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[ Dhamma Talk ]

On Emptiness

I cannot emphasize enough the importance of the Emptiness suttas[1]. They demonstrate the method in absolutely unmistakable terms.

Read and re-read and think about them and diagram them and memorize them and work them out in your head.

Ask yourself "What is he saying about the value of these "Jhanas"?

What is he saying is the final state of one remaining here who has attained arahantship?

If you have been bothered by the noise coming from people talking about "The Void"; these are the suttas on which this idea was first grounded.

Examine what it is that is being said: This is not talking about "attaining" any kind of "Void"! This is talking about living in the fullness of emptiness, empty of empty habits, not an empty habitat!

This is not talking about the "Ultimate Voidness of all Phenomena." In fact it is talking about exactly the reverse - that is that that which is connected with phenomena is Not Void; it is a disturbance of the emptiness - even down to the subtlest of subtle states: the plane of neither-perception-nor-non-perception.

So then how do we end up?

We end up rattling around in this hardly even bound up any more collection of sense organs and their reactions to phenomena until such time as this too is ready to be let go.

Read! Read this carefully! I am telling you this is important stuff!



V: With regard to Bhikkhu Thanissaro's "Lesser Emptiness", when the Buddha talks about the earth realm is he referring to the rupajhana states (1st - 4th burning?) achieved through absorption meditation or samatha?

I have never actually heard this term "earth realm". If one is speaking of "Earth" with a capital "E", or "The World" then this is included in what is called "rupa". Rupa = material, the having become a "thing" of things, the word meaning "light" or visible, and describing the essential nature of the phenomenological world as being made up of light. When, in the Emptiness Sutta, the Buddha is speaking about focusing on earth, what is intended is "earth" (lower-case 'e'), "dirt", "ground" (these words are so fundamental, and have evolved into the 'grounds' of so many derivative concepts, that it is hard to use them to mean just what they are!) You will find the commentaries insisting that what is intended here is "The Earth Kasina" or concentration device, a round circle of earth used to focus the concentration such as "paying attention to breathing" is used to focus the attention. I do not think this is precisely correct. I think these "devices" are a later development, an artificial way of doing what is suggested here which is to just pay attention to the earth-like.

The idea here is not to suggest the gaining of any state, the idea is to suggest the "emptying-out" of the mind by limiting the focus to one idea (concentrating on one idea, he considers the mind "empty" of any other ideas — do not mistake this statement — as has been done by some schools — for a practice which has its focus on the process of emptying): the earth-element in things. One initially does this by looking at some dirt, focusing on the dirt. If there is to be any thinking going on, it should be about dirt. If you are going to look at something besides the dirt, look for the "solidity" or "material" property of the thing you are looking at. See everything as made of dirt.

By having brought your mind to focus down on dirt, what you will have done is gained nothing — there is nothing possible in the perception of dirt that was not present all along. What you will have done is eliminate from your mind all the stuff that is not concerned with the perception of dirt. This is the point.

After a while, the tamed, trained, educated student of the Aristocrats, a seeker, a little developed in mind, short of his intended goal, but one who lives preparing to throw off the yoke the throwing off of which there is nothing better: learns to recognize earth as earth; recognizing earth as earth, he knows about earth; he learns not to think about earth, he learns not to think about earth in whatever ways he used to think about earth, he learns not to think in terms of "my" with regard to earth, he learns to take no delight in earth. How come? Because This Way, he has learned, this matter becomes fully understood by him.[2]

At this point or at any point from the start of this exercise, at the time he has found within himself an ease and sense of appreciateion of the lack of disturbance this mental state has brought about, he has entered The First jhana (he is enjoying the peace and calm of soletude).

At the point when his inner dialog, his chattering and reminiscing about earth (thinking about) becomes still, this will have been his entering The Second jhana.

Going no further than this in terms of "devices or realms or objects of perception," if he found ease in The Third Jhana or Detachment in The Fourth Jhana, he would need to use devices or objects of concentration and such no more, but would, living in this state, simply do his duty by the collection of sense organs and their reactions to their stimuli that was once known to him as "my body" in "my world."

