Two Short Profound Meditations on Emptiness Suitable for Everyday Life

The meditations below contain copious endnotes. This is due to their highly condensed  content. The meditator is invited to either ignore them or utilize them to support analytical reflection. For your convenience I have posted the same meditations in Meditations minus the reference notes.

 

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SEVENTH DALAI LAMA (KELSANG GYATSO 1708-1757)

 

PITH MEDITATION ADVICE FROM THE SEVENTH DALAI LAMA

LOOK AT  EVERYTHING  AS EMPTY

KYABJE ZOPA RINPOCHE:

I now want to mention some very powerful advice from the Seventh Dalai Lama, which we should apply not only in our meditation but in our daily life as well, especially when it is busy.

He first refers to the fact that every single phenomenon of saṃsāra and nirvāṇa including enlightenment, is merely imputed by mind.[1] He then says that our own superstitious thought of ignorance is the king of superstitions, because it is the root of saṃsāra. All hallucinated illusory appearances of truly existent phenomena are projected by our own ignorance and are thus created by our own superstitious mind. All phenomena, saṃsāra, nirvāṇa, everything, are covered by the illusion of existing from their own side. Even the path to liberation and enlightenment is decorated with this illusion of true and independent existence.[2]

Although phenomena exist as merely imputed by the mind, they appear as not merely mentally labeled.[3] Decorated with this illusion of true existence, they appear truly existent and independent.[4]

Ignorance entrusts your mind to this appearance by holding that things exist really in this way.[5] It is in this way our mind cheats and deceives us. By projecting true existence and then holding—right there—that that is true, attachment and all the other deluded minds such as anger arise. If, on the contrary, you look at them as hallucinations, as empty of existing from their own side, then ignorance cannot cheat you.[6] Suddenly there is no point for the negative emotional thoughts to arise. Generating delusions such as anger becomes totally nonsensical and childish.[7]

The wisdom of emptiness eliminates ignorance as well as the seed of delusion (the potential for the delusion to arise).[8] This means it becomes impossible to create karma and thus experience the resulting sufferings.[9] With the addition of bodhicitta, the development of wisdom will cease even the subtle negative imprints.[10] In this way we may achieve enlightenment, through which numberless sentient beings may be liberated from the oceans of saṃsāric suffering and brought to full enlightenment.

All our day-to-day life problems come from holding onto phenomena as truly existent. All the depression, loneliness, low self-esteem and thoughts such as “my life is meaningless” arise from here. Returning to the Seventh Dalai Lama’s advice, don’t cling to the hallucinated appearance. Look at it as empty. While performing daily activities with mindfulness, use one part of your mind to examine how they do not exist as they appear.

Do this as explained in texts such Śāntideva’s Guide, where he instructs us to watch the mind at the same time as doing any activity. It is like spying. Śāntideva gives the example of walking with a container filled to the brim, trying not to spill a drop. If we are to avoid doing so, we need to watch carefully.[11]

 

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MEDITATION: LIKE A MAN IN A DREAM

KYABJE ZOPA RINPOCHE:

There is a story that the whole of life is like a dream. A person fell asleep and in a dream got married and had children and the children died and the person lived on until his hair was white because he had so many worries. Then he awoke and heard his wife, who was still washing the same pot she had been washing when he went to sleep! Everything in the dream had seemed completely real.

That is an excellent example of gag cha—the object to be refuted.[12] In the same manner as the man who dreamt, we believe in the reality of these dream-like appearances. All the problems we experience in life are similar to the manner in which the man believed that everything he dreamt was real. We hold them as truly existent. We hold onto them as real problems and as a result suffer unbelievably. But, in reality, they are the illusory projections of ignorance. By holding onto them, we torture ourselves.[13]

That is why the bodhisattva Thogme Zangpo gave the meditational practice instruction that we should consider whatever we encounter, whatever is contrary to our wishes, to be a hallucination.[14] The basic fault is that we label things that are against our wishes as “problems” and those that are not against our wishes as “non-problems.” All the illusory phenomena our ignorance believes to be true are seen by the Buddha’s omniscient mind as totally nonexistent—totally empty.[15]

