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Emptiness understood?

JeffreyJeffrey Veteran
edited March 2014 in Philosophy

This was on my facebook feed:
This is how I heard it taught. It includes self empty conditioned phenomena and also the qualities of Buddha nature which are also considered empty.

Emptiness: The Most Misunderstood Word in Buddhism

"Emptiness" is a central teaching of all Buddhism, but its true meaning is often misunderstood. If we are ever to embrace Buddhism properly into the West, we need to be clear about emptiness, since a wrong understanding of its meaning can be confusing, even harmful. The third century Indian Buddhist master Nagarjuna taught, "Emptiness wrongly grasped is like picking up a poisonous snake by the wrong end." In other words, we will be bitten! <

Ari Goldfield, a Buddhist teacher at Wisdom Sun and translator of Stars of Wisdom , summarizes these two aspects as follows:
the first meaning of emptiness is called "emptiness of essence," which means that phenomena [that we experience] have no inherent nature by themselves." The second is called "emptiness in the context of Buddha Nature," which sees emptiness as endowed with qualities of awakened mind like wisdom, bliss, compassion, clarity, and courage. Ultimate reality is the union of both emptinesses."

Finally, since emptiness seems so difficult to understand, why did the Buddha teach it at all?

lobsterwangchueyZendoLord84LostSoul
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Comments

  • karastikarasti Breathing Minnesota Moderator

    Is that from the Dzogchen Discussion that Jackson Peterson runs? I saw the exact thing on my newsfeed and that is where it was from. I saw someone had asked why Buddha taught it if it was so hard to understand. I didn't comment but it seems that Buddha's audience then is not quite the same as it is now.

    It's one of those things I can grasp a little at a time, logically, but it comes much easier in experience with a severe lack of words to attempt to explain it. I don't personally find it terribly hard to understand now but I did at the start and had the same "What? Life is empty? Pffft Buddhism isn't for me" reaction that a lot of people have when introduced to the concept poorly.

  • Yeah @karasti that's from Jackson Peterson's feed. Incidentally I assumed there is no copyright issue since FB is public domain. If the FB person wants a credit I am happy to give it, but I didn't want to put it if the author wanted to remain anonymous.

  • karastikarasti Breathing Minnesota Moderator

    No, I think you are right. The comments and posts are public (it is not a secret group). Jackson is coming here for a 4 day retreat with my sangha in August. I'm signed up but I haven't yet decided if I will go. Dzogchen stuff is still pretty hard for me to grasp, much of it anyhow, and I haven't read his book yet, either. But he is offering plenty of time for personal interviews with him, so I will probably go anyhow. Maybe my understanding of things will be better afterwards.

    Jeffrey
  • NevermindNevermind Bitter & Hateful Veteran

    @person said:
    I think a couple common misunderstandings are that emptiness equates to nihilism or it means feeling emotionally empty.

    So what does it feel like then? Lol

    The important thing to understand is what is empty? What is empty is inherent existence, that means things exist fundamentally and independently of other things, like a bunch of billiard balls scattering about bumping into each other.

    Oh really, but isn't that your discursive mind telling this story?

    I think an easy way to think of it is the concept of interdependence, all phenomena co-arise in dependence on other things.

    And you know this to be true?

    Objects only gain an independent quality in our minds when we unconsciously identify, label and isolate them. Granted that is a necessary part of thinking and living but its not the fundamental way reality exists.

    Uh, if I'm following correctly, your identifying, label'n & islolate'n mind is telling this story. What does that tell us???

  • The wrong usage of the word ie. emptiness creates much confusion.
    Should have left it untranslated as sunyata.

    The Pali canon uses the term emptiness in three ways: "(1) as a meditative dwelling, (2) as an attribute of objects, and (3) as a type of awareness-release.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Śūnyatā

    wangchueyCitta
  • CittaCitta Veteran
    edited March 2014

    @pegembara said:
    The wrong usage of the word ie. emptiness creates much confusion.
    Should have left it untranslated as sunyata.

    Indeed its just one of many Dharma terms ( like 'dharma ' itself ) where we have to do the work and go to it.

    We have to internalise it by seeing it over and over in context.

    Translating it in our minds is doomed to failure.

    We cant expect complex terms in Pali or Sanskrit to be exchangable for single words in English.

