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Prajñā – the Buddhist Path of Wisdom

Understanding Emptyness 

Prajñā – the Buddhist Path of Wisdom

by Dr. Ed Bastian

Shariputra, any noble son or noble daughter who so wishes to engage in the practice of the profound perfection of wisdom should clearly see this way: they should see perfectly that even the five aggregates are empty of intrinsic existence. Form is emptiness, emptiness is form; emptiness is not other than form, form too is not other than emptiness. Likewise, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness are all empty.

       – From Essence of the Heart Sutra: The Dalai Lama’s Wisdom Teachings (2005) 

“The Perfection of Wisdom” (Prajñāpāramitā) is the founding scripture of Mahayana Buddhism. This text describes an extensive practice of meditation that removes all the obstacles and impediments to enlightened wisdom and nirvana and was the topic of my Ph.D. dissertation. The Perfection of Wisdom meditation, along with other practices, has provided a foundation for my own contemplative experience.

Prajñāpāramitā personified. From the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra. – Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Prajñāpāramitā personified. From the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra. – Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The fundamental assumption here is that we all have the natural capacity for wisdom and enlightenment, which can emerge when our minds are clear and unimpeded by negative thoughts and emotions and accumulated karmic obstacles. Purifying the mind is not unlike filtering out the pollutants in water. When our ocean-like consciousness is clouded by subsurface currents of ignorance, limited by desire, obscured by attachment, and tossed about by the incessant winds of sensory distractions, emotions and thoughts, the luminescence of enlightenment cannot be revealed. Once the disturbing currents and winds have calmed down and the pollutants have been purified, the true nature of our existence can be revealed and infuse the whole of our consciousness.

Understanding Emptiness

I remember clearly the day when my teacher, Geshe Sopa, of the Tibetan Gelugpa tradition, began teaching me about the Perfection of Wisdom (Prajñāpāramitā). I was his graduate assistant, and we spent hours together preparing his courses on Buddhism at the University of Wisconsin. In those days, there were few curricular materials and hardly any books in English on Buddhism and Buddhist wisdom regarding ultimate truth. The meaning of Emptiness (Sanskrit, Śūnyatā; Tibetan, Tongpa nyi) was still an enigma.

I was eager to find an answer because I had learned that liberation from suffering (nirvana and enlightenment), and wise leadership in the world, depended both on an accurate intellectual understanding as well as a direct, non-dual experience of Emptiness through meditation. I remember how challenging it was to grasp Geshe-la’s way of understanding the meaning Emptiness because it was so different from the descriptions I had read by Western translators, different too from the ultimate truths taught by the other religions I had studied.

My major ‘aha’ moment came one night after Geshe-la, as his students and followers call him, and I had finished dinner and was washing the dishes. During our dinner conversation I had been struggling to describe emptiness in positive terms, to which he would gently laugh and say “No, not that.” But on that night, I looked straight into his face and exclaimed: “Oh, it is not that?!” To which he replied, “Yes, it is not that.” At that moment, I felt an exhilarating sense of mental relief and inner peace. The Buddhist wisdom of Emptiness was not what I thought it was, and I was finally released from my tightly held attachment to my own interpretation. I could start over with a fresh (beginner’s) state of mind and look at Emptiness through the lenses of my teacher and his lineage of the 2,500 year-old teachings of the Buddha.

In our lessons and the Tibetan scriptures and commentaries I learned to read, Geshe-la taught me how wisdom arises from the direct meditative insight of Emptiness. To achieve this, he said, it is essential to receive a combination of both intellectual and meditative training from a qualified teacher. Over the years, I learned to understand and to experience how my ‘self’ and everything in the world around me are empty of inherent existence. I became comfortable with the proposition that all of existence, including my own conscious being, is in an eternal state of interdependence. I learned how the wisdom of emptiness, impermanence, and interdependence must be infused with genuine sense of great compassion and love for all of life.

But I also learned that my knowledge of Emptiness can be tricky and elusive. Misunderstood, it can seem quite nihilistic. The human mind wants to assign qualities that are inherent in, or permanently affixed to objects of perception. Therefore, our mind wants the word “Emptiness” to be a noun endowed with the positive eternal qualities like, for example, the ninety-nine attributes of Allah. We want to regard Emptiness in the same way we would the ultimate truths of other religions such as God, Brahmin, Allah, the Tao, and Wakantanka.

But unlike these ultimate truths, the Emptiness of Buddhism connotes the absence of such permanent qualities. Emptiness, I learned, neither implied a permanent creator God and human soul, nor did it imply “nothingness.” Rather it simply pointed to a ‘middle way’ insight into the existential reality – impermanence and interdependence – of all phenomena. Stated negatively, it simply pointed to the existential fact that all things lack the property of “inherent existence.”

