In Abhidharmakosa, all composite phenomena are summed up as the five aggregates – form, feeling, perception, volition, and consciousness. The so-called “aggregate” means the coming together of a lot of things.
The aggregate of form denotes not only phenomena perceived by the eye, but also sounds heard by the ear and all kinds of appearances like weight, light, darkness, etc. In other words, the aggregate of form is an overall name for all of the things above.
To facilitate the understanding of these concepts, we shall utilize language that is familiar to everyone. The aggregate of form in Buddhism refers principally to the body and external objects; the aggregates of feeling, perception, volition, and consciousness refer primarily to the mind, and the activities of the body, matter, and mind. The aggregate of form shall first be explained.
FORM IS EMPTINESS
1. Practicing No-Self in Person
Ordinarily, if we harbor hatred toward a person, we cannot control our anger when we see the person; or when we are desirous of a person, we cannot control our desire when we think of the person. In so far as we have different degrees of attachment even to ourselves, we can consider these three entities – an enemy, a beloved, and oneself – as objects of investigation.
After making preparations, visualize the object of investigation in front of you, then proceed to analyze, with the enemy as an example:
The first step is to sever the right eye of the enemy from his or her body and put it somewhere. Of course, this is just a visualization since we cannot possibly gouge out the right eye of a person. Next, visualize removing the left eye from the body and putting it in a certain place, then the ear, nose, tongue, skin, bone, muscle, hair, blood, and different organs; remove whatever can be removed and place it in front of yourself.
Then contemplate: normally I have absolutely no control over the deep hatred I feel for this person. But what among these things is the object of my hatred? Is it the eye, ear, nose, muscle, bone, or blood?
The result of this kind of investigation is that the enemy cannot be found. If the person doesn’t even exist, why would we hold feelings of anger toward his muscle, bone, and so forth? These component parts, the muscle, bone, etc., have never hurt me, not in this life nor will they in the next. Why should I bear grudge if they have never bothered me?
Although this concept is very simple, it is nonetheless extremely useful; this is how we practiced in the past. If these steps are followed, we will truly realize the so-called anger is completely rooted in our ignorance, that it is pretty absurd.
However, if we practice only once or twice and then discard the method, we will return to the original state of anger even if our experience was significant during practice. Thus, we must train over and over again in this method; only with repeated training can the practice grow in power.
Sometimes, we can also use oneself as the object of investigation: we have always believed in the existence of the self, but what exactly is this self? If it exists, how does it exist? If it doesn’t exist, how does it not exist? I should be certain about this.
The method of investigation is the same. First remove the right eye, then the left eye ….. , like the sky burial in the charnel grounds mentioned in the scriptures, until all parts are dissected. Many of you have witnessed a sky burial and ought to know its process and result. For those who have seen this kind of burial, the impression is an intensely deep one and must still be very fresh in their minds!
When our whole body is dissected and the parts are piled up, let us take a look: I have always believed in the existence of a “self,” but where is this “self”? Am I this muscle? Am I this pile of skin, or strand of hair? Am I this type of fluid — blood, lymph, etc.? No, there is no “self” besides these body parts.
Since all the component parts that make up my body are piled here, nothing is missing, not even a strand of hair, why do I not find the “self”? If there is a “self,” I should be able to find it! Why can’t it be found?
This is a very good method of investigation; it produces a feeling during the process of realizing emptiness that is entirely new. Some people will break into tears at this time. Some people will find their own stupidity to be laughable: I have all along believed in the existence of a “self”; to sustain this “self,” I have committed a lot of wrongdoings and wasted my entire life; it is truly absurd! Thinking so, they cannot help but laugh. Although different, these reactions come from deep within; it is not because the scriptures say people will react this way that they do so intentionally. For whom would they need to put on an act? No one can tell if we are crying or laughing when we sit alone in meditation. When we enter a certain state of mind in the course of meditation, these reactions are spontaneous.
Why do these reactions happen? As an example, when we hit a child, the child will cry due to the pain inflicted on him or her; when people are happy or sad, they too will cry. But the tears this time come from being overwhelmed by the truth.
Whether it is tears or laughter is unimportant. What is essential is to experience this state of mind.
This state of mind is only the result gained from one of the analytical methods of the Middle Way; it is not yet the realization of Dzogchen. Nonetheless, the realization of the Middle Way and the realization of Dzogchen are very close.
The outcome of following the required steps in the contemplation is just this experience; otherwise, we have not attained anything from the contemplation. In other words, the entire purpose of the contemplation in front is to produce this final experience. When we clearly experience no-self, we are at the stage of starting the practice. How do we practice? By maintaining this state of mind as long as possible without distraction — ten seconds, twenty seconds, a minute, two minutes, the longer the better. Such is the practice of no-self.
This is extremely important, since the vast literature in the Middle Way and the teachings of all the spiritual masters can be summed up in just this experience. Although the methods of expression vary and descriptions are given in all different languages, the essence of all the practices is also just this experience.
At the beginning, this state of mind will not last very long. After a while, the experience will gradually dissipate; other discursive thoughts will appear. When these thoughts arise, go back to your investigation again without delay. By examining others or oneself, we can eventually regain this feeling and realization: I truly do not exist; it is not the self I find but the absence of self.
As mentioned previously, it is a misapprehension to think our problems will be solved simply by not finding the self. What we must do is to find that feeling of no-self.
This kind of practice is helpful not only in moderating our afflictions temporarily, but also in paving a solid foundation for practicing Dzogchen after the preliminaries are completed.
