Emptiness and Practice

Many people seem to think that the teaching is emptiness is perhaps only for intellectual exercise. They think that talks about emptiness are for those who study Buddhism academically and have little to do with practice.

However, emptiness is at the heart of practice. Your practice won’t go anywhere without realization of emptiness, and in fact fully knowing emptiness is the mark of your practice. It is the ‘benchmark’ that tells if your practice has reached the intended goal or not.

The Buddha taught that there are three main components of practice — morality (or Sila), concentration, and wisdom. Without morality, concentration is not possible, and without concentration, wisdom is not possible. There can be no concentration without morality because if you live a very sinful life then your mind will be scattered too much and you will be distracted by all the immoral things you are doing, so it is not possible to concentrate at all. The mind that is free from these sinful acts (killing, stealing, committing sexual misconduct, lying, taking intoxicants and perhaps others in some cases) is the mind that free from distractions, and hence is ripe for meditation practice.

Furthermore, there can be no wisdom without concentration because we are talking about the kind of wisdom that is so close to us that we in fact become the wisdom. This is not mere reception of information, but the wisdom here has to penetrate deeply into your heart so that you are changed because of it. And this is not possible at all if you do not do meditation practice.

But here is the point: The wisdom I am talking about is nothing other than the realization of emptiness. Here all schools of Buddhism concur. You can study about emptiness in a classroom but then you would merge yourself into it and become one and the same with the teaching unless you take the emptiness to your heart. Then, and only then, will your defilements be eradicated and you be established on the Path.

So emptiness cannot be separated from meditation practice. Without the wisdom of emptiness, no Buddhahood is possible. And without meditation practice, no such wisdom is possible. This is why the study of emptiness cannot be separated from practice in any way.

2 thoughts on “Emptiness and Practice

  1. Cittasamvaro April 27, 2008 / 7:05 pm

    Thanissaro Bhikkhu says in an excellent text on Emptiness:
    The Buddha’s teachings on emptiness — contained in two major discourses and several smaller ones — define it in three distinct ways: as an approach to meditation, as an attribute of the senses and their objects, and as a state of concentration

    The essay is here: http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/integrityofemptiness.html

    In the Majjhima the Buddha tells Sariputta that Emptiness is the appropriate dwelling of an arahant. Of course, in Mahayana the teaching was developed much further, but like most Mahayana teachings, there are roots in the Pali.

  2. soraj April 27, 2008 / 8:22 pm

    Thanks for your comments. The Thanissaro article is really great. I don’t think there is any real differences between what Ven. Thanissaro has said and the typical Mahayana attitude. What is key is that understanding things as not having inherent characteristics is indeed contained in the Buddha’s teachings. However, the teachings could be regarded in many ways and at many levels depending on the circumstances and on the audience.

    What Ven. Thanissaro is emphasizing is the possible downside of Nagarjuna’s Doctrine on Emptiness. This is why Nagarjuna said in the text that an incorrect understanding of Emptiness is like catching a snake at the wrong end. A mistaken conception of Emptiness would besomething like: If things are really empty, then one can do anything, and one’s practicing the Dharma would be of no use, because there is no one who practices, no paths, no goals. One could as well do anything one pleases. But that is totally wrong and should be made clear at the beginning that this is the gross misconception that will lead one straight to the lower realms.

    So it is appropriate to approach the Emptiness teaching gradually. One starts by actually following what Ven. Thanissaro is suggesting. In the text he cited the Sutta and says that “In this way he is released from the mental fermentations — sensual desire, becoming, views, ignorance — that would “bubble up” into further becoming. He observes that this release still has the disturbances that come with the functioning of the six sense spheres, but that it’s empty of all fermentation, all potential for further suffering and stress.” One is relieved from all causes and conditions that lead one to sufferings. This is Emptiness. In the end there remains nothing that is fabricated at all.

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