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What is Emptiness?

December 7, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

Since everything is but an apparition, having nothing to do with good or bad, acceptance or rejection, one may well burst out in laughter.  —   Longchenpa


What is Emptiness?

It must be admitted that we are big fans of tibetanbuddhistaltar.org, Kunzang Palyul Chöling’s blog.  Today we discovered a beautiful teaching there, which was originally given as a “tweeching” on Twitter, by KPC’s spiritual director, Jetsunma Ahkön Lhamo, on emptiness and why the Buddha’s teachings on emptiness are so difficult for us as Westerners to grasp.  Or perhaps one should say “not grasp!”

Westerners as a rule hear “emptiness” and immediately think “empty”, nothing there, just a void.  But that is not at all what the Buddha was talking about when he talked about emptiness.  What he was talking about was a state free of conceptualization, a direct experience of reality.  It might better be described as the richest of experiences to experience emptiness, not an empty experience by any means.  But having grown up in a materialistic culture, we have no experience of such a state.  We are taught from day one to believe in things and concepts and “self”.  Therefore when we hear a teaching on emptiness, it too becomes a thing or a concept.  That is why it is so difficult for us.

Orgyen Terdag Lingpa, a well-known Tertön who lived in the 17th Century and was recognized as a speech emanation of the great translator Vairocana, described it thus:

The primordial reality and the nature of all phenomena is profound, tranquil, unelaborated, luminous and unconditional.  Apply yourself in the methods of realizing exactly what it is, the vajra mind, perfected in its ground and unchanging.

As Jetsunma says in her teaching, this idea of emptiness must be approached with caution for the Western mind because of our tendency to grasp onto ideas and make them solid.  Learning how to simply accept reality as it is goes against our habitual tendencies.  We are really experts in learning ideas and concepts but not so good at breaking through to a direct experience of reality.  So how do we do it?  Unsurprisingly, Longchenpa has something to say on the subject:

Knowledge is as infinite as the stars in the sky;

There is no end to all the subjects one could study.

It is better to grasp straight away their very essence —

The unchanging fortress of the dharmakaya.


Longchenpa was the preeminent teacher of Dzogchen in the Nyingma tradition.  The essence of Dzogchen is awakening to the realization of the empty nature of the self and of all things.  His teachings are identical in their nature to those we find in Jetsunma’s teachings.  And like her, he also experienced the slings and arrows of those who pretended to understand the truth but in reality had no realization.


At this time and place, principles are perverted.  Being the opposite of ones’ mistakes, good qualities are reckoned as erroneous.  Just as the beings of Tsuta [a land of one-legged beings] laugh at two-legged humans, saying one leg is extra, the one called Samyepa [Longchenpa] who composes, teaches and debates, now faces insults for acting in accord with the Dharma!  When I expound the truth, the throng of heedless, ignorant fools, the most stupid who pretend to be studying and contemplating the systems of logic, the foolish hypocrites with their imposing air of mastery of the supreme precious trainings, and those lofty associates who easily befriend them are most displeased.


And like Jetsunma and all pure teachers, Longchenpa exhorts us to go beyond the ordinary, to leave the well-trod path, to go beyond concepts and materialism, and to awaken to our true nature.


You are not free because of constantly being born again and again in samsara.  So, today, here in this life, by capturing the throne of reality itself  in the primordial space-like sphere of unchanging Dharmakaya, I urge you to achieve the level of the Dharmakaya of self-cognizant awareness!


How fortunate we are to have such teachers in the world!

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