' up the 'central channel'), and purely philosophical. Lao Tzu appears to have been an example of the latter, and Chuang Tzu a combination of both of the last two. Lu Yen, while the great forerunner of the 'Complete Reality School' of Taoism, which combined Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism, here gives evidence of preferring the latter purely spiritual mind-only approach to that of the inner yogic cultivation of the 'essence':
"To those who know the secret, 'There's not a single thing'.
[A reference to the Diamond Sutra stressing the essential voidness of phenomena)
"They learn to give things up And simply practise stillness.
All day long they battle with six robbers called the senses Until they recognise that shapes And forms are totally void, Then awaken to the truth That 'there's not a single thing', That the 'magic mirror stand' Exists only in the mind.
[A reference to Hui-neng: 'there is no mirror to be polished', that subject and object, pure and impure - exist only in the mind)
"When sense reaction's cut, Self-transformation follows. Then stillness dawns, and form Is recognised as void." (57)
[A reference to the Heart Sutra, i.e., the realization of non-duality)
Lu Yen taught that emptiness was an obstacle in Buddhism in that it could lead to quietism and nihilism, that true emptiness is not 'empty', nor does it truly void anything, and, further, that 'forgetting emptiness to return to reality - that is refining emptiness.' (58)
He made it clear, however, what a mystery this thing called 'The Way' really is:
"If you consider it substantial, still all substance is empty. If you consider it empty, still all emptiness is substantial...The substantiality within emptiness cannot be called substantial, the emptiness within substantiality cannot be called empty. Substantiality is not to be considered substantial, emptiness is not to be considered empty; yet though they are not to be considered empty or substantial, ultimately they are not nonexistent. Now empty, now substantial, it is difficult to express in words. Now empty, now substantial - it is subtle indeed."
"Though you cannot consider it empty, it really is empty; though you cannot consider it substantial, it really is substantial. It cannot be called alternating emptiness and substantiality, yet it is really none other than alternating emptiness and substantiality. Ultimate indeed is the mystery of the Way! It has no name or form. So profound are its depths that it is difficult to fathom." (59)
He also gives some practical advise:
"The Tao is always to be practiced in the midst of daily life. Stop talking about lofty wonders and the empty void. Just carry out the human Tao, and there will be no shame in your heart. When you fulfill your nature, you'll know heaven and earth are the same...All things are empty, but essence is not void...Before you know true emptiness, do not speak of emptiness. If you cling to emptiness, you will lose the inner self...The Tao is entered by way of sincerity, When you reach complete sincerity, the Tao is not far off. Therefore a classic says,"Before practicing the way of immortality, first practice the way of humanity." (60)
Interestingly, while not exactly speaking of the same thing as ‘emptiness’ or the void (whether meant experientially or as the ultimate Plenum), even science is telling us that what we consider to be ‘nothing’ is nothing of the sort:
“No matter how remote, every inch of our universe carries a mysterious "dark" energy that is pressing out in all directions. We're not sure how it works, but across this same patch you will also find threads of gravitational force stretching to every part of the universe, while deep down, in impossibly small subatomic nooks and crannies, there's a riot of coming and going, a quantum flux, with little clouds of matter popping in, then out of existence, like summer storms. A patch of "empty" space may look empty, but in fact, its nothingness contains all kinds of invisible somethings. "Empty" is always hiding secrets.”
“The universe doesn't tell what it's hiding, though it's hiding a lot. All those planets, stars, moons and great clouds of dust we can see are a small percentage of what's actually there. Most of the universe is made of "dark" matter that neither emits nor absorbs light. So most of what's going on in the universe looks like, well...nothing.”
“We are surrounded by Nothing. Everywhere we go, we have no idea what we're not seeing. We don't know what gravitational fields look like, what dark matter looks like, what quantum foam looks like... but what the scientists and the artists are telling us, in their very different ways, is that if we lean in, and pay very close attention, sometimes what looks like Nothing is the best place to find the most interesting...somethings.” (61)
Can one see how they say we are but picking up pebbles on the seashore of knowledge?
Another way of looking at the whole issue of emptiness and illusion, one and many, as well as dependent origination, from the point of view of science (including 'spiritual' science) is through a term used by Ken Wilber but which was originally coined by Authur Koestler 1967. A holon, neuter form of holos "whole") is something that is simultaneously a whole and a part. A classic example of a sequence of holons in a 'holarchy' would be subatomic particles, atoms, molecules, cells, tissues, organs, organ systems, bodies, micro-ecologies, meso-ecologies, or planetary biosphere. One could also delineate various types of spiritual holarchies, such as for the archangelic kingdoms related to nature, and so on. In this way of thinking, the aspect of a holon's nature that is individual reflects its own capacity to be semi-independent within the system, but at the same time this individuality participates in a larger pattern of interrelationships, some of which give profound shape and context to the very nature and existence of individual holons that make up the larger holons. In a very profound sense, all holons cannot exist without at least aspects of the holarchy of which they are a part, so that in that sense they are not fully independent, and so true individuality has a type of meaning, but not the simplistic sense of separateness or independence, which even in relativity, is an illusion, given that time and space are themselves categories of the mind. Holon theories blend individuality, hierarchies, ecologies, systems, and larger wholes, into an understanding of complex intedependent individuality. If one reads Reimagination of the World one will be introduced by David Spangler to a radically expanded view of the 'higher worlds' than the standard, more static traditional hierarchical versions, such as in the seven-stage model of the Puranas, also found in most schools of yoga as well as Sam'khya/Vedanta philosophy. In Spangler's investigations of these realms he has found beings and presences whose identities span different dimensions at once, and that also transcend our understanding of the notion of individuality versus a group or whole. Also the notion of 'presences' that themselves make up 'dimensions', and that what takes place in so-called 'lower' realms affects the 'higher', and that a quantum or post-quantum view that is senior to but does not exclude that of a hierarchy is needed to navigate these worlds and understand something of the beings that reside therein. So as part of our totality that includes the human, personal self, our deeper psyche or soul nature, and our essence as Conscious-Being, all of which we are called and impelled by Nature to incarnate here (lest we forget in the midst of this theoretical discussion), the 'intermediate' realm alone is quite complex and equally mysterious to the great mystery of Being itself. While perhaps not of immediate concern for our direct awakening or Self-realization, it is part of our eventual complete and integral destiny. And while traditional teachings of spirituality usually opt for exclusive identification with either the subtle soul nature or the Conscious nature alone, how can we draw a line of separation between these three aspects of one whole? We are all of that, and in a holarchy of other such holons! This is a fascinating subject for another essay, It's All Too Much For Me To Take, on this website.
"When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth" !
A Modern Approach to Understanding Emptiness from PB: the Doctrine of Mentalism
PB simplifies this idea of emptiness for us also. He equates emptiness with mentalism, which holds that all perceived objects are arising in mind, whether personal mind or Universal Mind (~Brahman), and are therefore constantly changing with no inherent self-existence; however, they are real insofar as they do arise in and as Mind itself. They are not illusion per se. To become converted to this radical turnabout in one's perception of the world - from materialism to mentalism - is something that takes a long time to make one's own, due to the habits of ages and ages of seeing in another way:
"A further result of this contemplation of the world as the great Void is that the work done by mentalistic study is advanced still further, for not only are the things experienced by the five senses seen to be only thoughts but the thoughts themselves are now seen to be the transient spume and spray flung out of seeming Emptiness. Thus there is a complete reorientation from thoughts to Thought. Instead of holding a single thought or scenes of ideas in perfect concentration, the practiser must now move away from all ideas altogether to that seeming emptiness in which they arise. And the latter, of course, is the pure, passive, undifferentiated mind-stuff out of which the separate ideas are produced. Here there is no knowing and discriminating between one idea and another, no stirring into consciousness of this and that, but rather a sublime vacancy. For the Mind-essence is not something which we can picture to ourselves; it is utterly formless. It is as empty and as ungraspable as space." (62)
This could be interpreted in two ways. One, is that of the realization of what can be called the 'Fullness-Emptiness', or pure Consciousness (as contrasted with an experience of 'the empty Witness', or traditional Atman as interpreted in some forms of advaita), characterized as deathless and birthless, realization of what you have always been, radiant, timeless, the real, etc., and, second, a further, uncontradictable true Emptiness, which is the integration of that blissful pure Consciousness-Being with the World-Mind's manifestation. This is full nondualism, which, within relativity, can still be immeasurably deepened, even while the realizer in his essence and more and more in his humanness stands imperturbably serene in the midst of any such changes. This 'Emptiness' is 'full' of the two essential 'perfection's of the Buddha: wisdom and compassion (karuna).
To make mentalism or emptiness - which can be taken as synonyms inasmuch as they take away the fixed material view of the world - to make this one's own takes a long time. Anthony Damiani explained it like this: for eons as primitives we have look at getting our dinner 'out there'; now we have to deconstruct that naive view! Thus is nothing but a revolution in our consciousness.
"To appreciate the teaching that the world is an appearance is immeasurably easier than to establish its actuality in consciousness."
"The road from mentalism as conception to mentalism as a conviction is a long one."
"No man becomes a confirmed mentalist save after many doubts and some lapses, after strenuous reflections extending over years, and mystical intuitions manifesting in spite of himself. The strangeness and mystery of this doctrine are too baffling to be overcome either easily of quickly."
"Through the disappearance of the world during mystical meditation he finds out its non-materiality. This is the Glimpse. [Note: this is not the only way to find out its non-materiality; it was how PB discovered it, but it can be accomplished purely through the jnana approach of the mentalistic discipline itself] But with his return to the world his glimpse changes into a memory only. How to establish it permanently, this harmony between inner vision and outer world, is discoverable only when living and active in the world yet thoroughly understanding the mentalistic nature of the world."
"Such development comes only after many births. And since this truth has to be lived, it must be in practice and not only in theory. Before a man comes to this truth, this mentalism, much time is needed to enable his mind to develop and receive it."
He also makes the point that understanding emptiness or mentalism is a key to an ethical life:
"It is because men are deceived by their senses into accepting materialism that they are deceived by their ego into committing sin. Mentalism is not only an intellectual doctrine but also an ethical one."
"Even though he knows that it is like a dream, he must live, work and act, love, strive and suffer as if the dream were true."
He refutes the nihilists also, just as do the Mahayanists:
"If he himself is a mere nothing who does not exist, who then is it who takes all this trouble to prove it?"