    Other examples of words best left untranslated are 'dukkha ' and 'punabhava ' .

    anataman
  • @Citta said:

    "Translating it in our minds is doomed to failure"

    It's inevitable that we do. The best approach is to regard such translations as provisional.

  • CittaCitta Veteran
    edited March 2014

    Its not inevitable that we do.

    I stopped doing that a long time ago and so did a lot of other people I know.

    In exactly the same way that I stopped having to translate French to English in my head.

    And its not 'provisional ' its merely inadequate.

  • @Citta said:
    In exactly the same way that I stopped having to translate French to English in my head.

    That isn't a good analogy at all, you're missing the point.

  • CittaCitta Veteran
    edited March 2014

    Its exactly the point.

    Its about the transition that happens when you learn a language, whether conversationally or learning selected technical terms.

    First you translate it in your head.

    Eventually you do not need to do that.

    When I read the word ' Shunyata ' I don't translate it at all because I have internalised the meaning of the word by reading in in context over a period of time.

    I certainly dont think ' oh yes emptiness or voidness ' or whatever ...

    Chazpegembara
  • CittaCitta Veteran
    edited March 2014

    Likewise when I am in France I don't think that a one-to-one French to English word is likely to be possible, or that I will be understood if I speak English loudly and slowly.

  • seeker242seeker242 Zen Florida, USA Veteran

    @Jeffrey said:

    Finally, since emptiness seems so difficult to understand, why did the Buddha teach it at all?

    Because there were some people whose practice reached a point where it was not difficult to understand. And the Buddha taught each person appropriately.

    lobster
  • CittaCitta Veteran

    @seeker242 said:

    Or whomever actually developed that particular teaching, about which there is some uncertainty.

    Your answer stands anyway.

  • anatamananataman Who needs a title? Where am I? Veteran

    Not wishing to entertain emotions that a discussion of emptiness can bring; I thought I would bring a couple of pointers to mind, particularly as my meditation today was on emptiness, and it was a good one.

    First, and @Citta has alluded or explained this in other posts, words cannot convey what is in essence the experience of emptiness or Sunyata.

    Secondly, the buddha cannot teach anyone what true emptiness is, he can only teach you how to experience it for yourself, and that is where a meditation practice is paramount.

    Like I have done, and we all do, and are doing now is talk ourselves in ever-decreasing circles, only to conclude that at its epicentre our ego is responsible for taking us away from the very thing we seek.

    I had a nice experience of emptiness in my mediation after my mind had settled. I realised the emptiness of phenomena and the emptiness of buddha nature, but I'm still here, with my ego as a companion. What does that say about emptiness, perhaps its supremely happy to silently let's things be in awareness as they arise and pass away.

    My ego says - I want to get me some more of that magical meditation stuff; Wonderful thought ego, let's go there together, hand in hand with the cosmic mudra in our lap. lol

    Mettha

  • It's because all things are unestablished and unborn that they function.

  • personperson Don't believe everything you think the void Veteran
    edited March 2014

    @Nevermind said:
    @person said: I think a couple common misunderstandings are that emptiness equates to nihilism or it means feeling emotionally empty.

    N: So what does it feel like then? Lol

    It feels like fireworks shooting off in your brain.

    p: The important thing to understand is what is empty? What is empty is inherent existence, that means things exist fundamentally and independently of other things, like a bunch of billiard balls scattering about bumping into each other.

    N: Oh really, but isn't that your discursive mind telling this story?

    Yes, really. I have totally transcended the need for discursive thought.

    p:I think an easy way to think of it is the concept of interdependence, all phenomena co-arise in dependence on other things.

    N: And you know this to be true?

    Is the Pope catholic?

    p:Objects only gain an independent quality in our minds when we unconsciously identify, label and isolate them. Granted that is a necessary part of thinking and living but its not the fundamental way reality exists.

    N: Uh, if I'm following correctly, your identifying, label'n & islolate'n mind is telling this story. What does that tell us???

    Ok, ok, I concede. You have run logical circles around me, I cannot withstand the assault, indeed I have not realized emptiness directly.

    Nevermind
  • NevermindNevermind Bitter & Hateful Veteran

    @person said:
    I have not realized emptiness directly.

    Okay thanks for being honest, but what were you talking about before then?