But if he did not find such Satisfaction, should he be one who is still clinging to "Pleasure-wishing", "Living" and "More Living"[3], he could go up by way of: Water, Firelight, Wind,[4] Beings, Gods, The Creator, God, The Radiant Beings, the Luminescent Beings, The Fruitful Beings, The UpAbove, The Realm of Space, The Realm of Consciousness, the Realm of No Thing There, the Realm of Neither-Perception-Nor-Non-Perception, Seeing, Hearing, Sensing, Knowing, Oneness, Multiplicity, The All and Nibbana[5] or,

he could go up through the Third Burning, Fourth Burning, The realm of Limitless Space, The realm of Limitless Consciousness, The Realm of No Thing There, The Realm of Neither-Perception-Nor-Non-Perception, to the Ending of Perception and Sense Experience,[6]

Or he could do it by concentrating on the One idea: Food to it's deepest roots and it's broadest conception; or on the Two ideas, nama and rupa; or on the Three ideas, the three sensations; or on the Four ideas, the Four Noble Truths; or on the Five ideas, the Five Stockpiles of Existence; or on the Six ideas the Sixfold sense spheres; or on the Seven Ideas the Seven Dimensions of Wisdom; or on the Eight ideas, the Multi-Dimensional Aristocratic Way; or on the Nine Ideas, the Nine Habitats of Beings; or on the Ten Ideas, the Magga, or on all of the above,

Or you could take side trips through Magic Powers, the Devine Eye and Recollection of Previous lives

Or from any point along the way, you could go straight to the Signless
Or to the Pointless
Or to the Empty

... and you would still need to come to the conclusion: This too was confounded, made to become, subject to ending.

It's sort of like how hard is it for you to get a joke? How much explanation/convincing, exactly, do you need, in order to see that "There Is Nothing At All There That Can Be Conceived of In Any Way Whatsoever "wherein is delight, wherein is content, but that from its changing and becoming otherwise there will not arise grief, sorrow, suffering, lamentation and despair."?

V: And when the Buddha talks about the realms of limitless space, limitless consciousness, no thing there and not even perceiving non-perception is he referring to the arupajhana states also achieved through absorption meditation or samatha? Are these the 5th-8th burnings?


And when he talks about the state empty of greed, lust and ignorance, is he referring to a state achieved through vipassana, insight meditation or samatha?

This is actually another way of speaking about Nibbana, and if we must cast this in terms of vipassana and samatha, it requires both.

The state empty of greed, lust and ignorance will come about through a sequence that goes something like this (we need to be careful not to make an orthodoxy out of this):
Book Knowledge,
Understanding the Book knowledge,
Putting the book knowledge into practice (calming down and review — the two words in Pali being Samatha and Vipassana — I am saying that "Vipassana" is not Insight, it is the work done that brings about insight, "Review", looking things over, thinking things over, thinking things through, especially: "This being, that is");
Seeing (Dittha or Vijja, also (confusingly, I think, but very much as in English we can say a person 'knows' meaning that they have a basic understanding, and we can also say a person 'knows' meaning that they have a really complete understanding or picture) called 'Nana') things as they really are, and
Wisdom (the wisdom to understand what is needed to be done based on what one sees);
more putting into practice in the form of Letting Go, and finally,
Objective Detachment.

In the process of accomplishing this one will most probably (but not necessarily) have attained various states of brilliance, shining wit ("Knowing" or Jhana) and may well have been taken to various "Realms" both visible and purely mental. Or maybe not. It depends, as I said, on how stubborn, thick headed and mulish you are ... one is.

V: And may I ask to what state is he referring in the end? Nibbana?