Further, like the Dalai Lama above, he explains a multifactorial approach required to understand and actualize these teachings of mentalism or emptiness. One cannot by some 'direct' approach simply jump into a fruitful analysis of the skhandas such as in Buddhism without preparation and auxiliary aids of practice - unless one is an exceptional being:
"If, however, by profound thought, deep meditation, and other preliminaries [such as moral purification - a veritable 'furnace' for most of us - altruistic activity, etc.], you have removed some of the obstacles which surround and entrap most people, then you may be more likely to let light dawn within you. You may get the shattering experience of the mentalist revelation: many more discoveries will then be made. You will discover that the world is a form taken by consciousness. You will learn the meaning of the void."
And that is to say:
"When this truth of mentalism strikes our minds with vivid lightning flash, we have come a long way on the quest."
"He discovers the nothingness (no-thing-ness) of matter."
Let us explain this a little further. For this is a new, modern way of understanding what the ancients termed 'emptiness', and may not be understood in one go. PB and Anthony Damiani argue forcefully for a philosophical approach to gaining the mentalistic insight or understanding. It can also be reached through mystical experience, but is doubly assured with reflection. The task is to reason out how what we see is in or made up of mind, consciousness - that it is mental, and not physical, which is as far as the limits of our epistemology allows us. That we can only know the existence of things as manifested through our minds. Any ‘thing-in-itself’ as scientists, as well as common folk and even some philosophers believe is just that - a belief. PB writes of the hidden power behind such reasoning:
“Constant reflection on metaphysical and ethical themes reaches a point where one day its accumulated weight pushes him around the corner into a mystical realization of those themes no less surely than meditation might have done. Although every tenet of the metaphysics of truth is worked out with strict rationality and scientific respect for facts, there is a hidden support in transcendental knowledge running right through them all. The whole intellectual structure is supported by a solid core of super-intellectual insight.”
"The metaphysics of truth is set out in such a way that the student believes he is proceeding step by step purely by logical deduction from ascertainable facts, that his reasoned thinking upholds the findings of transcendental experience, whereas not only is he doing this but at the same time is proceeding upon a path which conforms to his own latent insight. It kindles a higher intelligence in its students. Consequently the sense either of sudden or of growing revelation may often accompany his studies, if he be sufficiently intuitive. The authentic metaphysics of truth can bring him close to the mystical experience of reality. Then the trigger-pull which will start the experience moving need only be something slight, perhaps a printed inspired sentence, perhaps just a single meeting with one who has learnt to live in the Overself, or perhaps a climb in the mountains. For then the mind becomes like a heap of dry wood, needing only a spark to flare up into a blazing pile. The close attention to its course of thought then becomes a yoga-path in itself." (64)
Anthony Damiani writes on the epistemological side of this discipline:
“This is one of the problems that philosophers are interested in. They want to know how they know. So they go through this inquiry and this reflection into the meaning of knowledge and what makes knowledge possible. And they have to start there. Because if we don't start there we might be assuming that we have such a thing as knowledge and it might be a lie. Maybe we have no knowledge. You know, like people in a dream, they dream that they have knowledge. They say, "I know this and I know that." They don't know anything. When they wake up they say, "How stupid I was."
“We would have to take as given the world that we perceive. My eyes see colors, my nose smells...but given this phenomenal aggregate, then I have to reason on it. The scientist tells me that what I see comes from out there, goes into my eye, makes an image in the retina of my eye, travels up the optic nerve, and then I become conscious of the thing out there. I could point out, through reason, that he has a process which is correct up to the point where you have a molecular activity in the brain and then you have a thought. Here you have on one hand motion in the brain cells, the neurons firing, and then on the other you have consciousness. But these are two utterly distinct different kinds of things. And reason would say, "How did thought arise from motion? What are you talking about?" Only through the use of reason can I criticize the scientist when he says that. So reason is going to be the means that we have to use to get to understand something about how we know. We won't worry about who we are yet.”
“To find out who the dreamer is, you would have to bet on the assurance that knowledge could deliver. So we are back to the question of knowledge. Unless I know how I know and unless that “knowledge” is valid, there is no sense saying I know who I am, because I would only be reflecting the primeval ignorance that I started out with. So the question of knowledge always comes first.”
“You see, the difficulty is that all your life you believe in the existence of a world of things, a reality which is non-mental. And when reason confronts you with the fact that you can’t know anything except your idea, you try to excuse yourself by saying, “Well, regardless, there is something out there. It is true that I can know only me ideas, but my idea are telling me about something out there.” And they always try that, you know?”
“You have to remember that if for many many lives we believed in a real world out there, outside of us, you are not going to be able to abolish a belief which has grown into you. You are not going to ablish it with the stroke of a pen. It is going to take a lot of effort. Because these are beliefs that are ingrained, inborn, innate...In other words, we are ignorant. Period. We are all born in bondage. We are not born free. We are born in bondage to our ignorance. But as we mature, as we reflect, then we start challenging those things.”
“Those are habits that have to be rooted out. And the way that you root them out is by constantly going over the teachings, understanding them until they are perfectly clear in your mind. So that when the thought tries to express itself as “that is a thing” you say, “No, that is a thought.” In other words, you begin to see, in the precision of your language, that your habits are changing. You get more and more accurate in the way you speak - that could be considered as habit. The mental habits are almost impossible to break. they are so deeply rooted...When you start attackingbeliefs, whether yours or someone else’s, you are undertaking a Himalayan task. You just have no idea how deeply rooted beliefs are.” (65)
What they are saying, only briefly outlined here, is a philosophic way of coming to the understanding of ‘emptiness’. That even before we attempt the ontological inquiry, or make the ontological conclusion, of who or what we are, we must make the epistemological inquiry into understanding how we know anything. And that is only through our awareness of anything. Nothing is ever known non-mentally. This opens the door to a western way of getting at the doctrine of emptiness. All preceptions are in mind or consciousness, and as such they are empty of inherent self-existence - yet they are not unreal either, only impermanent.
PB gives the final result to be attained through this philosophical inquiry, once it is established that there I nothing but thought arising in Mind:
“The first step is to discover that there is a Presence, a Power, a Life, a Mind, Being, unique, not made or begot, without shape, unseen and unheard, everywhere and always the same. The second step is to discover its relationship to the universe and to oneself.” (65a)
Having ascertained the 'what', then we discover the 'who'.
Needless to say, this is not the only approach to coming to Self-knowledge or knowledge of Truth. But it is one authentic way of coming at it.
This can also be seen as where the synthesis of emptiness and awareness teachings comes in. Once again, one first asks the "What is the world" question before the"Who Am I"?" one. This, in fact, is the natural way of exploring for a growing child. That is, one understand the mentalistic or 'empty' nature of the world of objects, including the empirical person, and then finds the source of the 'I'. It can be, and traditionally has been, done in the reverse order, but this way has its advantages:
"When the mind withdraws from its creations after understanding their mentalness and looks into itself, it discovers the final truth. But when it does this prematurely - that is, before such inquiry into the world's nature - it discovers a half-truth: the nature of the "I".
After acknowledging the meditational experience of the Void, he also says that one must then contemplate on the world as Void to get a final nondual result:
"This must not be understood. The sage continues to see things, only he knows them as pure consciousness. They no longer ruffle his experience or cause existential doubt."
When the world is deconstructed first, it becomes easier to integrate that understanding with the inner void-nature. And PB's words suggest that one also may come to understand - although here we step beyond Buddhism language - a transcendental relationship (their distinction, but non-separation) of Soul and God, or Overself and Mind:
"The mystic is usually satisfied in enjoying [the] inner stillness whereas the philosopher needs also to know where it emanates from."
He offers a few more quotes on understanding mentalism and the nature of the quest to round out the discussion:
"He can come into this knowledge by correct deep thought or by purified cleansed faith or by the influence of someone else who has discovered it."
This is why in a path such as Buddhism there are different means of approach, and why the teacher, guru, or guide is also of such importance.
"The thought of the external world comes from the Universal Mind (God) originally, while thoughts which pertain to personal characteristics come out of the subconscious tendencies developed in previous incarnations. In both cases the power which initiates thought is outside the conscious self but for that very reason is irresistible. The work of the Spiritual Quest is to enter into co-operative activity with God, on the one hand, and to conquer those subconscious tendencies, on the other."
This latter phrase I find hard to rigidly agree with anymore. 'Conquer' is such a divisive term, and as hard as trying to empty the ocean with a teaspoon. In fact, PB himself once said it! Subconscious tendencies will certainly be purified and transformed, but not by our noble intentions and Herculean efforts alone. When our Conscious nature awakens, after seeing our essential helplessness, - through spiritual help - an irresistable force, call it the Divine, call it Nature, call it Being, will do it for and through and as us. Here PB concedes to using older language of a great uber-masculine 'battle' with ourselves. If you think you can do it, try and see. Grace must complement our efforts.
"How hard for the average mind to grasp this central fact, that the World-Idea is the world-creation...the World-Mind does not need to make an effort in order to make a universe, does not in reality have to do anything at all, for Its thought is the thing. Some mystics and most occultists have failed to perceive this. Their realization of the Spirit did not bring with it the full revelation of the Spirit. This is because they have not thoroughly comprehended - usually through lack of competent instruction - its utter emptiness. Nothing can come out of the Universal Mind that is not mental, not even the material world which men believe they inhabit and experience."
The latter is a metaphysical challenge to Theosophical, Platonic, and other emanationist views; PB is saying that from the ultimate standpoint, all is an 'idea' in Mind, even such 'ideas' as divine archtypes or the creative 'Logos'. Such, of course, are 'powerful' ideas.
"The World-Idea is thought by the individual mind and, in the process, inevitably shaped according to its limitations. But the first cause and ultimate source of that idea cannot be this mind. For the idea is "given" to it."
"It is not enough to say that the world is man's idea. We need to know why he has it at all. To be sufficiently explained, his world-idea must be brought into relation with the World-Mind's World-Idea, because his individual mind is inseparably rooted in the World-Mind."
"It is on account of this union existing between the individual minds and the World-Mind that we are forced to give our attention to the world-idea."