  • personperson Don't believe everything you think the void Veteran

    @Nevermind said:
    Okay thanks for being honest, but what were you talking about before then?

    I was trying to refute your points but I finally realized I was outmatched.

    Nevermind
  • NevermindNevermind Bitter & Hateful Veteran

    @person said:

    I mean before that, silly goose. :p

  • personperson Don't believe everything you think the void Veteran

    @Nevermind said:
    I mean before that, silly goose. :p

    Emptiness, I continue to try to explain it in the easiest way to understand that I can but apparently I have more work to do on that front.

    VastmindDavid
  • VastmindVastmind Memphis, TN Veteran

    ^^^ match point ... ;) ...

    person
  • NevermindNevermind Bitter & Hateful Veteran

    @person said:
    Emptiness, I continue to try to explain it in the easiest way to understand that I can but apparently I have more work to do on that front.

    My point is that people attribute all sorts of qualities to religious Truths like emptiness. People who even admit that they have no experience. I suppose there are different reasons for why people do this.

  • personperson Don't believe everything you think the void Veteran

    @Nevermind said:
    My point is that people attribute all sorts of qualities to religious Truths like emptiness. People who even admit that they have no experience. I suppose there are different reasons for why people do this.

    Right, ok so if we haven't realized the teachings don't talk about them. I can see why you argue so much with people.

    I don't really agree though, in my tradition the monks spend lots of time debating philosophical points to gain a greater understanding. The idea is that having a solid intellectual grasp of the teachings will help one better develop those qualities.

    anatamankarastipegembara
  • JasonJason God Emperor Arrakis Moderator

    In my opinion, emptiness in and of itself isn't all the hard to understand or experience.

    As a doctrinal term, emptiness (adj. sunna, noun sunnata) is used in a couple of different but related ways in Pali Canon. In one context, emptiness is used as a mode of perception, a way of looking at experience that's utilized in meditation (e.g., MN 121, MN 122).

    In another context, emptiness refers to the insubstantiality of the five clinging-aggregates and the six sense media (e.g., SN 22.95, SN 35.85). In this sense, it's synonymous with not-self, or as Richard Gombrich sums it up in What the Buddha Thought, the idea that, "Nothing in the world [of our normal experience] has an unchanging essence."

    While the latter context is more inline with the OP, and potentially more difficult to realize, the former is actually quite easy, and can lead naturally to the latter.

    For example, going to a secluded area, such a quiet room, and perceiving our experience of it as being empty of whatever isn't there (e.g., other people, etc.) is utilizing it as a mode of perception, which can them be refined to analyzing our experience of the aggregates themselves.

    seeker242pegembara
  • NevermindNevermind Bitter & Hateful Veteran

    @person said:
    I don't really agree though, in my tradition the monks spend lots of time debating philosophical points to gain a greater understanding. The idea is that having a solid intellectual grasp of the teachings will help one better develop those qualities.

    Uh... If that's true then why do you resist debating?

  • personperson Don't believe everything you think the void Veteran

    @Nevermind I think maybe? I see what you were responding to. While I feel my initial post stuck with accepted teachings I put it in my own words and I did have some conceit in there. Perhaps you have a nose for such things and took issue with it?

  • NevermindNevermind Bitter & Hateful Veteran

    Uh.................... I was simply debating you wrote about emptiness

  • anatamananataman Who needs a title? Where am I? Veteran
    edited March 2014

    ever-decreasing circles my friends! Time to go experience it...

    wangchuey
  • karastikarasti Breathing Minnesota Moderator

    There is a different in friendly, healthy debate and aggression and condescending attitudes. Debate (to me) means you express your point of view and await the response. It doesn't mean you point fingers and drill questions. I see you asking a lot of questions, @Nevermind, but I don't see you offering your own understanding, as usual. Pointing out what you see as a fault in someone else isn't debate.

  • personperson Don't believe everything you think the void Veteran

    @Nevermind said:
    Uh.................... I was simply debating you wrote about emptiness

    Maybe in your mind you think you're debating my points but none of your arguments were about emptiness they were about my experience, or lack thereof, of it so I'm trying to understand what you were really reacting to and talk about that instead.

    I probably shouldn't engage but I'm a bit bored.

  • anatamananataman Who needs a title? Where am I? Veteran

    I ergo ego

    @person said:
    I probably shouldn't engage but I'm a bit bored.

