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Meditation on Emptiness

Teachings on the Heart Sutra, a Perfection of Wisdom text.
Khensur Rinpoche Geshe Jampa Tegchok gave this commentary on the Heart Sutra to Saraswati Buddhist Group, Somerset, England on August 17 -20, 2007. The commentary is edited by Andy Wistreich.

Read the Heart Sutra, a Perfection of Wisdom text. You may also download the commentary in a pdf file.

5. Meditation on Emptiness

The Object of Negation 

When meditating on emptiness it is important to be able to identify the object of refutation or negation. Without such knowledge it is like trying to catch a thief without being able to identify him. If you cannot identify the thief, not knowing what he looks like, it is very difficult to catch him. Similarly when we meditate on emptiness something needs to be negated, and without knowing what it is one will find it very difficult to make that negation.

If when trying to describe the thief one wants caught to somebody, one can say only that he has a round head, two eyes and two legs, this information is of little use to the thief-catcher because so many people fit the description. It is not precise. However, knowing what uniquely distinguishes the thief from everyone else, the thief-catcher will know for sure when she has found the right person.

In meditating on emptiness, whether the basis of your analysis is a person or a phenomenon, once you know what the object to be negated is, if you look in the basis for that object, on failing to find it you will realise emptiness. Realising emptiness means realising the meaning of emptiness.

The person uses phenomena, specifically the aggregates. If the person were self-existent he or she would be completely independent of all causes and conditions, of anything in fact. The only place where it makes sense to look for the object of negation, a self-existent person who is completely independent of anything, is within the aggregates. This is because the person actually exists depending on the aggregates. In a sense, the person exists on or in the aggregates. The person is based on the aggregates.

To try to find the self-existent person, one should look within the aggregates, the person’s basis of imputation. When analysing and searching for that self-existent person within the aggregates, and failing to find it, one realises or understands the meaning of emptiness. The emptiness thus realised is the selflessness of the person and one gains certainty of it with a valid mind, through one’s own logical analysis.

This is important because thinking there to be no such thing as a self of a person, or a self-existing person based merely on being told as much is insufficient. One must know exactly what one seeks, understanding what the object of negation is, and then must search for it oneself within the basis of designation of the person. Having looked and searched for it, not finding it means one understands emptiness.

How can one know whether or not one’s meditation on emptiness has been successful and effective? Having a clear idea of what one searches for, the object of negation - when meditating on the selflessness of the person, the self-existent person - one searches for it within the aggregates. One enquires whether that self-existent person is any one of the aggregates individually, the group of the aggregates or whatever. Having searched exhaustively, not having found it means it does not exist. Recognising this shows the meditation on emptiness to be a success.

The Risk of Nihilism

When looking for the object of negation, the self-existent person, within the aggregates, one fails to find it. Not finding it means finding that it does not exist. That means you have found or realised emptiness. However, approaching meditation on emptiness without a clear idea of the object to be negated, and simply looking for the person within the aggregates one fails to find the person. Simply looking for the person within the aggregates, without qualifying it with the object of negation, one fails to find that too. Thus, by looking for and failing to find the person within the aggregates there is the risk of concluding that the person does not exist.

This causes one to take emptiness as a form of nihilism, whereby whatever is empty does not exist. This is because in seeking the object within its basis of designation one fails to find it, suggesting it does not exist. Thereby meditation on emptiness may become a form of nihilism. As a result one could deny that karma and refuge exist and eventually abandon or reject emptiness itself. As a result of rejecting emptiness, one is born in the lower realms in a future life, specifically in the hell called "the hell of unrelenting torment". In this case one’s meditation on emptiness will have been ineffective, and will have gone extremely badly.

In the process of searching for a self-existing person, when thinking “I this and that,” an appearance of an "I" existing from its own side is produced. Such an "I" or person existing from its own side is what one should seek.

