Talking About Emptiness

lama zopa rinpoche cropped dramatic



Now, some new people who hear teachings on emptiness for the first time might think, “What is this all for?” “Why is he talking about emptiness?” “He must be crazy. He must have taken LSD or something. I have pain in my knees and back from sitting for such a long time. I’m tired and have no energy left in my mind. I can’t pay attention and can’t understand anything. Why is he still talking?”

Anyway, here at this time I thought to give you some idea about emptiness before going over the suffering of the different realms.[1] Actually, emptiness is normally the very last subject in lamrim teachings. The analyses of perception and how things are created are very scientific. It is like checking the structure of atoms with scientific equipment. Through these analyses we can see that, even though our mind might apply labels such as “Buddha’s teachings” or “Buddhism” to the Dharma, the truth is that it is about universal reality.

So what is the purpose of talking about emptiness? We talk about emptiness because if we can gain some idea, some recognition, of what it is, we will gain more faith in karma and the existence of the hells.[2] That is my goal in talking about emptiness. By analyzing our own perceptions, how things appear to us in everyday life, we can get some idea of what is emptiness or ultimate nature.[3] To make this point clearer, by having some idea of the unmistaken view of emptiness, we will be more aware of and better able to judge the appearances with which we live. The more correct our understanding of emptiness, the clearer will be our understanding of what is right and wrong concerning the way things appear to us. This then acts as an introduction to karma and the existence of hells. This is my plan. The main thing is to understand karma and the existence of the sufferings of the lower realms.[4]

Generally, everything has to do with our mind. All existence has to do with our mind and thought. Saṃsāra and nirvāṇa have to do with our thought and mind. When we understand and meditate on the sufferings of the sentient beings in the lower realms, we are able to determine more clearly what to do with our body, speech and mind and with our very life itself.

You can generate the same determination by meditating on emptiness as well; the renunciation is similar. By having some idea of the Prāsaṅgika view of emptiness, you can identify what parts of your own life, including your activities, lack meaning or essential value. You can discover and distinguish what is meaningful and what is meaningless. At the same time you develop renunciation of meaningless things and are encouraged and inspired to seek a new life, new actions, a new way of looking at yourself and other things. You begin to look at things according to reality.

By having an unmistaken understanding of emptiness and the Prāsaṅgika view of the unification of emptiness and dependent arising—which is that while a phenomenon exists, it is empty, and while it is empty, it exists[5]—you gain more faith in subjects such as the hells. And the more you study and meditate on emptiness, the more faith in karma and other topics you develop.

If you don’t study and meditate on emptiness correctly, then the wrong understanding of emptiness you develop will interfere with your faith in karma and how happiness comes from virtue and suffering from nonvirtue. If your meditation on emptiness causes such loss of faith it means there is something wrong with your understanding. Something is missing or incorrect.[6] Even though you might say, “I am meditating on emptiness, I know about emptiness,” if your faith in karma is lessening bit by bit, it indicates that you are unable to integrate emptiness and karma; you are finding them to be contradictory—either your meditation on emptiness is contradicting your faith in karma or your faith in karma is contradicting your faith in emptiness.[7] In such circumstances, neither your attitude nor your actions change for the better.

On the other hand, if your understanding of emptiness is correct, you have more faith in karma and your attitudes and actions transform. As a sign of success, your attitude becomes more and more positive.[8]



Full publication details of cited texts are found in the bibliography

[1] The sufferings of saṃsāra (together with their extinguishment) are explained in terms of the operation of the twelve links of interdependent origination. This detailed topic will be the subject of a number of future posts. In the meanwhile, see Geshe Sonam Rinchen, How Karma Works: The Twelve Links of Dependent Arising; His Holiness the Dalai Lama, The Meaning of Life: Buddhist Perspectives on Cause and Effect. It can also be approached in terms of the categories of suffering itself, such as the eight types of suffering, the six types and the three types, etc. See Tsong-Kha-Pa, The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment, Volume One, 265-95. For Tsongkhapa’s account of the origin of suffering together with how the afflictions arise see ibid, 298-331 and for a succinct presentation of the twelve links, 315-25.

hungry ghosts

[2] For an overview description of the hell-realms in the (small scope) context of what we seek to avoid in future lives, see Tsong-Kha-Pa, The Great Treatise, ibid, 161-75. Tsongkhapa opens his discussion with the pungent words: “Since it is certain that you will die soon as previously mentioned, you cannot remain in this life. As you do not cease to exist after death you will be reborn in either a happy or a miserable realm, because there is no birthplace other than these two types of beings. Since you are controlled by your karma and cannot choose where you will be born, you will be reborn in the manner in which your virtuous and nonvirtuous karma impel you to be reborn. This being the case, contemplate the suffering of the miserable realms, thinking, “How would it be if I were born in a miserable realm?” As the protector Nāgārjuna says:

Reflect daily on the hells,
Both those extremely hot and cold.
Reflect also on the hungry ghosts
Emaciated by hunger and thirst.
Observe and reflect on the animals
Overcome by the suffering of stupidity.
Eliminate the causes of these and create the causes of happiness.