How close we are getting to the idea of the fact that all things are 'empty, including the ego, and that we are forced to see the world and its source as one, manifestation and the void as one! This is the emptiness teachings in modern language. Thus mentalism proves why there must be God. Yet we have not said how any of this is accomplished. The impression may still unfortunately be that it can be attained through pure intellection, the 'head'. But of course that is a partial understanding, which does not take into account the connection of the body and Consciousness and the great spiritual 'Heart' that Ramana Maharshi introduced or re-introduced to a modern world, albeit in somewhat limited and still 'dissociative language. So there is one thing more, which PB points toward:
"He only is worthy of the name philosopher who not only possesses a knowledge of mentalism (emptiness), and understand it well, but who reverently lets the higher power be ever present in, and work through, him. Otherwise he is only a student of philosophy."
"He is a scientist to the extent that he respects fact, a metaphysician to the extent that he wants reality, a religionist to the extent that he recognizes a higher power."
Yes, a higher power. Even Sri Nisargadatta talked about it earlier. Did one think that emptiness was going to wipe that out? That is a large discussion in itself, which for now the reader will be left to chew on for himself. Just know that all traditions speak of a liberating presence(s) or power or agency within relativity. Remember also that PB said that the very Overself or Conscious principle will make a 'mystical union with one's own body.' This is of most importance. I find it unfortunate only in that he didn't have time to flesh that out in much greater detail. In my opinion, that is a key quote of his, with deep significance. It is also important to look at it in another way, that 'we', in fact, will make such a union with our own body. Don't tell me we are already united with it. We haven't incarnated too much, as some if not most (life-negative) traditional teachings will say; rather, we haven't incarnated enough! We may have 'carnated' (a bad joke, implying we did something 'fleshly' wrong by just being here!), but not yet fully in-carnated. There is a big and sacred difference. This is not to say it is something we can directly try to do, no, that is not what is being implied. Nor do we say to 'stop seeking,' or 'do nothing.' That is just a way to keep belief alive in the mind while fundamental suffering continues.
Where emptiness comes into the picture here lies in the inner attitude of the enlightened soul. As PB said:
"Others may believe that he stands in the great Light, but he himself has no particular or ponderous self-importance." (66)
To finish up this section, PB offers us this capsule summary of the 'mentalistic discipline', which we may also consider as a modern version of the 'emptiness discipline':
"Without keeping steadily in view this original mentalness of things and hence their original oneness with self and Mind, the mystic must naturally get confused if not deceived by what he takes to be the opposition of Spirit and Matter. The mystic looks within, to self; the materialist looks without, to world. And each misses what the other finds. But to the philosopher neither of these is primary. he looks to that Mind of which both self and world are but manifestations and in which he finds the manifestations also. it is not enough for him to receive, as the mystic receives, fitful and occasional illuminations from periodic meditation. He relates this intellectual understanding to his further discovery got during mystical self-absorption in the Void that the reality of his own self is Mind. Back in the world once more he studies it again under this further light, confirms that the manifold world consists ultimately of mental images, conjoins with his full metaphysical understanding that it is simply mind in manifestation, and thus comes to comprehend that it is essentially one with the same Mind which he experiences in self-absorption. Thus his insight actualizes, experiences, this Mind-in-itself as and not apart from the sensuous world whereas the mystic divides them. With insight, the sense of oneness does not destroy the sense of difference but both remain strangely present, whereas with the ordinary mystical perception each cancels the other out....Whatever he does or refrains from doing, whatever he experiences or fails to experience, he gives up all discriminations between reality and appearance, between truth and illusion, and lets his insight function freely as his thoughts select and cling to nothing. he experiences the miracle of undifferentiated being, the wonder of undifferentiated unity. The artificial man-made frontiers melt away. he sees his fellow man as inescapably and inherently divine as they are, not merely as the mundane creatures they believe they are, so that any traces of an ascetical holier-than-thou attitude fall completely away from him." (67)
Just one thing more. We said that PB would simplify things for us, but, alas, he adds another consideration to 'gum up the works!' Yet, and no doubt contrary to Vedanta and Dzogchen philosophy, it does makes sense in terms of some of the Taoist and Islamic ontology mentioned herein. And that is, that it may not be enough to just say that there is emptiness-form, consciousness-phenomena, or voidness-manifestation. As discussed in Paul Brunton and Advaita on the Soul, he posits an Unknowable Godhead that is itself the source of both the Void and the World-Mind. Man, when he attains union with his divine Soul, can know that Supreme Being Is, but more about it he cannot know and still be man. He states:
"Mind is the Essence of all manifested things as World-Mind and the Mystery behind unmanifest Nothing."
"The real is the same forever and unalterably the same, whether it be the unmanifest Void or the manifest world. It has never been born and consequently can never die." "The Mind's first expression is the Void. The second and succeeding is the Light, that is, the World-Mind (consciousness as universal and individual Souls). This is followed by the third, the World-idea. Finally comes the fourth, manifestation of the world itself."
"The Chinese sage, Lao Tzu, said, "In eternal non-existence I look for the spirituality of things!" The philosopher perceives that there is no such thing as creation out of nothing for the simple reason that Mind is eternally and universally present. "Nothing" is merely an appearance. Here indeed there is neither time nor space. It is like a great silent boundless circle wherein no life seems to stir, no consciousness seems to be at work, and no activity is in sway. Yet the seer will know by a pure insight which will grip his consciousness as it has never been gripped before, that here indeed is the root of all life, all consciousness, and all activity. But how it is so is as inexplicable intellectually as what its nature is. With the Mind the last word of human comprehension is uttered. With the Mind the last world of possible being is explored. But whereas the utterance is comprehensible by his consciousness, the speaker is not. it is a Silence which speaks but what it says in only that it IS; more than that none can hear."
"Although nothing can be written about IT that is truly descriptive, everything can be written bout what leads up to the revelation of IT; that can be written with precision and luminosity. The inside must forever elude words, but the outside need not."
"In the end he will have to confess, as the English hermit Richard Rolle confessed six hundred years ago, despite his deep mystical experience, that it is not possible to know what God is but only that he is."
"The mysterious Godhead has provided a witness to its sacred existence, a deputy to evidence its secret rulership. And that Witness and deputy can be found for it sits imperishable in the heart of man himself. It is indeed his true self, his immortal soul, his Overself...If it be true that no adept has ever seen the mysterious absolute, it is also true that he has seen the way it manifests its presence through something intimately emanated from it. If the nameless formless Void from which all things spring up and into which they go back is a world so subtle that it is not really intellectually understandable and so mysterious that it is not even mystically experienceable, we may however experience the strange atmosphere emanating from it, the unearthly aura signifying its hidden presence."
"It is the topic most worth writing about yet least understood. Whoever has entered into a partial understanding - it would be too much to demand more - of it, bears some responsibility. he must communicate with his fellows."
To spin us around once more, however, he writes - seemingly retracting this entire line of argument:
"There is a single Consciousness without beginning or end, ever the same in itself, beyond and behind which there is nothing else." (!) (68)
However, he also elsewhere says "God's "I" makes my "I" possible", so maybe he has not retracted anything after all. As always, the reader will have to decide. These matters are not understood in one night.
More on Taoism and the Great Way
In Taoism we find a more poetic emphasis on this same transcendence of the categories of the mind, and the seamless nature of life. Chang Po-Tuan (11th century), of the Southern sect of the Complete Reality School, wrote:
"It is not form, not void, yet both form and void. It is not being, nor nonbeing, yet both being and non-being. Form and void interpenetrate, being and nonbeing cannot be established; this is ineffable existence within true emptiness...There is a secret method of summoning and absorbing the primordial: beckoning fulfillment by emptiness, you see the emperor of the void...When the mind of Tao is not obscured, the human mind vanishes...Nondoing is not sticking to indifferent emptiness; When you are able to avoid negligence and obsession both, rooting out the seeds of repeated birth and death, right in the center there is just one spiritual youth...Harmonizing illumination, merging with the ordinary world, is the secret celestial mechanism...With a peal of thunder, the gate of heaven opens, and out leaps the indestructible immortal person...Transformation without end, unfathomable spiritual wonders." (69)
[Translation: the void is not empty, the real is eternal and glorious. "When the mind of Tao is not obscured, the human mind vanishes" - when the mind of the sage becomes one with the World-Idea, understanding and perceiving the truth of mentalism, the 'what', or emptiness, of Nature, the little mind surrenders its sovereignty as the 'great uniqueness', the Primordial or Universal Man is realized).
And Lu Yen tell us that even after finding the Way and achieving 'non-doing' (a coveted achievement in Taoism and various nondual schools, signifying alignment with the Way), then there is much still to achieve; the life of a Taoist in his school was not just sitting on a mountaintop cultivating immortality:
"This true transmission is received individually from a teacher; there is an opening up in the darkness, resulting in clear understanding. Once you are capable of clear understanding, you eventually realize the hidden mystery. Upon realizing the hidden mystery, you know the Great Way. This is called knowledge and is regarded as attainment. When you attain this ultimate mystery, then nondoing is finally possible."
"Even if you have attained nondoing, you should still carry out undertakings, fulfilling them and realizing their proper results. After many undertakings, you should accomplish worthy deeds, fulfilling them completely and realizing their proper results...Observe what people who arrived did to enter the way. They strove mightily, as if they feared they wouldn't reach it, and looked all over for elevated Real people to teach them the mysterious wonder..Such was their sincerity that they moved the Real People to teach them the essential, and thus they were able to attain penetrating understanding, without distortion..But still they were not complacent: they mixed in with the ordinary world and carried out various undertakings and performed various deeds in the cities, towns, and villages. Thinking their works were still shallow, they made yet broader commitments, to carry out unlimited undertakings and accomplish unlimited deeds. They vowed that all people through the ages, those with knowledge and those without, would hear of the Great Way and ascend to the ultimate goal...People of true enlightenment perform deeds of true enlightenment." (70)
One final angle to emptiness pointed out by Wang Che of the Northern sect of the Complete Reality School regards the transcendence of the 'three realms' of desire, form , and formless. He says:
"When the mind forgets thoughts, you transcend the realm of desire. When the mind transcends objects, you transcend the realm of form. Do not cling to the view of emptiness, and you transcend the formless realm. When you detach from these three realms, your spirit lives in the homeland of the immortal sages, your essence is in the realm of jadelike purity"i.e., [true openeness]. (71)
PB has pointed out that the experience of the great Void in meditation is still, after all, only an experience, and that it has a counterpart on daily life, which is the attitude of detachment. That is all right as a provisional teaching. However, he was still referring to detachment from the world of form. While in itself necessary, I ask, ultimately and really, what is wrong with attachment? or desire? It is part of the relative reality, and also part of how we learn to love and know ourselves as conscious beings. This quote of Lu Yen suggests benefits during life and after death from not even clinging to the experience of emptiness (or non-attachment) as so conceived.