Even arhats and exalted bodhisattva meditators who have achieved the exalted paths of right seeing or meditation (due to having perceived wisdom directly) still have an appearance of things existing from their own side.[16] Nonetheless, through their exalted wisdom, they realize that such appearances are deceptive: all this reality—all that we hear, see, smell, taste, touch, everything, including what is the object of the mind—is totally nonexistent, totally empty.[17]

 

CRYSTA MILAREPA CROPPED dorje

NOTES

Full publication details of cited texts are found in the bibliography

 

[1] Gyalwa Kalsang Gyatso, the Seventh Dalai Lama. The exact source of this quotation could not be located. However, compare to these verses in his  Meditations to Sever the Ego:

Dream objects in the mind of one drunk with sleep,
The horses and elephants conjured up by a magician:
Only appearances; on those foundations,
Nothing real; merely mental imputations.

Similarly, all things in the world and beyond
Are simply projections of names and thoughts.
Not even the tiniest atom exists by itself,
Independently and in its own right.
Yet anything perceived by an ordinary being,
Whose mind is clouded by the slumber of unknowing,
Is taken as something ultimately true.
Look at how the samsaric mind works!

See the Seventh Dalai Lama, Meditations to Transform the Mind (Ithaca: Snow Lion, 1999), 110. Pabongka Rinpoche likewise advises:

To be brief, our happiness and suffering may have arisen from either good or bad circumstances, but when we examine their nature, these thing are found to have arisen out of a mere set of causes, conditions, and mutual interdependence. Thus, good or bad circumstances, suffering or happiness are all merely labels, and such things cannot be established by way of their nature, even though they undeniably appear as real. When we look into the way ‘I’ and ‘others’ exist, this will readily prevent our being unhappy, attached, and so on.

See Pabongka, Liberation, 607 (1991 edition).

[2] In his Commentary on (Nāgārjuna’s) Sixty Stanzas of Reasoning, Candrakīrti quotes Nāgārjuna:

Those who do see reality do not presume
Either a life-cycle or a nirvāṇa.

He then glosses, “The intent of this statement is that the noble ones—those who are distinguished by realizing things without perceiving an intrinsic reality—neither construct nor perceive that dichotomy. Consequently, through indicating that ‘both the world and nirvāṇa exist [only] on the strength of the constructions of naïve individuals,’ any claim that ‘both being and nothingness exist [because the life-cycle and nirvāṇa exist]’ is unreasonable.” See Nāgārjuna, Nāgārjuna’s Reason Sixty (Yuktiṣaṣțikā) with Chandrakīrti’s Commentary (New York: AIBS, 2007), 144. Nāgārjuna’s text translated by Thupten Jinpa may also be found at tibetanclassics.org. “Naïve individuals” are those Lama Zopa Rinpoche describes as endowed with the “king of superstitions: the thought of ignorance.” See also Hopkins, Final Exposition, 125.

[3] Conceptual imputation or label (rtog btags).

[4] Regarding how ‘independent” is to be understood in this context, Khöntön Peljor Lhündrup details: And in the Commentary to this [Āryadeva’s Four Hundred Stanzas] Chandrakirti lists these [synonyms for self-nature]:

Own-nature, essence, independence, not depending on
something else…

“Not depending on something else” does not mean “not depending on causes and conditions.” Rather, “something else” refers to the conventional consciousness that is the agent that perceives the object. Because things are not perceived as being posited by virtue of that consciousness, they are said to be perceived as “not depending on something else.” That is why the term “independence” is used; it refers to the special nature of objects, their own way of being. That is called the “nature that is the nonexistence of own nature” and the “self-essence of things.” Therefore, rather than the object being conceived as posited by thought, there arises [in the mind a notion] that the object exists in its own right, [making it seem as though it exists] by its own nature; this is the “self that is to be refuted.” The refutation of that self is not a refutation that leaves one bereft of action. Rather, witnessing that there is a conceptual thought that conceives of the object to be refuted as existing in that false way, and that this is what binds sentient beings to samsara against their will, one sets out to eliminate that ignorance by destroying the object of that misconception. This is because the ignorance that binds sentient beings to samsara is innate ignorance. of objects, their own way of being.