A human body in this world is difficult to obtain.
Once you have it, diligently stop
The causes of miserable rebirths.

[Tsongkhapa continues]:

It is extremely important to meditate on the sufferings of cyclic existence and, in particular, on the sufferings of the miserable worlds, for it you contemplate how you have fallen into the ocean of suffering, you will then turn away from it, and thereby overcome your pride and arrogance. Seeing suffering as the result of nonvirtuous karma, you will be careful to avoid sins and infractions. Since you want happiness, not suffering, and understand that happiness is a result of virtue, you enjoy cultivating virtue. Once you have assessed your own condition, you develop compassion for others. After you turn away from cyclic existence, you develop an aspiration for liberation. Frightened by suffering, you fervently go for refuge to the three jewels. Meditation on suffering is the great summary that included these and many other key points of practice.” Ibid, 161-2.

It is perhaps worth noting here that the Buddhist approach to suffering involves full and thus unflinching comprehension of its nature, scope, causes, and how it might be ceased via travelling upon an appropriate path  (grounded upon ethical practice). This is the core subject matter of of the Four Noble Truths. Also, upon realizing suffering can definitely be ceased, our compassion intensifies: we resolve to become enlightened to optimize our potential to help suffering-others. Khunu Rinpoche:

The ambrosia of bodhichitta cures
all sick beings wracked
by the severe pains of the three sufferings
in beginningless cyclic existence.

See Vast as the Heavens, verse 114, 63.

[3] It is worth noting how here emptiness is being used synonymously with “ultimate nature” (gnas lugs mthar thug). Some terminological background is required. Following Tsongkhapa, Jinpa observes how the term “ultimate” (paramārtha) has two distinct but overlapping meanings, one referring to the “ultimate nature of all things and events as opposed to their relative (that is, empirical and conventional) nature” and the other to what it is that must be found empty by a wisdom consciousness, that is, their lack of intrinsic existence. An example of this second connotation is “all things and events are devoid of any absolute, or ultimate, existence or identity.” Thus it is to be understood as synonymous with “substantially real mode of being.” Self, Reality and Reason, 46. In the passage above, Kyabje Zopa Rinpoche is clearly employing the first sense, as the discussion concerns the way things really are, that is, their final nature (rang bzhin mthar thug, svabhāvaparyantra). As Jinpa notes, “only emptiness (śūnyatā) can be found to remain at the end of an analysis pertaining to the ultimate status of things and events” (ibid., 47). This is because the “abiding mode” of a thing (such as a pot, person or event etc.) is not that thing, but emptiness. Says Yeshey Tupden, “Only selflessness—meaning the lack of inherent existence that characterizes pots, pillars, and other phenomena—is an object of the consciousness that cognizes the way of abiding of those phenomena.” See Klein, Path, 99.

For further valuable detail on the various meanings of “ultimate,” see ibid., 115–18. Regarding the also complex use of the word “nature” (rang bzhin), as in “ultimate nature,” Guy Newland describes how Tsongkhapa employs it “in several different senses.” “In a few places,” he observes, “it means the ordinary qualities of things, like the heat of fire, that allow our conventional wisdom to distinguish one thing from another.” But he also notes how very often “the term refers instead to an intrinsically existing nature, a naturally existing essence by virtue of which things can exist in and of themselves, on their own power. This is the object of negation.” But he also notes a third use—the one employed by Rinpoche above: “Then again, in a third way, ‘nature’ sometimes refers to the final or ultimate nature of things, emptiness. In this sense, the (final) nature exists everywhere, always, as the sheer absence of intrinsic existence.” Thus context is everything. See Introduction to Emptiness (Ithaca: Snow Lion, 2009), 61–62. The various Gelug presentations of “nature” (rang bzhin), especially in relation to five meanings of “dependent” employed in Gelug commentary, are teased out in William Magee, The Nature of Things (Ithaca: Snow Lion, 1999).

Cropped bucket in well

[4] As Candrakīrti presents in his Supplement to the Middle Way, the analogy of a bucket in a well illustrates how ignorance misconstruing the nature of I and mine is the causal source of all the sufferings of saṃsāra (’khor ba), of which the sufferings of the lower realms are not only the most intense but also the most prevalent. Hopkins summarizes Tsongkhapa’s presentation of the points of similitude:

The wandering of the bucket from the top to the bottom of the well is the wandering of sentient beings in cyclic existence due to the force of the afflictions—desire, hatred, and ignorance—and the actions that are motived by these afflictions. The turner of the windlass is an untamed mind. The top of the well represents the realms of gods, demigods, and humans and the bottom the realms of animals, hungry ghosts, and hell-beings. It is easy to descend from a good to a bad migration and hard to rise from a bad migration to a good one. In other words, our minds are so imbued with the afflictions of desire, hatred, and ignorance that we naturally, like a bucket falling in a well, will be led to a lower level or migration; or, if we are already in a low one, we will remain there.

