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What is Emptiness?

posted Sep 8, 2015, 9:30 AM by Reno Budd

What is Emptiness?

6sep15  - Rev. Matthew Fisher

--- Namandabs - namandabs - Namandabs ---    


“Hello everyone and welcome to Reno Buddhist Center.” Three things before I start -  We are most grateful to everyone who has supported our temple for many years. Making it a welcoming and vibrant sangha. If you have been coming for a long time thank you so much.

and  Thank you to  our new friends who have summoned the courage and openness to come through the temple doors for the first time. Wherever your spiritual quest takes you we are always here for you.  Any aid we can give you on your quest will always be offered freely.  

Lastly -  We are going to have a visitor from Japan come to us tomorrow.   He is Isago Sensei [you can just call him Sensei for short] and he will be with us for two weeks more on that later.


My sub-title today is What is Emptiness?  I wanted to say “What is it good for? - but reverend Shelley thought that was a little too flip. So I won’t.


How many of you have heard or read Buddhist references to Emptiness? [hands?]  The Sanskrit word is Sunyata.

Kathy read the Heart Sutra today. Its not long but it is very dense. I’d like to  sort of chew our way through it. Then we can all chant the mantra together.


The First a Story about misunderstanding the Heart Sutra -

The teacher asked the novice monk:

“Tell me about your understanding of the Heart sutra.”

The novice monk joined his palms and replied:

“I have understood that the five skandhas are empty. There are no eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body or mind; there are no forms, sounds, smells, tastes, feelings, or objects of mind; the six consciousnesses do not exist, the eighteen realms of phenomena do not exist, the twelve links of dependent arising do not exist, and even wisdom and attainment do not exist.”

“Do you believe what it says?”

“Yes, I truly believe what it says.”

“Come closer to me,” the teacher instructed the novice monk. When the novice drew near, the teacher abruptly grabbed his nose and gave it a twist!

In great agony, the novice cried out “Teacher! You're hurting me!”
The teacher looked at the novice.  “Just now you said that the nose doesn't exist. But if the nose doesn't exist then what's hurting?”


Most of our understanding of Sunyata is owed to the great teacher Nagarjuna. He is the first in our lineage of teachers.   Some of you may have heard of him before. In the Shoshinge on page 13, Shinran credits Nagarjuna with  “destroying false views of being and non-being”.   I have been reading a translation of his work lately-  one of our members loaned it to me. He was a very careful thinker. And honestly I can only maintain enough focus to read his ideas for about 30 min before I have to rest the mind.

Nagarjuna talked about about the concept of Sunyata.  Unfortunately Sunyata has been translated as Emptiness.   As we can see from the story it is easy to mis-understand what is meant by this idea in Buddhism.  Nagarjuna warned us that...

"Emptiness wrongly grasped is like picking up a poisonous snake by the wrong end."    - In other words, it can bite you!


Usually when Americans use the word empty it is not good. If your tank is empty - things stop. Sunyata is not like that. If I say "I feel empty," I mean I am feeling sad or depressed. Emotionally, "emptiness" is not happy. We need to often remind ourselves that Buddhist Emptiness does not mean loneliness or separateness.  Its the opposite!  
American teachers have looked for substitute translations for the Sanskrit Sunyata something more like  -- "fullness," "spaciousness," "connectedness," and "boundlessness" --

You can hear in these words a very different idea coming through - Shunryu Suzuki in SF used to define it this way….

"Emptiness - Sunyata -  is like being held close by your mother,
feeling she will take care of you."

That feels pretty full!  Not empty at all.   And that is the point.  

But lets go back to the Heart Sutra and work our way through it. Keeping in mind this empty as being empty of separateness.


“Kannon Bodhisattva while practicing deeply the Insight that Brings Us to the Other Shore, suddenly discovered that all five Skandhas are equally empty, and with this realisation he overcame all suffering.

There is the story of the dinner guest that asked his host - “Where did this bread bread come from? Its really good”.  There is a short answer. But  the host is a very honest person. She takes a moment and look deeply into the bread. When she looked she saw see that there is grain there. And she could see a cloud that gave the rain that made the grain grow.  And the bees flying from one flower to the next. And she could see the  warmth of the Sun - the grain couldn’t exist without the Sun. And she saw that without the guest thinking “this bread is good”, the bread does not exist.   Her thoughts lead on and on and on in every direction -Crossing time and space-  all the causes and conditions where the bread came from.  Everything is in everything - or nothing would work.  A smile came to her face.    “It came from the bakery on 4th street”.

This is an exercise of the mind. Where does the bread come from? Where does the answer end?  Can we keep going - Yes. We can keep going until we have included everything in the universe that must be - in a fantastic web of causes and conditions - just to contribute to the existence of the bread in the story.  The Buddha said …

This is, because that is.
This is not, because that is not.
This comes to be, because that comes to be.
This ceases to be, because that ceases to be.