See The Dalai Lama, Khöntön Peljor Lhündrup and José Ignacio Cabezón, Meditation on the Nature of the Mind, 134.

[5] The stress on the verb “entrusts” is significant. The appearance itself is not the actual problem. As Pabongka Rinpoche specifies, “If we really get into fine detail, we must analyze not the way that objects appear to us, but rather how we grasp them. Thus it is too with the object we want to see does not exist: it is not that we will deny what appears to us, but rather, what we grasp.” See Tsongkhapa, Principal Teachings, 123–24. This grasping can be considered as itself a vital form of entrustment because it “affirms” what it holds (as true from its own side). Thus we note the two syntactical parts  or aspects contained in Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s frequent statements such as “the I that appears to exist from there and which the mind holds onto as true.” (italics mine).

[6] When Rinpoche refers to “hallucinations” here and elsewhere in the text he is drawing our attention to the way in which the object conceived and grasped as truly existent by the ignorant mind is refuted by the wisdom realizing selflessness. “Hallucination” is used to highlight how what is conceived and apprehended by ignorance as real (in the sense of being inherently existent) is not real (inherently existent) at all. So it would be a mistake to interpret “hallucination” in this profoundly nuanced context as pointing to the nonexistence of conventionally existent (kun rdzob du yod) and thus the existential impossibility of selfless things. See The Cowherds, Moodshadows: Conventional Truth in Buddhist Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), for various approaches to this critical topic, together with accounts of famous historical debates concerning the status of conventionalities. 

[7] In the Sayings of the Kadam Masters and under the heading of Practicing forbearance by means of [understanding] the nature of reality:

On the ultimate level, all the factors–myself, who is the object of harm, the other, who is the agent of harm, and the act of harm itself–are emptiness, the ultimate nature of reality. All these perceptions, such as me being attacked, are the apparitions of a deluded mind and therefore resemble dreams and illusions. Thus it is inappropriate to be angry toward them. The Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life states:

Thus with respect to these empty things,
What can be obtained, what can be lost?
What can be disliked, what can be liked?
Who can be humiliated as well?

“One does not remain angry towards a dream enemy after awakening from sleep and recognizing his lack of intrinsic existence. Likewise, the enemies of the present are, on the ultimate level, devoid of intrinsic existence, just like a dream. So instead of being hateful toward them, you should practice forbearance.” This is what Chengawa taught.

See Thupten Jinpa, The Book of Kadam, 583-4.

[8] The reference here is to the obscurations to liberation together with its seeds (or instincts). Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey: “There are two kinds of obstacles. The first kleśāvaraṅa (nyons-grib, nyön-drib) includes the twenty-six major and minor kleśā [delusions], which must be eliminated before Arhatship or Nirvāṇa can be attained. The second, Jñeyāvraṇa (shes-sgrib, she-drib), is the instinct of clinging to the illusion of independent self-existence, and it is this which blocks the way to the full Enlightenment of Buddhahood.” See Dhargyey, Tibetan Tradition, 36. The first is addressed here.

The kleśāvaraṅa are also known as the gross disturbing-thought obscurations. As Hopkins notes, the root of the obstructions to liberation is composed of “the various degrees of the conception of inherent existence” which, in the case of a bodhisattva, are systematically removed over the course of the first through to the end of the seventh bodhisattva ground. See Hopkins, Meditation, 104 (1983 edition).

Speaking generally, the seeds of the delusions are considered the foundational cause for the arising of the delusions. Pabongka Rinpoche: “This foundation consists of seeds or latencies. Just as when one is unable to uproot the seeds of illness, even the smallest piece of food will provoke illness, so when one meets with a certain condition, one will readily develop delusion in one’s mind-stream, because one has the seeds of delusion. These seeds are the foundation or instinct for this to happen.” See Pabongkha, Liberation, 516, (1991 edition).