It is like the strings on the bow in ancient times. Although they are very tight at the start, they become increasingly loose with use. Similarly, although our feeling is very strong at the start of the practice, the feeling diminishes in time and eventually gives way to all kinds of thoughts. Thus, when the thoughts arise, we must stay vigilant and immediately return to our investigation.
The most important thing in the practice is to first abide in this state of mind, then watch our mind from the side.
Perhaps some people will ask: if so, do we then have two minds? A mind that observes, and a mind that is being observed.
That is not the case, but our mind indeed has this capability. To allow the mind to rest, we must observe it at all times, to ensure it is not disturbed and that it remains in this state. If we are not mindful, we may not even know if it has wandered off. We may find, after a half hour or one hour of meditation, that the effort was futile since our mind was preoccupied the whole time. That would be a shame! So watching the mind from the side is necessary.
Why do we “watch the mind from the side” and not directly? If we watch the mind directly, the mind will be startled and disturbed, unable to rest quietly. If we proceed to watch the mind directly as soon as it enters a state of no- self, we will destroy that state since the thought of watching the mind is itself a kind of distraction. When that happens, the original state of tranquility disappears. As for watching the mind from the side, the mind can remain at rest and, at the same time, bring into full play its ability to supervise; as soon as distraction sets in, it will know and pull it back in place.
Whether our practice is good or not depends essentially on mindfulness. Without mindfulness, the mind will go wild and we won’t even know it. Not only that, we will follow the mind in the direction it takes us, destroying in the end all the time and effort put into the practice.
Abiding in the state described above is called practice.
This is similar to the way the Chinese prepare food. First, fresh vegetables, condiments, etc. are prepared; next, there is the complex procedure of plucking the vegetable leaves, washing, cutting, and sautéing the vegetables; then, succulent dishes of all colors and shapes are made. The whole process is undertaken just for the few seconds we put food in our mouth and savor it. Apart from these few seconds of enjoyment, there is no other outcome. Likewise, the contemplation of dissecting the left eye, the right eye, and so forth is undertaken just for the momentary feeling of no-self. Where does this feeling come from? From the preceding contemplation. We do not necessarily need the prior investigation, only the feeling at the end; however, without the contemplation, we will not attain that experience. This feeling will not appear on its own, only after repeated contemplation.
At the outset, our practice should not be very long; moreover, it cannot be forced. We should not feel compelled to practice when we are not up to it, otherwise rejection sets in. Some practitioners put pressure on themselves to practice and eventually become very resentful when they see their own place of meditation. This is not helpful to the practice. Therefore, if we are unwilling to continue with the contemplation, we should stop; if we are tired, we should allow the body to relax completely and dismiss all thoughts of good and bad, past and future, etc. Leaving the mind to rest in this way is also a kind of practice. When we train in relaxation, there is no element of realization or wisdom of any kind; however, this state of mind contributes to realization, so it also constitutes practice.
After training in this way for seven or eight months, or roughly a year, the mind will calm down. At that point, the mind will be free of mental elaboration even if it tries to engage in thought; the mind will be free of confusion even if it is disturbed. Practitioners who have reached this stage in their practice are content to stay at home all day without going anywhere. Those of us who at our present stage have difficulty practicing even an hour or two will be entirely different by then. However, to get there, effort must be exerted over a period of time.
This is the actual practice of no-self. Whether it is examining oneself or objects of desire and hatred, we will come to a deep realization that the self and others are all alike: all are inherently empty and do not exist.
2. Practicing No-Self in Phenomena
In the previous section, we broke the body down into its components — eye, ear, nose, tongue, muscle, bone, etc. The next step is to take this still further. If we continue with the dissection, we will eventually arrive at emptiness.
As an example, we can first break the joint of a finger into many small pieces. The principle behind this process of dissection is the same as in physics.
If we dissect again, the pieces become smaller and smaller until they have no substance of their own – nothing to retain, nothing that can be retained even if we so wish. In other words, the joint of the finger loses its apparent existence after it is dissected thoroughly; in the end, it is reduced to nothing and is truly empty.
At that time, the feeling from practicing no-self in person, as mentioned above, reappears – one clearly recognizes all phenomena lack inherent existence. This feeling is certain to arise if one is skilled at contemplation.
It is not because Sakyamuni Buddha said things have no existence that they do not exist, or because of some other reason that they do not exist. Rather, upon investigation, it becomes clear not only do we not find anything, but we truly perceive things are non-existent – it is a kind of empty or spatial feeling.
How is feeling defined? In this context, the essential part that must always be emphasized is “emptiness” or “realization.” In other words, it is the cognition or awareness of emptiness, a profound sense that all phenomena are empty. Here, “emptiness” denotes objects; “realization” denotes the wisdom that apprehends emptiness.
If the feeling of “emptiness” or “realization” is not there, it no longer matters how good we are in contemplation or how peaceful our mind is. It would not be very useful even if we can maintain a state of no thought for seven or eight days. At best, we can take rebirth in the formless realm.
When we conceptually understand emptiness, this is called the view. But when we discover emptiness over the course of our own contemplation and practice, that is, not by listening or studying the texts — even if this feeling of emptiness is the same as that described in the texts — this is called “realization.” When “realization” dawns, it can be said at least we have attained the Middle Way realization of emptiness.
When the feeling of emptiness is very strong, let the mind rest in this state. Then, as mentioned before, continue to abide in the state while watching the mind from the side, and maintain this state to the extent possible. When the feeling diminishes, start over again; this is the practice of no-self in phenomena.
By practicing no-self in phenomena, we will come to the realization: not only do I not exist, but the joint of my finger also does not exist.