Theravada Buddhism and emptiness: the contemplative states
An excellent description of some of the experiential stages of varying forms of ‘emptiness’ from a Theravada perspective is given in the book Samana by the venerable Luangta Maha Boowo (1913-2011). This may really get you down, so take it as an example of a traditional path to realization, the rigours of which are not possible for many active people today, especially in the West. It is the relative stages of samadhi and emptiness that I find of relevance here, not the monastic way! He writes (and this is a long but I think worthwhile autobiographical excerpt; those who are pressed for time may skip forward to the next dotted line):
“When the mind settles down into total stillness, you could say that the mind is empty, but it’s only empty in samadhi. When the mind withdraws from samadhi, the emptiness disappears. From there, the mind resumes its investigations and continues with them until it gains expertise in the proper use of samadhi. Once samadhi is strong, wisdom steps up its investigation of the various aspects of the body until it sees them all clearly and can remove its attachments concerning the body once and for all. At that point, the mind begins to be progressively more empty, but it doesn’t yet display a complete emptiness. As long as it hasn’t gained total proficiency, images will still appear within it as mental pictures. The images within the heart then begin to fade day by day, until finally they are gone. No mental images appear either inside or outside the heart. This is called an empty mind.”
“This kind of emptiness is the inherent emptiness of the mind that has reached its own level. It’s not the same as the emptiness of samadhi. The emptiness of samadhi lasts only as long as we sit in samadhi. But, when the mind lets go of the body, because of the power of its mindfulness and wisdom that are fully alert to the internal images, this is called the emptiness of the mind on its own level. This emptiness, gained through wisdom, is lasting. When this stage is reached, the mind is truly empty. Even though the body appears, there’s simply a sense that the body is there. No image of the body appears in the mind at all. Emptiness of this sort is said to be empty on the level of the mind – and it’s constantly empty like this at all times. If this emptiness is Nibbana, it’s the Nibbana of that particular meditator or of that stage of the mind, but it’s not yet the Nibbana of the Buddha. If someone were to take the emptiness of samadhi for Nibbana, it would simply be the Nibbana of that particular meditator’s samadhi. Why is it that these two sorts of emptiness aren’t the emptiness of the Buddha’s Nibbana? Because the mind empty in samadhi is unavoidably satisfied with and attached to its samadhi. The mind empty in line with its own level is likewise unavoidably absorbed in and attached to that sort of emptiness. The mind must then take that level of emptiness as its object until it passes beyond it. Anyone who calls this emptiness Nibbana is actually attached to this emptiness without realizing it. When attachment is involved, how can this sort of emptiness be Nibbana?”
“If we don’t want to settle for this level of Nibbana, we must take a thorough look at feeling, memory, thought and consciousness until we see them clearly and in full detail – because the emptiness we’re referring to is the emptiness of feeling, in that a feeling of pleasure fills this emptiness. Memory recognizes it as empty. Thoughts take this emptiness as their preoccupation. Consciousness is aware of an internal emptiness. So this level of emptiness becomes the emptiness of the mind’s preoccupation.”
“If we investigate this emptiness, seeing it clearly as a mental fabrication, we will open the way by which we are sure of transcending it someday. Investigating in this way, the truth of the mind will gradually reveal itself. The mind is then sure to find a way to shake itself free. Even the underlying basis for these fabricated things will not be able to withstand mindfulness and wisdom. Mindfulness and wisdom of a radical sort will slash their way in – just like a fire that burns without stopping when it meets with fuel – until they have dug up the roots of all conditioned things. Only then will they stop their advance. On this level, the adversaries to the Nibbana of the Buddha are that to which the mind is attached: the sense that, “My heart is empty,” “My heart is at ease,” “My heart is clean and clear.” Although we may see the heart as empty, it’s paired with a non-emptiness. The heart may seem to be satisfied, but it’s merely the other side of dissatisfaction. The heart may seem clean and clear, but it dwells with defilement – without our being aware of it. Thus emptiness, ease and clarity are the qualities that obscure the heart because they are the signs of becoming and birth. Whoever wants to cut off becoming and birth should thus investigate these things with wisdom so as to let them go. Don’t be possessive of them, or they will turn into a fire that burns you. When your wisdom digs down into these three lords of becoming as they appear, you willcome to the central hub of becoming and birth, and it will disintegrate from the heart the moment wisdom reaches the foundation on which it is based. The ultimate form of emptiness arises when those factors are ended through the power of wisdom. No signs of any conventional reality will appear in that emptiness at all. It is an emptiness different from the other forms of emptiness we have passed through. Whether that emptiness can be called the emptiness of the Buddha, or whose emptiness it is, I’m afraid I can’t say, other than that it’s an emptiness that each meditator can know directly only for him or herself alone.”
“The ultimate emptiness has no time or season. It’s absolutely timeless. The emptiness of samadhi can fluctuate and change. The emptiness of the formless or imageless level [when the emptiness reached in samadhi has been extended into ordinary life) which serves as our path, can change or be transcended. But this emptiness exclusively within oneself [the Nibbana of the Buddha) doesn’t change – because there is no self within this emptiness, and no sense that this emptiness is oneself. There is simply the knowledge and vision of things as they are – seeing this emptiness in line with its natural principles as they actually are, and seeing all phenomena as they actually are. Even moral virtue, samadhi and wisdom – the qualities we use to straighten out the heart – are realized for what they are and let go in line with their true nature. Nothing at all remains lurking in the nature of this final stage of emptiness. Please reflect on these three kinds of emptiness and try to attain them in your practice. Especially the last form of emptiness, which is emptiness in the principles of nature, beyond the range where any other person or any conventional reality can become involved with it ever again. Our doubts, ranging from the beginning levels of the Dhamma to this ultimate emptiness, will finally be resolved, with our own knowledge and vision acting as judge.”
I encourage the reader to explore the rest of this book, especially the chapters on the artfull interplay between concentration/mindfulness and skillfullness/wisdom as well as meditation in the Buddhist middle way. In the final excerpt he clears up the historical wrong impression or even wrong translation of the Buddha's use of the term 'desire', which can be stated more correctly as 'selfish desire'. [However, even that is a subject for much exploration, as it is a potentially divisive and negative term in itself, for what is not selfish? Moreover, there is a time and place for everything]:
“So, go ahead and desire. Desire to gain release from suffering. Desire to gain merit. Desire to go to heaven. Desire to go to Nibbana. Go ahead and desire these results as much as you like, because they’re all part of the path. It’s not true that all desire is craving. If we don’t allow any desires because we think that all desire is craving, then it’s as if we were already dead. Nothing is accomplished in life without desire. That’s not what it means to eliminate defilements and craving. Such a person is nothing special, nothing special at all, because he’s a dead person. A person who isn’t dead has to want this and that - just be careful that you don’t go wanting in the wrong direction, that’s all. If you want in the wrong direction, it means craving and defilement. If you want in the right direction, it’s the path, so make sure you understand this! The stronger our desire, the more resolute our persistence will be. Desire and determination are part of the path, the way to gain release from suffering. When our desire to go to heaven, to attain Nibbana or to gain release from suffering is strong, making us brave in the fight, then our persistence, our stamina and our fighting spirit are pulled together into a single strength by our intention to attain Nibbana and be released from suffering. These factors keep working constantly with no concern for the time of the day, the month or the year.”
[While I understand this venerable master's meaning, I find the teaching about desiring to avoid suffering potentially damaging, as there is unavoidable suffering in just being human that must be owned, endured, and understood deeply, and not just bypassed through with a pre-conceived Buddhist explanation and methodology, which may no longer be appropriate for our times. There is nothing wrong with being strong, it is a good quality, but there is also a necessary spiritual 'death' and rebirth that can, in some cases, be bypassed through too much willful effort and not enough acceptance. This must be said, although a full exposition is beyond the scope of this paper. Sorry].
However, notice how he says that after attaining the 'emptiness of samadhi ' or the inner self', and the 'emptiness of the world', and even the transparent oneness of the two, there is one final stage, which he calls the 'samadhi of the Buddha', in which one comes to recognize that even the Void or Emptiness is a mental fabrication. We suggest that this is nothing but YOU, the ground of even the Void or Emptiness as a contemplative experience.
PB writes in similar terms:
“The highest and the last of the inward-bound stages is still to be reached, and this is the self-knowing Void of Being which can repeat the phrase "I am that I am" of Exodus 3:14, but which is without any other predicate.”
“The dividing frontier between the Void and Being, between utter emptiness and inner reality, is hard to find.”
“If anyone says he has experienced the Void or if he says he has merged into the Absolute Spirit, then he must have been present to note that it is a Void or to know that it is Absolute Spirit. But clearly he was not present in his ordinary self [rather, he was present as the Overself or Soul), or he would not dare to deny its presence nor claim its complete merger.”
However, he takes care to note:
“The Void must not be misunderstood. Although it is the deepest state of meditation and one where he is deprived of all possessions, including his own personal self, it has a parallel state in the ordinary active non-meditative condition, which can best be called detachment.”
“After all, even the Void, grand and awesome as it is, is nothing but a temporary experience, a period of meditation.”
“The awareness of what is Real must be found not only in deep meditation, in its trance, but when fully awake.” (71a)
We suggest, once again, that what is ‘beyond’ the Void of inner Emptiness is nothing but YOU - the real you.
PB, finally, issues this subtle and important note of warning on the possibility of mistaking emptiness even when one is experiencing it:
"When the emptying of the mind is made the goal of the mind, then it is really not emptied even if this seems to occur. The unexpressed goal is also present, even though unthought during the time of the void. In short it is not a genuine, authentic emptiness. Yet this is the sort of thing that happens in most yogic circles. Only a philosophically informed mind can reach the real void." (71b)
Tangentially to this is the notion that it is the experience, or we could say the learning that the World-Mind bears upon the soul, in the waking life itself that actually allows one to gain the discrimination to understand something of the mysterious void (indeed, or any mystical state) when he is in it, other than just that It Is. This is also the reason that corporeal life is valued over the normal disembodied or post-mortem condition, where it is much harder and takes much longer to get such understanding.