Empty of What?   The Host was seeing that everything is empty in a Buddhist way.  Now that probably sounds strange because she saw that everything has everything in it. She saw that everything is empty of self existence.   Empty of separateness.   If the bread had its own separate self existence, it wouldn't be caused by anything but itself. And that - as Nagarjuna often says in his discussion of this - is ridiculous.  More than that if it had its own self existence it could not change.   So it would be inedible. It would be useless for us to eat it.  Bread is empty of self-existence and full of everything else in the universe.


“and with this realisation he overcame all suffering.”

The host in the story really saw deeply into the bread.  That is what meditation is.  In Shin Buddhism we call it Deep Hearing of the light - she saw into the bottomless ocean of reality.   Unno Sensei came for a visit and he said when we bow we are - “diving into the oneness of reality”.  This diving-in is the Buddhist way of understanding. In the Satipatthana sutra it is described as penetrating understanding.

    I went canoeing with my teacher on lake tahoe many years ago. And on the perfect mirror surface of the lake. Little droplets of water would skitter across. And then schlipp!  They would return to that oneness. Were they gone? No. They were just part of everything again.  The droplet was confused or deluded that is was separate from the lake and with penetrating insight - schlipp! The droplet understood reality as it is.  It emptied out it’s separateness.


“Listen Sariputra, this Body itself is Emptiness and Emptiness itself is this Body. This Body is not other than Emptiness and Emptiness is not other than this Body. The same is true of Feelings, Perceptions, Mental Formations, and Consciousness.


A good example is a Wave. Imagine a wave crashing onto the shore of Sand Harbor.  Then go a little out into the lake and look at the wave moving across the lake - Form is the wave and Emptiness is the water. Maybe this part of the sutra is a little scary?  this Body itself is Emptiness”  And people start to misunderstand when they read this.  Emptiness is not nothingness.   The monk in the story learned that the hard way.  His nose probably still hurts.  
In the Moon Rabbit logo there is the Enso - the circle drawn in one free stroke.  It is not a zero.  It includes everything. It symbolizes emptiness. Because form is emptiness, form is possible.  As Nagarjuna said - “Because of emptiness of self-existence - everything works.”   Emptiness - Sunyata and the constant Change that is called Anicca are the same thing.


“Listen Sariputra, all phenomena Empty; their true nature is the nature of no Birth, no Death, no Being, no Non-being, ”

We see death and birth every day.  Sometimes with joy and sometimes with sorrow.   Our emotions are misplaced.  Kannon tells Shariputra that there is no death.   

Let's go back to the bread in the story.   When was it born?  Well it was baked that morning says our host.   But did the bread spring into being in the oven?  Yes? - No?   I have one Yes - its an oven not a replicator. The dough is put in the oven. We have to go to the dough and the grain and the bees and the Sun...here we go again.  With deep and penetrating insight. We cannot find the birth.  
And when does the bread die?   You eat it. And it is gone...we not really gone. It gives you energy and you fix the fence  beside the temple. Now the bread is in the fence. When does it die?     It doesnt. Being and non-Being - as Nagarjuna puts it - are ridiculous ideas.

The Chemist Lavoisier said

"Nothing is lost, nothing is created, everything is transformed." This life that you cling to as a precious possession is not really yours - it is life living life. What you call it in a moment of selfishness is immaterial - or even delusional.

The wave in lake tahoe doesn't see the shore coming closer and closer in fear. It comes to the shore and- if you have ever watch the waves - it returns to the lake in a different form.


no Defilement, no Purity”  

In Buddhism we use the symbol of the Lotus blossom for the Buddha. When I was studying Buddhism in Sri Lanka I got to see many Lotus flowers.   And it is really true.  The most beautiful  lotus grows in the funkiest, muckiest water. You see them rising above junk filled ponds, big and beautiful and well proportioned.

We usually say it is a symbol of the Buddha because of this - because it rises above the muck and myre and flowers into stunning beauty.   But really Kannon is teaching us that  the Lotus is a symbol of the Buddha because it is made from that very muck - the muckier the better.   It is not beautiful because it is separate from nasty gunk - it is beautiful because of the nastiness.   

The same is true of  people. Who is bad and who is good?   Think about someone at work you hate - or dislike - Have you ever noticed that when they move on, someone else  starts to bug you?  In the complete emptiness of the universe everything is there.  If you try to manipulate reality and change that - it returns to balance on its own.  

Imagine you have a piece of wood. a couple feet long. And imagine you really like the left end of the wood - but you really hate the right end.   What do you do?  You cut off the right end.   Fix things. Now what. As you look at your pieces of wood, you realize the Right end is still there.   The right end is empty of self-existence. You can’t undo the nature of emptiness. Everything is part of everything.  Compassion flows in when we realize this.  Suffering stops as Kannon experienced in the sutra.