TEST OF REALIZATION OF EMPTINESS
We do not need to ask anyone whether we have realized emptiness or not; it is very easy to tell just by conducting our own investigation. If our mind is only tranquil, relaxed, and comfortable, this merely implies we are calm and clear- headed. If we do not have a sense of emptiness, we have not attained the Middle Way realization of emptiness. Because in deep sleep we are also very calm, but it is not useful to us; the celestial beings in the form and formless realms, and some non-Buddhists also achieve great equanimity during meditative absorption, but it is hardly useful in eradicating mental afflictions. Hence, the tranquility of the mind is not a measure of realization.
What is the test? It is that element of realization in the midst of calmness. That is to say, calmness of mind lies within realization of emptiness. The mind stays calm not unknowingly but in a state of emptiness. The so-called “state of emptiness” means a direct experience of emptiness. At that point in time, the mind rests in tranquility as well as in the realization of emptiness. Realization of emptiness denotes insight into the true nature of reality (vipassana) or wisdom; calm abiding is pacification of the mind and the thoughts (samatha).
Although we can contemplate these two aspects separately, they are actually the same since the mind and the experience of emptiness are now united as one that cannot be separated. The tranquil mind is the experience of emptiness; the experience of emptiness is also the tranquil mind. This is the “union of calm abiding and insight.”
As in the prior example of preparing food, after exerting great effort in listening and contemplation, it is ultimately necessary to get to this stage. Although only a brief encounter at the moment, with sustained practice, we can gradually extend this experience to full realization of emptiness. This is not only a practice of the Middle Way; if you know how, it is also like a Vajrayana practice because realization, whether attained through the methodology of the Middle Way or Vajrayana, is not so different.
We can set up our own schedule for practice, whether a half hour or an hour; as mentioned before, we should keep the practice short at the beginning and split it up into many sessions. For instance, if four sittings are scheduled in a day, each sitting can be divided into several short sessions. When we get better at the practice, we can combine these sessions into one.
Another point we have also made before is that it is best to conclude the practice session when our meditation is proceeding well. This is the case whether we are training in emptiness or impermanence.
Why is that? Should we not try to abide as much as possible in a relatively good state? If we stop when the meditation is going well, it will actually have a positive effect on the next session. We will retain an enthusiasm for the practice, have expectations of possibly repeating the experience, and look forward to starting the practice again.
If we conclude the practice session when the mind is confused, it will not help our subsequent practice.
Finally, we have to dedicate our merit and undergo a process of investigation after coming out of meditative absorption. This shall be explained at the end.
The process above can be used with all phenomena. That is to say, everything can be examined in this way. If we develop a sense of emptiness about all things, the wisdom within us that apprehends emptiness will grow.
At the beginning, everything should be investigated; of course, this doesn’t mean we examine a white flower, then go on to examine a red flower. It means we consolidate all things in the same category, and conduct an investigation at the overall level.
In examining mankind, we only need to conduct a separate investigation of someone we are especially attached to; as for external matter, we can group things together to the extent possible and establish the emptiness of phenomena by category. As an example, we can consider all different classifications of water as one and the same: I used to think water exists; after this investigation, it is now clear to me not one drop of water can be obtained, whether in a river, a lake, or even in an ocean.
At the beginning of our practice, this feeling is the only state we can attain, there is none other. Buddhist terminology can often be confusing. Our imagination starts to roam when we talk about a state of mind, but there is actually nothing mysterious about it.
By way of these methods, we will gradually realize emptiness. Although the concept is simple, and the process uncomplicated, we can attain the expected outcome just the same.
FEELING IS EMPTINESS
The so-called “aggregate of feeling” is an overall label for feelings. There are essentially three kinds: pleasant, unpleasant, and a neutral feeling which is neither pleasant nor unpleasant.
How are these feelings produced? When the eye perceives matter that is pleasant or unpleasant, this thought is transmitted to the sixth consciousness; our consciousness follows the eye and forms an attachment; desire and anger arise as a result. Anger here implies a lack of acceptance; we do not necessarily get angry at everything that is unpleasant, but when we refuse to accept, try to avert, or bear thoughts of resentment, this is also called anger.
In general, we don’t think of our feelings as the “self.” From our previous analysis, it is clear feelings cannot possibly be the “self” — there is no conceptual basis for asserting they are the “self.” Having established this understanding, we proceed here to the actual practice.
Prepare for meditation by maintaining the essential points of posture, visualization, exhaling impure breath, etc. Then allow the mind to calm down and begin contemplation.
First, examine the aggregate of feeling to ascertain if it is a distinct and truly existent entity. Through contemplation, we quickly see that the aggregate of feeling includes at least three different kinds of feeling, that is, pleasant, unpleasant and neutral; this way we begin to understand it is not a real entity.
1. Investigating the Pleasant Feeling
Taking this a step further, the pleasant feeling can be divided again into various kinds: when the eye perceives a fresh flower or something like a thangka, a pleasant feeling is produced which comes from the eye; when the ear hears a lovely melody, a pleasant feeling is produced which comes from the ear ….. , thus there are many different kinds of pleasant feeling. This being the case, we can conclude the aggregate of feeling is not a distinct entity; the pleasant feeling within the aggregate is also not a truly existent, complete entity.
With the same method, we can analyze the unpleasant feeling and the neutral feeling, the result of which must be the same. Hence, feeling can be divided into innumerable kinds.
Furthermore, whether it is pleasant or unpleasant feeling, each thought thereof can still be divided into countless instants.
