Sacred geometry


This retreat was jointly taught by Rob Burbea and one or more other Insight Meditation teachers. Here is the full retreat on Dharma Seed
Please note that these talks are from a 4 week retreat for experienced meditators. The talks and meditations can be listened to in any order or individually, but as they progressively unfold different levels of understanding of Emptiness, they will probably be more fully understood and the practices more easily developed if taken in series
Date24th January 2009
Retreat/SeriesMeditation on Emptiness 2009


I want to begin talking about emptiness tonight. And really, tonight's talk is somewhat of an introduction -- a hint of overview, but more of an introduction. So, first off, to say something, which probably isn't necessary to say to you guys, but I'm saying it because it came up in the context of this retreat. Someone was surprised that so many people wanted to do the retreat, because to them, the word 'emptiness' (someone who worked here) had this connotation of sort of feeling empty. Like we say in English, "I feel empty. I feel depressed, or kind of blah or barren inside." So a very important thing to say first: that's not what we're after here. That's not what we're going for. [laughs] That's not the goal of practice at all. And on the contrary, as one goes deeper into these ways of seeing, into these practices, emptiness brings joy. No question about it -- it brings joy. As much as I said last night, it can bring fear at times, etc., overall it brings joy, it brings freedom, it brings release.

Again, just to touch on what emptiness is not, it's not, strictly speaking, a state either -- a state of consciousness or a state of being. Oftentimes you will hear it talked about that way, or as if, you sometimes hear people say, "I'm hanging out in emptiness, or I've been hanging out in emptiness," as if there's a space of emptiness. We can talk that way, and it has a certain validity. We can also talk about -- what you could say -- relative states of emptiness. We could talk about that. But strictly speaking, emptiness is not a state or a space that consciousness opens into. Strictly speaking, it's an adjective, actually. 'Emptiness' is a noun in English, but actually it's an adjective. We say, "Something, this thing, that thing, is empty." That's really what we're talking about here. We say, "Something is empty." And empty of what? Well, it's empty of inherent existence. I'm going to talk a little bit about that tonight and tomorrow. What does that mean?

[2:33] So it's an adjective that's describing a true characteristic of the nature of something, okay? There isn't a sort of independently existing sphere or thing called 'emptiness.' Again, sometimes it's talked about that way, but that's not, strictly speaking, true. Many of you will be familiar with the Heart Sūtra. It's a beautiful, beautiful text. It's one of the Prajñāpāramitā Sūtras, a collection of sūtras on the perfection of wisdom. The Heart Sūtra is very -- they're very enigmatic, but they're supposed to challenge. They're sūtras about emptiness. The Heart Sūtra is particularly famous. And many of you will know the line -- it says, "Form is emptiness. Form is empty." Then it says, "Emptiness is form." It goes on to say, "Feelings are empty or emptiness; emptiness is feeling. Perceptions are empty; emptiness is perceptions. Mental formations are empty; emptiness is mental formations. Consciousness is empty; emptiness is consciousness."

Now, the second half of each pair -- "emptiness is form," "emptiness is ..." -- part of what it means, it's supposed to say there isn't this inherently existing thing called 'emptiness' that's somehow separate from our conditioned experience. So all those other things -- form, feelings ... We'll talk about this at some point Monday. Form, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, consciousness -- that makes up the totality of our conditioned experience. It's saying emptiness doesn't exist independent of that. It's not something that exists by itself.

I've never had so many people taking notes at once. [laughs] It's quite interesting. Tell me if I go too fast, or if it's okay, or too slow. [laughs] As meditators, emptiness is one tool among many, okay? So, let's say I feel grief one day, or I feel angry, or something has happened, or I'm feeling impatient. As a meditator, I have a lot of tools to work with that, to soften and ease the suffering around that. I can practise mettā if there's anger; I can practise mettā towards myself, towards the other being. I can just bring an awareness to, bare attention to the anger, and feel the anger, allow it to move through. I can do all kinds of things, all kinds of possibilities. Emptiness is really also a tool for us as meditators. It also happens to be the deepest tool and the most powerful by far, but it's still just one tool among many, and that's important to realize. As practitioners, it's not always going to be appropriate to take the emptiness club out and start whacking everything over the head with it. At times, a different approach is needed. We need to be sensitive to that.

[5:52] Now, actually, profound as the sort of teachings of emptiness are and the idea of it, the concept of it, it's actually not something so alien or esoteric to, I would say, most human beings. We already are quite familiar, at a certain level, with seeing the emptiness of things. For example, have you ever had an argument with someone that you're close to, or not close to, or just in yourself been sort of thinking about something a lot, and the mind is just going over and over and creating all this thought around something, and then a little time goes by, and it seems like, "What was that all about? Why did I work myself into such a fuss? Why did I get my knickers in a twist?" That's seeing the emptiness of that, but it's got a kind of time lag there. What we want as practitioners is for the time lag to get less and less, so eventually, in the moment, we know the emptiness of it, and it doesn't have a chance to -- we don't have a chance to tie ourselves in knots. We get the sense after something, after an argument with a spouse or partner or something, "Wow, I or we were just -- we were making something out of what was really nothing!" And in the moment, it's hard to see, but afterwards, you really see, "Gosh, we just built this thing up, and it was just empty, basically."

