Perceiving Emptiness

There’s a story in the Suttas or the Discourses of the Buddha, which I am particularly interested. It’s a story about Bahiya. He used to be a merchant, but one day his ship was wrecked and he could barely made it alive on a shore. However, all his clothes were gone and he had to use some wooden planks to wrap himself with. He walked to a village that way and begged for food and clothes. The villagers saw him in that condition and thought that he was an “arahant” or one who had already vanquished all desires because he wore no clothes. So they worshipped him and provided him with a lot of things. Bahiya thought that the reason why the villagers came to worship him was that he was wearing the wooden planks, so he decided not to let go of the planks and actually enjoyed the status given to him by the villagers. Furthermore, he was afraid that the villagers might lose their respece if he returned to the normal way of life.

However, he encountered the god Brahma, who rebuked him a lot saying that he was wrong to deceive the villagers like that. Brahma told Bahiya in no uncertain terms that he was not an arahant. Bahiya then asked how he could really become one and Brahma said that he needed to meet Lord Buddha who could give teachings which would really enable one to become the real vanquisher. Having said that (and perhaps seeing Bahiya’s own potential), Brahma used his magical power to transport Bahiya thousands of miles away to were the Buddha was staying. It was said in the Sutra that Bahiya travelled these thousands of miles in only a single day. Bahiya then met the Buddha when he was walking in a morning alms round with his disciples. Realizing that there was no time for him, Bahiya came to the Buddha and entreated him to give a teaching that would enable him to become realized and an arahant. The Buddha replied that this was not the time, since he was on an alms round. Bahiya, however, said that there was really no time for him and asked the Buddha to give a short teaching so that he would not be too much distracted from his round. Seeing that Bahiya was really sincere, the Buddha then gave the following teaching:

Bahiya, when you see things with your eyes, just see them. When you hear things, just hear them. When you smell, taste or touch anything, just hear, smell and touch. And when you perceive your mental states, just perceive them.

While he was listening to this teaching, Bahiya then became liberated and actually became an arahant on the spot. He then asked the Buddha’s permission to become a monk. The Buddha then asked him to get the robes and all other necessities for a monk. However, while Bahiya was searching for these things, he was gored to death by a raging bull. The Buddha found his body and told his disciples that Bahiya was the one who realized the arahantship the fastest.

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So the Buddha’s teaching quoted above is a very powerful one. The key word here is the word ‘just.’ When you perceive anything, try it so that you just perceive it. Do it without any fabrication, without any thoughts. This is also known as to perceive Emptiness itself. There is in fact no such thing as Emptiness. It is only a word, a signpost so that we can communicate about the Buddha’s teaching here. When you see anything, for example, when you see a pleasant object like a rose, try not to fall for it and see it just as what it is. The reason why we are wandering around in samsara is precisely because we have not learned to perceive things just as what they are. When we see a rose we typically associate so many things with it — love, romance, sex and so on. The result is that we are entangled by the perception, taking all these to be real. But in fact they are not. Consequently our minds are always deluded and are always mired in this unsatisfactory state called “dukkha”. The word is usually translated as “suffering” but it is a very broad kind of suffering. Its meaning includes not only the kinds of suffering we are very accustomed to, but also the state of things in the world in so fas as they are always conditioned by their causes and conditions. Realizing that as a matter of fact there is no such thing as dukkha and that all things are just what they are and nothing more is thus a certain way ultimately  to become liberated from the cycle of deaths and rebirths. This is what the Buddha told Bahiya, who got the message very fast before he met his gory end.

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