What is an instant? In the scriptures, it is said to first place sixty very thin flower petals in a pile; if an archer then shoots the petals with an arrow that has a sharp, fine needle inserted on the arrowhead, the needle tip will pass through the sixty petals in a flash. Relying just on our eye, we will think the needle tip pierces all sixty petals at the same time; actually the needle tip passes through the petals in an orderly way, that is, gradually a step at a time. When it passes through one petal, it is called an instant.
Of course, this is just a rough definition of a basic unit of time, not the smallest unit; within this time concept, there are countless units of time that are even smaller. However, if we continue with the analysis, these different instants in time will be confusing to everyone, since no one will know what the shortest unit of time is or how an instant in time is defined. For example, a penny, a dime, and a dollar are money of different denominations; they do not have the same value and cannot be counted together. Similarly, different time concepts cannot be mixed together; thus Sakyamuni Buddha put forth the concept of an instant with the example of the time it takes a needle tip to pass through sixty flower petals.
However, these concepts are not refined enough. Take this book as an example, why does it have a thickness? Because many sheets of paper are stacked together. In the same way, even though a flower petal and a sheet of paper are very thin, their thickness is also comprised of countless dust particles or quarks. This thickness is formed by minute particles arranged in order from front to back. When the needle tip pierces the thin sheet of paper, our eyes cannot see the needle tip pass through these particles in that order. This shows that our eyes are unable to see the true nature of matter at all.
Assuming the thickness of a sheet of paper or a flower petal is formed by one thousand or ten thousand particles (of course, this is just an example, the actual figure must be greater), then the time it takes for the needle tip to pass through a flower petal can also be divided into one thousand or ten thousand parts; but these one thousand or ten thousand parts can continue to be divided until time disappears without a trace, and nothing remains at the end.
We have said before if something is infinite, we cannot establish if it gets bigger or smaller when divided; but all worldly matter, including the thickness of a sheet of paper, is finite. As such, matter will only get smaller and smaller when it is divided and eventually become empty.
By the same token, the feeling of happiness, the feeling of suffering, and so forth can also be broken down in this way until it disappears altogether into empty space.
Everything boils down to this in the Buddha’s logic. Apart from the Buddha, no one in the world has penetrated the true nature of phenomena so completely.
As mentioned before, people today believe that quantum physics has already reduced matter to a microscopic level whereby nothing material is left except energy, but they remain attached to energy as an existent entity. Buddhism, on the other hand, has invalidated this so-called energy and looked beyond it. Ultimately, everything is empty. In the formation of all phenomena, the first step is emptiness, the next is energy; the macroscopic world which our five sense organs perceive is actually the last.
This emptiness is true emptiness, as in the frequently recited verse “form is emptiness.” Although physicists also talk about vacuum, it is not “emptiness” in the true sense, but space that contains energy. Only the emptiness that the Buddha taught is true emptiness since nothing exists within it, not mental or physical phenomena, nor their activities.
From a macroscopic standpoint, when we see a beautiful flower, a feeling arises; but when we trace the feeling to its source, we will find that it is mere appearance, nothing of substance. Similarly, if we chase after every one of our thoughts – pleasant, sorrowful, terrifying …., we will end up at the same starting point where all disappear into emptiness.
You may remember the analogy I cited before about an Indian Madhyamaka master, which I think it is quite appropriate: a certain kind of yellow flower grows in a lake; from afar, it looks like a resplendent sea of flowers, but up close, one sees that the flowers are not rooted in the ground but grow in the water. Likewise, without examination, all physical and mental phenomena appear to be very solid and orderly; however, they all disintegrate into empty space when subject to investigation. The phenomena perceived by our eye, ear, nose, and tongue are all illusions; they are neither real nor reliable. This is not just the Buddhist point of view, but it is also acknowledged by scientists today.
For instance, when we look up and see the sun every morning, it is not the image of the sun at the moment, but that of the sun eight minutes ago; a number of stars that are some ten, hundred, even thousand light-years away exploded a very long time ago and no longer exist, yet we can still see them here on earth through a telescope. Why is that? And what is it that we see? Although these stars have already been destroyed, the light emitted from the explosion takes a very long time — tens, hundreds, even thousands of years — to get here. What we now see happened in the very distant past; from the present standpoint, it is only an illusion.
These concepts were also explained earlier, but we still have to employ them in our investigation now. A pleasant feeling, or an unpleasant feeling, appears to be very real before it is examined; however, if we examine the feeling seriously, we will find there is nothing we can grasp at all and that it eventually dissipates in empty space. When this contemplation is as powerful as the perceived feeling, do not continue to investigate or give rise to other thoughts, but abide in the realization. To abide is to retain this feeling of emptiness for a minute, two minutes, or ten minutes, the longer the better.
Apart from maintaining this state of mind, there is no other kind of abiding, nor any abider, abiding place, or state of abidance to be discriminated.
From a macro perspective, a person who is sitting on a bed to meditate ought to be able to distinguish between the abider, the abiding place, the state of abidance, and so forth. Where is the abiding place? On the bed. Who is abiding? The mind. What is the state in which the mind is abiding? A state of emptiness. Actually, however, there is no person or place in the so-called abiding. The mind and the state of emptiness are not two different things but one and the same.
Without this experience of emptiness, there is no abiding to speak of.
Since our practice is not yet well-developed, this experience of emptiness is only short-lived. When this condition disappears, discursive thoughts will resurface; when this happens, we should return to the investigation and start over again.
2. Investigating the Unpleasant Feeling
After investigating the pleasant feeling, we now examine the unpleasant feeling.
When we are sick or defamed by others, a feeling of suffering arises. This unpleasant feeling can also be broken down using the method described before: first break the feeling down into many instants – the time it takes for a needle pin to pass through a flower petal.