When the bodhisattva attains the eighth bodhisattva ground, these seeds will have been entirely eradicated/removed. See Hopkins, Meditation, 99; 104. It is for this reason that we say the Bodhisattva has now entered the three pure (because no longer contaminated) grounds. Hopkins, 109. From the eighth ground onwards they commence removing the obscurations to omniscience which prevent simultaneous cognition of the two truths. See Hopkins, Meditation, 103. See also note 9 below.

[9] Rinpoche’s reference to karma ceasing must be (interpretably) understood as referring not just to negative karma but to afflicted (or contaminated) karma.  This may include unenlightened positive or virtuous karma i.e. that motivated by innate self-grasping ignorance and rooted in the obscuring afflictions.  Thus the reference to karma “ceasing” pertains to the (projecting or throwing or formative karma of the) second link of the twelve links of dependant arising. As Nāgārjuna writes:

The root of cyclic existence is formative action,
Therefore, the wise do not act to accumulate karma
Therefore, the unwise are those who do.
The wise do not, because they see reality.

Fundamental Verses, quoted Sopa, Steps, Volume Two, 295.

Because contaminated positive karma has  capacity to throw us into higher state rebirths (such as human or desire god realms) it supports cyclic existence. In other words, “once performed”  it “nourishes future affliction.” See Sopa, ibid., 291. That is why it is imperative we  sever entirely the first link ignorance; the pernicious cycle of suffering cannot be broken otherwise.

As Geshe Sopa notes, “when a person attains the ārya level by means of direct realization of the truth on the path of seeing, he or she no longer creates any new projecting karma. Although some āryas may be born again in the desire realm or the upper realms the projecting karma for those rebirths was accumulated before they obtained the ārya state.”  Ibid, 294.

The Dalai Lama:

Actions [karma] can be pure, such as the uncontaminated actions that give rise to the enlightened qualities on the various levels of the path, or afflicted. In the context of the twelve links, the actions or karma being referred to is the unenlightened afflicted class of karma that projects us into continued rebirth within the cycle of existence. The seed of this karma is rooted in the afflictions, with fundamental ignorance as the root affliction, and these lead to the effects all the way up to ageing and death.

Middle Way, 46. For detailed commentary see Sopa, Steps, Volume 2, 291–99. This includes discussion of the “paradox” concerning how contaminated virtuous karma (included in the second Noble Truth – the cause of suffering) may, nonetheless, serve as cause  for escaping cyclic existence. For a  more general discussion of the need to distinguish afflicted from non-afflicted phenomena such as love and compassion, see the Dalai Lama, From Here to Enlightenment, 36–37. 

[10] The reference is now to the obscurations to omniscience. As Geshe Jampa Tegchok illustrates, via reference to the three vehicles: “To attain the liberation of a hearer or a solitary realizer, one must eliminate the deluded obscurations which cause cyclic existence. However, there are still subtle imprints on the mindstream called obscurations to omniscience, and when they are removed, full enlightenment is achieved.” See Tegchok, Transforming Adversity into Joy And Courage, 18.

Similarly, the Dalai Lama explains, “In the context of the third spiritual goal of attaining enlightenment, the main factors that need to be overcome are the subtle imprints left on our consciousness by the afflictions, which obstruct us from gaining perfect knowledge, the omniscient mind of buddhahood.” Illuminating the Path to Enlightenment (Long Beach: Thubten Dhargye Ling, 2002), 69.

Hopkins elaborates:

On the eighth ground all Bodhisattvas–those who proceed only on the Mahāyāna path and those who first completed the Hīnayāna path–finally begin to eliminate what they have sought to overcome since their entry into the Mahāyāna, the obstructions to omniscience. They spend one period of countless eons proceeding from the second part of the eighth ground to Buddhahood, forsaking by degrees the stains that prevent them from full effectiveness in their efforts to help others. The obstructions to omniscience (literally obstructions to objects of knowledge: Jñeyāvraṇa) plague all sentient beings, not just eighth ground Bodhisattvas, for the appearance of inherently existent objects to the sense and mental consciousnesses lends a false support to the appearance, the assent to this false appearance. However, only eighth ground Bodhisattvas have the capacity to begin to counteract the appearance of inherent existence. The long endeavor in amassing the collections of merit and wisdom has been for the purpose of so empowering the mind that it is possible to counteract these most subtle obscurations. The obstructions to omniscience are divided into four degrees that are to be eliminated on the last three grounds, called ‘pure” because eighth through tenth ground Bodhisattvas are purified of the innate afflictions…The final uninterrupted path in the continuum of a sentient being eliminates the subtlest obstructions to Buddhahood, and the corresponding path of release is Buddhahood itself. In order to generate this final uninterrupted path, however, it is necessary to enter the path of Tantra.

See Hopkins, Meditation, 108-9.

[11] Śāntideva writes,

Those who practice should be as attentive
As a frightened man carrying a jar full of mustard oil,
Who is being threatened by someone with a sword,
(And told) that he will be killed if he spills just one drop.

Guide, ch. 7, v. 71.

[12] Commenting on verse 22 from Thogme Zangpo’s Thirty-Seven Practices of Bodhisattvas:

Whatever appears is your own mind.
Your mind from the start was free from fabricated extremes.
Understanding this do not take to mind
[Inherent] signs of subject and object–
This is the practice of Bodhisattvas.

Geshe Jampa Tegchok explains:

Did the Buddha create emptiness? Was everything originally truly existent, and then did the Buddha make it all non-truly existent.? Not at all. True existence has never existed, but due to our mistaken consciousnesses everything appears to us as if it were truly existent. Phenomena do not exist as they appear. They are similar to illusions. Through using mantra-spells and special substances applied to the audience’s eyes, magicians can make pebbles and sticks appear as elephants and horses to the eye consciousness. To those whose eyes have been affected, actual horses and elephants will appear in that place, but these do not exist as they appear. Therefore it is said that phenomena do not exist in the way they appear, just as an illusion, for example, does not exist as it appears. Dreams are similar. During a dream, there is the appearance of happiness and suffering to a dream consciousness, which is a mistaken consciousness. But these are not real because when we wake up there is no happiness or suffering like there appeared to be to our dream consciousness. Therefore it is said that all phenomena are like a dream.

Geshe Tegchok now spells out the necessary limits of the analogy:

However, saying things are like illusions or dreams does not mean that they are illusions or dreams. They are simply similar to them in that they do not exist as they appear.

Tegchok, Transforming Adversity, 259. Of course we can say exactly the same thing concerning hallucinations: when the causes for hallucination are stopped (perhaps the drug has worn off or the psychotic episode has played itself out) so do the hallucinations that have been supported by the hallucinating mind. In the text “A Concise Guide to “Parting from the Four Clingings” and under the heading “Establishing perceptions as illusions:

The magician conjures forms,
Creating horses, elephants , and various carriages.
Though appearing real, none exists as it appears.
Understand that this is true, too, of all phenomena.

As stated here, all the diverse appearances of objects described above are dreamlike and illusionlike. Like a dream, even though you undergo various experiences of suffering, when you wake up, you realize that these experiences were unreal. Meditate by contemplating, “They appear as mere conventional truths; they are like the reflections of forms in a mirror,” until ascertainment arises.

See Jinpa, Mind Training, 564.

[13] From the Jewel Garland of Dialogues, Chapter 12:

The good and bad of dream objects
Appear as real to the dreaming mind;
Though dreams are devoid of veracity,
The deluded mind confuses them to be true.

Likewise, though all objects
Are devoid of reality, for the mind that grasps
They are confused to be truly real.
The learned one thus cites dreams as an analogy:

To the mind of the awake,
Through the good and bad of dream objects
Appear most vividly real,
On the basis of this the thought occurs

“No yesterday-objects are found,
So why do I pointedly grasp at them?’
Still their resonance lingers strongly.

Thupten Jinpa, Book of the Kadam, 230. And a little further on:

So now even if diversity appears [to the mind],
Since nothing exists, do not grasp at anything.
Even if numerous conceptualizations come together,
Such as [conceptualizations of] joy, pain, and so on,
All of these are but mere appearances.
As for truth, not even its possibility exists;
So experience the appearances likewise.

