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Mahayana Buddhism & The Concept of Emptiness

Am Koe Beighley Su

March 24, 2022

Here at the White Sands Zen Center, we consider ourselves a Mahayana Zen Buddhist Temple. Mahayana refers to "The Great Way" or "The Middle Path", neither the path of deprivation nor the path of extravagance. The opening stanza of the H'sin H'sin Ming: Verses on the Perfect Mind, written by Seng-ts'an, the Third Patriarch of Zen, as interpreted by Eric Putkonen, reads:

"The Great Way is not difficult,

For those who have no preferences.

Let go of longing and aversion,

and it reveals itself.

Make the smallest distinction, however,

and you are as far from it as heaven is from earth.

If you want to realize the truth,

Then hold no opinions for or against anything.

Like and dislike

is the disease of the mind.

When the deep meaning of the Way is not understood

the intrinsic peace of mind is disturbed.

As vast as infinite space,

it is perfect and lacks nothing.

Indeed, it is due to your grasping and repelling

That you do not see things as they are.

Do not get entangled in things;

do not get lost in emptiness.

Be still in the oneness of things

and dualism vanishes by itself.

This passage includes a variety of topics which will be addressed in future Blog Posts and Dharma Talks, i.e., the entirety of the H'sin H'sin Ming, dualism, oneness, infinite space, beginningless and endless time and space, and others. However, today we are going to focus on just one important aspect of Mahayana Zen Buddhism--EMPTINESS.

In the West there is a tendency to see/explain/determine "emptiness" as the void, or absence of something or everything. That is an incorrect and misleading assumption/interpretation. In an article by David Burton, Emptiness in Mahayana Buddhism, he states the following:

"The Madhyamaka assertion that all things are empty means that they are all dependently originating; they lack or are empty of autonomous existence because they are reliant on causes to bring them into and sustain their existence. Another concept of emptiness occurs in the buddha-nature teaching...which claims that the external world of objects is actually a creation of the mind. It explains that the concept of emptiness in Mahayana Buddhism is contested and open to a variety of interpretation."

In another article, Forms of Emptiness in Zen, by Bret W. Davis, he offers the following explanation:

"This chapter examines the six forms that the teaching of emptiness takes in Zen. ...The Zen tradition understands itself to be based on

Sakyamuni Buddha's profoundest teaching of Mahayana Buddhism which has been passed down not through texts or doctrines but by way of face-to-face acknowledgment of awakening. The six rubrics which the notion of emptiness is used in the Zen tradition are lack of ownbeing, formlessness of ultimate reality, distinctionless state of meditative consciousness, no-mind in the action of non-action, emptiness (or emptying) of emptiness, and emptiness of words. Each of the six rubrics contains a cluster of closely related teachings. Moreover, there are certainly many interconnections, and arguably so tensions, among the rubrics."

Okay...are you as confused as I am right now? Probably so if you are new to Buddhism or have not studied emptiness in the context of the Dharma, the Buddha's teachings.

It is good to go back to Davis' quote, "emptiness (or emptying) of emptiness and emptiness of words." This is important as we look at the very last stanza of the H'sin H'sin Ming:

"To live in this realization

is not to worry about perfection or non-perfection.

To put your trust in the Way is to live without separation,

and in this nonduality you are one with the Way.

Words! Words!

The Way is beond language,

Words never could, can not now and never will describe the Way."

Okay, then...if the Way includes Emptiness, and the Way is beyond words, how, then, might we convey the meaning in Zen Buddhism. We can go back to Davis' description as a starting point: "The Madhyamaka assertion that all things are empty means that they are all dependently originating; they lack or are empty of autonomous existence because they are reliant on causes to bring them into and sustain their existence." In this context, Emptiness refers to the fact that all things are empty of an individuality because all things are dependent on all other things to exist-interdependence or inter-being.

At the Buddhist Temple in Grand Rapids, I gave several Dharma talks on Dependent Origination and Emptiness. My fondest memories are when students would visit the Temple for a class on "World Religions", or just for a multi-cultural experience. Dependent Origination is a subject on which thousands of pages have been written, so for the classes, which ranged from grade schoolers, high schoolers, and college classes, I would use two analogies to explain both Emptiness and Dependent Origination.

I would give each person a blank piece of paper and ask them the question: "When was this piece of paper born?" The answers usually started with, "When the paper was made." The I would say, "Look deeper into the piece of paper. When was it born?" Slowly, they would make their way back to wood pulp, which came from a tree, which came from a seed, which came from another tree...all the way back to the first tree and whatever came before that first tree which made it possible. That piece of paper was a product of everything that came before it, and will be a part of everything that comes after it when it is transformed. The transformation has to do with a major law of physics which states, "Matter can neither be created nor destroyed. It can only be transformed." In other words, that piece of paper always has been and always will some form.

Then I ask each person to took deeply into their right hand and ask, "When was your hand born?" Again, we typically start with, "When I was born", "At the point of conception." "Look deeper into your hand and tell me when it was born. When you look deeply into your hand, can you not see the hands of your mother, your father, your grandparents, their grandparents?" I watch as the wheels of their minds churn out thought after thought. Ultimately, they will get to the point of realization that their hand has always been and always be, in some form. It is empty of any independence, relying on all that came before it...perhaps even stardust. And everything that comes after will be dependent on that hand. That is emptiness in its simplest form...everything is empty of a separate self or entity, and everything is dependent on all that came before it.

Sit with this. Contemplate the nature of emptiness and see where and what it is for yourself.

May you be well, may you be safe, may you be at peace.

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