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Buddhadharma : Winter 2006
winter 2006| 44 |buddhadharma differ in their definitions, they ultimately lead to the same path of release from suffering. to see how this happens, we will need to examine the three meanings of emptiness one by one. in doing so, we’ll find that each of them applies the bud- dha’s commonsensical test for wisdom to subtle actions of the mind. but to understand how this test applies to this subtle level, we first have to see how it applies to actions on a more obvious level. For that, there’s no better introduction than the buddha’s advice to his son, rahula, on how to cultivate wisdom while engaging in the activities of everyday life. Observing Everyday Actions the buddha told rahula, who was seven at the time, to use his thoughts, words, and deeds as a mirror. in other words, just as you would use a mirror to check for any dirt on your face, rahula was to use his actions as a means of learning where there was anything impure in his mind. before he acted, he should try to anticipate the results of the action. if he saw that they’d be harmful to himself or to others, he shouldn’t follow through with the action. if he foresaw no harm, he could go ahead and act. and if, in the course of doing the action, he saw it causing unexpected harm, he should stop the action. if he didn’t see any harm, he could continue with it. if, after he was done, he saw any long-term harm resulting from the action, he should con- sult with another person on the path to get some perspective on what he had done – and on how not to do it again – and then resolve not to repeat the mistake. in other words, he should not feel embarrassed or ashamed to reveal his mistakes to people he respected, for if he started hiding his mistakes from them, he would soon start hid- ing them from himself. if, on the other hand, he saw no harm resulting from the action, he should rejoice in his progress in the practice and continue with his training. the right name for this reflection is not “self- purification.” it is “action-purification.” you deflect judgments of good and bad away from your sense of self, where they can tie you down with conceit and guilt. instead, you focus directly on the actions themselves, where the judgments can allow you to learn from your mistakes and to find a healthy joy in what you did right. When you keep reflecting in this way, it serves many purposes. First and foremost, it forces you to be honest about your intentions and about the effects of your actions. honesty here is a simple principle: you don’t add any after-the-fact ratio- nalizations to cover up what you actually did, nor do you try to subtract from the actual facts through denial. because you’re applying this honesty to areas where the normal reaction is to be embarrassed about or afraid of the truth, it’s more than a simple registering of the facts. it also requires moral integrity. this is why the buddha stressed morality as a precondition for wisdom and declared the highest moral principle to be the precept against lying. if you don’t make a habit of admitting uncomfortable truths, the truth as a whole will elude you. the second purpose of this reflection is to emphasize the power of your actions. you see that your actions do make the difference between plea- sure and pain. third, you gain practice in learning from your mistakes without shame or remorse. Fourth, you realize that the more honest you are in evaluating your actions, the more power you have to change your ways in a positive direction. and finally, you develop goodwill and compas- sion, because you resolve to act only on intentions that mean no harm to anyone and you continually focus on developing the skill of harmlessness as your top priority. all of these lessons are necessary to develop the kind of wisdom measured by the buddha’s test for wisdom, and, as it turns out, they’re directly related to the first meaning of emptiness, as an approach to meditation. in fact, this sort of empti- ness simply takes the instructions rahula received for observing everyday actions and extends them to the act of perception within the mind. Emptiness as an Approach to Meditation emptiness as an approach to meditation is the most basic of the three kinds of emptiness. in the context of this approach, emptiness means “empty of disturbance” – or, to put it in other terms, empty of stress. you bring the mind to concentration and then examine your state of concentration in order to detect the presence or absence of subtle distur- bance or stress. When you find a disturbance, you follow it back to the perception – the mental label or act of recognition – on which the concentration is based. then you drop that perception in favor of a more refined one, one leading to a state of concentration with less inherent disturbance. in the discourse explaining this meaning of emptiness (Majjhima Nikaya 121), the buddha introduces his explanation with a simile. he and ananda are dwelling in an abandoned palace that is now a quiet monastery. the buddha tells ananda to notice and appreciate how the mon- astery is empty of the disturbances it contained when it was still used as a palace – the disturbances caused by gold and silver, elephants and horses, assemblies of women and men. the only distur- bance remaining is that caused by the presence of the monks meditating in unity. taking this observation as a simile, the buddha We’re attached to things because of what we think they can do for our happiness. If we keep overestimating the pleasure and underestimating the pain they bring, we stay attached to them regardless of what, in an ultimate sense, we understand them to be.