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Buddhadharma : Winter 2006
buddhadharma| 47 |winter 2006 Emptiness as a State of Concentration the third kind of emptiness taught by the bud- dha – emptiness as a state of concentration – is essentially another way of using insight into emptiness as an attribute of the senses and their objects as a means to attain release. one discourse (Majjhima Nikaya 43) describes it as follows: a monk goes to sit in a quiet place and intentionally perceives the six senses and their objects as empty of self or anything pertaining to self. as he pursues this perception, it brings his mind not directly to release but to the formless jhana of nothingness, which is accompanied by strong equanimity. another discourse (Majjhima Nikaya 106) pursues this topic further, noting that the monk relishes the equanimity. if he simply keeps on relishing it, his meditation goes no further than that. but if he learns to see that equanimity as an action – fabricated, willed – he can look for the sub- tle stress it engenders. if he can observe this stress as it arises and passes away, neither adding any other perceptions to it nor taking anything away, he’s again adopting emptiness as an approach to his meditation. by dropping the causes of stress wherever he finds them in his concentration, he ultimately reaches the highest form of emptiness, free from all mental fabrication. The Wisdom of Emptiness thus the last two types of emptiness lead back to the first – emptiness as an approach to medita- tion – which means that all three types of emptiness ultimately lead to the same destination. Whether they interpret emptiness as meaning empty of disturbance (suffering/stress) or empty of self, whether they encourage fostering insight through tranquillity or tranquillity through insight, they all culminate in a practice that completes the tasks appropriate to the four noble truths: comprehend- ing stress, abandoning its cause, realizing its ces- sation, and developing the path to that cessation. completing these tasks leads to release. What’s distinctive about this process is the way it grows out of the principles of action-purification that the buddha taught to rahula, applying these principles to every step of the practice, from the most elementary to the most refined. as the buddha told rahula, these principles are the only possible means by which purity can be attained. although most explanations of this statement define purity as purity of virtue, the buddha’s discussion of empti- ness as an approach to meditation shows that purity here means purity of mind and purity of wisdom as well. every aspect of the training is purified by viewing it in terms of actions and consequences. this is where this sort of emptiness differs from the metaphysical definition of emptiness as “lack of inherent existence.” Whereas that view of emp- tiness doesn’t necessarily involve integrity – it’s an attempt to describe the ultimate truth of the nature of things rather than to evaluate actions – this approach to emptiness requires honestly evaluat- ing your mental actions and their results. integrity is thus integral to its mastery. in this way, the highest levels of wisdom and discernment grow primarily not from the type of knowledge fostered by debate and logical analysis, nor from the type fostered by bare awareness or mere noting. they grow from the knowledge fos- tered by integrity, devoid of conceit and coupled with compassion and goodwill. the reason for this is so obvious that it’s often missed: if you’re going to put an end to suffer- ing, you need the compassion to see that this is a worthwhile goal and the integrity to admit the suffering you’ve heedlessly and needlessly caused in the past. the ignorance that gives rise to suf- fering occurs not because you don’t know enough or are not philosophically sophisticated enough to understand the true meaning of emptiness. rather, it comes from being unwilling to admit that what you’re doing right before your very eyes is causing suffering. this is why awakening destroys conceit: it awakens you to the full extent of the willful blindness that has kept you complicit in unskillful behavior all along. it’s a chastening experience. the only honest thing to do in response to this experience is to open to release. that’s the empti- ness that’s superior and unsurpassed. in building the path to this emptiness on the same principles that underlie the more elementary levels of action-purification, the buddha managed to avoid creating artificial dichotomies between conventional and ultimate truths in the practice. For this reason, his approach to ultimate wisdom helps validate the more elementary levels as well. When you realize that an undistorted understand- ing of emptiness depends on the skills you develop in adopting a responsible, honest, and kind atti- tude toward all your actions, you’re more likely to bring this attitude to everything you do, gross or subtle. you give more importance to all your actions and their consequences, and you give more importance to your sense of integrity, for you real- ize that these things are directly related to the skills leading to total release. you can’t develop a throwaway attitude to your actions and their consequences, for if you do you’re throwing away your chances for a true and uncon- ditional happiness. the skills you need to talk your- self into meditating on a cold, dark morning, or into resisting a drink on a lazy afternoon, are the same ones that will eventually guarantee an undistorted realization of the highest peace. this is how the buddha’s teachings on emptiness encourage you to exercise wisdom in everything you do. Emptiness as an approach to meditation means “empty of disturbance.” You examine your state of concentration to detect the presence of disturbance or stress. Then you follow it back to the perception on which the concentration is based, and drop that perception in favor of a more refined one.