Practicing Emptiness

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… 🙂


5 thoughts on “Practicing Emptiness

  1. theravadin May 1, 2008 / 9:36 pm

    Quote: 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.

    Hi Soraj! Very good post. Enjoyed the last paragraph most 🙂

  2. Cittasamvaro May 2, 2008 / 2:01 pm

    Kind of hard to write about emptiness… for what can you write?

    I’d kind of skipped this sutta in favour of the others on Emptiness, but now you have brought it up, it seems both interesting and relevant that here ‘Emptiness’ is not just ‘Empty’, but progressively more empty!

    Chao Khun Thanissara has done Buddhism a great service putting all these translations and articles up for free. However, some choices for transliteration are a bit unfortunate. ‘Stress’ for Dukkha … ?

  3. soraj May 2, 2008 / 2:59 pm

    Thanks for the comments. I still am looking for the best template for this blog that allows for big comments. The letters here are way too small for my eyes.

    Having said that, I think this is one of the more important Suttas. It was mentioned to me by somebody in a Thai language web forum on Buddhism ( This site sometimes contains gems that really advance our understanding.

    I kind of agree with Ven. Cittasamvaro on the translation of ‘dukkha’ as ‘stress’. Perhaps Ven. Thanissaro would like to emphasize the point that dukkha is applicable to everything, and not only our mental faculties? So it might sound strange to say that a rock, for example is ‘suffering’ 🙂 But it *is* conditioned by various causes and conditions (I think in Pali this is “Samkharadukkhata” – sorry I don’t know how to put diacritical marks on wordpress yet), so it seems to make more sense to say that the rock is *stressed* in some way?

  4. Cittasamvaro May 3, 2008 / 5:56 pm

    I’m a bit of an expert now in WordPress – let me know if I can help.
    The Sapphire theme does have small text size for commentsbut people can always use the ‘text size’ button in explorer (hit and ) or firefox, or the page zoom function of explorer at the bottom right of the window.

    ‘Stress’ in an engineering sense makes sense, but the word conjours a perception of ‘stressed out’ kind of stress. We have inherited a bunch of terms now, that for the sake of homogenity are best kept – if one is not going to use the Pali term. ‘Mindfulness’ is another one ….

  5. Kunzang September 4, 2008 / 1:23 pm

    Have been surfing around the wonderful web of knowledge and come across Khenpo Tsultrim’s Progressive Stages of meditation on Emptiness inn a book review on Chapter 3. I will be interested to read his book. It seems one of the most concise treatments of systematic investigation (per Mahayan) — also, Heartwood of the Bodhi Tree, Buddhadasa

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