What is empty? What is non-empty?

In my last post, I wrote about the Culasunnata Sutta, where the Buddha tells Ananda about the progressively deeper nature of being empty. The idea there is that the monks realize that all fabrications are causes of sufferings, since they are all subject of birth, duration and cessation. Realizing all these to be empty, the monks “become released from the bondage of samsara. In Ven. Thanissaro’s translation, “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.'”

Shades

Then the Sutta goes on:

“He discerns that ‘Whatever disturbances that would exist based on the effluent of sensuality… the effluent of becoming… the effluent of ignorance, are not present. And there is only this modicum of disturbance: that connected with the six sensory spheres, dependent on this very body with life as its condition.’ He discerns that ‘This mode of perception is empty of the effluent of sensuality… becoming… ignorance. And there is just this non-emptiness: that connected with the six sensory spheres, dependent on this very body with life as its condition.’ Thus he regards it as empty of whatever is not there. Whatever remains, he discerns as present: ‘There is this.’ And so this, his entry into emptiness, accords with actuality, is undistorted in meaning, pure — superior & unsurpassed.

So there is apparently something that remains non-empty. Let us look at this passage very carefully: He discerns that ‘This mode of perception is empty of the effluent of sensuality… becoming… ignorance. And there is just this non-emptiness: that connected with the six sensory spheres, dependent on this very body with life as its condition.’ What does this mean? Let us recall the story. The Buddha is telling Ananda that he is one who is full of the condition of being inside an empty house, or of one who dwells in Emptiness. After providing details of the progressively deeper nature of being empty, he arrives at the final destination: The monks realize that even the pure, single-pointed concentration without visualizations, or what Ven. Thanissaro translated as “theme-less concentration of awareness,” is mentally fabricated and subject to cessation. Hence even this is empty of its inherent characteris, which is just another way of saying the same thing. 

However, the monk then realizes that even at this deepest stage there is still non-emptiness, which is the disturbances causes by the six senses which depend on the very body as their conditions. This alone is what remains non-empty after all the progressing stages. But this is a very special case of being non-empty, for it does not refer to the content of the mind’s attention; instead it refers to the very physical condition that makes it possible for the mind to be focused on its object in this very deep level of concentration in the first place.

After all, the monk who is concentrating on emptiness here is not dead. He is still living and breathing. His six senses are still functioning. The eyes still see; the ears still hear, and so forth. This alone, says the Budha,  is not empty. But of course when the senses themselves are examined, such as when the monk looks at the eye, the eye then becomes just another object that is obviously conditioned and subject to birth and cessation, thus the eye is empty. But as the monk himself is living, he cannot escape this natural condition of having these functioning six sensory spheres.

To put the point simply, the six sensory spheres are non-empty because they provide the mind with subject matter — the six external ayatanas (objects of perceptions). These are “disturbances” because the monk will always have to deal with this throughout his life with mindfulness. These disturbances, however, do not actually disturb him because he is constanly mindful and he realizes that the perception of these external ayatanas are free from any possible trace of defilements. This is so because he has made his ‘house’ of the mind free or empty from them. He still perceives whatever he sees, hears, etc. as something, but it is a very special something in that there is actually nothing in it, or of it, at all.

(Of all the Suttas I have encountered this ranks among the hardest ones… )

One thought on “What is empty? What is non-empty?

  1. sulochanosho May 3, 2008 / 6:07 pm

    A great ‘sutra’ indeed, tricky at times but very much true. A very subtle way of knowing ’emptifulness’!

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