You can also see, or hopefully we can see, emptiness in the realm of social convention as well. It's very hard to escape a kind of pressure from society and peers, etc., media, that certain things are ... Too many double negatives! We get the message that it's important to achieve and succeed in certain ways, and we're bombarded from this, and I'm sure I'm not alone, feeling that from a very early age. I went to a very academic, sort of pushy high school, really getting this feeling -- you know, it's important to achieve sort of A grades and get in the A stream and all this stuff. I remember thinking, "Is that something inherently important or inherently worthwhile?" And everyone, the whole school was kind of caught up in this. "Or is it just the kind of cultural agreement nowadays that we're all kind of buying into?" I remember thinking, "Okay, so I happen to be a certain way, this way, and someone else happens to be a different way, with different talents. If we rewind 12,000 years, the talents that would have been important would have been radically different. It's like, who can spear the woolly mammoth better? Or whatever. Those would have been the culturally agreed-upon significant qualities." Again, they're empty. They're part of the cultural conditioning. We say they're dependent on the culture and the point of view.

[9:08] And, as I can tell you from my high school, if we don't see that deeply enough, we suffer. If I buy into that belief, those beliefs that are just a point of view and, in this case, at this level, are just about cultural conditioning, we suffer. We believe something to have this reality, this independent existence, which it doesn't. Or again, still in the realm of it not being too alien, being in a relationship -- and again, in our culture, it has quite a lot of hype -- in a marriage or in a partnership or in having a boyfriend, girlfriend, whatever it is. And again, this can get so built up in our hearts and minds as a concept, a very loaded, very charged concept that we suffer around in different kinds of relationship to, built up as a thing, as a perception, as a reality.

To see: if you are in a relationship, actually it has lots of holes in it. We'll be talking about this a lot. Things have holes in them. The mind gives them a solidity that they don't possess. So if you're in a relationship, paying attention to it: when am I actually not relating, but I'm still seeing myself in a relationship? When am I not thinking about my beloved, if they are beloved? When I'm fast asleep, am I in a relationship then, or does it become meaningless? There are plenty of times during the day when one doesn't give the slightest thought to one's partner or the person one's in relationship with.

And there are times when one's in a relationship, and one is actually relating very badly, and I think most human beings know that. You're actually not relating very well at all. You're doing the opposite. You're not relating. This is just human. Difficult to be in a relationship. Or perhaps only parts of the being are relating. It's like I'm relating in a certain part, but not the totality. What does it mean to be 'in a relationship'? Again, I step back, and I look, and I see in my life, actually, my life is full of relationships. Somehow I'm singling this kind of relationship out because, again, of all kinds of reasons to do with culture and all different reasons. I see I have many kinds of relationship. I have relationships with many people of different kinds. I have relationships with animals. I have relationships with nature and aspects of nature, with situations. So my life is full of relationship, yet somehow I'm singling out this as 'in a relationship.'

[11:51] So relating is happening all the time. If my mind, my eyes, and my heart are not open to the other forms of relating, feeling that relating, then this thing called 'a relationship' -- usually in the romantic sense, but this also applies, can be mother-child, parent-child, child-parent, etc. If I'm not letting in that other relating, then this 'relationship' becomes really loaded and much more solid and important. If I'm not open to the flow of love and connection in other areas, that thing gains more solidity.

Now, of course, we talk about commitment in a relationship, and that's part of a healthy relationship. But the question is, for us as practitioners -- and people in relationship, if we are -- am I stuck in a way of seeing? Now, we could also do this by saying, "I'm not in a relationship, and I really want to be in a relationship." Either way, one is solidifying a view around existence, around being in or out of a relationship. But the question is, am I stuck in a way of seeing? If I am, there'll be problems. There'll be problems being in the relationship with too much dependency, or feeling suffocated. And these are very normal difficulties that people experience in a relationship: to feel too dependent or suffocated, claustrophobic. Or there'll be a problem out of a relationship: "I'm out, and I want to be in a relationship."

So am I stuck in a way of seeing? I can commit, and I can see that I'm in a relationship. And I can also see that it's a convention. There's not something actually there as solidly as I think it is. What we're interested in as meditators is freeing up the ways of seeing so that we're not stuck in ways of seeing. Okay? This applies to everything that we're talking about on this retreat. We're not stuck in ways of seeing. In a way, you could say insight meditation is learning different ways of seeing, ways of seeing that lead to freedom. To me, that's what 'insight meditation' means.

