Saturday, December 31, 2011

New Year's Celebration of Emptiness

The Great Way Requires Great Commitment
Commit Now to a New Year of Practice with Emptiness

As Venerable Master Yin Shun points out in his book Investigations into Sunyata, for a meaningful practice, a practice in which we cultivate purity, we must develop an intimate understanding of emptiness. Getting to know emptiness is so important that Master Ji Ru says, “I only teach emptiness.”

This New Year, consider committing to a yearlong practice of investigating emptiness. If that sounds daunting, it really isn’t. And nothing will do more to bring you peace of mind and to end your suffering than to get a handle on emptiness. Here are three steps to get you on course for an empty new year.

1. A simple starting point would be to commit to making this bumper sticker slogan omnipresent in your life: Don’t believe anything your mind tells you. Since everything is empty, anything your mind tells you is, of course, false. Use it as a mantra; make it omnipresent in your thoughts. This will limit and weaken your attaching. It will ease you through your life rather than making you anxious and uneasy.

2. Next, consider committing to practicing with the two truths. This means we commit to acting from the premise that everything is a lie and so there’s no reason to believe it or attach to it. This is the enhanced version of the practice above.

The Two Truths, Plain and Simple

There are two truths and they teach us the real truth–that nothing is true. (“Dude, everything is a big lie!” as one of my students put it.)

The first truth is the everyday or relative truth. An example would be: This is a table, or this is a desk.

The second truth is the absolute truth. It tells us that the object we are discussing is, really, empty, that it has no inherent or permanent definition or value or meaning or weight.

The first truth says that what we call something is what it is. This is a common understanding: “This is a table.” Most people stop there. The problem is that, in truth, you and I can call it different things because it isn’t anything until we label it. And once we label it, we give it definition and meaning…and we are in trouble if we are not careful for we have created a false story and asserted it as true and substantive. In other words, we believe our lies and act on them.

If I can call it a table and you can call it a desk, then is one of us right and the other wrong? Obviously, we tend to believe we are right. We are, after all, attached to what we think. And that makes anyone who disagrees wrong, so we have to protect and defend our position. We do this without realizing that what we are protecting and defending is, at best, a false notion, at worst, a flagrant lie. In the political area, where the stakes are higher than arguing over whether something is a table or a desk, we see the depth of suffering caused by not practicing with the two truths, and how conflict and war results from believing our relative understanding of the world is true.

The two truths is telling us that we must realize both truths simultaneously, realize that they are just notions (stories) about things that are both there and not there simultaneously; true and not true simultaneously. So I can call it a table without attaching or really believing it is a table, so if you call it something else, I neither protect nor defend my position.

This is the core teaching of the Diamond Sutra, it is the heart of the teachings of great nuns and monks of medieval Christendom, it is fundamental to the long tradition of mystical Judaism, and it is a central tenet of Islam’s Sufism.

3. Study hard and take to heart the Four Marks of Existence (The Four Dharma Seals), the Five Aggregates (Five Skandhas), and the Twelve Links of Dependent Origination. By study hard, I mean learning the list in a functional, not academic, way. Start with a definition of how each element works in relation to the others in the list, and how it works in your life to create and to end your dukkha. Become comfortable enough with your understanding to be able to explain it to a 9-year-old. (You will be amazed at how easily a 9-year-old can grasp emptiness.) Study these three lists in the sequence listed here: the 4, the 5, and then the 12.

Next, contemplate them on the cushion. This can be done in two ways: one, sit for 5-10 minutes with your breath to calm body and mind, then do a thorough cognitive investigation of the teaching; and two, sit with the aim of observing them as they arise during meditation.

(1) Start by looking at the teaching in its broadest meaning: what is this list saying? What does it mean as a whole? How present is it in my life? Etc. Then narrow the meaning; examine each element: what does each mean in terms of my suffering, in terms of my liberation? Define each from your experience. Consider how each relates to the others in the list? Are the lists really linear or is that just a skillful means? Continue to take each element apart piece by piece. Limit your contemplative time on the cushion to 20 minutes at a time so you can stay very tightly focused on subject; the mind wanders too much after that. Repeat this frequently throughout the year, building on your previous understandings and conclusions.

(2) Watch the Marks or the Aggregates or the Links as they arise in your mind. See how one leads to the next: how each works in dependence to the others. If you understand them, you will be able to see them experientially on the cushion. If you are having difficulty finding them on the cushion, do some more reading and talking about them and then try again. Finally, when you know them experientially from the cushion, start watching for them in your everyday activities: see how a traffic light turning red can cause an aversion and its attendant story and note how telling yourself this “event” is empty can short-circuit the discomfort.

Email me if you have questions as you celebrate this new year with a focus on making emptiness, the ultimate teachings of the Buddha, central to you life.

4. Finally, consider some serious book study. These four books, I believe, will last you for a year of study, perhaps a lifetime. I suggest studying them in the sequence below.

1. Introduction to Emptiness by Guy Newland. This is a short, very clear and accessible examination of emptiness. 

2. How Thing Exist by Lama Zopa Rinpoche. This is another short book, also very clear, that is a profound examination of emptiness. 

3. Meditation on Emptiness by Jeffrey Hopkins. This is a serious examination of emptiness and the practices by which it can be realized. It is stimulating and extensive. 

4. For Chinese speakers, Venerable Master Yin Shun’s heady Investigations into Sunyata is available in Chinese, both in print and online, I believe. I have a very rough translation of it into English; email me if you’d like me to send you the 300-page pdf.