 Compassion, 85.

The wording of Hopkins’s last point must be interpreted. The overriding emphasis, as Tsongkhapa puts it, is “that every day these sentient beings are battered by the sufferings of pain and change, and the pervasive suffering of being so conditioned as to be always ready to undergo pain. Therefore, these sentient beings do not pass beyond the state of a bucket in a well” (ibid., 117). But observe the emphasis on “these” for there are other sentient beings who, due to overcoming the afflictions and particularly root ignorance, do pass beyond that state. Otherwise, how is enlightenment possible?

[5] This was the focus of an earlier post. See The Compatibility of Dependent Arising and Emptiness

.[6] Tsongkhapa writes,

For you, when one sees emptiness
In terms of the meaning of dependent origination,
Then being devoid of intrinsic existence and
Possessing valid functions do not contradict.

Whereas when one sees the opposite,
Since there can be no function in emptiness
Nor emptiness in what has functions,
One falls into a dreadful abyss, you maintain.

In Praise of Dependent Origination, vv. 11–12. See Thupten Jinpa Praise of Dependent Arising.

[7] In The Three Principles of the Path, Tsongkhapa writes (verses 10-13):

Whoever sees that the causes and effects of all phenomena
In cyclic existence and beyond are unfailing
And thoroughly destroys the mainstay of misconceptions,
Walks on the path that pleases the Buddhas.

So long as the understanding of appearances
As unfailing dependent arising and of emptiness
Free from all assertions seem disparate,
You still do not comprehend the Subduer’s thought.

When the two do not alternate but are simultaneous,
And merely seeing dependent arising as unfailing
Destroys through certainty how the object is perceived,
Analysis with regard to the view is complete.

Further, when you know how appearances preclude the extreme
Of existence and emptiness precludes the extreme of annihilation
And how emptiness appears as cause and effect,
You will never be enthralled by wrong views.

See Rinchen, Three Principal Aspects of the Path, 131. For commentary, see 113-126.

Longchen Rabjam says:

If you have contempt for karma and favor mere blank emptiness,
believing that dharma with “no effort” is the ultimate,
then you are cheating yourself of the chance to train [make
progress], as you will be rejecting the two accumulations.
So train in the two accumulations; that is my heart advice.

See Longchen Rabjam, The Precious Treasury of Philosophical Systems, xi. The two accumulations are method and wisdom. 

[8] Similarly stressing the need to ascertain emptiness without forsaking, or rather, within the intimate purview of “ascertainment of the relationship of actions and their effects,” Tsongkhapa quotes Nāgārjuna:

Reliance on actions and their fruits
Within knowing this emptiness of phenomena
Is more wonderful than even the wonderful,
More fantastic than even the fantastic.

See Hopkins, Final Exposition, 92–93. 


Regarding the basis of the very possibility of our attitude showing “signs of becoming more and more positive” as Kyabje Zopa Rinpoche puts it, Lama Yeshe writes:

Christians might say that the human soul is pure, not negative. It is free of ego conflict, craving-desire, hatred and jealousy. Similarly, the relative human consciousness can go from whatever level it’s currently at all the way up to enlightenment. That doesn’t mean that ego conflict goes all the way to enlightenment.; the dissatisfied emotionally restless mind never goes through the first, second, third and other bodhisattva levels to the tenth and then enlightenment. That doesn’t happen.

The essence of the human consciousness, or, we can say, the essence of the human soul, continuously goes up, up and up. The negative blanket of superstition never goes up. Each time we purify our negativities they just disappear, disappear, disappear…

So that’s the relative. With respect to the absolute nature of human consciousness, or soul, it is totally nondual. In the nonduality of the human mind there’s no mixed up confusion or emotional disturbance. No such thing exists; its nature is always clean clear. Therefore we should understand that the nuclear essence of us is our consciousness and that consciousness is not mixed with negativity. It has its own nature, both relative and absolute.

Sometimes we liken the mind to the ocean, where ego conflicts are like waves upon the surface. Concepts rise like waves, shake things up a bit and then subside back into the ocean of consciousness. So the consciousness of each of us is clean clear in nature and our craving, desire, hatred and ignorance are like waves upon the surface;. That means we have the capacity not to shake our consciousness; to some extent we can hold it without shaking. That’s what meditation does.

Now, with respect to motivation, negative motivation is also like a wave. It creates all the confusion, dissatisfaction, pain and misery we experience. All that comes from the negative motivation in our mind–that’s the root of all human problems, It’s most worthwhile to investigate this directly for yourself.

Still, we should understand that our own nature is not totally negative, not totally hopeless, We should respect our own nature, our own purity, our own characteristics. When we respect ourselves we respect others. If we interpret ourselves as a big hassle, selfish, hopeless and negative, we interpret others in the same way. That’s dangerous.

See Lama Yeshe, Life, Death, and After Death, 50-51. Available also online




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