As the path outlined in the above long quote is rather steep (!), as promised we will make one more try at simplifying this whole consideration as it works out in practice - especially with Westerners in mind. First, emptiness' is neither self nor no-self. It is our true nature, which transcends the concepts of both self and no-self. Further, it is not just emptiness, but a 'full' emptiness; that is to say, it holds all things, including both 'selflessness' and a 'healthy sense of self.' For many of us, this healthy sense of self did not develop properly, but was wounded and suffers from unworthiness or a deficiency syndrome. Jack Kornfield points out that for many western seekers often one of the first things to do is to reclaim a healthy sense of self - not perfection, but at least to a workable degree. The spiritual process, of course, is not linear; the positive reclamation and strengthening of 'self' and the understanding of 'emptiness' can evolve together in a spiralling fashion, and more often should. As PB said, 'the spiritual evolution that requires us to abandon (or see through) the ego runs parallel with the mental evolution that requires us to develop it'. So, all of this can unfold in any order, and usually simultaneously is best; what is important is not to exclusively neglect or negate the relative self in pursuit of an idealistic higher self, or empty void-self, or else one may find he has mistaken true emptiness for a psychological form of deadness! And, moreover, one may also avoid feeling the even more fundamental existential wound of true naked dukkha that is at the heart of our human nature through too much willful effort at forms of spiritual 'transcendance'. That being said, Kornfield summarizes one form of this process. I must mention that there are certain Buddhist 'purists' who criticize this approach as granting unnecessary attention to psychological factors. However, Kornfield studied with many Buddhist masters for years, as well as Sri Nisargadatta and Papaji, and has a good grasp on the western psyche, so I feel confident in his judgement:
"If our sense of self is unhealthy, our spiritual work is initially a work of reclamation and healing. This means understanding and releasing a deficient or wounded sense of self and reawakening the lost energy and authentic connection to ourselves. When we have reclaimed some measure of ourselves, the next task becomes the further development of character, of our wisdom, strength, skill, and compassion. This development is described in the teachings of the Buddha as the cultivation of the skillful qualities such as generosity, patience, mindfulness, and kindness."
"The development of self then leads to a more fundamental level, the discovery of true self. This is the discovery that the positive qualities of character that spiritual life works so hard to cultivate are already present as our true nature...We do not have to improve ourselves; we just have to let go of what blocks our heart. When our heart is free from the contractions of fear, anger, grasping, and confusion, the spiritual qualities we have tried to cultivate manifest in us naturally. They are our true nature."
But there is one thing more of great importance:
"In awakening our Buddha nature, we find that there is one further aspect of self to understand, the need to honor our personal destiny...The intentions of many lifetimes creates a specific character and destiny for each of us according to our karma. This needs to be recognized...The universal qualities of our Buddha nature must shine through each of us, evolving out of the individual set of patterns in each person. This unique set of patterns we could call our character, our destiny, our individual path to fulfill. To discover our destiny is to sense wisely the potential of our individual life and the tasks necessary to fulfill it. To do so is to open to the mystery of our individual incarnation... In this we can bring together our practice, our particular tasks in our family and community, fulfilling our capacities, our gifts, and our heart as a unique individual. As we do so, our individual nature reflects the universal."
"Then when these qualities of Buddha nature and personal self are combined with a deep realization of the emptiness of self, we can be said to have fully discovered the nature of self. This true self is both unique and universal, both empty and full...The great capacities of love, unique destiny, life, and emptiness intertwine, shining, reflecting the one true nature of life." (72)
[This important topic is discussed in detail in The Great Uniqueness on this website].
This is a very important area to explore. There are several ways of looking at it. One way is to distinguish psychological emptiness, and the great Void of Emptiness experienced in advanced meditation. The former is something most all of us have to deal with, before, during, and even after significant awakenings. It is part of the human condition, especially in the West, and increasingly in the East as well. The latter is also the fruit of a great discipline. Most people don't begin meditation and immediately confront the abyss! PB speaks of this experience as the farthest inward reach of the meditational path, and really a 'test of faith':
"Those who find that beyond the Light they must pass through the Void, the unbounded emptiness, often draw back affrighted and refuse to venture further. For here they have naught to gain or get, no glorious spiritual rapture to add to their memories, no great power to increase their sense of being a co-worker with God. Here their very life-blood is to be squeezed out as the price of entry; here they must become the feeblest of creatures."
"There is no need to yield to the fear of the void, which comes in the deepest meditation. That is merely the personal ego offering its resistance to the higher self. That same fear of never being able to come back has to be faced by all advanced mystics when they reach this stage of meditation, but it is utterly groundless and is really a test of faith in God to protect them in a laudable endeavour; to come closer to him and to advance father from their lower self...it is not the best part of their nature which really dreads the experience of the Void, but the worst part." (73)
"Remove the concept of the ego from a man and you remove the solid ground from beneath his feet. A yawning abyss seems to open up under him. It gives the greatest fright of his life, accompanied by feelings of utter isolation and dreadful insecurity. he will then clamour urgently for the return of his beloved ego and return to safety once more - unless his determination to attain truth is so strong and so exigent that he can endure the ordeal, survive the test, and hold on until the Overself's light irradiates the abyss." (73a)
By 'void' in this quote PB is referring to the realization of the soul,the Overself, not the Intellectual Principle discussed earlier, which is not an experience preceded by fear, egoism having already died in that case. Nevertheless, all do not 'confront such gaping fear', but, after developing soul qualities of patience, humility, faith, compassion, peace, and love, over time, may more easily 'slip into' the Void-state of the soul. On the other hand, a few are catapulted into such a state spontaneously due to previous background, and, as a result of a lack of metaphysical understanding and grounding, face fear and confusion.
There are many forms of inner meditation where such fear may be faced. For we are talking of one's 'death', after all. In a gradual path such as Sant Mat, for instance, which recapitualizes the actual death process itself, I have known initiates of a Master who, after years of practice, finally get 'taken up' to higher planes by the Master-Power and have felt great fear - followed, however, by a 'born-again' bliss. Others, not so prepared, finding their soul currents rising rapidly up the spine to a point in the head have also reported fear from which they found themselves backed down. Yet, on this path, there is a void or 'zero-point' at many stages, not just one great death. The first such 'death' is the hardest. Yet, even here, for the prepared and surrendered individual, passage beyond the physical body is as easy as 'taking a hair out of melted butter,' as Kirpal Singh often said. Merger into the full Void of the Soul and beyond comes much later on that path, and is a gradual affair. It is an advanced state and may also be experienced either as a loving union, or a final 'healing crisis' which must be earned. In Zen this is illustrated by the ninth oxherding picture, the 'Great Death', in contrast to the third picture, which represents a 'stream-entry' initial satori or kensho.
It must be mentioned that such an experience is not universally recognized as essential; one may, in other schools of meditation, such as Vipassana, pass through such fear gradually, and without leaving the body. So much, then, for meditation and its relationship the great Void of Emptiness. It is significant, but, once realized, there is no-thing to it.
It needs to be mentioned that one cannot just meditate and plunge into the Void-Mind in one shot. Usually, it takes a great maturation and ripening of the ego (yes, the ego) in order for the being to be capable of the surrender required to merge into the void. The ego as a perpetuating karmic continuity of tendencies lit up by the lower phase of the soul must reach a point of saturation with experience where a fundamental revulsion takes place, a concept spoken of often in Buddhist literature, whereby the ego itself becomes more and more isolated from the psyche and its exclusive separative tendencies and readied for its absorption and overshadowing by the soul itself. As PB writes:
"This whittling away of the ego may occupy the entire lifetime and not seem very successful even then, yet it is of the highest value as a preparatory process for the full renunciation of the ego when - by Grace - it suddenly rises up in the heart." (73b)
"When the time comes, if you haven't done the work you won't know it. But if you have done the work, and there comes a moment when the situation arises where you have to surrender the ego, that makes it possible for you to give up the ego- or at least recognize that this is what's being called for. But you have to do the work. You're not going to give up the ego just like that - I mean, as if all of a sudden you're presented with a situation where you can give up the ego and the Void-Mind knows itself. These things don't happen like that." (73c)
The problem is that the ego, while a manifestation of the soul, or a conjoint product of the karmic tendencies of manifestation that are part of the World-Idea and the light of the projection of the soul that enlivens them, has many hidden tentacles, and thousands of years of experience at surviving as a separative entity. Further, while it is, in fact, 'empty' as an 'entity', it is also part of the World-Idea and soul combined and is not going to actually be destroyed. But its mistaken identity as a separate from both the soul and others must go, and will do so when it is mature enough. Yet knowing intellectually or even by a glimpse that it is 'empty' in the Buddhist manner will not be enough to counter the eons of survival strategies it has accumulated. That will take time and work and understanding for completion. See Standing in Your Own Way (Larson Publications) by Anthony Damiani for a wonderfully detailed analysis of this whole issue of the ego.
This 'revulsion' from experience is not a neurotically negative attitude but a natural ripening stage where the separative ego-soul turns in on itself. It also includes its understanding that phenomenally it is but a part of the whole, the universe, which is the greater 'body' or manifestation of the soul. This, of course, includes the personality and physical body as well, but it is no longer limited to it. So it is quite a complicated affair. it is more than just 'getting it' !