[14:11] We could say, "We're all on retreat here. We're on retreat. I'm on retreat now." Can you find the retreat? Where is the retreat? Am I on retreat? Are you on retreat? We focus on differences. We say, "Oh, it's really different when I'm on retreat." But is it? I mean, we eat, we sleep, we go to the toilet, we meditate, we space out in the meditation -- same stuff. Where's the difference? What is it that I can point to and say, "That makes it a retreat"? We say, "It's in the meditation," but if I'm sitting here in the room full of people, and it's a meditation session according to the schedule, and I'm spacing out, am I meditating then or not? And if I'm outside walking down the high street, and I happen to have lots of mindfulness in that moment, is that meditating or not? We solidify things and give them a reality they don't have.

Someone said to me recently, "Oh, a whole retreat on emptiness? Pfft. Seems there's not much to say." [laughter] "Isn't it just about emptying? It's just emptying, right? Like just becoming still, letting yourself become still." Sounds nice, but what does that really mean? Emptying of what? Like allowing the thoughts to go very still -- is that what she meant? Emptying of what? I had an operation some years ago, and the anaesthetist said, "When we give you the anaesthetic, it's basically putting you in an artificial coma for a period of time." And the first time I'd had it in my life, and nothing happening at all -- no thoughts, no nothing. Is that emptiness? It didn't seem to do ... [laughs] Didn't seem to bring a great freedom or anything. As meditators, we actually need to actively disbelieve the inherent existence of things -- which is different than just not having a sense of self arise or not having a sense of the world arise, because when I was under general anaesthetic, there was no sense of self, no sense of the world, and it didn't help much. So it's not that just we're avoiding aspects of or the experience of self, etc. We're actually wanting to really look at the sense of inherent existence, and actively disbelieve it.

[17:01] Let's take another example, which on one level, again, may be fairly obvious. But actually, really take it apart, to get you used to some ways of reflecting and considering. Is anyone Scottish here? Okay, let's take Scotland. [laughter] We could say any country -- America. Let's take Scotland. Clearly Scotland exists, okay? Clearly Scotland exists, but it doesn't exist inherently. Now, people have died over the idea of Scotland. English people have died, French people I think have died, Scottish people have certainly died, you know, and probably more than that. We die, in human history, millions of people have died in their belief in the inherent existence of a country. This is the problem: the belief in inherent existence. Clearly Scotland exists, because I can go on holiday in Scotland, and I taught a retreat in Scotland, in the Scottish rain. And I can say to you, "Let's meet in Aberdeen. We'll meet up in Aberdeen." So we can make that as a conventional kind of designation. We can function that way. We can agree upon it. And we can appreciate aspects of Scottish culture, if you like bagpipe music, or ... [laughter] Does anyone ...? [laughs] Anyway. Or haggis or something. We can appreciate all this. It's part of Scottish culture. So it functions, but it lacks inherent existence.

Let's go into this. What does that mean? Scotland exists in relationship to, in opposition to what? Other countries, principally England. Okay? Something, all things exist in relationship to and in opposition to something else. Scotland exists in relationship to England. Now, a sheep or a young child or a blackbird, somewhere around the border areas, has no sense of when they're moving from England into Scotland -- doesn't register; it doesn't give a damn. It's meaningless. Papa Blackbird doesn't say to Mama Blackbird, "Just nipping over the border to pick up some worms in England." [laughter] It's a conventional designation that as human beings we agree upon. But then, we don't agree, and that's the other reason why it's empty and we see it's empty: we don't actually agree on it, and that's where we get all these wars, etc. You also see in history -- one just has to look at European history for the last 100 years, how borders shift back and forth, shift back and forth all the time. Or in the last fifty years or less than that, suddenly a country exists where there wasn't a country: Slovenia, the Czech Republic, Azerbaijan, and Uzbekistan, and all these places. There wasn't that country there in the first place, and suddenly it's a country. Nothing has changed there in terms of the land and the culture, etc. Suddenly it's a something -- just a conventional agreement.

You can also see, it's part of (what would we call it?) the size of the context of attention. So, for example, we could look at England and Scotland and Wales and all that and say, "We're all British. We're all British." Or a person in one part of Scotland could say about, "Oh, those West Scottish people, you don't ..." [laughter] "You've got to be careful. You don't trust the West Scottish people," or whatever. Depending on the size, I make the differences. I grew up in London, and there was a sense of North London and South London, and the sort of divide between North and South.

[21:27] Sometimes I think it would be good for humanity if aliens suddenly showed up in UFOs, because we would suddenly have a sense of the unity of the human family that we don't seem to have very well as a species at the moment. Why? Because it would expand our sense of context.

Let's go further with this: what makes it Scotland? These are important questions, because they're going to apply to the self and they're going to apply to everything, everything. I'm just taking a relatively simple, easy-to-see example. But the questions, the method of probing is the same. What makes it Scotland? Or I could say, what could I not remove without losing the Scottish identity? If I took away kilts, is it still Scotland? If I forbade -- I shouldn't say all this -- if I forbade haggis-eating, you know, is it still ...? All that. If I take away the accent, if I take away this, that, is it still Scotland? What could I not take away without losing the sense of Scotland?

