See the World as Empty

Transcription from online discourse recorded Jun 13, 2018 (from the You Tube channel)

The one teaching which is truly unique to the Buddha is the teaching on emptiness (or not-self). This was something brand new brought into the world. The Buddha was teaching in an environment in a place and time when there were many philosophers and samanas and the field of thought, philosophy, and spiritual ideas was very rich. But it took a Buddha to discover and proclaim this idea of the emptiness of self and other. This was something brand new and unique and its the teaching of not-self is still to this day subtle and difficult. When people first encounter it they find it either baffling or frightening because we have an implicit assumption of an essence, a self and it seems so natural to think in that way. But it is exactly this wrong thinking, the identification of substantiality of the self and substantiality of the objects is precisely this wrong way of thinking that leads us into suffering. This is a root ignorance. This is what keeps us tied to samsaric becoming, to conditioned reality, to the cycle of birth and death. The Brahmin student Mogha Raja asked the Buddha "how can I escape the gaze of the lord of death" and the Buddha answered with 3 terms. He said, "be ever mindful, abandon thoughts of self, and see the world as empty". So Mogha Raja’s question is a way of phrasing in rather poetic terms a way of phrasing the quintessential existential dilemma. What the Zen people call the "great matter" the question of life and death.

This was of course the question asked by the Buddhisatta before his enlightenment when he went seeking wisdom, seeking liberation, was how can I escape from birth and death. So the Buddha's answer is entirely in terms of our internal states. How we hold the mind and how we see and perceive. It begins with being mindful. Mindful in Pali is Sati. Sati is tied to the idea of memory. Sati has been translated generally as mindfulness but some of the older English translations use recollectedness. Which I think is probably better, probably more accurate. I think that a short definition of mindfulness is remembering to be present. So when you are mindful you remember who you are, where you are, what you doing. You feel situated, you feel stable, you are not confused. This is tied up with the idea of wakefulness. The word Buddha means one who is awake. As practitioners, as followers of the Buddha's path, we should be endeavoring to be more awake. If you are not mindful you are stumbling through life as if in a dream. You are confused. So be mindful, be awake, remember to be present, remember to have the mental faculties gathered.

So this is the initial injunction to Mogha Raja. That's nothing can be accomplished without being mindful. This is the first thing. The other two terms are seeing the emptiness, the voidness of self and other. "Be ever mindful Mogha Raja, see the world as empty, and abandon thoughts of self". The ordinary person, the unenlightened person, the putthujana has a default way of understanding. Of assuming a reality of an essence, of a self. This doesn't have to elaborate into a philosophical thought system although it can be. In most cases, it's just a default assumption. But in ancient India for example there was very prevalent the idea of an Atman (this is Sanskrit, the Pali is Atta). An Atman or an Atta was conceived to be the stable impenetrable, unmoving, constant essence of a being. For example in the later texts, Hindu texts, the Bhagavad Gitta it is described that when a person dies and is reborn the Atman is unaffected and it's like a person waking up in the morning and putting on a fresh suit of clothes. But the concept of a self, whether it's just assumed or whether it's elaborated philosophically as an Atman or a Jiva or a soul; this is not a concept that leads to freedom, to liberation because the being who identifies with a self has something to lose. There is a constant desire in the mind to protect the self to aggrandize the self and any change in the phenomena is seen as a threat to the self. So it's not a way of seeing that conduces to peace or to happiness. One is always afraid. One feels that there is something to protect, something to nourish, and in the reality, we see that all the phenomena, the aggregates that make up a human being are constantly in a state of change. The body changes, we sicken, we get old, we get injured. This is a change in the aggregate of the body. The mind is constantly changing, the feelings we pass from happy feelings to sad feelings and back again. The mental formations are in a constant state of flux. When we actually look we don't find anything stable permanent and lasting.

This becomes a difficult delusion to shake, to become free of, and it exists in the mind in layers. One form of the self-view is sakkaya ditthi. Which literally means the" own body view". It is usually translated as personality view. It's one of the feters that the samyojana only overcome with the attainment of stream-entry. The first stage of awakening, the first realization of the unconditioned. This is a sense of self at the level of view (ditthi). Ditthi is something a bit more and deeper than an opinion or a belief although it includes that, it manifests as that. It's essentially the way of seeing the world, the way we hold reality in the mind. It's close to the German philosophical term "weltanschauung" if anyone is familiar with that. It's a view in the mind, the way we view the world, the way we see things. Initially, before any development of wisdom, we inevitably see things in terms of self and other and this is personality view. This is sakkaya ditthi. The stream-winner, the sotapann,a has glimpsed the unconditioned and this experience changes the base, the root of the being’s understanding completely so that it is no longer possible for the stream-winner to hold this view of self (sakkaya ditthi).

It's possible to work towards an understanding of not-self, an attenuation of sakkaya ditthi prior to stream-entry but it's like an asymptote, a mathematical asymptote, a limit, it approaches zero endlessly but never quite reaches it and it takes this experience of the unconditioned to make the final leap. But we can approach the idea of not-self in one of two ways. Either by a close examination of the constituent processes that make up our human existence. This is an examination of the aggregates, to begin with. The body, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness and in each one of these can further be divided and subdivided, and nowhere do we find anything that can be identified as a self. So this is looking closer and closer more minutely and is essentially a process of exhaustion. We look at each particular component and we see this is not-self. This is not me, this is not mine, and nowhere find any component, any process, anything thing that we can identify as this is the essential core, this is unchanging, this is the central essence. There is no such thing, there is only transient, immediate objects, processes. To think clearly about this one of the stumbling blocks is linguistic. We inevitably have to use nouns and it doesn't matter what language you're using whether it's English or Pali or Thai or any other language. We talk about mind and consciousness and feelings using nouns. So this creates an assumption in the mind that there is something substantial, some realified object that we can hold and deal with. Whereas actually, they are only verbs in reality. Things are constantly happening but there is nothing doing it. It's an ongoing process.