Now, while the following can not really be separated, for ease of understanding we pose a distinction between the two aspects of psychological emptiness, and metaphysical emptiness that comes after or while the first is also dealt with and integrated. Many of us face the feeling of being 'hollow', 'empty inside', or somehow 'not real'. We fear this feeling even more than the actual emptiness itself, as is the case with all feelings when we allow ourselves to fall into and actually experience them, and discovering that they won't kill us. There are many reasons for such fear, due to not being fully accepted into this world, and early childhood wounding that suppressed our natural curiosity, exuberance, and creativity. We are, as adults, often afraid to face these early feelings of being empty, unreal, not good enough, impending annihilation, and so on, which may all be lumped into a fear of facing the unknown. We fear going into this unknown because it will remind us quite painfully of what we once felt and buried deep inside in order to survive and cope as children. Ultimately, we are only and always running from our higher or truest self, but, practically, we are afraid of what we were never allowed to fully feel: fear, grief, anger, pain. Therefore, we must enter this 'cave of phantoms', our personal darkness and 'emptiness', to reclaim our natural born self. Only then do we have a chance at understanding the greater nature of the principle of Emptiness as spoken of in the scriptures. Gelek Rinpoche once said, "Don't be so afraid of it; you will never understand what the Buddhists mean if you are so afraid of your personal emptiness." This, obviously, is a process that takes time and patience and courage. It is not an overnight affair or the product of a few weeks or weekends. It is a matter of growth. This represents the purification or purgation of the emotional nature. PB says it is like training oneself to die, and that no one should underestimate such a tremendous task. Once we have done this sufficiently, we can then also begin to face the paradoxical sense of how unimportant the efforts to understand ourself really are! He writes:
"The heart must become empty of all desires. This brings about the emotional void, which corresponds, in its own place, to the mental void experienced in the depths of mystical meditation. To this emptiness he must give himself, with it he must satisfy himself. In this way he obeys Jesus and becomes "poor in Spirit." (74)
Another way of looking at this is to consider that, while "emptiness is form," as the Buddhists say, "form is also form." If we don't allow ourselves to experience 'form' (i.e., 'life') we will never be able to understand the true 'emptiness of form', but, as Chandrakirti warned, may instead land in a self-condemned void, an emptiness that is the worst of both worlds. This paradox is similar to the contrast between the famous words of Socrates, "the unexamined life is not worth living," and "the unlived life is not worth examining!"
Both modern psychology and traditional Buddhist psychology agree that recovering the capacity to feel is crucial for wholeness. It is necessary to develop patience with disappointment, converting that into tolerance and empathy, towards oneself and others. Then the process builds upon itself. So, once one has become sufficiently 'human', he progresses on any number of paths to a further deepening understanding of emptiness. All sitting practice, inquiry, observation, pondering, discipline, contemplation has as a chief function to serve as a form of or 'heat', gradually stripping away the more superficial layers of defense and egoity to reveal the core of basic anxiety, fear, and (guiltless, existential) woundedness as a separate being that is the doorway to truth. This, too, is a gradual process, although often punctuated by forms of awakenings along the way. One learns to tolerate the doubt and uncertainty, the sense of emptiness, over not knowing 'who I am'. This existential form of emptiness is basic to everyone, and is beneath even the primal imprints and sense of emptiness or incompleteness acquired during childhood development. And, at some point, one understands or awakens and is capable of enduring the revelation of the empty nature of the empirical self. This is achieving the 'fourth foundation of mindfulness' according to the Buddha (the four being body, sensations/feelings, emotions/thoughts. and psyche or mind itself). As Huang Po stated:
"Men are afraid to forget their minds, fearing to fall through the Void with nothing to stay their fall. They do not know that the Void is not really void, but the realm of the real Dharma." (75)
Therefore, it really depends greatly on one's prior preparation in all areas of life as to how much of a factor fear will be in the actual realization of the Void of Emptiness. It can be a very graceful process. In fact, there is no-thing to it!
A uniqueness perspective on the Void
“How close is his relationship to that other self, that godlike Overself! And not only his mind’s relationship but also his body’s. For in the center of every cell in blood, marrow, flesh, and bone, there is the void that holds, and is, pure Spirit.” - PB (75a)
Approaching this from another angle, a non-Buddhist one, James Swartz gives us a detailed look at the strategy of Shankara, and how to distinguish between various 'states' of emptiness. Instead of a three-stage vedantic process, he outlines a four-stage one. In the first stage, one engages the discriminative method of negation ('neti, neti') in order to disidentify with objects. Then the mind becomes sattvic, discrimination having led to dispassion, enabling one to have an experience of the Self in the sattvic mind. It is not the Self, but a reflection of the Self in the mind. It may be experienced as emptiness, silence, a sense of nonduality or oneness. This would be a form of the witness consciousness or sakshin. It is a very valuable state, because it allows deeper inquiry into the Self. Then, in step two, one identifies with the subject, by asking, "who experiences this silence/emptiness/etc.?" An important key epistemological question to cut through all doubts about experience throughout this process and to avoid short-circuiting the answer is "how do I know that I know?" The identification with the isolated subject then becomes the knowledge that one is consciousness:
"Experience of the Self is not enlightenment, but it can lead to enlightenment if the intellect can assimilate the knowledge - "I am awareness" - that arises when the attention is turned within and the mind is sattvic."
He then makes the interesting comment that direct knowledge can actually come in Savikalpa Samadhi [the reflected experience of the Self), "because you are there, ignorance is there, and the vision of the Self is there, so the akhandakhara vritti [the unbroken 'I-Am-the-Self' thought) can destroy the ignorance and set you free...if you identify with it". (76)
The problem with this experience, says Swartz, is that if you are not very dispassionate and do not have at least a rudimentary self-knowledge you will be so overwhelmed by the vision of the Self that you will not grasp its significance and will not therefore be freed. In other words, one mistakes an experience for the true 'emptiness' of the Self. (77)
At stage two, the full awareness of the Self, however, the so-called 'Atman and Brahman are one' declaration, is not yet possible, because there is no awareness of the Mind's projection (the World or World-Idea) there, with which to be reintegrated; hence the value of the waking state.
Thus, in step three, according to Swartz, one who is identified with the subject as consciousness, now takes back all of the objects he negated in step one, seeing them as non-separate from the Self, thus completing 'neti' and 'itti'. This can take a long time, because of the force of the outgoing vasanas. PB would say that the stable realization of this condition “makes Real” the relationship (but not identity) between the Overself (Atman) and Mind Alone (Brahman)." He and others, such as Plotinus, believed there were several levels of deepening of this transcendental relationship. However, this is a realization of nonduality, or 'emptiness'.
Swartz adds a step four, wherein he says one truly attains moksha, which is realizing the relationship between the pure Self and the objects, which he characterizes as the realization, "the objects are me (the Self), but I (the Self) am not the objects", which are insentient and only a superimposition of the Self's own maya. This is supposedly pure spontaneously self-verifying Knowledge for which the question, "how do I know that I know" no longer applies. This is the end. This step is also a difficult one, and, I may say, also a controversial point. For something Vedanta doesn't logically explain [which they admit is impossible, and is why they posit a transcendental ignorance called maya, or avidya for the Buddhists, the source for all mental concepts and logic) is where does this insentiency - an attribute of the objects - come from? Is it just maya, or is there a 'transcendental substance, 'mula-prakriti, that we must also make room for in our philosophy? Yet, that, too, like maya, is just a guess to explain the unknown. So, then, do we just follow 'Shiva' approaches like Vedanta, emphasizing consciousness/awareness, wisdom, discrimination, equanimity, Self and formlessness, or, to be truly balanced, and therefore more nondual in our actualization/expression, must we not also embrace the 'Shakti' aspects as well, and not just as something to be observed, disidentified from, and transcended, but in a deeper, more nondual way, which we find more in traditions like Taoism, Vajrayana Buddhism, or certain Hindu Tantric/Advaita schools? Step four in a way almost seems to bring us back to step two, still somewhat dissociated from the phenomena, still wanting to reside as the 'still ocean' and not be affected by the 'waves', but, of course, Swartz would say not really. Yet, "How do I know that I know that 'I am the Self'?" might still be asked, for a question arises, is there still a Soul there that I am simply missing in my expectation of an impersonal Consciousness? There seems to be few teachings around that really do an incontrovertible job of addressing, in a nondual context, a good relative understanding of the nature of 'selfhood' in higher stages of realization. We do sympathize in that these are very hard things to talk about. But don't personally find very useful systems that opt out and resort to simplistic notions like 'no-self' or 'there is only the Self', for reasons partially already stated and which will be further discussed in the next article, really part two of this one, called "Maya Is 'Maya' ". Basically the reason is that as depictions of realization they are too static, and also simply not as non-dualistic in practice as they purport to be in theory, especially advaita, and therefore perhaps not so suitable for the emerging spirituality we are being drawn towards. How does one know, further, as Swartz maintains, that 'the Self is the world' but 'the world is not the Self'? What does that really mean? We are suggesting that so-called advaita teachings contain a subtle dualism, in theory, but especially in actual, practical living. They are still, despite their stated goal of non-duality, still trying to escape conditionality and karma as our ancestors have for several millenia, a model that is 'getting long in the tooth'. Just because something is five thousand years old does not mean it is the complete truth.
So, anyway, there is negation, followed by identification, followed by affirmation, and a final understanding. Swartz says that this is described as realization of Puroshottama in Chapter 15 of the Bhagavad-Gita. Maya is rooted in Brahman, therefore one can make the statement, Atman and Brahman are one. If it were otherwise, one could not. Guadapada says that "the multiplicity of empirical experience in this universe is due to the very nature of the Effulgent Being. Whatever one experiences is only non-dual Brahman...That we see duality is due to our ignorance. This ignorance (maya) does not exist from the standpoint of reality. Maya is only an explanation of creation given by those who hold creation to be a fact. 'None is in bondage, none liberated, this is the ultimate truth.'" (78) Later post-Sankara vedantists postulated that Maya is not just an 'sublating explanation', but the power of Brahman or Isvara Itself. This, say the Buddhists, is to reify Maya. However, this issue of Maya and the relationship between Atman, Isvara, and Brahman is very complicated in Vedanta and will be dealt with in the upcoming essay on Maya. Isvara as criticized by the Buddhists refers generally to an Isvara conceived of as an 'eternal independent creator God.' However, Isvara need not be conceived of as 'independent'. As the equivalent of PB's notion of the World-Mind, or as an Intermediate Liberating Presence within relativity, or Saguna Brahman inseparable from the absolute Brahman, it has a different meaning than merely that of a 'last veil of Maya', or transcendental avidya or ignorance to be sublated away, usually prematurely we might add. In any case, the 'Self' is beyond an experience of silence or non-silence, emptiness or non-emptiness, per se, being uncharacterizable except by pointers like Sat-Chit-Ananda, or Emptiness-Luminosity-Compassion.