This is a little confusing if we rely on the texts because they sometimes make Nibbana conditional and sometimes do not. I think, based on the Emptiness suttas we can say something like this: After everything has been understood and accomplished, as a consequence of the fact that "This Body — And/or everything else formerly considered "mine" such as material things, sensations, perceptions, the old personal world, and consciousness,[7] or bodies, sensations, emotions, or ideas,[8] or the eye and sights, ear and sounds, nose and scents, tongue and tastes, body and touches, mind and ideas,[9] or ..." is not "One's Own", those things do not just "come to an end" because of this achievement. They rattle on. As long as they do so, the Arahant, being compassionate now by nature, does his duty by these things. His "emptiness" is obscured only to the extent of these things, but the Arahant would no longer be thinking "my" with regard to these things. So one needs to put this state into a "category" insofar as conventional speech is concerned, and for that purpose, it is called "Nibbana with residue" or, sometimes "Nibbana with attachments" or, even, "Nibbana with something further to be done" and the state beyond that, when the last bit of what might by outsiders come to have been thought of as the living remainder of "so and so" has burnt itself out, done gone, finished up, is called "Final Nibbana" or "Pari-Nibbana".

V: My understanding to date regarding vipassana meditation is that jhana is not necessary or prerequisite or even possible in order to practice vipassana. In fact, I've often wondered how one can be in a higher jhana state which by definition is absent of vitakka and vicara and yet direct the mind towards investigation of phenomena?

I would partly agree with this. What looks like the source of confusion to you personally here is the reason I object to the term "Vipassana" being translated "Insight". If you think of the term as "Review" with "seeing" or "insight" following after, then the jhana states proper (except for the first burning, where vitakka and vicara are still going on) would not be possible while "Vipassana" was going on. The fact is though, that high levels of "Review" will occur just after emerging from the jhanas, and the jhanas themselves may become the subjects of Review (after emerging from them).

V: Can one conclude from this sutta that the Buddha is saying that achieving jhana is not what one should do,but rather one should concentrate on vipassana?

No and no. The Buddha is not making a value judgement concerning people's stubborn thickheaded, blind tom-foolery: if you need to go through to Neither Perceiving nor not Perceiving and beyond to see the trick, then that is what you should do. And vipassana is always simply a tool (to make it a goal is a mistake), however it is defined, and would not therefore be anything that one should do to the exclusion of anything else that might work. You are trying to let go, empty out, not cultivate some kind of mastery over a tool. And that holds for the Jhana states as well.



The Little Spell of Emptiness

I had the privilege once, of seeing this spell cast by a master of The Craft[10]

The first thing you see, when you see one of these "suttas" done properly, is that what we do not get from the printed suttas, and what I think is another of the things holding back the understanding of this material today, is that these are like "scripts"; this is the idea for a "play". Scripted Events. A Formula. A Recipe. The words to a spell, but a spell that must be "cast" to bring out it's meaning — Meaning important in order to have any grasp on the tools being provided by the spell.

Today we hear about the oral tradition of peoples of South American and Africa and we are able to comprehend why the knowledge of their ages was preserved in story form: it is easier to remember that way. We find it difficult to accept that we too are being spoon fed in sucha similar way.

Our pride is of such huge and encompassing proportions that it fails to see the obvious: If this system were simply a collection of rules and pieces of information, the whole collection could be put in a one volume book (call it, say, The Abhidhamma — the Dhamma underneath the Dhamma; that is, if we got it right, which is something I am not ready to say about what is currently called the Abhidhamma). We need also to look at the style.

As the teacher casts the spell, he looks out over the listeners and is able to see them in terms of what they know. He will see masses of a certain color or such and know that this bunch is all in agreement about this piece of knowledge — that bunch over there is not in agreement with that.

He will not make an assessment such as this in an intellectual way; he will react to how the subject matter makes him feel when it comes up ... "Have I made myself clear?" he will ask himself ... And he knows: "I have not made myself clear in regards to ..."

He fills in the doubtful thoughts with explanation of details. Very similar to the "Commentaries" we have today, but these are bound in seamlessly to the content. It seems to the listener as though the progress from one (say, using the Little Emptiness Spell as an example: going from one "sphere" to the next) actually requires a step-wise progression of explanation.

