Sunyata – Emptiness

This Sunday, Sam led a discussion on the topic of Emptiness.

The first meaning of emptiness is called “emptiness of essence,” which means that phenomena [that we experience] have no inherent nature by themselves.” The second is called “emptiness in the context of Buddha Nature,” which sees emptiness as endowed with qualities of awakened mind like wisdom, bliss, compassion, clarity, and courage. Ultimate reality is the union of both emptinesses.

Finally, since emptiness seems so difficult to understand, why did the Buddha teach it at all? It is because of his profound insight into why we suffer. Ultimately we suffer because we grasp after things thinking they are fixed, substantial, real and capable of being possessed by ego. It is only when we can see through this illusion and open ourselves, in Ari Goldfield’s words, “to the reality of flux and fluidity that is ultimately ungraspable and inconceivable” that we can relax into clarity, compassion and courage. That lofty goal is what makes the effort to understand emptiness so worthwhile.

— Lewis Richmond

Sam played excerpts of talks by Jack Kornfield and Ajahn Sucitto which are linked below:

He also referenced verse 14 of the Tao Te Ching, translated here by D.C. Lau:

What cannot be seen is called evanescent;
What cannot be heard is called rarefied;
What cannot be touched is called minute.

These three cannot be fathomed
And so they are confused and looked upon as one.

Its upper part is not dazzling;
Its lower part is not obscure.
Dimly visible, it cannot be named
And returns to that which is without substance.
This is called the shape that has no shape,
The image that is without substance.
This is called indistinct and shadowy.
Go up to it and you will not see its head;
Follow behind it and you will not see its rear.

Hold fast to the way of antiquity
In order to keep in control the realm of today.
The ability to know the beginning of antiquity
Is called the thread running through the way.

Here are some more quotes which Sam used to good effect in the following discussion:

In all these cases, these teachings were aimed at getting people to focus on the quality of the perceptions and intentions in their minds in the present—in other words, to get them into the emptiness mode. Once there, they could use the teachings on emptiness for their intended purpose: to loosen all attachments to views, stories, and assumptions, leaving the mind empty of all the greed, anger; and delusion, and thus empty of suffering and stress. And when you come right down to it, that’s the emptiness that really counts.

— Thannissaro Bhikkhu

From “I am That”, teachings of Nisargadatta Maharaj, compiled by Maurice Frydman:

p. 318: You will find [after discarding all that you are not] that what is left is nothing which the mind can hook on to. You are not even a human being. You just are — a point of awareness, co-extensive with time and space and beyond both, the ultimate cause, itself uncaused. If you ask me: ‘Who are you?’ My answer would be: ‘Nothing in particular. Yet, I am’.

p. 389: But ultimately you will come to see that you are neither the particular nor the universal, you are beyond both. As the tiny point of a pencil can draw innumerable pictures, so does the dimensionless point of awareness draw the contents of the vast universe. Find that point and be free.

p. 451-2: It is because you think yourself big enough to be affectedly the world. It is not so. You are so small that nothing can pin you down. It is your mind that gets caught, to you. Know yourself as you are — a mere point in consciousness, dimensionless and timeless. You are like the point of the pencil — by mere contact with you the mind draws its picture of the world. You are single and simple — the picture is complex and extensive. Don’t be misled by the picture — remain aware of the tiny point — which is everywhere in the picture.

p. 530: The world you think of is in your own mind. I can see it through your eyes and mind, but I am fully aware that it is a projection of memories; it is touched by the real only at the point of awareness, which can be only now.

The power of speech

This Sunday, Michael led a very timely discussion on the power of speech, as seen from the Buddhist tradition where Wise Speech (or “Right Speech”) is a very important part of the eightfold path.

Here’s the link to Oren J Sofer’s talk “Speech as Foundation and Insight”, which we listened to during the sitting.

Michael writes:

Particularly meaningful for me is his placing a subtle understanding of Right Speech into the context of a Path which itself offers a taste of freedom, in a world of relationship.

Are we meditating?

This Sunday, Michael spoke about the actual practice of meditation and our relationship with it. Our discussion explored different ways we spend time on the cushion, and drew on various teachers’ perspectives about what amounts to meditation.

What might the genuine kernel of meditation be?  And, quite apart from traditional trappings, is it religious or simply disciplined?

Here, in an excerpt from John Burdett’s Bangkok Tattoo, Thai Buddhist detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep, who uses the insights of dharma to solve crimes, reflects on the nature of the Ego or Self.  This is one of Joseph Goldstein’s favorite contemporary texts on anatta.