When time is divided again and again, we can be sure what remains in the end is emptiness. This feeling of emptiness is ultimately what we want to attain.
Of course, having just started, we may not be able to enter this state of mind right away or have a good practice each time. If we do not experience anything in a day or two, it is normal; however, if we do not feel anything after a long period of investigation, it is a problem we should find an answer to. If our contemplation method and surroundings are correct, perhaps it is because we have just started the investigation and have yet to temper our mind or because we have strong karmic obstructions.
To counter these difficulties, we should first do the Vajrasattva practice to purify our karma, then contemplate the above; if we do not practice Vajrasattva but go directly into contemplating the emptiness of feeling, that can also be helpful in reducing our bad karma. However, it is best to first do the practice, then contemplate. This way, the result accords with reason and the Dharma, and we can certainly tell the difference with our practice.
Although the scriptures contain a lot of practices on emptiness, in the end, whether it is investigating the feeling of happiness, the world outside, or ourselves, what we want is a moment of realization — a very strong sense that all of these things are non-existent, empty, and illusory. The more powerful this feeling is, the better. At that time, we must not “disturb” this feeling or state of mind but maintain it to the extent possible.
As mentioned earlier, in maintaining this state of mind, we must place our entire focus on it, then watch the mind from the side to see if it has left this feeling and become distracted again. This is the practice of emptiness. There is no other practice apart from this.
3. Investigating the Neutral Feeling
After investigating both the pleasant and unpleasant feelings, we continue to examine the neutral feeling.
The so-called “neutral feeling” pertains to how one feels under normal circumstances when the body is healthy and the mind is calm and at peace; it is neither pleasant nor unpleasant. The method of investigation is the same as above; after the feeling is broken down, a profound experience of emptiness is attained. This state of mind should be maintained to the extent possible, the longer the better.
According to Buddhist texts as well as to practitioners who are accomplished, the key to a good practice is whether the mind is supervised from the side. Because we have yet attained mental freedom, our mind easily loses control if it is not supervised; it cannot stayed focused, it gets lost in thought, and it arbitrarily jumps out of this state and becomes preoccupied with other things. We can prevent these circumstances by supervising the mind; as soon as it appears to be wandering, we can immediately bring it back to the state of emptiness.
As the feeling of emptiness gradually dissipates, and other discursive thoughts resurface, it is time to stop this practice and move on to the next.
PERCEPTION IS EMPTINESS
Feeling, perception, and volition are all mental activities. The mind is always active, moving incessantly – indulging in flights of fancy, unrestrained like a heavenly steed soaring across the skies, thinking of this way and that.
The so-called “aggregate of perception” refers not only to the activity of the sixth consciousness but also to the thoughts produced by the other five types of consciousness. For instance, when our eyes perceive a flower, each color on the flower – white, red, green, etc. – constitutes a different perception.
It is easy to investigate the aggregate of perception. For example, when we see a red flower, we can break down the thought of the red flower like before; at the end of the exercise, the thought of the flower disintegrates. Likewise, when we hear a sound that is harsh to the ear, the experience of the sound can be broken down in the same way. Similarly, the experience that arises from the contact of the nose with a pungent odor, the tongue with a sour, sweet, bitter, or spicy taste, and the body with a soft or coarse object can also be reduced gradually to emptiness.
Please note that when listening to a sound, it is not the ear that is listening. The ear is but a tool; that which actually experiences the sound is the ear consciousness. When we come in contact with sounds that are high or low-pitched, heavy or light, each experience constitutes a perception of the ear consciousness. Additionally, a grating sound, a pungent smell, different kinds of taste, and a soft or coarse touch in itself are not perception; it is the experience that arises when we are in contact with them that is perception.
The perception of the sixth consciousness refers to our contemplation, thoughts, and views. Within each hour, our mind is like a river from which all kinds of thought flow – good, bad, neither good nor bad thoughts appear endlessly, all of which can be broken down to emptiness.
If we can truly master these concepts of investigation, we will gain a very strong sense that all phenomena lack self- existence. We will certainty experience this later on in our practice, as the great masters and siddhas in the past also followed this path; the essential points they recorded of their own experience are just these. Because we are using the same method to practice and following the same path, we will undoubtedly attain the same experience, sooner or later.
When a profound experience of the emptiness of phenomena arises, stay focused and abide in this state like before.
Why do I say “profound experience”? If the emptiness of all phenomena can be established just by studying the books and applying the successive steps of reduction, it is only an intellectual understanding; we cannot call this true experience. Our work ahead is to get past the words and “actualize the experience.” If our experience is obscure, it is useless to us; it must be a very clear, indubitable experience of emptiness, thus the emphasis on “profound experience.”
This is how “perception is emptiness” is established.
VOLITION IS EMPTINESS
The so-called “aggregate of volition” includes the internal motions of the body, such as swinging the arm, walking, and so forth; external phenomena such as time, space, direction, speed, and sequence of things; and all kinds of mental states or thoughts which are stages in the activities of consciousness, even though these mental states and consciousness are inseparable, all part of one thing, just as the motions of the hand and the hand itself are inseparable. There are no activities associated with consciousness that are outside of consciousness; similarly, there are no motions associated with the body that are apart from the body. However, there is a difference; consciousness is a totality and thoughts are aspects of consciousness. For instance, consciousness is likened to a flower, while thoughts are like the petal, the pistil or the corolla of the flower.
The method for breaking down the aggregate of volition is the same as that mentioned earlier and shall not be repeated.