The Teacher references common personal experiences to focus attention on the fact that the listener does, in fact have experience in almost all cases; what the teacher does is see where his "knowledge" of a sphere is the same as the student's and indicate that they are referencing the same phenomena; he thereby "permits belief" in the experience as being the one being spoken about in the sutta. What the Teacher is doing is lifting by these explanations, the entire listening audience into the experience being spoken of in the sutta ... the plane of space — the plane of consciousness ... etc.

In The Little Spell of Emptiness what is happening is that Ananda is being lead up to the "End of the World" (if a Beggar cleans out, tidies up and liberates his mind) at each step (sphere) along the way and also by way of the progression of spheres. At the top the two trails up meet together at a summit. At this summit it is possible to view the way the "Signless" was constructed.

This has been a message conveyed over and over in the explanation leading from one sphere to the next: how the way there is constructed.

And there is, at this point at least, an opportunity for "realization" on the part of anyone in the audience, or at least, the teacher can bring the spell to a conclusion as he has done the best he can for that go-through.

At this place, also, it is possible to see the dimension and scope of the "staircase" used to arrive at this summit and one can see the real meaning of "The Fullness of Emptiness": this Emptiness is built on a broad foundation an all encompassing foundation; it cannot be shaken.

I can hear someone out there in the audience say: "All you are describing is what is known as "communicating".

Exactly! These suttas are and are intended to be passed along as "communications". Not as dried up sticks and ashes.



V: Can you give an example of the teacher referencing common personal experiences to focus attention on the fact that the listener has the experience?
And what does it mean to "permit belief"?

Suppose you were a musician or painter and the teacher had knowledge that an experience you describe, of, say, becoming a detached observer of the creation of your work, and he were to recognize in this the characteristics of, say, the second burning.

He might say, "And, by letting go of Vitakka and Vicara, he enters on and lives in the second Burning; in much the same way that an inspired musician or painter, becoming a detached observer of the creation of his work has abandoned Vitakka and Vicara, and enters the second burning. That is the second burning you are experiencing there. Make note of that. Make note of how you attained this state, what prolongued it, what brought it to an end."

The person, at least for the moment, is given permission to consider that this state of which they have personal experience is the same as that described as the second burning. Given a moment or two like that, free from the need to doubt one's own accomplishments, one can view the experience in the light of it being the second burning and decide if it fits in with the rest of what one understands about the burnings and the system.

If this is done over a longish series, there is a cumulative effect, the listener is just able to listen along and go to the next level as it is described without doubts or questioning (as the transition from the one state to the next will be being described in the commentary, from a level that relates to their common experience).

Again, this is no more than relating to the other person's experiences, except on a level where the person has largely avoided (or, more common, does not have the vocabulary to describe) conscious awareness of the experiences.

But the Buddha has said, and this can be pretty easily worked out for yourself, that there is virtually no experience of this world (other than birth in the Pure Abodes[11]) that one has not already, in this long running on, experienced sufficiently to allow for it to be let go of with no loss.



Excerpt from Bhikkhu Thanissaro's: The Lesser Discourse on Emptiness

"He discerns that 'Whatever disturbances 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."

V: So, the best kind of "emptiness" (ie. pure, superior & unsurpassed) is the mode of perception that is empty of the effluent of sensuality, becoming and ignorance? And by being empty of these three, it is therefore empty of the concept/idea of self? But it sounds like there are two things of which this mode is empty, ie. craving and self. Sounds to me like "sensuality and becoming" refer to "craving" (craving for the pleasures of the senses and craving for "self") and "ignorance" ie. ignorance in believing in a "self". Or is it all pertaining only to the concept of "self"?




V: Also, if you read the Sunna Sutta (below)[12], it seems to be exclusively about "not-self".

SN 4 35 85


Translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu.

Then Ven. Ananda went to the Blessed One and on arrival, having bowed down to him, sat to one side. As he was sitting there he said to the Blessed One, "It is said that the world is empty, the world is empty, lord. In what respect is it said that the world is void?"

