Many seem to think that the conception of emptiness as ‘lack of inherent existence’ is too difficult and then does not relate much to the everyday practice of the Dharma. For example, one might think that such a conception is overly philosophical and is only an intellectual exercise. There are ways to practice emptiness that does not rely on such a conception, or so it might seem.
In the Culasunnata Sutta (Smaller Sutta on Emptiness), one of the key texts from the Pali canon, the Buddha was telling Ananda what it means by being empty. The monks, said the Buddha, enjoy an ’empty’ house, free of commotion and distracting noises. But the house is still a house, even though an empty one, so the monks further enjoy the forest, which is free of the house. They still recognize, nonetheless, that there is something in the forest and they direct their attention to their meditative minds. After going through all the stages of meditation from the grosser ones to the most refined ones, the monks finally realize that there is nothing to be fabricated whatsoever. In other words, all fabricated things (that is, things in so far as they are conceptualized or thought of as being something) are by their very nature impermanent and thus are causes of sufferings and continued rebirths within samsara. There is nothing that the monks could get hold of conceptually as being something. And the Buddha said that when the monks realize this, their minds become totally free from all the defilements, whether gross or refined, old or new. According to the Buddha, the monks then will have completed all that is there to be completed. There is no other task that leads to this condition. The monks, then, becomes an arahant, one who has completedly vanquished the foes of defilements.
Ven. Thanissaro has translated the key passage here in the Sutta as follows:
“He discerns that ‘This theme-less concentration of awareness is fabricated & mentally fashioned.’ And he discerns that ‘Whatever is fabricated & mentally fashioned is inconstant & subject to cessation.’ For him — thus knowing, thus seeing — the mind is released from the effluent of sensuality, the effluent of becoming, the effluent of ignorance. With release, there is the knowledge, ‘Released.’ He discerns that ‘Birth is ended, the holy life fulfilled, the task done. There is nothing further for this world.’
The key to the Buddha’s teaching here is that so long as there is any fabrication, no matter how refined and how high in terms of meditation stages it is, will unfailingly lead to sufferings. But to say that things are not to be fabricated is just another way of saying that things do lack inherent characteristics. So this key Pali text, which is the root teaching of all traditions of Buddhism, show clearly that the notion of lack of inherent characteristics, which is usually how Nagarjuna’s teaching is characterized, is also available in the Pali canon.
The tip on practicing and meditating on emptiness is this. First start with the usual meditation routine. Well, for beginners this is not a routine at all, and I will write in later posts on how to begin on meditation. But for those who know how to do it, start with the usual routine, which could be the breathing meditation and practicing bare attention. Then reflect on the meaning of the Culasunnata Sutta. The key point is that we are looking for an empty something in increasing levels of refinement, culminating in the realization that there is nothing that could be conceptualized as being something at all. Even the deepest meditation — that of pure one-pointedness with no visualizations — still has something that functions in the same as the house does. That is, it is still not empty, for it is still conceptualized as “pure one-pointedness stage with no visualization.” Hence there is still something that counts as an instance of “busyness” that keeps the mind away from pure, bare attention and elimination of causes of sufferings. This is like you are still cling on to their being a house even though you have managed to clear away things in it. But in the end you also have to clear away the house itself. Pure emptiness — no fabrications, no concepts.
I know this is heady stuff. Let us unpack this very important teaching of the Buddha further… 🙂