CONSCIOUSNESS IS EMPTINESS
The so-called “aggregate of consciousness” refers to our consciousness① , that which constantly does the thinking. This aggregate is the most important, since a lot of people believe although the body is not self, consciousness ought to be the self; they therefore form an attachment to it.
From a macro perspective or prior to investigation, consciousness exists; it can cognize and distinguish various things. But like a rainbow which appears from afar to be truly existent, its essence can never be found if one chases after it. Similarly, if we try to look into what consciousness is, the so- called consciousness cannot be found either.
How do we establish consciousness is non-existent? Firstly, consciousness is a composite term that can be separated into many kinds and called by different names – good mental states, bad mental states, eye consciousness, ear consciousness, nose consciousness, tongue consciousness, body consciousness, etc.; among these, eye consciousness can be divided further into different colors like red, white, green, and so forth. Each kind of consciousness can also be broken down by time and into successively smaller time units until consciousness disappears altogether; there is no real entity to be found.
This is to establish emptiness via logical reasoning of the Middle Way.
Another method, also unexcelled, is to allow consciousness to examine itself. This is because consciousness is not something that can be perceived by the eyes, or measured with an instrument; only consciousness can be relied upon to understand itself.
This method closely approximates that in Vajrayana and is extremely useful. However, the prerequisite for using this method is firstly to practice the five preliminaries and to have a certain level of realization of emptiness. It is otherwise ineffective, even if it is explained now.
PRACTICING EMPTINESS AND ERADICATING SELF- ATTACHMENT
Consciousness is an enigma that a lot of people have never thought of examining. As previously mentioned, the Western philosopher Descartes said “I think, therefore I am”; this form of speech is inflammatory in nature. People basically believe in the existence of a “self”; incited by this kind of misconception or incorrect reasoning, they become even more convinced of their viewpoint. They are not inclined to reflect on the subject again, and accordingly descend into ignorance from which there is no escape.
We are all followers of Buddhism, particularly of Mahayana Buddhism. The essential point of Mahayana Buddhism, or the Greater Vehicle, is compassion and wisdom. The “wisdom” herein denotes realization of emptiness, not worldly wisdom. That being the case, have you ever tried to examine or understand consciousness? If so, what was the result of your examination? Most people will probably say no. It is not a real concern if you haven’t, but starting now we must endeavor to understand what consciousness is.
All of us believe in past and future lives, and readily acknowledge the basis upon which the “self” exists is not the body. If someone were to ask just what is it that transmigrates from one life to another, we would say it is our consciousness that is perpetuating in samsara and that consciousness is “self.” Under the circumstance, consciousness naturally becomes the basis of the existence of “self.” If we can establish consciousness does not exist, then the so-called “human being” or “self” also does not exist. That is why the examination of consciousness is extremely important; it allows us to cut through the root of samsara completely.
By examining consciousness, we can instantly realize no- self and purify unlimited bad karma, even if other repentance practices are not undertaken. This is because realization of emptiness is the best method for purifying karma.
We should not think all is well just because our livelihood is taken care of. There are still a lot of meaningful activities that await us; these things are neither mysterious nor complicated, and are easy to understand. If we do not take up these activities, we will never be liberated.
Sakyamuni Buddha intended for us to fully realize emptiness and attain liberation, and thus taught us to examine form, feeling, perception, volition, and consciousness in that order. Since our attachment to the body is stronger, we start by examining the physical aspect, then the mental aspect. If we can establish the emptiness of consciousness, the fundamental problem is resolved. Therefore, we should place special effort in this area.
THE MIDDLE WAY METHODS OF INVESTIGATION
The methods of investigation include those in exoteric and Vajrayana Buddhism. The Vajrayana methods shall not be discussed at this time; the Middle Way methods of investigation in exoteric Buddhism are the two sub-schools — Svatantrika and Prasangika.
The Svatantrika method of investigation is the one just explained — by way of contemplation, analysis, and dissection, consciousness ultimately “disappears.”
This so-called “disappearance” does not mean it cannot be found but that it is clearly perceived to lack intrinsic existence; it is nominal existence rather than true existence. Earlier, I made a special point of emphasizing that not finding anything and directly perceiving emptiness are as far apart as sky and sea.
When a profound feeling that all things are empty arises, try to maintain that experience for as long as possible.
To a beginner, gaining realization through this method is easy and feasible.
The Prasangika method of investigation sets aside contemplation, does not affirm the existence or non-existence of the mind, nor establish the emptiness of the eye, ear, nose, tongue, etc. It simply allows the mind to relax and dwell in an extremely tranquil state, and to observe itself.
All kinds of contemplation and analysis are superfluous at this time; if we analyze the mind, it will only disturb this state of tranquility. Allowing the mind to observe itself is basically the same as watching the mind from the side, which I discussed earlier.
There are many ways to observe the mind. We shall not explain the Dzogchen way. If we employ the method in the Middle Way, it becomes readily apparent – our mind and the sky outside are one and the same.
Of course, the sky we refer to here is not the polluted sky in some of the metropolitan areas but the clear blue sky often found in Tibet.
The Dzogchen practitioners also do likewise. When the sun rises in the morning, they go up the mountain and watch the sky in the west. When the body and mind are completely relaxed, the inner mind and the sky outside merge and become indistinguishable. Just like the ocean set off by the blue sky, the ocean and sky dissolve into one another and appear as one in color, deep and expansive; it is no longer possible to tell the sky and ocean apart, as all things in and out are connected.
What does it mean to be “connected”? Does the mind also turn blue in color? No, it is “connected” or unobstructed like a cloudless sky; since the stars and other celestial bodies are obscured by the intensity of the sun’s rays, what appears is a clear blue sky, free of any other color or configuration; our mind is also completely translucent. At this very moment, the mind and the world outside are in unison with emptiness.