Liberation, Breathing, and Enlightenment

One of the features of Buddhism that intrigued me the most is the proposition that all beings have the capacity to become liberated and enlightened beings. All beings, they say, have Buddha Nature – the potential to become a Buddha. Humans have a unique opportunity because we experience just enough suffering and we have just enough intelligence to find our way out of the prison imposed by our ignorance. According to the Buddha, this birthright is not bestowed on us by a single creator or God. Rather it arises from the interdependent, causal capacity of our consciousness to evolve into infinitely wise and compassionate beings.

Phra Ajan Jerapunyo, Abbot of Watkungtaphao, Thailand – Photo: Wikimedia, Cc.3.0

Phra Ajan Jerapunyo, Abbot of Watkungtaphao, Thailand – Photo: Wikimedia, Cc.3.0

Buddhist meditations often begin with focused breathing to calm the winds of sensory distractions that stir the surface of our minds. One method is to begin by focusing on our breath as it enters our nostrils at the tip of our nose. Then, having established that preliminary focus, we allow our conscious awareness to ride along the surface of our breath as it travels through the nasal cavities, down the throat, through the bronchial tubes, and into the lungs. Then, we allow our awareness to ride our breath into our heart center, or chakra, that resides near the center of our chest. This is the place that many traditions call the center of our being, the abode of our soul or home of our core consciousness. Gently breathing into this heart center, we ‘come home again,’ letting our conscious awareness peacefully reside there. Breathing in this way, we gradually withdraw our conscious awareness from the distractions of our five senses into our heart center, where it can rest in undisturbed focus and equanimity.

Along with our calm, focused breathing, we also activate the capacity of our mind to watch out for and observe any incoming thoughts or emotions that might disturb our silent focus on breath. This is like the search light from an inner observation tower that passively scans the surface of our mind. When a potential disturbing mental event is revealed, we simply observe it and let it dissipate like a puffy white cloud in a blue sky. If a distraction persists, we might also observe how that thought, sensation, or emotion is impermanent, interdependent, and empty of inherent existence. In this way, we pacify and empty out the winds that disturb the surface of our minds.

Once the mental surface winds are calm, we are able to refine our focus on our heart-centered breathing and to deepen our attention toward the karmic undercurrents that disturb our mental clarity from within our subconscious. At this point, we might change our focus and direct it toward the mind itself, in order to pacify and empty out the subconscious currents of desire and negative emotions that are caused by our previous thoughts, actions and relationships. Just as we did with the surface winds of sensations, we now dissipate these disturbing inner currents by directing our laser beam-like wisdom of impermanence, interdependence, emptiness, love, and forgiveness on them. By engaging in this meditation, the subconscious currents of karma and negative emotions are dissipated and our minds become clear and calm.

 In this way, we are able to clear and empty out the toxins of ignorance, the winds of sensory distractions and the currents of negative emotions swirling beneath the surface in our unconscious minds. We continue our mindful breathing while gently observing the incessant thoughts and emotions churning beneath the surface of our minds that cloud our clear vision. We dispassionately and objectively notice and then clear away the hidden residue of previous thoughts and actions that control our states of mind. We see that all of these external sensations and internal emotions are constantly arising and falling, impermanent, interdependent, and empty of inherent reality. Seeing them as causal and therefore changeable, we realize that we can take control of them rather than allowing them to control us.

Photo: karmadungyu.blogspot.com

Photo: karmadungyu.blogspot.com

After years of practice, we can sharpen our meditative focus solely on the emptiness of inherent existence – the ultimate truth of ourselves and of all phenomena. Our insight into Emptiness can become more and more refined until we directly (non-conceptually) experience a non-dual insight of the existential emptiness of ourselves and of all phenomena. Following this direct, non-dual insight, we gradually become accustomed to this way of seeing the world. Over time, the direct wisdom insight of Emptiness becomes a spontaneous, concomitant condition of every sensation, perception, word, thought and, action. Liberated from within, we are able to calmly, peacefully and compassionately engage in the traumas and travails of the world. The tumultuous external winds no longer disturb the inner stillness of our infinitely expandable ocean of consciousness.

By emptying our minds of ignorant projections, biases, preconceptions, we are able to observe reality as it is rather than as we are conditioned to see it. Instead of being emotionally swayed by the appearance of the things we see, hear, smell, taste or touch, we are immediately attuned to all the causal conditions that brought them into existence. We are not captivated by the appearance of objects, feelings and thoughts, but we are aware of all the interdependent factors that created them. Once we are able to wisely observe the world unimpeded by mental obstacles, our capacity to help others is infinitely expanded. By eliminating the causes of our own suffering, we experience a state of nirvana and enlightenment that enables us to fulfill our Buddhist Bodhisattva vows to help relieve the suffering of all beings.

Header Photo: Paul Chaffee