This essay is about one of the most disconcerting, and possibly debilitating, meditative experiences that occurs while meditating, and it is almost a sure thing that you will find yourself suddenly and directly experiencing the lack of a real self in anything — if you seriously meditate long enough, both in frequency and duration.
In a non-secular setting in which the teacher has no exposure to this advanced meditative experience, you may find yourself unsupported and abandoned — neither knowing how to make sense of the experience, nor how to move forward in your life. Stopping your meditation permanently may even make it worse in such a non-secular context.
In a spiritual setting, such as that of Buddhism in a traditional context, you are not vulnerable in that way — having access to competent teachers and millennia of accumulated experience with such advanced meditative experiences.
The purpose of this essay, however, is not to teach you anything about Emptiness — the Buddhist concept of the universal absence of any intrinsic self — it is simply a pointing out of the source of our common misunderstanding about this direct meditative experience, and the misuse, and misapplication of the derived concept.
Children quickly learn that they have a mind. This is the name that we give to the source from which, and the venue in which, our thoughts occur. Later, children learn that this mind is where perceptions and feelings occur too. And they begin to call it “my self.”
When the self is seen to have no place, no identity, and no enduring qualities at all, this mind is sometimes elevated to “Mind,” in order to escape the orphanage of parentless thought, and the error of a “greater Self” occurs.
Because if the self has no true reality, how can it be a place or thing from which, and in which, thoughts, perceptions, and feelings occur? Yet even though we may understand this intellectually, we still call it mind, or Mind, because our faculty of reason needs something positive to hold onto — we simply cannot understand what we cannot grasp (hold of), so even just a name suffices. And so, we keep referring to mind (or Mind) as if it is some thing, tenaciously holding onto it.
Similarly, when all things are seen to lack an intrinsic reality, we say they are empty of, or lack, an intrinsic self as well.
It is said that the world is empty, the world is empty, lord. In what respect is it said that the world is empty?” The Buddha replied, “Insofar as it is empty of a self or of anything pertaining to a self: Thus it is said, Ānanda, that the world is empty.¹
Unfortunately, we call this lack of a self: “emptiness,” because (again) the discerning faculty of reason needs something positive to hold onto, even if it is only a name.
— Because an absence named is just such a positive thing.
Look closely at this. We notice that something we thought was there, is not there, and rather than say nothing, or like the Buddha, just say it is not there, we ‘extract’ this quality of being absent from the thing (neither of which is truly possible²) and make it a thing-in-itself, marking this ‘fact’ with a word that ends in “ness.” Our faculty of reason then has something positive to think about — “Emptiness.”
Yet even though there is no mind, your thoughts, perceptions, and feelings still occur. We can call their occurrence whatever we like — we can still call it mind, as many do — but we should realize we are no longer talking about a thing or a place, but rather, just activity.
An activity is understood to not have a self, as verbs are not considered to be nouns or names. Even so, we are taught early in life that all actions have an actor that is responsible for them, because we need to place our praise or blame on someone for everything that occurs.
Pay attention here, because this error carries over into our predilection to over-think the lack of an intrinsic self by applying it to activities that occur, saying that they too are empty of an intrinsic self, as we do in the case of all our phenomenal experiences. But, (and in the vernacular): Duh! Even in a physicalist understanding of reality, actions do not have an intrinsic self. Instead, they have an actor that is the cause of the activity.
But we’ve already done away with that erroneous construction, once we realized that there is nothing with an intrinsic self, Right?
Our faculty of reason is well-trained to always hold an actor responsible for activities that occur. But there is no actor, no ground, no nature, no source. That’s what the insight of “no intrinsic self” reminds us of, and that is all it means.
Yet our faculty of reason needs something positive to hold onto, and “Emptiness” (the concept) is like a super weapon obliterating everything in its path. Besides we’re kids and love our toys, so “Emptiness” becomes, not just the destroyer of all things (“thinghood” actually), but the source of all things too.
What? The absence of something is not the presence of something else. “Emptiness” is a place-holder for what we used to assume was there, but isn’t, and nothing more.
But notice that thoughts, feelings, and perceptions still occur. Amazing. It is as if words have no sway over them!
This activity (thoughts arising, feelings manifesting, and perceptions arriving) should be called something other than “Emptiness” though, because that word marks the absence of an intrinsic self, not the presence of activity. It is called “suchness” by some in order to mark this presencing (arising, manifesting, arriving, appearing, showing up, etc.) of these things, thoughts, perceptions, and feelings. But “suchness” is a noun, and specifically one created by abstracting some aspect or characteristic from something (it’s the “ness” suffix that gives that away again). It therefore still suffers from our habit of needing to point our fingers at things — even if they aren’t there!
