A Brief Overview
Our own plight, in everything we do, is to reduce our discomfort and to gain a sense of happiness. It’s omnipresent; it’s why we scratch an itch and why we have children and why we start wars. On more nuanced levels, it is why we love, and why we grieve.
Once we understand this we can begin the real spiritual work that will free us from suffering. Once we fully realize this, we see clearly that everyone everywhere is trying, virtually always unsuccessfully and often very unwisely, to do the same thing: to avoid dukkha–to avoid the discreet discomfort of minor situations–little dukkha–to avoid the deep physical and psychological pain of intense situations–big dukkha–over and over, time and again and again, moment after moment. Deeply understanding this, we realize that our suffering and the suffering of all beings is linked, interdependent and interrelated, directly and indirectly.
The more deeply we believe this, the less self-centered we can be and the more other-centered we become; the more patient, compassionate and generous we allow ourselves to be. Eventually, our primary goal becomes one of being of benefit to others because nothing else makes sense. As we move in this direction, our self-centered mindstates weaken and fall away. Anger in its myriad forms from irritation to rage, and even depression, all self-centered mindstates, weaken and fall away.
To make this sift, we must overcome the three poisons: (1) our predisposition to want more of what we like and less of what we don’t, (2) the frustration at never being able to get and keep–or remove and keep away–enough, and (3) our understanding of ourselves as separate and autonomous. To overcome these poisons (greed, anger and delusion), we must overcome our sense of Self, for it is the stories of who we are, which are our Self–our ego–that poison us.
One way to do this is to get a handle on emptiness and to stay with it. The more deeply we understand, contemplate, and study emptiness, the more the three poisons and their corollaries (fetters) and stories just drop away.
The most fundamental and essential way to learn about emptiness is to study the relationship between dependent origination and emptiness. The study is aimed at learning that dependent origination and emptiness aren’t different, but neither are they the same; that one implies the other yet they are not two and not one. For many, learning about no-self or non-self is a useful first step in this direction.
Emptiness allows us to understand that things do not inherently exist, which is the way they appear to us, but rather exist only nominally as we impute them. Ultimately this allows us to see that everything is interdependent, imputed by the mind but not from the mind only.
This means we need to combine both right ethical behavior (like giving, morality, patience, diligent effort, compassion, etc.) and wisdom (the realization of the emptiness of self, other and action, and of their inseparability) so that the inseparability of the Two Truths becomes clear: the affirmation that everything is not existent, not non-existent, not both, and not neither.
The Buddha never taught emptiness. The word “emptiness” barely even appears in 11,000 or so early scriptures of the Agamas or Pali Canon. Yet this teaching has become, as the Venerable Master Yin Shun writes: “perhaps the most profound and important theory of the entire Buddhadharma.” Approach it gently and it will open itself up for you revealing the wonders of the Middle Path.