So this leads naturally into the other way of thinking about not-self, the other approach. Instead of going into the finer and finer degree of resolution, we broaden our perspective and we look at the relational aspect of things. This is very important as well. It's very useful as a balance. This is the contemplation of the dependent origination. That nothing arises without a cause. Nothing arises through a single cause. Everything is interdependent. So no part of our being, no part of the external world is fully independent. In fact, nothing has any existence without a relational aspect. One very succinct way this is expressed is the saying "nothing exists from its own side". This is a very deep and useful contemplation. Things exist only from the other side and when you go out to the other side that doesn't exist either, that only exists from the other side. Things are a reflection of each other. They are without intrinsic essence.

So see the world as empty, abandon thoughts of self. So we can train ourselves to think in terms that are congruent with dhamma. This is abandoning thoughts of self. One practical way this can work in ordinary life is dealing with troublesome mental states. Whether it's anger or fear or grief when oppressive mental states arise don't think "I am angry" or "I am afraid". Instead, regard it as anger has arisen or fear has arisen so we don't personalize, we don't take ownership of the transient mental states. It's not me, not mine. So this is talking about self at the level of view (sakkaya ditthi). This is abandoned by the stream-winner (sotapanna) but there still remains another more subtle layer of self-identification which is asmi mana. Which is the way of holding self not with view but with perception. This is what distinguishes it. So a stream-winner has abandoned the view of self but there still remains a perception of self. It occurs at the level of perception. One way of thinking of it is that there remains a privileged perspective. There is still a tendency to perceive the world in terms of self and other even though there isn't a view of self. Self is already seen as unreal but there is still a tendency for the mind to organize perception in those terms (as self and other). So this is a deeper more subtle layer of delusion. So it's not all overcome at once, this is something that takes a persistent effort to approach but the more we can get glimpses into the emptiness of self the freer and the lighter the mind becomes. It is possible to have these glimpses, this understanding, this dawning of understanding to see the unreality of this concept itself. This is a way of approaching freedom from fear, freedom from oppression, freedom from anxiety. The mind begins to lighten because there is nothing to gain, nothing to lose, nowhere to go. So abandoning thoughts of self, we might call this the special case of the more general principle of emptiness. See the world as empty Mogha Raja. The emptiness applies not just to the self but to all phenomena. Every object of consciousness every Dhamma is without a self essence.

There was a concept in Indian thought of the Svabhava (the own essence of things). This has a close relative in western thought. The idea that comes from Aristotle of substance and quality. That things have a substance and the substance can be colored by different qualities. The Buddhist view was that no such essence can be found. That all Dhammas which arise are essentially empty. They don't exist from their own side, nothing exists from its own side.

When we can look at phenomena and see it as essentially empty then we are following this injunction "see the world as empty". This is something that we can train methodically. We can train the mind to look at the objects arising and the technical term for an object in Pali is a dhamma. The mind takes dhammas. A dhamma is the minimalist unit of reality. It's been translated by one translator as "point instant". Which really points to the idea of a dhamma. A point is a mathematical concept of a location in space with zero dimension and an instant is a location in time of zero duration. So point instant is the minimalist expression of reality and all of reality is composed of these constantly fluctuating dhammas that only exist for an instantaneous moment. When we do insight meditation (we do vipassana) we're looking with the mind at dhammas. We are training the mind to observe the actuality, the reality of things. The fundamental nature of the momentary occurrence and when this is done well then the mind becomes very bright and clear and fluid. Experience is reduced to its bare fundamentals. In any single moment of time, there is only the object and consciousness knowing the object, in the expression of Mahasi Sayadaw. He said there is only the object and the mind knowing the object and no third besides (the third being the self). So there is the object and the mind knowing the object but there is nobody doing it. It becomes quite clear that any sense of a self that's either creating the objects or activating consciousness is quite superfluous. There is no point to the idea, it's useless. As an explanatory object has no value, has no place, there is simply the object and the mind knowing the object.

The idea of a self, an essence is just a convention. It's kind of a mental shorthand for explaining things when we don't fully see, when we don't fully understand. So it's kind of a superstition. It's kind of a superstitious illusion in the mind. It's creating something as an organizing principle. When things are understood properly it's completely superfluous. So there's an emptiness on both sides. Mind knowing the object as empty and the object that is seen or known is empty and this emptiness (sunya) is the most fundamental principle of reality. One of the important teachings of the buddha is that every dhamma whether it's internal or external, whether it's past or future, it has the three characteristics. That is Dukkha, Anicca and Anatta. Dukkha is imperfection and unsatisfactoriness (loosely speaking suffering). Anicca is impermanence, transience, and momentariness. Anatta is emptiness, not-self and not existing from its own side. These three characteristics are found in sankharas (all compounded things). So they apply to all conditioned phenomena in samsara. Of these three it is only Anatta that we can say truly applies to all dhammas because it also applies to Nibhana, the unconditioned, is also empty, void. So this principle of sunya applies to both samsara and Nibhana. So it is truly the most fundamental principle of reality. It's a core principle of Buddhist practice to strive to approach this understanding.

So remember the admonition to Mogha Raja, "be ever mindful, see the world as empty and abandon thoughts of self". This is truly the way to experience liberation, wakefulness, clarity, peace. This is a core teaching of Buddhism. The one teaching that is unique to the Buddhas.

Ajahn Punnadhammo