The method discussed here is similar. When the mind is quiet, we will discover the empty space in front and our own mind are the exact same thing.
Here, being the “same thing” is from the standpoint of emptiness. The so-called “emptiness” is only a name. Actually, no one can really identify what empty space or the sky is, except to say it is the absence of any substance. The sky appears blue because the earth reflects the sunlight; the color does not exist in and of itself. In the same way, our mind does not have intrinsic nature either; the so-called “mind” is merely our imputation.
The moment we enter such a state, we know with certainty it is emptiness and have a very clear feeling of emptiness, even though there is no thought of being empty or not in our mind.
As mentioned before, some people who experience this emptiness will either cry or laugh, which is very normal. Of course, this is completely different from the reaction of people who cry or laugh in certain non-Buddhist practices.
When emptiness is truly experienced, all of one’s afflictions and fixations are gone. But because our practice is not up to standard yet, we may only experience emptiness for an instant before our mind returns to its usual way. However, with repeated practice, we will be able to lengthen the time we dwell in this state and ultimately eradicate our afflictions completely.
Since our focus is on the actual practice now, we need not say too much lest people become confused and miss the essentials.
In fact, not much needs to be said in the practice of emptiness, nor can realization of emptiness really be described. For example, Ch’an Buddhism does not advocate the use of words. The Ch’an masters do not like to say much, since they feel there is nothing to be said or can be conveyed through words. One cannot say things are empty, or things are not empty. Neither assertion is correct, the reason being these are ideas of ordinary people, whereas the state of emptiness goes beyond the limits of expression and what ordinary people can conceptualize.
Although emptiness cannot be described with words, it is not a senseless state like in deep sleep or when one is unconscious. At that moment, we have a profound kind of feeling – that of seeing everything clearly as empty, just as we now clearly see the wall in front is white without having to think “this wall ought to be white.” This sense of seeing is not through the eyes but the mind, and comes from deep within.
The Prasangika method is thus explained above.
These are all actual methods of practice; apart from these, I have not come across, nor have the masters explained, other methods of the Middle Way. Although this is the approach taken in the Middle Way, it is considered a part of the practice in Vajrayana as well as that of many other advanced practices. To describe this in our everyday language, we can only go so far. For any higher state of realization, one must experience it directly. As long as you are inclined towards the Middle Way view and can accept this method of practice, I will explain it; there is nothing to hold back. Of course, it is a different matter for other Vajrayana methods. Although exoteric and Vajrayana Buddhism differ in practice and process, the final state of realization is essentially the same.
If you are able to gain realization through the Middle Way practice, Dzogchen is probably just an elbow away. His Holiness Jigme Phunstok Rinpoche often referred to what one of his teachers once said: if you truly realize emptiness via the Middle Way, you are already very close to Dzogchen. I believe we will attain realization in Dzogchen in the not too distant future.
What is disappointing is that too often we do not consider these practices important; thinking there are even better methods, we forgo the basics. Actually, if we can really cultivate renunciation and bodhicitta, then practice emptiness and attain realization of the Middle Way, what else is more advanced? Apart from further refining or clarifying this state of emptiness, there is nothing more. If we carelessly discard the fundamental practices of renunciation and bodhicitta, Dzogchen will not be useful to us however illustrious its name.
These are all very important points to keep in mind. In the future, we will not have to ask anyone to ascertain our own realization, just examine ourselves. Have we ever felt such emptiness before? If so, this is the first stage of realization.
As a reminder, we should not say someone has attained realization if the person only has a slight understanding of emptiness. Why is that? In acknowledging the person’s realization, he or she may become arrogant: I am so special! I have already attained realization! This not only impedes the person’s progress but also causes him to regress.
One should know this kind of experience is hardly special. As it is likened to seeing a picture of the moon from afar – it is neither the picture of the moon up close nor the moon itself, we have not apprehended the true nature of reality, and are still quite far from eradicating our afflictions and attaining liberation. Hence, under ordinary circumstances, we should not take the early stage of realization too seriously.
There is a story that illustrates this point: a Vajrayana lama exceptionally skilled in making torma② had a disciple who studied with him for a long time. The disciple always felt the tormas he made were exactly the same as the master’s and could never discern how they were different; yet every time he presented the torma he made to the master, the latter would find fault with it and have him remake it.
One day, he took the torma the master made and dabbed water on it to give it a freshly made look; he then brought it to the master, upon which the master still said it was unsatisfactory. Unable to accept this response, the disciple said, “It is you who made this torma!”
Only then did the master say to him, “Actually, you passed the qualification a long time ago; however, to make sure you progress and refine your skills, I refused to acknowledge your achievement each time.” The disciple finally came to understand the master’s real intent!
Likewise, we cannot be satisfied with the early stage of realization, rather we should work harder and do everything possible to perfect our present state of realization.
Realization or the lack of is totally an experience of our own; except for those with clairvoyant powers, no one else can make this determination. Apart from the criterion mentioned above, you will not be able to find a better standard for directly affirming the state of realization, even if you employ all the exoteric Middle Way concepts in the Tripitaka. In other words, the so-called realization is none other than the state of mind previously mentioned.
Another measure is whether after experiencing this feeling, you have a stronger sense of renunciation and bodhicitta and have less greed, anger, and delusion. If the answer is yes, that is a clear sign of realization.
The next step is to elevate our level of realization; there is nothing more, as this is already a very good attainment. If we are able to attain this level of realization during meditation, what happens after meditation? After the meditation, we will feel everything is an illusion, like a dream; sometimes we will even feel our hand can pass through a wall. Because we know all is an illusion, passing through the wall is just a matter of course.
