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Emptiness

Emptiness is a mode of perception, a way of looking at experience. It adds nothing to, and takes nothing away from, the raw data of physical and mental events. You observe events in your mind and senses without considering whether anything is hidden behind them.


This mode is called emptiness because it is devoid of the preconceptions we usually add to experience in order to make sense of it: the stories and outlooks we construct to explain who we are and how we live in the world. Although these stories and perspectives have their uses, the Buddha realized that the questions they raise—of our true identity and the reality of the world outside—distract attention from a direct experience of how events influence one another in the present. So they hinder our efforts to comprehend and address the issue of suffering.


Assume you're meditating and you experience feelings of rage toward your mother. The mind's immediate reaction is to identify the anger as "my" anger, or to state that "I'm" angry. It then elaborates on the emotion, either by incorporating it into the story of your relationship with your mother or by addressing your general views on when and where anger toward one's mother is justified.




According to the Buddha, the problem with all of this is that these stories and viewpoints cause a great deal of suffering. The more you become involved in them, the more you are distracted from seeing the true source of your suffering: the labels "I" and "mine" that set the whole thing in motion. As a result, you can't figure out how to solve that problem and end the suffering.


However, if you adopt the emptiness mode—that is, instead of acting on or reacting to the anger, you simply observe it as a series of events in and of themselves—you will notice that the anger is devoid of anything to identify with or possess. As you become more adept at the emptiness mode, you will notice that this truth applies not only to such overt emotions as anger, but also to the most subtle events in the realm of experience.


This is the sense in which all things are empty. When you see this, you realize that labels of "I" and "mine" are inappropriate, unnecessary, and cause nothing but stress and pain. You might well simply reject them. When you let them go completely, you discover a profound, more liberating mode of experience.


To master the emptiness mode of perception, one must have a strong foundation in virtue, concentration, and discernment. Without this training, the mind continues to create stories and worldviews. And, from that perspective, the teaching of emptiness appears to be just another story or worldview with new ground rules.


In terms of the story of your relationship to your mother it seems to be saying that there's really no mother, nor you.


In terms of your worldview, it appears to be saying either that the world does not exist or that emptiness is the great undifferentiated ground of being from which we all came and to which we will all return someday.


These interpretations not only misinterpret the meaning of emptiness, but they also prevent the mind from entering the proper mode. If the world and the people in the story of your life don't really exist, then all the actions and reactions in that story seem like a mathematics of zeros, and you wonder why there's any point in practicing virtue at all. If, on the other hand, you believe that emptiness is the ground of being to which we will all return, then why train the mind in concentration and discernment if we're all going to get there anyway?



When teaching, the Buddha used the word emptiness, but he never used it when speaking in these modes.


And even if we require training to return to our natural state, what prevents us from returning to it and suffering all over again? So, in all of these scenarios, the concept of mind training appears futile and pointless. By focusing on whether or not there is something behind experience, they entangle the mind in issues that prevent it from entering the present mode.


Now, stories and worldviews do serve a purpose. When teaching, the Buddha used the word emptiness, but he never used it when speaking in these modes.  He told stories from people's lives to demonstrate how suffering stems from the poor perceptions that drive their actions, and how being more perceptive can lead to freedom from suffering. He described the basic principles that underlie the round of rebirth to show how bad intentional actions lead to pain within that round, good ones lead to pleasure, while really skillful actions can rake you beyond the round altogether.


All of these teachings were intended to get people to focus on the quality of their perceptions and intentions in the present moment—in other words, to get them into the emptiness mode. Once there, they could apply the emptiness teachings to their intended purpose: loosening all attachments to views, stories, and assumptions, leaving the mind empty of greed, anger, and delusion, and thus empty of suffering and stress. When it comes down to it, it's the emptiness that really matters.

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