If instead one looks for the person within the aggregates asking oneself if it is the aggregates, part of the aggregates, the collection of the aggregates and so forth, one will not find it. Likewise one does not find the watch when seeking a watch within its parts, enquiring whether it is this part of the watch, the front or the back, this cog, that cog and so on. Taking this to mean the watch does not exist is a mistake. When meditating on the selflessness or emptiness of the person, if, having failed to find it one takes that to mean the person does not exist, this spreads over to other areas leading one to think that refuge, karma and so forth do not exist.

Thus the emptiness on which one meditates will be a nihilistic emptiness - a form of nihilism. When taking the things on whose emptiness one meditates to be non-existent, one’s meditation kind of annihilates them. The ripening result of meditating through misunderstanding emptiness like that is birth in the hell of unceasing torment.

Whilst every other kind of negative action (karma) can be purified there is no way to purify the fault of nihilism. One can only experience the ripening result. This is the meaning of the scriptural statement that when a person of limited intelligence approaches emptiness mistakenly, it brings about their downfall.

One will not find the person when seeking it within the aggregates, the person’s basis of imputation. Moreover, when seeking a self-existing person within the aggregates this is not found either. Thus there is a similarity between these two in the sense one fails to find either the person or the self-existing person within the aggregates. However, in the second case, not finding a self-existing person when looking for it within its basis of designation, the aggregates, equals finding it does not exist, which means realising it does not exist, and that is realising emptiness.

In the case of looking for the person within the aggregates, not finding it neither means to have found it not to exist nor that one has realised its non-existence. Nevertheless, one might make the mistake of thinking that the failure to find it means it does not exist.

Furthermore one could infer from that misunderstanding that like the person, other conventional phenomena do not exist from the perspective of the wisdom of meditative equipoise of the Arya when single-pointedly and non-conceptually experiencing meditation on the true nature of reality, emptiness. Since the person does not appear within the perspective of that meditation, the person does not exist for such a meditation. The only thing that exists and appears for that meditation is ultimate truth. Conventional phenomena do not appear for it because conventional phenomena are false. Being untrue1, they do not appear.

One might think that because conventional phenomena do not appear to or exist for that meditation they do not exist at all. Moreover one might think that when an Arya is absorbed single-pointedly in meditation on this non-conceptual realisation of the true nature of reality, he or she realises the non-existence of all conventional phenomena, and so annihilates them. This misunderstanding of emptiness will lead to the ripening result of birth in the hell of unceasing torment.

In fact the non-existence of conventional phenomena from the perspective of the Arya’s wisdom of meditative equipoise single-pointedly meditating on the nature of reality, emptiness is itself emptiness. Their non-existence from the perspective of that meditation is emptiness. There are two ways to misunderstand that, meaning there are two faults that may follow.

One fault is thinking that the view of emptiness is a nihilist position since conventional phenomena like karma and refuge do not exist from the perspective of that meditation. In other words, one thinks that because for the direct perception of emptiness conventional phenomena do not exist, emptiness means the non-existence of everything. To such a misunderstanding it seems that emptiness is the non-existence of or annihilates conventional phenomena. Therefore, although not rejecting emptiness one mistakenly thinks it means that conventional phenomena like refuge, karma and so on do not exist at all.

The other fault is rejecting emptiness as wrong or bad, for being like nihilism. When taking the view of emptiness to be a nihilistic position because it seems that emptiness annihilates things, one might conclude that emptiness is wrong. This follows because for the meditative equipoise of the Arya directly realising emptiness, conventional phenomena do not exist. That meditation realises they do not exist, so one might mistakenly conclude that meditation on emptiness annihilates conventional phenomena. This fault can lead the person to rebirth in the lower realms.

In the commentary it explains that a mistaken approach to the view due to low intelligence or limited wisdom brings about one’s downfall. The afore-mentioned two wrong approaches to emptiness can cause this. The same passage continues to say that a poisonous snake grabbed hold of in the wrong way will bite and poison one, though it cannot bite someone who knows how to take hold of it.