It needs to be added, that even great advaitic scholars are not unanimous that there is a strict identity between Atman and Brahman, that is, they remain non-committal over whether or not there is a higher individuality, one or more souls, one or more witnesses (sakshin). The Buddha was silent on such questions. The important point, as Chandradhar Sharma comments on Mahamahopadhaya Pt. Anantakrishna Shastri's Shatadusani ("Century of Merits") is:
"'Advaita' does not mean formal identity; it means, on the other hand, 'transcendental unity', which is beyond all categories of thought including the category of unity and shines as their ground-reality." (79)
What that ground-reality is remains mystery and paradox. We cannot so easily say there is no soul or no God or that these are only illusions created by an absolute's own maya. mKhas grub dGe wrote six hundred years ago:
"There is a very great difference between logical reasoning not finding something and it finding it to be nonexistent." (80)
"The self is truly know when it is known along with each state of consciousness." (81)
In this quote he most likely was referring to the three states of waking, dream, and sleep, but I would ask whether or not we should include what are considered 'super-conscious' states as well? This would bring into our consideration the esoteric Christian as well as Sant Mat doctrines of the Holy Spirit, Word, or Logos, with which, they maintain, one must merge and pass through multiple 'deaths', 'zero-points, 'voids', and realms, created and uncreated to be said to consciously unite with God. This appears to imply a fully integrated actualization of such realization of 'emptiness' on every plane or dimension of existence, not just this earth realm. Don't be too disheartened; we don't have to perfect our human selves, in fact, we can't. But, in some sense, in certain traditions it is also our destiny, the very archtype of our incarnation. Swami Rama said while that we are already Divine, but we must become fully human. However, it does get complicated when one considers a teaching like Kaballah, which terms what is beyond the Yesod or Atziluth, the mental or archtypal realm, simply as 'the great Abyss', and contrasts that with the tradition of Sant Mat, which claims Yesod is only Trikuti, the highest stage that most religions as well as the vedas point to and which is only third of five stages before the true Eternal realms of Sat Lok, which are of the nature of void compared with physical consciousness, yet the most positive existence there is. And, before the eternal realms of Sat Lok is also a great void they call Maha Sunn which, also beyond the mind, vast like space itself and of such dense darkness that only a Satguru can take the soul beyond to its source. Yes, to contrast emanationist paths with Buddhism is very difficult.
Damiani once remarked that if you say that the ego is 'empty' [even if correct in 'theory'] 'one hasn't even seen it yet, that just because one can't find it doesn't mean it isn't there!' Just so, anadi says that simply because the Buddhists and Advaitists don't believe in or find the Soul doesn't mean it isn't there either. Father Maximos of the Eastern Orthodox Church spoke of passage through a death, blackness, a Void, an 'emptiness', much like many newer teachers have, yet not as an end in itself but in order to contact or be infused by the Holy Spirit, through which one will eventually unite with the Uncreated Light of God (not merely the created light of the essence of the individual), which Light is static and eternal, 'the true home of the Soul', and yet from within which the Soul still mysteriously 'evolves' and praises 'wonder after wonder', for 'ages upon ages', of the divine mystery. One's identity is deconstructed-and-recreated by the Holy Spirit, and one thereafter realizes Oneness all around, yet still knowing an eternal distinction-within-unity of Soul and God. Orthodox researcher Kyriakos Markides summarizes his impression of this alternate vision as follows:
"The world of the five sense is not the only world there is...Other worlds exist that interpenetrate our own...These worlds are layered - that means they relate to each other in a hierarchical manner...These layers are not only out there in nature, objectively speaking, but they are also part of the structure of human consciousness itself. The various worlds are in ongoing communication with one another. But most often the communication moves in a conscious way from top to bottom, rarely from bottom up. The higher realms constantly influence the lower realms in ways that the lower realms are not aware of. At all levels of this hierarchy there are conscious beings. Those above us are on a more superior, more evolved vantage point than ourselves...The project of Creation and the existence of all the hierarchy is for the sake of the unfoldment and evolution of consciousness. This consciousness has as its destiny the transcendence of the hierarchy itself and the conscious reunification with the Absolute spirit or the Personal God [take your pick] out of Whom we come and within Whom, like fish in the ocean, we constantly are." (82)
The Elder Sophrony wrote that theologians of the philosophical type, realizing the limits of human thought, may
"arrive at a supramental contemplation, but what they contemplate is still merely beauty created in God's image..SInce those who enter for the first time into this sphere of the 'silence of the mind' experience a certain mystic awe, they mistake their contemplation for mystical communion with the divine." (83)
Father Maximos adds that those who experience NDE's (Near Death Experiences), and we might add the experiences after death, may see the light of their own inner natures, but not the Uncreated Light which the saints speak of, which is reachable only after the deep purification of heart and mind the Greeks term Catharsis (not to be confused with its more psychological reference). In his opinion the real reason for the fall of Lucifer as an archangel was this enchantment with the beauty of his own existence, the light of his own nature, and not that of the divine. (84)
Thus, for esoteric Orthodox Christianity, Souls in Theosis, or union with God, through death-in-life, have moved passed such lesser contemplation, and are now, paradoxically, complete and fulfilled, no longer seeking, yet also continually moving towards God witnessing the greatness of God's love enfolding their hearts as a movement within the infinity of God's grandeur. This sounds very much like the St. Paul's, "then I shall know even as I am known," or Plotinus' Soul-in-the-Intellectual Principle or Nous, or, perhaps, to some degree, the currently-out-of-favor Vedantic doctrine attributed to Ramanuja of vasishta-advaita, or 'qualified non-dualism'. And that may be so. We are in deep waters here, obviously. The question is whether the whole of spirituality as simple as some non-dual teaching - for instance, Zen or Advaitic 'minimalism' - claims it is, or not? Is human logic the sole arbiter of Truth? There appears to be a grand divide between these teachings, which the reader is left to ponder. And this brings us to part two of this series, on the subject of Maya.
But first, a few concluding quotes:
“When the mind is at peace, the world too is at peace. Nothing real, nothing absent. Not holding on to reality, not getting stuck in the void, you are neither holy nor wise, just an ordinary fellow who has completed his work.” - Layman P'ang (86)
“I saw You and became empty. This Emptiness, more beautiful than existence, it obliterates existence, and yet when It comes, existence thrives and creates more existence! “ - Rumi
"When one sees that form is empty, one realizes great wisdom and no longer dwells in samsara. When one sees that emptiness is form, one realizes great compassion and does not dwell in nirvana." - Fa Zang
1. Paul Brunton, The Notebooks of Paul Brunton (Burdett, New York: Larson Publications, 1988), Vol. 13, Part 1, 1.43 2. Ibid, Volume 8, 2.148 3. Thomas Cleary, trans. and edited, Vitality, Energy, Spirit: A Taoist Handbook (Boston: Shambhala, 1991), p. 241 4. One may well ask, why this ubiquitousness of Samkhya philosophy in all schools of Indian philosophy, including both Yoga and Vedanta? Could it be because it is the most ancient teaching for knowing the body, its various components, and the various functions of the mind? Why would Vedanta incorporate it if knowing the source of the 'I'-thought as Consciousness were all one needed to realize? Could it be because while that may be the shortest path to obtaining a 'glimpse' it overlooks much and may not yield the deepest enlightenment possible? Something to ponder. 4a. Wing-tsit Chan, trans., The Platform Scripture (New York: St. John's University Press, 1963), p. 180, note 134 5. John Blofield, The Zen Teachings of Huang Po (New York: Grove Press, 1959, p. 5a. anadi, Book of Enlightenment (www.anaditeaching.com, 2012), p. 83 6. Swami Gambhirananda, trans, Kena Upanishad, with the Commentary of Sankaracharya (Kolkata, India: Advaita Ashram, 2009 (1980), p. 60 7. Ibid, p. 29 8. Brunton, op. cit., Vol. 16, Part 1, 8.186-188; Vol. 13, Part 1, 5 9. Ibid, Vol. 14, 3.58 9a. Wing-tsit Chan, op. cit., p. 101 10. Except, except......?!