Ibid. 231.

[14] In the Thirty-Seven Practices of Bodhisattvas, Thogme Zangpo writes (verses 23-4):

When you encounter attractive objects,
Though they seem beautiful
Like a rainbow in summer, don’t regard them as real
And give up attachment—
This is the practice of Bodhisattvas.

All forms of suffering are like a child’s death in a dream.
Holding illusory appearances to be true makes you weary.
Therefore when you meet with disagreeable circumstances,
See them as illusory—
This is the practice of Bodhisattvas.

For further commentary on these verses see Sonam Rinchen, The Thirty-Seven Practices of Bodhisattvas (Ithaca: Snow Lion, 1997), 59–61, and Tegchok, Transforming Adversity, 273–75. Regarding the “therapeutic” benefits of realisation, Pabongka similarly explains:

To be brief, our happiness and suffering may have arisen from either good or bad circumstances, but when we examine their nature, these things are found to have arisen out of a mere set of causes, conditions, and mutual interdependence. Thus, good or bad circumstances, suffering or happiness are all merely labels, and such things cannot be established by way of their nature, even though they undeniably appear to be real. When we look into the way ‘I’ and ‘others’ do not truly exist, this will readily prevent our being unhappy, attached, and so on.

Liberation, 554–55.

[15] For explanation on how a buddha (who has neither epistemological nor cognitive fault) knows or engages conventionalities, see Sonam Thakchöe, “Prāsaṅgika Epistemology in Context,” in The Cowherds, Moonshadows, 39–55. See also Tsongkhapa’s account of how a “Buddha’s pristine wisdom knows objects of knowledge” in Hopkins, Tsong-Kha-Pa’s Final Exposition, 348-54. Hopkins forges a comparison with Dolpopa’s view and in the process elucidates why, according to Gelug scholars, Dolpopa’s view provokes controversy.

[16] As Hopkins notes, until the obscurations to omniscience are removed, an exalted bodhisattva “loses the direct cognition of emptiness when he arises from meditative equipoise, for the appearance of conventional phenomena rules out a direct cognition of emptiness and a direct cognition of emptiness rules out the appearance of conventional phenomena.” Meditation, 103.

Regarding the latter point, Yeshey Tupden points out that this has implications for how “emptiness” itself appears as an object of a wisdom of meditative equipoise: “Further, although emptiness is both permanent and an object of knowledge, it does not appear to a consciousness of meditative equipoise as a permanent phenomenon or as an object of knowledge; these [aspects] are related to emptiness but are not objects of the wisdom of meditative equipoise. Object of knowledge, existent, established base, and so forth, are all conventional phenomena; emptiness is an ultimate object, and therefore emptiness [alone] has to be the object of a wisdom cognizing the manner of existence.” See Klein, Path, 99. In the light of this we might also explore the meaning of the statement “Through seeing the nature [emptiness] of a single thing, one thereby directly sees the nature of all things” (ibid., 35).

[17] Geshe Jampa Tegchog:

If our meditation on emptiness is good, then automatically our post meditation time will go well. Although when not in meditative equipoise on emptiness, phenomena will still appear truly existent to us, we will be able to draw on the wisdom built up during equipoise, and without much difficulty we will see that although things appear truly existent, they are not. If our meditation on emptiness is not so good, we have to work that much harder in our daily life during the post-meditative time to maintain the correct view. It is similar when we meditate on love, compassion, and so forth. When our meditation is strong, all our actions outside of the session–walking, sleeping, interacting with others–will be supported by the meditation, and they also will go well. If great masters tell us that when we do retreat, our meditation sessions should help us to practice during the break time, [then] our practice during the break time should help our meditation. Thus, the way of familiarizing ourselves with emptiness during our sessions is by meditating on space-like emptiness. During the breaks, i.e. during our daily activities, we should meditate on illusion-like emptiness, seeing that things do not exist in the way they appear.

Tegchok, Transforming Adversity, 274-5.

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