Remember, we're going to ask these same questions with the self, with emotions, and with this and that. What could I not remove without losing the identity? Is there something that I point to and say, "That's it right there. That's the linchpin"? So a person can say, "I'm English," or "I'm Scottish." Well, what part of me is English or Scottish? Is it my liver? Is that Scottish or English? If I look at ... Here, there's a tiny little hair -- actually there are a few -- on the back of my hand. This one here -- is that English? Is that English hair? When I look at my body, actually most of it seems to be not English in any way. There's nothing about any part of this that makes it English.

Look at the cultural background. Especially nowadays with globalization and the immense amount of travelling that people do, a lot of the cultural background is quite similar. When I was teaching in Scotland, going through Edinburgh, you walk down big streets in Edinburgh, it looks pretty much like anywhere else in terms of the chains and McDonald's and this and that.

In Dharma language, we say it's dependent on the mind, okay? A thing gains its sense of thing-ness dependent on the mind. And this is really important. This ends up being the most important sense of dependency. We talk about emptiness and dependent arising being like two sides of the same coin. And things are dependent on other things in a number of ways. But the most important way is that they're dependent on the way the mind sees and conceives. Okay? Now, there are other kinds of dependency, like a thing is dependent on its parts, and a thing is dependent on the causes and conditions that cause it, that give rise to it. The most important one is the dependence on mind, by far.

[24:44] Sometimes when people talk about emptiness, they say a thing is empty because it depends on causes and conditions. Remember, emptiness is supposed to free us. It's supposed to free us. It may be that I'm looking at something, and I'm either having a lot of desire for that thing or a lot of aversion towards that thing, and it may be that contemplating its dependence on causes and conditions frees me. But it may not do that at all. I don't feel that that one alone is enough to necessarily free a person. Let's take, for example, a vase, a Chinese vase from, you know, whatever century is really precious. And we can look at the vase and say, "Oh, it's dependent on causes and conditions, which means it's dependent on the craftsman or woman who fired it in the kiln. It's dependent on the person who painted it, and it's dependent on it coming from a certain kind of clay from a certain kind of gorge that's very inaccessible, that people had to risk their lives for, da-da-da-da-da -- dependent on all these conditions." Now, that could free a person. But it could be, the conditions I've just said could be more likely to actually cause more attachment: "Look at all the incredibly unique, precious causes and conditions that had to give rise to this thing." So that one on its own is not necessarily enough. It's the dependence on mind that's the really powerful one.

So, dependence on mind. Two people are having a heated conversation, and a number of people are watching. Afterwards you ask the number of people watching what went on, and you get a different answer from each. It was an argument: "He said this. It was his fault. It was her fault. It was da-da-da-da-da." Different because it depends on the mind. Or you could say those wooden chairs at the back -- if we put it in a field and a cow came along, would it conceive of it as a chair? Would it try and sit on it? As human beings, we see it as a chair. Or as human beings of a certain cultural background -- probably everyone now human sees it as a chair, but certain amount of time ago, certain cultures wouldn't have known what it was, wouldn't have registered it as a chair. Or a termite would see it as food, actually. It would be dinner.

So we say, it's said in the Dharma, a thing is imputed by the mind, meaning the mind's conceptual processes give it its thing-ness, its seeming thing-ness. But that's woven in with perception. So it's not like we have a bare attention to things, and then afterwards we think, "Hmm, I think I'll add some inherent existence." It's woven into the way the mind conceives and perceives of things, woven in incredibly deeply.

[27:53] So there's a lovely example, a common example that an author, Jeffrey Hopkins, gives, and it's of the capital letter 'A.' And he takes it apart, and he says, "Where is the capital 'A'?" You've got a slanting slope like this, like, let's say, a big wooden beam like this, a big wooden beam like this, and a crossbeam. And he starts, "Where is the 'A' in that?"[1]

Sometimes it's easier to see -- I'll add to his example a little bit. Imagine those three pieces -- a slanting piece like this, a slanting piece like this, and a crossbeam. Let's say one slanting beam was there, and one slanting beam was way down the corridor, or 10 feet away or something, and the crossbeam was somewhere else. Very slowly, these three elements began moving towards each other, very slowly, from quite a distance. At what point would the mind click in its perception and say, "Aha! That's a capital letter 'A'"? That arbitrariness of the point of perception, it's a big clue into the way the things are imputed by the mind. It's arbitrary. When does the mind click and see it like that? When it's together, we would definitely see it like that, almost definitely, given the culture, etc. When it's a little bit apart, maybe, maybe not. But as you see, at some point that will vary for different people, it will be perceived. At what point? Or if we take one of those chairs again, and we throw them in a big fire, throw a chair in a big fire, and it starts disintegrating, at what point does it stop becoming, stop being a chair, or stop being perceived as a chair? When is it not a chair? Right now, it seems obvious that it's a chair. When does it not be a chair any more? Okay, so this is ... We can't find that cut-off point when a thing is or isn't. It's imputed by the mind. Sometimes doing it gradually with this imaginative way gives you more of an inkling into the sense of mental process there.