Conventionally Existing Phenomena and Emptiness

We cannot see the very subtle profound qualities of an enlightened being, but we have seen neither their non-existence, nor that the Buddha lacks them. One should not believe them to not exist just because of not seeing them. Likewise, it is natural that conventional phenomena do not appear to the wisdom of meditative equipoise of the Arya. Reality is all that mind focuses on, and all that appears to that mind is the ultimate truth of emptiness.

Though it is the nature of that meditation that conventional phenomena do not appear to or exist for it this does not mean that that mind has realised them not to exist. It is simply that they do not and cannot appear to such a mind.

There is a big difference between not realising something and realising that that thing does not exist. For example, the eye consciousness cannot experience or realise sweet, salty and sour flavours, and so on, but that does not mean the eye consciousness realises they do not exist. Similarly, the eye consciousness cannot hear or realise sounds, but this does not mean it realises that they do not exist.

In the same way, although we ordinary beings are unable to perceive, understand or realise the subtle qualities of the enlightened beings, this does not mean that through not seeing or understanding them, we understand and realise they do not exist.

The self-grasping mind looking at the person thinks that a self-existent person is there. The object of negation - in terms of the person, the self-existent person - appears to our mind, so to that very mind there is an appearance of the person being self-existent. It is not possible for a person who does exist and a self-existent person to appear separately. They appear to that mind as completely indistinguishable.

It is impossible to perceive only a self-existent person without the person itself appearing. These two appear mixed and indistinguishable because they cannot appear separately. One negates the self-existent person by meditating on emptiness using various forms of analysis to realise that there is no such thing. The appearance of the conventionally existing person disappears at the same time as that negation.

Because of that, when you negate the self-existent person it seems as though the conventionally existing person has also been refuted. However, you have not realised the conventionally existing person to be non-existent; you have realised there to be no such thing as a self-existent person.

For example, if you ask someone not to sit here but to move elsewhere, when they go they take their shadow with them. You do not separately tell their shadow to go, nor tell them to take their shadow with them. You merely ask the person to go, but their shadow goes along with them. This is similar and shows how meditation on emptiness does not imply the non-existence of conventionally existing phenomena such as refuge and karma.

Student: To ascertain the object of negation one must separate the appearance of the truly existent from the validly existent person, yet because we are ordinary beings, whenever the person appears to us it appears along with an appearance of inherent existence. Before we have realised emptiness how can we make that separation effectively in order to actually find the object of negation?

Khensur Rinpoche: The way to separate them is through thinking that the object of negation is a self-existent person that exists from its own side completely independent of causes and conditions. That is the thing to be negated. Get an idea of a self-existent person that exists completely independent of causes, conditions and anything else. Then recognise how the person actually exists depending on various causes and conditions and so forth. Thereby realise that because of being dependent, the self-existing one is a mistake and does not actually exist.

Several other options are available of reasoning showing that the self-existing person does not exist. However, the clearest, simplest and most straight forward is thinking about how the person is dependent.

Same student: It is very difficult to separate the validly existing person from the appearance of the inherently existing person.

Khensur Rinpoche: Everything that appears automatically appears not as dependent, but rather as self-existent. Things appear as independent, so use analysis to investigate whether "self-existing" things exist as they appear. Using the insight into dependent arising, see that they do not.

Same student: If one is having problems with that would it help to first establish that the conventionally existing person does exist, because of functioning for example, and then go on to establish that the truly existent person does not exist?

Khensur Rinpoche: Yes, one should recognise how the person does exist. There is a person who comes and goes, sits and eats, sleeps and so on. Then we need to realise that that person appears as if self-existent, meaning as existing independently, and then we analyse whether there is such a person.

Another student: I find the idea of being in a state where neither the "I" that is independent of causes and conditions nor the conventionally existing "I" arises a little bit frightening. I am wondering how you re-emerge from that experience to be able to function again? Do you just wait for some pain, for instance for your knee to hurt, to think “Ah, that’s conventional existence” or is there a meditative process, a way of analysing that there are indeed conventional realities?

Ven Steve Carlier: In other words if you have got to the point where there is a direct perception of emptiness, with no appearance of any kind of conventional phenomena, at what point would you reaffirm their existence?