    Have you tried meditating on boredom - it's an eye opener

  • personperson Don't believe everything you think the void Veteran
    edited March 2014

    @anataman said:
    I ergo ego
    Have you tried meditating on boredom - it's an eye opener

    Go... on... without me...:werr: It's too late for me... cough... think of your wife and child... they love you and need you... cough...

    Vastmindanataman
  • ChazChaz The Remarkable Chaz Anywhere, Everywhere & Nowhere Veteran

    @Nevermind said:
    Uh, if I'm following correctly, your identifying, label'n & islolate'n mind is telling this story. What does that tell us???

    That you're trying very hard to be clever.

    You must be a riot at cocktail parties.:-P

  • The understanding of emptiness is a jewel to carry with you even though you left the raft along the shore.

    anataman
  • NevermindNevermind Bitter & Hateful Veteran
    edited March 2014

    @person said:
    Maybe in your mind you think you're debating my points but none of your arguments were about emptiness they were about my experience, or lack thereof, of it so I'm trying to understand what you were really reacting to and talk about that instead.

    Well, hopefully your points align with your experience, but in any case lets review...

    You wrote that emptiness doesn't make one feel "emotionally empty." So I naturally asked how it feels, being that you claim to know what it feels like. You wrote back, "It feels like fireworks shooting off in your brain." But later you admit "I have not realized emptiness directly." So it seems you don't know what emptiness feels like. My efforts have been fruitful in uncovering that you don't know if emptiness feels "emotionally empty," whatever that is supposed to mean.

    You also wrote:

    Objects only gain an independent quality in our minds when we unconsciously identify, label and isolate them. Granted that is a necessary part of thinking and living but its not the fundamental way reality exists.

    That's hilarious. It's hilarious because you're identifying reality. How are you identifying reality?

  • NevermindNevermind Bitter & Hateful Veteran

    @karasti said:
    I see you asking a lot of questions, Nevermind, but I don't see you offering your own understanding, as usual.

    It's bad to be curious?

    Pointing out what you see as a fault in someone else isn't debate.

    Debate is discussion, as of a public question in an assembly, involving opposing viewpoints. The flaw in your thinking here is that you believe I'm finding fault "in someone else" as though that person were flawed in some way. You are not flawed for thinking in this way. It is merely a flaw in thinking.

  • karastikarasti Breathing Minnesota Moderator

    LOL ok then.

  • JeffreyJeffrey Veteran
    edited March 2014

    @seeker242 said:
    Because there were some people whose practice reached a point where it was not difficult to understand. And the Buddha taught each person appropriately.
    @seeker242 said:

    @seeker242, that is what was posted on the Dzogchen FB site. It's not from me.

  • JeffreyJeffrey Veteran
    edited March 2014

    @person said:
    I don't really agree though, in my tradition the monks spend lots of time debating philosophical points to gain a greater understanding. The idea is that having a solid intellectual grasp of the teachings will help one better develop those qualities.

    It's part of the first path of five in the mahayana. Morality and an intellectual understanding of dependent origination. Or the way the mind is ie no skhandas are self.

  • personperson Don't believe everything you think the void Veteran

    @Nevermind said:
    That's hilarious. It's hilarious because you're identifying reality. How are you identifying reality?

    Those first responses were an attempt at humor, making (what I thought) were fairly obvious claims to direct experience. Then at the end I hit the 'punchline' with an over the top concession.

    I responded in that way because I didn't think I ever made a claim to any direct knowledge of emptiness in my OP but your arguments were directed at me as if I had.

    Overall, talking about something like emptiness is a bit of a paradox because, as you point out, words can't reach it. Much of the emphasis in Zen is aimed at overcoming that problem, maybe you're a secret Zen master. :ninja: ?

  • Can a wave prove what water is?

    wangchueyChaz
  • anatamananataman Who needs a title? Where am I? Veteran

    wangchueyJeffrey
  • NevermindNevermind Bitter & Hateful Veteran
    edited March 2014

    @person said:
    Those first responses were an attempt at humor, making (what I thought) were fairly obvious claims to direct experience. Then at the end I hit the 'punchline' with an over the top concession.

    I was just joking too!

    Overall, talking about something like emptiness is a bit of a paradox because, as you point out, words can't reach it.