[30:05] If we take the handwriting example again, take a small letter 'a,' and it's in someone's handwriting, in a letter, and they've got sloppy handwriting. We pick up on the fact that it's an 'a' not just from the shape it is -- because often people's handwriting 'a's don't look anything like an 'a' -- it's because of the word and the context. So, again, a thing gains its thing-ness from the perception of the totality of the context. Okay? So, I'm using very easy examples, but all this applies to everything. All this applies to everything. And that's where we're going with all this, okay? Everything is empty, every, every, every, every, everything. There's nothing that's not empty. That's where it starts getting really, really deep and totally radical, this teaching.

Some of you with more Theravāda backgrounds and more Insight Meditation backgrounds might be more used to hearing about the emptiness of the self, the teaching of no-self or not-self, etc. But we also talk about the two selflessnesses, meaning the selflessness of persons -- they are empty -- and the selflessness of all other things. That's just dividing things conveniently for learning purposes, but basically it's saying, "All things are empty." So, people, things, lamps, chairs, inner things, emotions, feelings, sensations, bodies, thoughts -- all this is empty. But it goes further than that: time is empty. We'll get to all this on the retreat -- the more subtle ones towards the end, of course. But we tend to have a sense of time being something that independently exists: "Well, time will just trundle on no matter what. It's independent of what happens in time." But amazingly, it's not actually the case. Time, seemingly so innate, sense of time -- past, present, future -- has no independent existence. Awareness, too, space, things that are so fundamental to our sense of existence, the most fundamental building blocks of our existence and beingness -- it turns out they are also empty of inherent existence. Atoms -- there's nothing that's not empty. Subatomic particles -- nothing that's not empty.

[32:47] The Buddha says in probably one of his earliest teachings:

The practitioner who knows with regard to the world that 'all this is unreal' shakes off [the translation's a bit funny, but] the near shore and the far shore, as a snake its decrepit old skin.[2]

So shakes off any sense of duality, shakes off suffering, basically, shakes off saṃsāra, knows that all this is unreal. And, Nāgārjuna -- I talked about him yesterday -- in some ways the father of the Mahāyāna:

To posit things arisen through causes and conditions as real is what the teacher [that's the Buddha] calls 'ignorance.'[3]

In other words, it seems that causes and conditions come together, and they give rise to vases, and they give rise to emotions, and they give rise to people, and they give rise to this and that and that. But he says, to think that, just because things arise in that way, that they're real, that's what actually is ignorance.

Ignorance -- that's what the Buddha pointed to as the fundamental sort of beginning, if you like, the fundamental basis for suffering. We suffer because we cling, and we cling because we misperceive, and we misperceive because of ignorance, because we're not understanding something. A better word is actually 'delusion.' 'Delusion' in English conveys much more the sense of what 'ignorance' means. Something very important about this word, 'delusion': it's not just not knowing that things lack inherent existence. It's not just that we don't realize that things lack inherent existence. There's actually something active going on in the mind, that we're actively mistaking things.

It's not that we just don't happen to have heard this teaching about emptiness. We actively, in the perceptual process, mistake things to be independently existing and real in some very substantial way. We actively mistake the fundamental nature of how things are. And again, we actively -- this isn't conscious; it's so wound up in the way that consciousness works; it's not deliberate -- but we actively superimpose a concreteness, a substantiality, a kind of essence or essential nature, an independent existence to things. That's something that we do as consciousnesses. So a thing, things, all things, seem to exist independently. That's how it seems. And then we accept that appearance. All of that, all of that makes up delusion. "Their nature is this. It's the nature of this thing to be a lamp. It's the nature of this to be that. It's its essence" -- that's ignorance.

[36:11] Some of you will have heard this example. I don't know. Maybe, probably some of you will have heard it. The Big Dipper -- have you heard the Big Dipper example? No? Okay. It's a from a modern teacher. So, the Big Dipper is American-speak for the Plough, the constellation of the Plough. Everyone know what that is in different languages? It's a constellation of stars in the night sky. You might have a different name for it, but it's more easy to see ... In America they call it the Big Dipper because it looks like a big saucepan, like a big -- something you cook something in. Miraculously, in England they seem to think it looks like a plough, so it's called Plough. But if you think about it as the Big Dipper, it's hard to look at this thing, once you know it's called the Big Dipper, and not see a big saucepan. Does everyone know the shape? It's like four stars with a kind of handle thing. Does everyone know what I'm talking about? The example goes, can you see that the Big Dipper is actually superimposed on this group of stars? Can you actually look at it -- and this is actually quite hard to do -- look at it and not see a Big Dipper there, once you know it's the Big Dipper, once you see it as the Big Dipper? Can you actually not see the Big Dipper? It's just dots, stars that are joined, that the mind is joining together and seeing a Big Dipper there. This is good. This is a good example.

But what I just said -- everything is empty. So it's one thing to see that. What if we keep going with this teaching and say, "Actually, the stars, too, are empty"? Not only are the stars empty, but the awareness that sees the stars is empty. The time, this moment of seeing the stars is empty. The space that the stars are in is empty, all that is empty. You begin to get a sense of like -- the very core sense of our sense of being is being brought into question by these teachings at some incredibly profound and radical level.