Student: Clearly there are beings that have this meditative experience and then function. They do not just sit there for the rest of their lives, but they go out and function. How do they arrive at this place where they can function in conventional reality?

Khensur Rinpoche: When they come out of the meditation and just go about their normal activities, they are able to think very clearly how even though at that time there was no appearance of conventional phenomena nonetheless they do exist. That is the time of the meditation break.

Ven Steve Carlier: It is at the time of subsequent realisation.

Khensur Rinpoche: When they rise from their meditation they can see very clearly that although there was no appearance of the person during the meditation, nevertheless there is a conventionally existing person that can come and go, sit, sleep, and eat and so on.

The mantra of the Perfection of Wisdom, TAYATHA GATE GATE PARAGATE PARASAMGATE BODHI SVAHA is recited in the Heart Sutra.

GATE GATE PARAGATE PARASAMGATE BODHI contains five sets of syllables which can be understood in connection with the five paths of accumulation, preparation, seeing, meditation and no more learning.

The first two syllables are each translated as "Go!" Thus there is "Go! Go!" Next is PARAGATE, "Go beyond!" and PARASAMGATE, "Go perfectly beyond!" Finally, BODHI basically means "Go to enlightenment!" and literally means to set up or place the basis or the foundation of enlightenment, so it means "Attain enlightenment!"

The whole mantra means "Go! Go! Go beyond! Go perfectly beyond! Go to enlightenment!" or "Attain enlightenment!"

Imagine a criminal imprisoned in a cell or dungeon for life. After he has been there a long time a friend visits and advises him, “Don’t stay here any longer! You must do something to get out, to get free of this!” The friend explains the route out, with all the shortcuts and secret passages. The friend explains, “You have to go here, and there; there are actually four paths or legs on this journey. When you have gone through all four segments of the path, finally you will be completely free and will never have to come back and undergo this kind of bad experience again.” The path to enlightenment is like this.

First is the path of accumulation on which one mainly accumulates merit. Then, on the paths of preparation, seeing and meditation, one principally uses wisdom to progress along the path, although that wisdom must be reinforced by the method side of compassion and so forth. Thus, although during this phase method and wisdom must be practised inseparably in combination, the main driver is wisdom. For example, on the path of seeing, although it must be bolstered with the method side, it is mainly wisdom which eliminates the intellectually acquired obscurations. Then on the path of meditation the innate obscurations must be eliminated in several stages. Once both types of obscurations are eliminated one achieves the fifth path which is enlightenment.

This means the journey across the ocean of cyclic existence to liberation relies mainly on the wisdom realising emptiness. One gradually eliminates the obscurations and faults in the mind through practicing the perfection of wisdom (developing the realisation of emptiness) and thus gradually achieves enlightenment.

At the outset of the waxing phase, there is a very fine crescent of the new moon. That thin sliver of a crescent of the new moon puts an end to the total darkness. Before waxing began, only darkness was in the moon’s place. Instead now, although predominantly dark it is no longer totally so. The very fine crescent eliminated the complete disc of darkness, of which less than a disc remains now. As the moon waxes, its light gets fuller and fuller, and what is being eliminated gets increasingly less until finally the full moon eradicates the finest, most subtle level, the final sliver of darkness.

Similarly, as we progress on the path, our wisdom is somewhat weak initially and can eliminate only the greatest, most superficial and gross obscurations. As the wisdom gets stronger and stronger it has the capacity to dispel increasingly subtle obscurations. On the path of seeing2 one has strong enough wisdom to enable one to eliminate the grosser obscurations in the sequence of the sixteen moments of the path of seeing. These wisdom processes are called forbearances and liberation. Then on the path of meditation the remaining, more subtle obscurations are eliminated in nine cycles. There are nine cycles of the path of meditation called the three great, three middling and three smaller cycles.


Although true conventionally or relatively, ultimately they are untrue.  [Return to text]

The path of seeing is the initial point of the dawning of the direct non-conceptual realisation of emptiness. This realisation is developed and deepened in the path of meditation which follows. [Return to text]


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