    I did not point that out. You may interpret what you wrote as a paradox, but the simple truth is that reality does not exist in the way that you imagine it does. No one really knows the fundamental way reality exists, just like no one used to know what the stars in the sky were. That did not stop people from believing what they were told about the bright lights in the sky however. If you pointed out contradictions in what people used to believe about stars they probably claimed it was a paradox also, because their beliefs could not be wrong.

    It's okay to not know.

  • personperson Don't believe everything you think the void Veteran

    @Nevermind said: I did not point that out. You may interpret what you wrote as a paradox

    It seemed to me that when you wrote: "That's hilarious. It's hilarious because you're identifying reality. How are you identifying reality?" You were saying that I was using thinking to identify a reality that couldn't be understood by thinking. So I guess I don't get your meaning.

    @Nevermind said:I was just joking too!

    I looked back over your posts and I don't really get your humor. Maybe you would explain the jokes to me so I can better understand when not to take you as seriously.

    I think I disagree with you on what we can know about emptiness. My understanding is that its not some metaphysical thing, which science might be able to discover, but more an understanding about the way we view the world. I do think that one can, with much meditative effort come to understand the way our minds work and unravel certain conceptual states, namely our ignorance about things having an isolated existence.

    I also do give credence to the knowledge and understanding gained by those experts of mind who have delved into their own. Personally I view Buddhism as being more than a dogma handed down over the years but rather I see it as a living tradition where each generation develops and gains direct experience of the teachings.

    Jeffrey
  • NevermindNevermind Bitter & Hateful Veteran

    @person said:
    You were saying that I was using thinking to identify a reality that couldn't be understood by thinking.

    No, you're identifying reality by what you've been taught. You didn't think it up yourself. Let's give credit where credit is due, if you please.

    I looked back over your posts and I don't really get your humor.

    You looked back and didn't notice that I'm the only one who laughed at your jokes?

    I do think that one can, with much meditative effort come to understand the way our minds work and unravel certain conceptual states, namely our ignorance about things having an isolated existence.

    Odd in that this is not what Buddhism teaches. How can there be isolation or no isolation without identifying the condition?

    It's okay to not know. Really, it's okay. :)

  • VastmindVastmind Memphis, TN Veteran
    edited March 2014

    Truth be told...that LOL wasn't there before.

    I put one initially, but erased it after I knew @person had saw it, bec I wasn't sure how you would take it @Nevermind. :) You just put one there, to back up what your trying to say.

    BTW....most of us here already know it's ok to not know....But thanks for the reminder.
    Will this match not end until you win?

    @person said:
    Go... on... without me...:werr: It's too late for me... cough... think of your wife and child... they love you and need you... cough...

    Let's not beat a dead horse. Hahaha

  • personperson Don't believe everything you think the void Veteran

    @Nevermind said: No, you're identifying reality by what you've been taught. You didn't think it up yourself. Let's give credit where credit is due, if you please.

    Yeah, its what I've been taught. Did anyone really think that I was trying to pawn emptiness off as my own idea?

    You looked back and didn't notice that I'm the only one who laughed at your jokes?

    You know those buttons have timestamps, I can see that you clicked lol just before you posted? Anyway you said you were joking too and I didn't get the humor.

    Odd in that this is not what Buddhism teaches. How can there be isolation or no isolation without identifying the condition?

    No comprende, maybe you could restate this bit?

    It's okay to not know. Really, it's okay. :)

    There is a philosophical thought that says we can't really ever know anything. So are you really sure its ok not to know? How do you know that?

    Jeffrey
  • personperson Don't believe everything you think the void Veteran

    Sorry to have you dragged into this @Vastmind I was just feeling a little ornery, I didn't intend for there to be any collateral damage. There's an observation lounge with safety glass behind you, my own skin is starting to itch I may have to head there soon myself.

  • robotrobot Veteran

    @Nevermind has stated that correcting people on the Internet is his hobby. Which is fair. We are all here for entertainment of one kind or another.
    Just keep in mind that his interest is not in discussing Buddhism.
    Personally, I won't engage him unless I think I have a chance of beating him at his game, which is rare. He is brighter and more educated than me.
    I have to admit that I enjoyed seeing him get his butt kicked in the memes thread.

    Uh.... no offence, just joking @Nevermind :o

    VastmindStraight_Man
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