[38:25] Now, we work up to that as practitioners, so I'm not expecting you to, you know, go out of here and suddenly have that sense. [laughs] We work up to it. And the beautiful thing is, we can work up to it. We really can work up to it. People have different ways of going about it, but I feel it's important to kind of go with what's helpful, what you can begin to see the emptiness of. Now, oftentimes the things that we suffer over, or the things that we suffer with, are the things that it's really good to practise with. Here I am, suffering with my sense of self. Here I am, suffering with my emotion of anger, or sadness, or tiredness, or whatever it is. Can I practise, because that's present for me and it's important for me, actually practise seeing the emptiness of that? People approach it differently, but I tend to favour that.

Sometimes people say to me, "Emptiness, yeah, but what if a tiger was in front of you? Then what would you do?" Run! [laughter] ... is my advice to you right now. Actually, that probably won't help. [laughs] If you're doing your walking meditation, and you get to the end, and you look up, and there's a tiger staring you in the face, growling, if you're a very fast runner, run. Otherwise, "Nice kitty, nice kitty." But there comes a time when actually, eventually all is seen to be empty. All, all, all is seen to be empty. And some very, very different sense of life and death and beingness and all that.

Everything is empty. It doesn't mean that things still don't function. The tiger can still bite you, okay? They're empty of inherent existence, and it allows functionality. This is also part of the radicalness of the teaching, radicality of the teaching. But when we see that things are empty, the suffering goes out. Suffering goes out, and that's what we're after here as practitioners. The suffering goes out of experience. The problem goes out. Again, from Nāgārjuna. We're not saying that things don't exist, okay? We're saying they're empty of inherent existence. He says:

Likewise it is confused to apprehend this mirage-like world as either existent or non-existent. [And] if confused [in this way], one will not obtain liberation.[4]

The suffering that we have in life, all the suffering we have in life, the totality of suffering we have in life, ultimately -- and certainly the suffering of what are called the three kilesas, the three afflictions of greed and aversion and delusion -- the suffering in life is dependent on conceiving inherent existence. Now, that's an interesting statement. I don't know how obvious that is to people. It's interesting, because someone could hear that and kind of not really see the connection there. And someone else might hear that, and it's totally obvious that we suffer because we conceive inherent existence. And if I see that something doesn't have inherent existence, the suffering goes out of my relationship with that thing. I'm not sure, and it might be in this room right now that it's landing with different people in different ways in terms of its obviousness, or not.

But just to draw it out: my suffering, my stress in relationship to a thing, to a situation, to this, my impatience because this thing takes a long time, my feeling of this situation being awful, my feeling that this guy there is really bothering me, or he's really a jerk, or whatever it is, or this feeling I'm feeling is really difficult, it's really terrible, or whatever it is, or really wonderful -- my suffering over that depends on my seeing that thing and that situation, on its seeming to be really that way. It's really that way, independent of the mind. When I begin to see, to the degree that I see that it's dependent on my perception and my way of looking in the mind, when I see that -- so he's not really a jerk, it's not really taking a long time, whatever that means, it's not really inherently difficult, etc., all these things -- when I see that's dependent on the perception of the mind, then I let go. We let go, and the kilesas -- the greed, aversion, delusion in relationship to this thing -- don't arise. They just don't arise, or they don't arise so much, depending on the degree that we, the depths to which we've seen the emptiness.

Yogi: Can I ask a question? What about physical pain?

Rob: Yeah, also -- and we'll talk about that also. I'm not saying it won't arise at first, but if you see it's empty of inherent existence, the relationship with it will change radically. And actually, as you practise more, the perception of it will change. We'll talk about this more. I suffer because I think it's real, and when I see that it's not quite real, even though it's still appearing, I'll suffer less. And then, we'll get on to this later in the retreat, but eventually it's actually the perception itself begins to dissolve and unbind when I'm contemplating its emptiness. Is that okay for now?

Āryadeva, the student of Nāgārjuna:

All afflictive emotions are overcome through overcoming ignorance [through overcoming delusion. All the things, all the afflictive senses inside that we suffer are overcome through overcoming ignorance]. When dependent arising is seen, ignorance doesn't arise. [It's not generated.][5]

Insight into the selfless nature of phenomena destroys the seeds of saṃsāra.[6]

The golden word here, as always, is practise, is practise, practise, practise, practise, practise, practise. We need to practise this, and practise this way of seeing, and practise seeing it over and over and over and over and over. Sometimes you come across this, people who are quite scholastically kind of educated in the teaching of emptiness, and they know the right view and what it means, and it's not this, and it's not that, and it's exactly this. It's not just about having the right intellectual position. We actually need to practise seeing things this way, practise viewing things this way. And it's also not -- so some of the examples I've been giving this evening, and you say, "Aha, oh, that's -- I get it," or "Oh, that's interesting." It's not just this sort of fruit moment, a moment of recognition. It's that then we want to take that recognition and start applying it as a way of seeing. Do you understand the difference? Really, really crucial. We say nirvāṇa, realization, awakening, freedom comes from training in this realizing of emptiness, training.