"Insofar as it is empty of a self or of anything pertaining to a self: Thus it is said, Ananda, that the world is empty. And what is empty of a self or of anything pertaining to a self? The eye is empty of a self or of anything pertaining to a self. Forms ... Eye-consciousness ... Eye-contact is empty of a self or of anything pertaining to a self.

"The ear is empty ...

"The nose is empty ...

"The tongue is empty ...

"The body is empty ...

"The intellect is empty of a self or of anything pertaining to a self. Ideas ... Intellect-consciousness ... Intellect-contact is empty of a
self or of anything pertaining to a self. Thus it is said that the world is empty."




I hear this question as: "Is being empty of wanting, becoming, and blindness the same as being empty of self?" And the answer to that is "yes."

I think the problem in seeing this clearly from this quote comes in with the translation of the word "asava" as "effluent". This word means "to flow" as with sap or an infected wound and is usually translated by me as "the no-goods". With this translation it is possible to hear this as saying that the "ignornance" is one thing and the "effluent of ignorance" is another thing (I don't think that is what the translator had in mind, but that is how the words can be read). What is being said here is that the highest emptiness is one that is free of ignorance, etc. With the idea that the wanting, etc can be one thing and the asava of the wanting can be another there is a subject (perceiver), verb (effluent), object (wanting) relationship implied which hides a subtle belief in self.

Ignorance (avijja — blindness), in this system, is always stated as the ignorance of the Four Truths or the equivalent (as opposed to being stated as being possessed of a belief in self). Understanding the Four Truths one understands not that "Once there was a self and now there is no self"; but that there was never anything there that was the self of one from the beginning.

So, effectively, an emptiness free of ignorance is an emptiness free of ideas of self. It is really just two ways of describing the same thing.

V: Using the example of "wanting" in lieu of "ignorance", can it also be said that an emptiness free of wanting is an emptiness free of self? Is this because without self, wanting cannot exist? Or without wanting, self cannot exist? If the "root" is tanha, then it seems that one should work on an emptiness free of "wanting", then self cannot exist? I hope i'm not getting caught up in a tangle of views all over again.

Essentially getting rid of blindness (I think this is a better word than ignorance; one can be ignorant, then read about the Four Truths and no longer be ignorant, but not be much better off; but if one goes from ignorance of the Four Truths to seeing the Four Truths you have gone somewhere), get's rid of wanting and becoming (we are talking about the state of having totally eliminated blindness, the state of the arahant ... one can "see" the four truths and still not quite have eliminated all blindness — that is to say in the way it is applied to every aspect and detail of living) ... remember the second truth is the truth of the origin of pain, and the third truth is the way to end becoming.

You don't want to get caught up in trying to "trace back the origin of the world" (your effort to determine which is first, tanha or self). It is circular, a chicken and egg sort of thing. But when pressed one time, the Buddha did say that the beginning point is tanha.

In any case, using the emptiness technique, one does not focus on either tanha or self, one focuses on a progression of ever more narrow perceptions of the world.


[1] Sunnata Resources Contents Page

[2] The Root of All Evil (The Mulapariyaya), The Case of the Second Case

[3] The Asavas

[4] With "Earth", The Four Great Elements

[5] For this list of terms see: Examination of the Mulapariyaya

[6] This is a standard progression found throughout the suttas. To study it in detail work through The Pali Line from High Get'n High to the End.

[7] The Khandhas

[8] The Four Satisfaction Pastures

[9] The Realm of the Senses

[10] OK, let's just say that he was pretty good for this day and age.

[11] For the purposes of this discussion this can be considered to be that knowledge and experience attainable from listening to a Buddha or a Buddha's disciple — such knowledge and experience one may not have experienced previously.

[12] See also:
MN 121: The Lesser Discourse on Emptiness, Thanissaro, trans.
The Mind Like Fire Unbound by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, chapters 1 and 3;
"No-self or Not-self?" by Thanissaro Bhikkhu; and
"The Not-self Strategy" by Thanissaro Bhikkhu.




Wisdom Publications, Nanamoli/Bodhi translations:
The Shorter Discourse on Voidness
The Greater Discourse on Voidness

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