"Although it is the very heart of human beings, the Overself is very far from their present level of consciousness. Nothing could be closer yet this is the supreme paradox of our existence and the strongest enigma confronting our thought." (Ibid, 3.6)
11. from Non Dual Highlights 12. Brunton, op. cit., Vol. 13, Part 2, 5.129 13. Ibid, Vol. 14, 2.43, 45 14. Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj, I AM THAT (Durham, North Carolina: The Acorn Press, 2008), p. 15. Jerry Katz, ed. Essential Writings on Non-Duality (Boulder, Colorado: Sentient Publications, 2007), p. 59 16. Martin Lings, A Moslem Saint, p. 137 17. R.J. Austin, trans., Ibn Al' Arabi: The Bezels of Wisdom (Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1980), p. 39-40 18. Aziz Kristof (anadi), Enlightenment Beyond Traditions (Delhi, India: Motilal Banarsidas, 1999), p. 77-80 19. Brunton, op. cit., Vol. 6, Part 2, 4.114, 4.148 20. For much more please see Greg’s website Emptiness: Buddhist and Beyond. 21. Jose Ignacio Cabezon, trans., A Dose of Emptiness: An Annotated Translation of the sTong thun chen mo of mKas grub dGe legs dpal bzang (Shakti Nagar, India: Sri Satguru Publications, 1993), p. 32-33 22. Ibid, p. 33 23. Anthony Damiani, Standing In Your Own Way (Burdett, NY: Larson Publications, 1993, p. 127-129 24. Gambhirananda, op. cit., p. 2 25. Edward Conze, Buddhism, Its Essence and Development, p. 144 26. Jose Ignacio Cabezon, op. cit., p. 227 27. The Thirty-Seven Practices of Bodhisattvas, Preliminary Teachings to the Kalachakra Initiation, 1989 28. http://ganachakra.com/ 29. Anam Thuben, The Magic of Awareness (Ithaca, New York: Snow Lion Press, 2012), p. 91 30. Aziz Kristof, The Human Buddha (Delhi, India: Motilal Banarsidas, 1999, p. 31. Adyashanti, reference misplaced 32. V.S. Iyer, Commentaries, Vol. 1 (edited by Mark Scorelle, 1999), p. 268 33. Lama Thubten Yeshe, Introduction to Tantra (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1987), p. 110 33a. Joel Morwood, Through Death's Gate: A Guide to Selfless Dying (Eugene, Oregon: Center for Sacred Sciences 34. Thomas Cleary, trans., Understanding Reality by Chang Po-tang (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1987), p. 153, 132, 146, 123 34a. Anthony Damiani, Looking Into Mind (Burdett, New York: Larson Publications, 1990), p. 202-207 34b. Brunton, op. cit., Vol. 6, Part 1, 2.65, 1.234 35. K.N. Upadhyaya, Buddhism, Path To Nirvana: A Perspective (Punjab, India: Radha Soami Satsang Beas, 2010), pp. 36. Living Wisdom with His Holiness The Dalai Lama, (Boulder, CO: Sounds True, 2006), p. 106-109 37. Jose Ignacio Cabezon, op. cit., p. 128 38. Brunton, op cit., Vol. 14, 5.47 39. David Chadwick, Crooked Cucumber: The Life and Zen Teachings of Shunryu Suzuki (New York: Broadway Books, 1999), p. 362 40. Ibid, Vol. 13, Part 3, 4.139 41. Cabezon, op. cit., p. 254 42. Ibid, p. 112 43. Ibid, p. 198 44. Ibid, p. 130 45. Ibid , p.112-113, 401 46. Brunton, op. cit., Vol. 15, Part 1, 4.6 47. Ibid, Vol. 14, 3.888, 3.401, 6.265, 6.266, 6.267, 3.394, 3.319, 5.47 48. Alagadupama Majjhima, 1, 135 49. Brunton, op. cit., 6.265, 6.266, 6.267 50. Ibid, Vol. 13, Part 1, 2.5, 2.13 51. Brunton, op. cit., Vol. 16, Part 1, 2.256 52. Jose Ignacio Cabezon, op. cit., p. 167, 105, 236, 238, 224 53. Ibid, p. 171, 243, 98-99 54. Namkhai Norbu and Adriano Clemente, The Supreme Source: The Kunjed Gyalpo (Ithaca, New York: Snow Lion Publications, 1997), p. 210, 152 55. Ibid, p. 20 56. Cabezon, op. cit., p. 96 57. John Blofeld, Taoism: The Road To Immortality (Boston: Shambhala, 1985), p.63 58. Thomas Cleary, Vitality, Energy, Spirit: A Taoist Handbook, op. cit., p. 94, 273 59. Ibid, p. 99 60. Ibid, p. 178-180, 103 61. Two Ways To Think About Nothing by Robert Krulwich 62. Brunton, op.cit., Vol. 15, Part 1, 8.115 63. Ibid, Vol. 13, Part 3, 4.39, 4.40, 4.85. 5.12, 5.13, 4.10, 5.19, 4.139, 5.128, 5.106, 5.107, 4.225 64. Vol. 5, Part 2, 7.2-4, 7.6 65. Anthony Damiani, Looking into Mind, op. cit., p. 18-19, 39, 44-45 65a. Brunton, op.cit., Vol. 13, Part 2, 4.133 66. Ibid, Vol. 13, Part 3, 4.54, 4.50, 5.87, 3.56, 3.57, 3.96. 3.97, 3.98; Part 2, 5.24, 5.39, 4.205 67. Ibid, Vol. 16, Part 4, 2.154 68. Ibid, 1.43, 1.101, 1.52, 1.115, 2.32, 2.40, 2.60, 1.125 69. Thomas Cleary, trans., The Inner Teachings of Taoism by Chang Po-Tuan, Commentary by Lin I-ming (Boston, Massachusetts, Shambhala, 1980), p. 76, 111, 115-116, 45-46 70. Thomas Cleary, Vitality, Energy, Spirit, op. cit., p. 78-79, 103 71. Ibid, p. 135 71a. Brunton, op. cit., Vol. 15, Part 1, 8.3-4, 106, 186, 187 71b. Ibid, 7.150 72. Jack Kornfield, A Path With Heart (New York: Bantam Books, 1993), p. 205-212 73. Brunton, op.cit., Vol.15, Part 1, 8.59, 8.62, 8.57 73a. Ibid, Vol. 6. 8:4.465 73b. Ibid, 8:4.422 73c. Anthony Damiani, Standing in Your Own Way, op. cit., p. 214-215 74. Brunton, op. cit., Vol. 5, Part 1, 2.149, 4.62 75. John Blofeld, The Zen Teaching of Huang Po: On the Transmission of Mind (New York: Grove Press, 1959), p. 4 75a. Brunton, op. cit., Vol. 4, Part 2, 2.36 76. James Swartz, How To Attain Enlightenment (Boulder, CO: First Sentient Publishers, 2009), p. 175
77. Greg Goode gives a different view than that of Swartz on awakening, from what has come to be known as the 'direct path', which has ancient roots with Hui-neng and some of the Ch'an masters and in modern times with Shree Atmananda Krishna Menon. He contrasts that with the understanding given in the traditional Hindu Vedanta/Yoga teachings. To be fair, he does not deny the truth of Vedanta, but offers a different way of looking at things. He starts (excerpted from his above-linked article) with a brief discussion of how these two paths treat the subject of deep sleep:
"In a nutshell, the direct path is the only path I know of that treats deep sleep the way it does. Traditional Advaita Vedanta (of which the Tripura Rahasya is an expression) treats deep sleep as a very subtle covering, but a covering nonetheless. The direct path treats deep sleep as your nature - witnessing awareness with no objects."
[Note: A classic vedantic/yogic explanation for our apparent nescience in deep sleep is that the first covering of the Atman, the anandamaya kosha, is active, giving us the 'memory of bliss' upon awakening, but the vijnanamaya kosha is not active, so we have no knowledge of this in sleep itself, only inferring so upon waking. Yogic schools such as Sant Mat argue that in dream one's attention falls to the throat center, where one is subconscious, and in deep sleep to the navel, where one is unconscious, while the Kriya path of Paramahana Yogananda asserts that during sleep the astral and causal bodies detach from the outer senses and retire to the internal organs, the spine, and the subconscious mind. The direct path apparently refutes all of this].
"[The] Tripura Rahasya...is seeking to posit the mind as the site of awakening - traditional Advaita Vedanta speaks of the "akhanda akara vritti," [which Swartz mentioned] which is said to be the mental modification that causes awakening. Awakening is definitely said to happen in the mind, being a modification of the mind. So the mind must be active for this to happen."
[V. Subramanian offers an explanation of this event:
"It is the jiva that experiences ignorance, samsara. it is this jiva that strives for knowledge. Ultimately it is this jiva that gets the realization. it happens through a peculiar vritti (transformation of the mind) called akhandakara vritti. When due to prolonged practice, the mind takes on the 'form' of Brahman [the 'undivided'], there occurs the destruction of the ignorance located in the jiva and thereby the jiva gets liberated. Once this happens that person is no longer jiva, but Brahman....It is the False self that gets the realization. This marks the end of the false and just the 'Self' remains"]. (87)
"The direct path is different - awakening is spoken of inspirationally and rhetorically - but it is not seen as a true biographical event, especially one that requires explanation. An awakening event, like any event, would be a phenomenal event. But as such it is a mere appearance in awareness, so it can't be a real, functioning portal through which you transcend phenomenality. From the beginning there was no such need."
"This is why according to the direct path, none of the dramatic stories you hear, including the one in this interview, can be taken seriously as events, or need to be. So there is no need to postulate a locale where the event takes place. There's no place there! So there's no true awakening event. Instead, all is wakefulness!" Papaji also appeared to be of this school:
"You are that which is present even in forgetfulness because you are Aware that you are forgetful. You are the Consciousness of Awareness in the three states of waking, dreaming and sleeping. Only Self does not vanish in these three states." (88)
As did PB:
“A man never leaves Consciousness...Whether asleep or awake, wrapped in himself or out in the world, his essential being remains what it is...Every man is conscious being, even in deep sleep.” (89)
However, he seemed to be of two minds about it:
"When a man falls totally asleep, when no thoughts and no dreams are active, he has withdrawn (or more accurately been withdrawn) into the centre of his being. He can go no farther inwards. He is really alone with the Overself but, being unable to harmonize with it, the principle of consciousness is not active." ! (source misplaced)]
"This is why in the direct path, deep sleep is not seen as a covering of the mind, but as an interval during which you are present even though the mind is not. One of the exercises in the direct path is to contemplate how every experience is like deep sleep."
The issue of sleep is a complicated and profound one, and we are only dipping our feet in the waters here. As even the sages disagree, this will be covered in greater detail in a future article. There is real divided line among teachers and traditions whether there is awareness there or not, 'before' enlightenment. The direct path doesn't recognize an event of enlightenment, but states that awareness is always present; Vedanta 'sort of' recognizes an event; Anadi most definitely says that the state of presence or awareness isn't there until it is recognized, and that only the most advanced sages are 'aware' in deep sleep. The Tibetans like Patrul Rinpoche criticize the gods who dwell in 'a formless realm like deep-sleep', which is a mere blankness in which there is no chance of hearing or realizing the Dharma. Greg, however, concludes that deep sleep thus shows us that we are consciousness without objects, and therefore the consciousness in which objects appear, and as an after-thought adds, "Isn't the self Nirguna?" To me this is an oversimplification of a deep topic. It also ignores the important issue of further development, even divinization of the personal or soul nature, after the realization of one's conscious nature, by assuming that once one sees that all is consciousness the game is over. This really requires an extended discussion all its own. Shree Atmananda in his later works preferred to use the term ‘I-Principle’ rather than ‘consciousness’ as the fundamental (Subjective) Experience (anubhava), as he felt the term conscousness too subject to misinterpretation and confusion. We agree in the sense that consciousness has no meaning without something to be conscious of. And is this 'I-Principle', then, known in deep sleep?
78. Swami Nikhilinanda, trans., The Mandukya Upanishad with Guadapada's Karika and Sankara's Commentary (Kolkata, India: Advaita Ashram, 2010), p. xviii 79. Chandradhar Sharma, The Advaita Tradition in Indian Philosophy (Delhi, India: Motilal Banarsidass, 2007), p. 233 80. Jose Ignacio Cabezon, op. cit., p. 151 81. Gambhirananda, op. cit., p. 38 82. Sakharov Sophrony, The Monk of Mount Athos: Startez Siluan (Crestwood, New York, 1975), p. 100-101 83. Kyriakos Markides, Gifts of the Desert (New York: Doubleday, 2005), p. 305-306 84. Ibid, p. 241 85. Brunton, op. cit., Vol. 13, Part 2, 4.304 86. Stephen Mitchell, ed., An Anthology of Sacred Poetry, "The Enlightened Heart" (New York: Harper & Row, 1989) 87. as quoted in: Dennis Waite, Back to the Truth: 5000 Years of Advaita (Winchster, England, O Books), p. 190 88. "The Truth Is", Sri H.W.L. Poonja, Yudhishtara, 1995 89. Brunton, op. cit., Vol. 13, 3:183,18 </poem>