We train over and over again in this realizing that things do not have their own-nature or their self-nature. And that training is in the context of ethics and samādhi, like I talked about this morning. The sīla and the samādhi are the context for this training in realizing. And then we get used to this seeing. We get used to and habituated to this seeing of emptiness over and over and over. And that's what makes the difference. This takes time. This process takes time. There's no one who it doesn't take time for. Some of you are familiar with the word 'stream-entry.' It means, in the Theravādan description, it's the first level of realization, of awakening to total, complete ... The mind kind of dissolves in emptiness, you could say, and you get a glimpse of a total, direct realization of emptiness. But even for a stream-enterer, then there's a long time habituating to that seeing and getting used to that. The inborn habit of seeing things to have their own existence is so profoundly woven into consciousness, to see that things have their own self-existence. We need to practise it over and over and over.

[48:09] A sūtra, the Samādhirāja Sūtra:

If the selflessness of phenomena is analysed, and if this analysis is cultivated in meditation, it causes the effect of obtaining nirvāṇa. [It says, it adds:] Through no other cause does one come to peace.[7]

This is what one has to realize if one wants awakening. So, again, it's not just about withdrawing the mind from contact with things, or from a sense of self, or from a sense of the world, because then being in a coma or being fast asleep would do that. Tsongkhapa -- one of the great Tibetan teachers, fourteenth century, and founder of the Gelug tradition, great yogi and scholar and tantric adept as well -- said:

One should draw the distinction between the non-engagement of the mind with the two selves, and the engagement of the mind with the two selflessnesses.[8]

So that's maybe a little bit difficult to understand. What it means is, there's a difference between just kind of hanging out in a space where you're not really having a sense of self, or the self of things, just kind of being vacant in some way -- there's a difference between that and actually, like what I said before, deliberately connecting with the sense that this thing lacks inherent existence and staring, looking, repeatedly finding the sense of the lack of inherent existence in things. That's very important. That's very, very significant, that quote from Tsongkhapa. It may not sound significant at all to some of you, but it will be a thing that people's practice lives hinge on quite dramatically in the sort of unfolding of years and decades.

Yogi: Can you read it again?

Rob: [laughs]

One should draw the distinction between the non-engagement of the mind with the two selves [that is, the personal self, the self of beings and the self of phenomena], and the engagement of the mind [the actual looking at and contemplating] of the two selflessnesses [the selflessness, the emptiness of the self, and the emptiness of phenomena].

Do you understand? No? [laughter]

Yogi: [?]

Rob: No. Well, in a way, it is like that, actually. What it's saying -- it's what I said before about being under general anaesthetic. When I was under general anaesthetic, I had no sense of -- I was completely without self. I was completely without a sense of solidity of anything. There was no experience. I could hang out in different kinds of meditative states that are also without self. But that in itself, that hanging out in an empty space, by itself, without contemplating deliberately how a thing -- either this thing, the self, or the personal self or the self of phenomena -- is actually empty, that won't do it. You understand? Now, why I'm saying that's significant is because, just meeting hundreds and hundreds of people, I see different personalities in practice and where people lean to for different reasons, and this will be significant.

[51:37] As a practitioner, as we develop this, seeing emptiness begins to have its own momentum in the heart and the mind. It's almost like it ... We see it more and more. The perception, the mind, the reflection inclines to seeing it more and more. And slowly a conviction builds -- actually, also with a quite a jump at certain points, but a conviction builds, a conviction that actually, things are empty, and that conviction goes deeper.

And as we practise more and more, it's like, to say or to hear something is a dependent arising, or all things are dependent arising, or the self is a dependent arising -- at first, when we hear that or read that or even realize that, the sense of what that means is a little bit not that deep and not that full and not that powerful. What happens over time is, the sense of what it means to say, to realize that all things are dependent arising -- it just gains in depth and power, quite dramatically and substantially. And a sense of beauty, as well, with it, a sense of, to say that about things, to say that about all things is actually to say something very, very radical, very, very surprising and counterintuitive. And as I said last night, it begins to really have its sense of beauty and touching the heart. And one realizes, actually, that to say that something, or to say that all things are empty and all things are dependent arising, is actually, one realizes at a certain point, it's the most significant thing that we can realize about existence. The most significant thing.

So, you know, there may be aliens. And there may be -- in certain New Age circles they talk about ascended masters and this and that. There may be the devil. There may be God and all that. But at some point you realize, whether or not there is, the most significant thing is that all of those are empty of inherent existence. They can never not be empty of inherent existence. Anything that's a thing will be empty of inherent existence. I don't know how it sounds right now, but one realizes that actually is the trump card. One can't go beyond that. It's the most significant thing about existence. And there are levels of understanding here. It's said somewhere -- I can't remember where it is -- that you haven't really understood dependent arising unless your jaw is hanging open. It's something that's so, as I said, counterintuitive. It's counterintuitive. And there's a knife-edge here. There's a razor's edge that we kind of walk in our understanding, in our practice.