If we are attentive, we quickly realize that there is no mind-thing, no perceiver-thing, and no other-things, yet even so, we still call these occurrences mind, although technically they should be called “minding.” I prefer to use the verb “naturing” myself, to indicate nature in an active sense, much like Spinoza’s natura naturans (but dropping the “nature” thing because there is nothing with an intrinsic self). But most people just stare blankly at me when I do that.
All too many fall into the trap of immediately forgetting what they recently knew, and see suchness as some thing(s), and reactively apply their secret weapon, Emptiness, to suchness, in order to make the things go away. But there are no things, and no need to bring out the big gun anymore. Our old habits of mentation are leading us astray.
Suchness has no positive source, nor even an absence of source. There is no ground, no place, and no time for suchness, and no need for any of that. There is no emptiness for suchness either, because it doesn’t apply — doing so is a “category error” in philosophical parlance.
This groundless, baseless, reality,
Just left alone, is utterly awesome;
This unmoving pure presence,
With no destination, is utterly awesome;
This immediately available awareness of the now,
Irrepressible, is utterly awesome.³
It’s unfortunate that we had to make a noun out of this activity, calling it “Suchness,” just because our faculty of reason needs something positive to hold onto, and something to blame. Since suchness — or naturing as I like to say because that’s a verb, not a noun — is not a thing, and not even a collection of things — it can only be activity — which is more truly called presencing. Remember what was done here.
Where would “it” occur? Where does that which shows up appear? When we talk about the “space-like” expanse of appearances, we are not affirming the existence of Space. Go sit by a Buddhist Stupa and learn the lesson it presents in the form of the Bindu-Nada that is placed atop it.
The Bindu is the non-dimensional point from which all appearances manifest. Note its specific denial of spatial characteristics (non-dimensionality) — it isn’t anything at all. The Nada, the vibrations, or reverberations, are the appearances emanating from that non-manifest point. I call it an event horizon. You can say what you will about the appearances, but say nothing about how they show up. But how could you possibly know?
So please note that Emptiness is not Suchness, and is not the nature of anything — because then suchness wouldn’t be empty of an intrinsic self. We can say it is the essence of Suchness, elevating the absence of what we thought was there in the appearances to the stature of the absolute source of all, but that is just overkill and so wrong. It’s useful for a while, but it has the nasty effect of retarding our progress.
Know that pointing out appearances as mind and mind’s nature as emptiness (thus making the duality of appearances and emptiness into a unity) is not the method of Nyingtik pith instruction. Such instruction may be given occasionally, but only as a provisional means to elevate the mind of an individual initiate, certainly not as a definitive truth.⁴
Neither existence nor nonexistence nor space-time is to be found here. Appearances and emptiness are indistinguishable, so that neither eternity nor the void are anywhere perceptible.⁵
Suchness is the presencing of forms (otherwise there would be no distinguishing anything), and forms are empty of any intrinsic self. Yet we can discern the inherent essence of each form. Where we get lost is in confusing the “nature” (inherent essence) of a form, which sets it apart from other forms, with an intrinsic self. Our problem lies in the confusing multiplicity of meanings for the word “nature.” If we just thought of it as “intrinsic self-naturing” versus “essential character,” we’d be on our way to lessening our confusion.
Thus, “Emptiness” (note the capitalization) is a form also — it’s a thought form, called a “concept.”
So repeat after me: “Forms (suchness) are empty, Emptiness is form.” This will remind us that “Emptiness” is just an idea that took hold when we noticed we were originally wrong about everything.
The essential character of Suchness is Pure Spontaneous Presencing. And I feel the need to again remind you that suchness is not a thing, it’s the name we give to this activity — ”presenting as form.”
And the nature of this is not something else, it’s the activity. So Pure Spontaneous Presencing is not a thing. It’s simply a description of the salient characteristics of the activity that is our phenomenal existence — of suchness.
Thus, it defines nothing, because there is nothing to define. As Garab Dorje said:
Transcending all discrimination in its arising, Transcending all discrimination in its release.
And as Jigme Lingpa said:
While safeguarding the continuity of the wonderful intrinsic perfection of our existential presence, if the thought “the nature of pure presence is empty” springs up in the rational mind, by ascribing an objective focus of emptiness to pure presence, buddha is precluded.
Forms are empty, Emptiness is form.
¹ Suñña Sutta
² If something is not there, it really can’t be said to have a quality. But even worse, we are in the process of noting that the ‘thing’ really isn’t a thing at all, so how can ‘it’ even be imagined to have a quality?
³ The Heap of Jewels
⁴ Quote attributed to Longchenpa in the “Yeshe Lama,” Jingme Lingpa
⁵ “Yeshe Lama,” Jingme Lingpa