“no Increasing, no Decreasing.”

We worry that when we die we will be less than the is fantastic human  specimen we are now. We are so clever and so able. But if we listen to Kannon bodhisattva or Lavoisier, we will not go away. We will transform. The fear and worry are not necessary. When we look at the crescent moon, we don't feel sad that it's going away. Because we know it will be full again. This changing of form is the nature of emptiness.



“That is why in Emptiness, Body, Feelings, Perceptions, Mental Formations and Consciousness are not separate self existing entities.
The Four Noble Truths  - That life can be lived in abiding Joy, That there is a cause when do not live joyfully, That when we remove the cause joy returns, and the 8 Fold Path to living a Joyful life,  truly all insight and attainment, are also not separate self existing entities.”


All of this applies to all of Buddhism. Buddhism is empty of self existence too.  The Buddha is made from non-Buddha elements just as we are made of buddha elements.

We don’t have time for the story, “Mara comes for Tea”.   This is the one where Mara The Undoer comes to visit the Buddha in his later years.  In many ways the Buddha is grateful to Mara. Without Mara the Buddha would not exist.  Really in some way they co-exist.  They are not opposites really, they are really the same stuff.


Bodhisattvas who practice the Insight that Brings Us to the Other Shore see no more obstacles in their mind, and because there are no more obstacles in their mind, they overcome all fear, destroy all wrong perceptions, and realize Perfect Nirvana.


“All Buddhas in the past, present and future by practicing the Insight that Brings Us to the Other Shore are capable of attaining Authentic and Perfect Enlightenment.”


The real message of the sutra is that the obstacles are in our mind.   Emptiness has no issues or problems. Our misunderstanding of the way things are is the cause of suffering.  This misunderstanding makes us less joy filled.  But when we see things as they are joy and compassion flow freely. Kannon bodhisattva is telling us that once the wave realizes that it is only water, that it is nothing but water, it realizes that birth and death cannot do it any harm. It has transcended all kinds of fear. Perfect Nirvana is the state of non-fear. You are liberated, you are no longer subject to birth and death, defilement and purity. You are free from all that.

“Therefore Sariputra, it should be known that the Insight that Brings Us to the Other Shore is a Great Mantra, the most illuminating mantra, the highest mantra, a mantra beyond compare, the True Wisdom that has the power to put an end to all kinds of suffering.


Therefore let us proclaim the mantra to praise the Insight that Brings Us to the Other Shore:  

Gate, Gate, Paragate, Parasamgate, Bodhi Svaha!

A mantra is a sound or phrase whose meaning is greater than its mere sound.   It energetically and harmonically connects to a higher spiritual plane.   In english - “I love you” is a mantra.  It is powerful far beyond its mere words.

Then…
Gate, Gate, Paragate, Parasamgate, Bodhi Svaha!

What does this mean?  In Sanskrit - Gate means “Gone”  so it reads - “Gone Gone”  - “Paragate” means gone all the way to the other shore. “Parasamgate”  -  The “SAM” in there means all or everyone . Now we have “Gone, Gone, All the way gone,  everyone gone to the other shore.  “Bhodi” is awakening or enlightenment. And Svaha is a cry of joy - the “yea!“


So - the Mantra is…

“Gone, Gone, All gone, Everyone gone to the other shore.
Awake! Yea!”


Those are some thoughts on the Heart Sutra. It is largely about Emptiness.

I also want to share the view of emptiness on our Shin Buddhist path - it is in the Nembutsu.  Namo-Amida Butsu. Most of us offered incense during the Shoshinge.   Our friendly incense helpers  worked with a few new people to show them how we usually make our offering. Its not that important in the specific form - don’t worry if you didn’t do it precisely this way - but it is very important in the intention and feeling-tone brought to the ritual - it is a very full ritual.

We approach the altar heightened awareness.   We bow in respect for the Buddha.   We place the nenju [that means nembutsu bracelet] on our left hand.  Why do we do that?

It symbolizes our small individual self - seeing the world as myself - my hand - and them - the other hand. I bow in that state.  Duality = Us and Them.  A misunderstanding of reality.  Like I have have self existence?
Then I make the offering of incense.  Even though the temple provides the incense you are giving a gift. And that gift is given in gratefulness for the wisdom and compassion of the universe.   

      Then we make our final bow. To do that we adjust the nenju to encircle both hands. We place both hands in the circle.  They are one. My small self and the vastness are one in this gesture with a feeling of abiding gratefulness - of joy.   I bow with a feeling of having it all.   