Is it too cold now? [Yogi: Yes.] Rich, if you just want to shut the door, perhaps, then ... [laughs] Soon, I'm going to ask that question, and you'll say, "It's empty of inherent existence." [laughter] I hope.

There's a knife-edge we walk here, between existence and non-existence. It's not that things exist, and it's not that they don't exist. They are dependent arisings, and so they're empty of inherent existence, of existing independently. And because of that, or partly with that and because of that, it's not the case that emptiness leads to a decrease or lack of love or a blocking in love -- quite the opposite, in fact, quite the opposite, and we'll talk about this as the retreat goes by. So it's not that emptiness does away with ethics and a sense of generosity or wanting to practise generosity or compassion or love.

Chandrakīrti, who was a seventh-century Indian teacher and a great yogi, wrote a very famous commentary on Nāgārjuna's first treatise. He starts it by praising compassion, takes a few verses and very beautifully praises compassion. Again, like I said last night, all this is for compassion and from compassion. It's all about compassion. It's all about love. He goes further and says there are three kinds of compassion: (1) There's compassion towards another being -- just regular "I feel compassion towards you because you're suffering, because you're another person." (2) There's compassion to beings, seeing them as fleeting, seeing their fleeting nature. (3) And there's compassion to beings, knowing their emptiness.[9] We tend to think, "Well, if I see you as empty, why would I feel compassionate for you?" But it's the opposite, actually. It's the deepest kind of compassion to have this fusion of the sense of emptiness of someone and the love for them.

So, again, this razor's edge. Again, from Nāgārjuna:

One does not achieve liberation through reification. ['Reification' means to make something a thing or to make it real or solid.] Nor does one free oneself from saṃsāra through nihilism [through saying nothing exists]. By thoroughly understanding existence and non-existence, the great beings obtain liberation.[10]

So it's really not nihilism. It's not nihilism that we're talking about at all. What we see is how things depend on the mind, how things depend on the mind imputing them. This retreat will be about learning to see how the mind does that -- how the mind and the heart give things a reality that they don't have, and how they actually fabricate the world and build the world -- learning to see, on every level, how that happens and that it happens.

Things, inner and outer things, are dependent on the mind. But then, even more kind of amazingly, the mind, too, is dependent. It's not as if there's an inherently existing mind making everything else seem inherently existent. The mind, too, is given reality in that process of giving other things reality. We say dependent co-arisings. When you really see that, at that point, the conceptual, rational understanding cannot go any further. It reaches its limit, reaches its limit of conceiving. So there's something, as I said, really counterintuitive here, profoundly counterintuitive.

[59:04] As we go deeply into this, this lack of finding any real building blocks anywhere, either inside the mind or consciousness, or in anything at all -- it frees. It frees at a very deep level of the being, an incredibly deep level. And as I said before, the sense of being in the world is shifted. It's shifted, it's opened, and it's unbound. So Nāgārjuna, another quote from Nāgārjuna:

Anything that arises in interdependence [anything that's a dependent arising] is also peace in its very essence.[11]

So we tend to think, "That's that thing, and that's this thing, and I like this, and I like that." One begins to see, at a certain point one sees that, actually, you could say, a way of putting it is to say, "The essence of all things is peace." It's funny, actually, with a lot of these quotes, sometimes we reach the limit of what language can say, and so a lot of the quotes are actually interpretable at different levels of understanding. So that one certainly is. But when we penetrate it to its depth, to its core, something completely mind-blowing there, completely mind-blowing, great beauty. And as I said, it really has this capacity to open and touch and melt the heart.

Let's have maybe a minute of silence together.

  1. Jeffrey Hopkins, Emptiness Yoga: The Tibetan Middle Way (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1987), 68--9. ↩︎

  2. Sn 1:1. ↩︎

  3. Tsong khapa, Ocean of Reasoning: A Great Commentary on Nāgārjuna's Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, tr. Geshe Ngawang Samten and Jay L. Garfield (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 35. ↩︎

  4. Tsong khapa, Ocean of Reasoning, 35. ↩︎

  5. His Holiness the Dalai Lama, How to See Yourself As You Really Are (New York: Atria, 2006), 50. ↩︎

  6. Cf. Dalai Lama, How to See Yourself As You Really Are, 41. ↩︎

  7. Hopkins, Emptiness Yoga, 140. ↩︎

  8. Tsong khapa, Ocean of Reasoning, 41. ↩︎

  9. MAV 1:1--4. See Chandrakirti and Mipham, Introduction to the Middle Way: Chandrakirti's Madhyamakavatara with Commentary by Jamgön Mipham, tr. Padmakara Translation Group (Boston: Shambhala, 2002), 59. ↩︎

  10. Tsong khapa, Ocean of Reasoning, 14. ↩︎

  11. MMK 7:16. ↩︎

Sacred geometry
Sacred geometry