On my recent trip to Wutai Mountain, I encountered a young Tibetan, an accomplished practitioner who had this experience.
He meditated in front of me and hoped I could confirm his realization in Dzogchen. Basically, the state of Dzogchen is indescribable. The disciples in the past would go to their master and sit in meditation; by way of this method, the master could tell what level they had reached and whether that state was Dzogchen.
The young man was familiar with this tradition and thought I might also be able to give him this confirmation. Regrettably, not knowing what Dzogchen is, I could not, let alone do so through meditation. The only thing I could do was to have him describe his feeling, and check it against what is taught in the books.
Since the state of mind during meditation cannot be explained in words, I asked him how he felt after coming out of meditation.
He said, “Sometimes I feel the table in front and all material things are illusory; sometimes I feel I can pass my hand through the table ….. These feelings are all very powerful.” Subsequently, I told him his experience should qualify as the first stage in realization, since these feelings conform entirely to the standard of realization given in the scriptures. Thus, I think in all likelihood he attained realization.
Do you have this kind of feeling? Don’t be preoccupied with imagining things like: “Yesterday I dreamed of the Great Compassion Bodhisattva,” “Sakyamuni Buddha smiled at me,” “I saw Amitabha Buddha,” “So-and-so’s picture is enveloped in light,” etc. These are all very senseless.
A few days ago, a Buddhist master organized an event to release yaks. A lay person from Shanghai came to see me after the event and said to me excitedly, “Our event yesterday was truly sacred! At the time, a butterfly flew by and stayed on for a very long time! This is certainly a most auspicious sign!”
At the time, I thought it was quite laughable. Butterflies are commonplace in our area during this time of the year; they were everywhere on the days of the event. One should not make a big issue out of a butterfly that flies over!
A lot of lay people are inclined to think this way. I hope it does not happen again.
It is not easy to see Amitabha or other Buddhas. Do not get in the habit of saying things that are mysterious. Even if it is true, we should not spread the word around; we only need to focus on emptiness, compassion, and renunciation, nothing else. If we have these qualities, just cultivate and nurture these aspects of wisdom; there is no need to run around and look for help everywhere. If we do not have these qualities, then practice diligently; there is even less reason to run around.
What does “not running around” mean? It is not to say you cannot look for a master and rely on a spiritual friend. Indeed, we must rely on a spiritual friend and listen to the Dharma, then practice. If we practice, we will experience these feelings which are the first step in the realization of emptiness.
Let us review the many standards of realization I have mentioned.
The first, and the most important, is our feeling during meditation; the second is whether there is an uncontrived and spontaneous feeling after meditation that the external world is illusory and non-existent; the third is whether one has more renunciation and bodhicitta, and less afflictions. These criteria must be met to qualify for realization of emptiness.
However, this is only the most basic state of realization. As an example, assume there are more than five hundred thousand steps from here to Lhasa. We have taken but one step, the road ahead is still very long! We must not feel arrogant or self-contented under any circumstance. Nonetheless, in all things, getting started is difficult; the first step in realization is also not easy. As long as we have this basic state of realization, our direction is clear; with perseverance, we will be able to proceed to the second and third step, and eventually reach our goal.
DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE PRACTICE OF EMPTINESS AND NO-SELF
The practice of emptiness is the practice of no-self in phenomena; that is, perceiving all phenomena — all material things and mental events — as emptiness, and abiding in this state. The practice of no-self refers specifically to perceiving no-self in person; it is a part of the overall practice of emptiness.
Although the practice of emptiness mentioned here is one that belongs to the Middle Way, I think it is already quite advanced. All practices, whatever their level of difficulty, need to be experienced directly, since words can only go so far in describing the experience.
Examination is just the process, not the most important, but without this process, there can be no realization of emptiness. It is considered a significant achievement if one can truly attain realization in the practices of emptiness and no-self.
The Middle Way practice and other Vajrayana practices differ only in method and process; there is virtually no difference in the ultimate realization and experience. Hence, the realization attained through the Middle Way is a highly realized state of mind. When we engage in some of the Vajrayana practices at a later point, we will discover the result is the same; there is nothing new, except for the method. We must therefore cherish this practice.
We said earlier that these teachings are appropriate only for the serious practitioner. Why is that? Because I want to introduce concrete methods. The teachings on emptiness are not meant for everyone; to receive teachings on the actual methods, particularly for the practice of emptiness, one must at least be sincere and serious about practice. The final goal of expounding and receiving the teachings is to practice. Most importantly, it is to attain personal experience — that is the purpose of all the teachings. Aside from these practices, if we are only espousing the basic concepts of Buddhism, anyone can listen, even people who have not taken refuge in the Three Jewels.
We have all read a lot of books – Vajrayana texts, books that introduce the actual practices, also other Buddhist literature. However, on the realization of emptiness, there is nothing more in the books than what has been said already. No other words are used to describe this state of mind since it goes well beyond the limits of expression.
The practice discussed here is the basis of all practices. When we have accumulated merit in completing the preliminary practices, and when all other conditions ripen, we will definitely attain realization during the process of this practice. If we do not have experience, feeling, and realization of any kind after undertaking this practice, we will not succeed in any other practice. Because this is the most substantive, the most fundamental, and the most important of all the practices.
① Consciousness: the term refers not only to the sixth consciousness but to all six types of consciousness.
② Torma: refers to all different configurations of foodstuff made from tsampa and butter; one of five types of offering, it is a relatively popular offering in Tibetan Buddhism.