Not having all the material stuff my small-self thinks will make it whole - that is Madison Avenue propaganda - NO -  When I bow like this it is really Amida Buddha bowing to Amida Buddha. “The bower and the bow are one” as Nagarjuna would say.   A moment of profound connection to everything that is, everything that was, and everything that will be. We pause there in supreme emptiness.

I often tell the ocean metaphor in the Newcomers circle - The story of a sailor, fallen overboard, who has the choice to fight the sea or to realize he is part of it. If he just realizes this, he can relax and be grateful that it floats him through no effort of his own.  Only by his existence.   In this metaphor the Ocean is Sunyata - emptiness of separateness and the floating is Amida Buddha.

Shinran began the Shoshinge with the exclamation:
"How inconceivable! Throughout the universe the ceaseless, boundless, immeasurable activity of Namu Amida Butsu awakens me to what is real and true!"   An authentic , deeply human voice. He encountered Amida Buddha at the very center of himself, was rescued from a dead, meaningless, purposeless universe and lives, even now, in a Land of Bliss.

From the shoshinge we chanted….

Sakyamuni Buddha was born into this world

With the sole mission of teaching

The treasure-ocean of Amida's Vow

To rescue we who constantly degrade

Our streams of birth and death.

Please listen to the truth of Sakyamuni's message!

The mind of true entrusting, shinjin,

Arises from my awakening to the reality

Of Amida's Great Vow.

No need to sever evil passions to reach Nirvana!

Ordinary people,

Holy monks,

Unbelievers,

We who break the five precepts—

All of us, equally, just as we are,

Though like various polluted rivers

Become of one taste on entering the ocean of the Vow.

One taste.  Sunyata.   Emptiness.  "fullness," "spaciousness," "connectedness," "boundlessness"

In Shin Buddhism our evil karma is not destroyed but rather transformed: in sunyata, and samsara and Nirvana are not separate. Once our mind is united with the Buddha Amida and the Buddha nature gifted to the us through deep and complete trusting -shinjin - knowing we won’t fall back, we are born in the Pure Land. Bhodi Svaha!
Then can return to the world as a Bodhisattva, that we may work to end the suffering of all beings. We work for the Parasamgate of the mantra. We are all in this together Empty of self Existence.

Everyone - we can say the great bright mantra...

  1. Gate, Gate, Paragate, Parasamgate, Bodhi Svaha!

  2. Gate, Gate, Paragate, Parasamgate, Bodhi Svaha!

  3. Gate, Gate, Paragate, Parasamgate, Bodhi Svaha!


- Namu Amida Butsu  Namu Amida Butsu  Namu Amida Butsu -

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Thanks to:

Thich nhat hanh


.





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Prajnaparamita Hridaya Sutra
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Insight that Brings the Other Shore  - Sutra
Reading 4sep15


Kannon Bodhisattva while practicing deeply the Insight that Brings Us to the Other Shore, suddenly discovered that all five aggregates are equally empty, and with this realisation overcame all suffering.


“Listen Sariputra, this Body itself is Emptiness and Emptiness itself is this Body. This Body is not other than Emptiness and Emptiness is not other than this Body. The same is true of Feelings, Perceptions, Mental Formations, and Consciousness.


“Listen Sariputra, all phenomena are Emptiness; their true nature is the nature of no Birth, no Death, no Being, no Non-being, no Defilement, no Purity, no Increasing, no Decreasing.


“That is why in Emptiness, the aggregates of Body, Feelings, Perceptions, Mental Formations and Consciousness are not separate self existing things.   The six Sense Organs, the six Sense Objects, and the six Consciousnesses are also not separate self existing entities.
Interdependent Co-arising and its Extinction are also not separate self existing entities. The Four Noble Truths  - That life can be lived in abiding Joy, That there is a cause when do not live joyfully, When we remove that cause joy returns, and the Eightfold Path to living a Joyful life, and indeed all insight and attainment, are also not separate self existing entities.


Whoever can see this no longer needs to attain anything.

Bodhisattvas who practice the Insight that Brings Us to the Other Shore see no more obstacles in their mind, and because there are no more obstacles in their mind, they overcome all fear, destroy all wrong perceptions,

and realize Perfect Nirvana.


“All Buddhas in the past, present and future by practicing the Insight that Brings Us to the Other Shore are capable of attaining Authentic and Perfect Enlightenment.


“Therefore Sariputra, it should be known that the Insight that Brings Us to the Other Shore is a Great Mantra, the most illuminating mantra, the highest mantra, a mantra beyond compare, the True Wisdom that has the power to put an end to all kinds of suffering. This is the truth and not a lie.


Therefore let us proclaim the mantra to praise the Insight that Brings Us to the Other Shore:  

Gate, Gate, Paragate, Parasamgate, Bodhi Svaha!
New translation of the Heart Sutra by Thich nhat hanh
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