Bored with Pisit today, I switch to our public radio channel, where the renowned and deeply reverend Phra Titapika is lecturing on Dependent Origination. Not everyone’s cup of chocolate, I agree (this is not the most popular show in Thailand), but the doctrine is at the heart of Buddhism. You see, dear reader (speaking frankly, without any intention to offend), you are a ramshackle collection of coincidences held together by a desperate and irrational clinging, there is no center at all, everything depends on everything else, your body depends on the environment, your thoughts depend on whatever junk floats in from the media, your emotions are largely from the reptilian end of your DNA, your intellect is a chemical computer that can’t add up a zillionth as fast as a pocket calculator, and even your best side is a superficial piece of social programming that will fall apart just as soon as your spouse leaves with the kids and the money in the joint account, or the economy starts to fail and you get the sack, or you get conscripted into some idiot’s war, or they give you the news about your brain tumor. To name this amorphous morass of self-pity, vanity, and despair self is not only the height of hubris, it is also proof (if any were needed) that we are above all a delusional species. (We are in a trance from birth to death.) Prick the balloon, and what do you get? Emptiness. It’s not only us-this radical doctrine applies to the whole of the sentient world. In a bumper sticker: The fear of letting go prevents you from letting go of the fear of letting go. Here’s the good Phra in fine fettle today: “Take a snail, for example. Consider what brooding overweening self-centered passion got it into that state. Can you see the rage of a snail? The frustration of a cockroach? The ego of an ant? If you can, then you are close to enlightenment.”

Like I say, not everyone’s cup of miso. Come to think of it, I do believe I prefer Pisit, but the Phra does have a point: take two steps in the divine art of Buddhist meditation, and you will find yourself on a planet you no longer recognize. Those needs and fears you thought were the very bones of your being turn out to be no more than bugs in your software. (Even the certainty of death gets nuanced.) You’ll find no meaning there. So where?

Anatta – Channa’s Story

This Sunday, Mike guided a very involved discussion around Anatta, typically translated into English as “not-self” and a frequent stumbling block for many new to the practice. After all, clearly there is a “self”, and self-denial is the source of much suffering in our culture. The Buddha was not in disagreement with that, but rather was concerned with common experience of identifying with certain roles and experiences and becoming attached to their seeming permanence. When those roles and experiences change, if we grasp too tightly, we suffer.

Mike played a talk by Akincano Marc Weber which referenced the story of Channa and his desire to better understand and experience Anatta. The talk is available here:

Some of Mike’s notes on the talk follow:

Other monks teach [Channa] that the five khandha’s are impermanent and non-self…he eventually believes them intellectually, but doubts his ability to really believe this, to reconfigure his experience to believe this in moment-by-moment experience.

Channa goes to see Ananda, who tells him that he IS capable of understanding, that this process of searching is the beginning of his healing.

Then Ananda shares a teaching… in which the Buddha says:

“This world for the most part, depends on a duality, upon the notion of existence, and the notion of nonexistence. For one who sees the origin of world as it really is, with correct wisdom, there is no notion of nonexistence in regard to the world. And for one who sees the cessation of the world as it really is, with correct wisdom, there is no notion of existence in regard to the world. This world is for the most part shackled by engagement, clinging, and adherence, but this one with right view does not become engaged and cling through an engagement and clinging mental standpoint, adherence, underlying tendency. He does not take a stand about my self. He has no perplexity or doubt that what arises is only suffering, arising what ceases is only suffering ceasing. His knowledge about this is independent of others.”

[To paraphrase the] Buddha’s teaching: “We don’t have a being or nonbeing question, we have a process of becoming. In that process of becoming, on the basis of conditions, things arise in a process of becoming, and when these conditions fade, that process of becoming also begins to fade.”

Buddha teaches that what arises is not the self, but suffering… what ceases is not self, but suffering.

Female disciples of the Buddha

The story Zac read today was about Khemā of Great Wisdom. He goes on to say, “the other story that I didn’t get to was about Bhaddā Kuṇḍalakesā: The Debating Ascetic. The material was from Great Disciples of the Buddha (publishers website here, full PDF here).”

Slightly different versions of these stories can be found here:

Impermanence and Non-clinging

This past Sunday, Margaret guided our reflections while featuring a talk by Greg Scharf on Impermanence and non-clinging.

The link for the talk was:

A few notes and quotes follow.

This talk starts with a Jataka story.   These are the stories that tell about the previous lives of the Buddha, in both human and animal form. Like fables, these stories always contain a message.

“Fruitful as is the act of giving,  yet still more fruitful is to go with a  confident heart to the refuge of the Buddha, the dharma and the sangha, and  to undertake the five precepts of virtue

But fruitful as that is, yet it is still more fruitful to retain loving kindness in ones being, for only as long as the time it takes to milk the cow.

And fruitful as this is,  yet still more fruitful is to maintain the perception of impermanence only as long as the snapping of a finger.”

“Nothing whatever is to be clung to as me or mine.”

“There seem to be a lot of issues, so much at stake, so much we need to control – but there is nothing to hold on to.  If you are getting rope-burn, only solution is to let go.”

Receptive Awareness

This Sunday, Joey guided the sitting and discussion with a talk by Andrea Fella on “Receptive Awareness”.

The talk is here:

What are the activities or areas of your life where you habitually lose mindfulness?  Planning, driving, spacing out as you wash the dishes, jumping on the computer, turning on the radio?  Once you can identify these holes where mindfulness is lost, you can turn your curiosity to follow where your attention goes.  Receptive awareness is about following the flow of life experience even when it is a state like sleepiness, dullness, or spaciness without trying to fix or change it….simply remaining aware of what is happening, where does your attention go next?

Here is a guided meditation in receptive awareness:  It’s 32 mins. long.