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The Abiding in Emptiness

Phiroz Mehta, Middle Way (Volume 69:1 p. 9) May 1994

The Oak Room Talks, given at the Buddhist Society Summer School 24th August 1975

(Continuing the commentary on the Culasunnatasutta)

Yesterday, we started with the words of Ananda to the Buddha, which the Buddha reiterates when he answers Ananda. These are the words:

'...... formerly I, Ananda, as well as now, through abiding in emptiness, abide in the fullness thereof.'

And the Pali is: Sunnataviharenaham, etarahi bahulam viharamiti. The word bahulam stands for fullness, and it has been translated 'through abiding in emptiness, I now, as formerly, abide in the fullness thereof.' Naturally, one thinks in terms of a fullness contained within emptiness, contained within Sunnata. Look at it slightly amended: 'through abiding in emptiness, I abide fully in emptiness'. Instead of 'in the fullness thereof' abide completely in it! Then, you will remember, that the rest of the discourse takes Ananda, stage by stage, through the material world, setting aside particular limited forms of matter and being attentive to a larger and larger whole. Then coming to Akasa, which we discussed, and Vinnana and the deeper states of consciousness. And each time, when the exposition is given, he ends it by saying:

'....This, Ananda, comes to be a true, not a mistaken, but an utterly purified realisation of emptiness.'

And the words are: .... evam pi 'ssa esa, Ananda, yathabhucca parisuddha sunnata vakkanti bhavati. Parisuddha - utterly purified; Sunnatavakkanti - realisation of emptiness; and note the adjectives that are used. ...'A true, not a mistaken, utterly purified realisation of emptiness'.

Now, having gone through these stages (and he goes through the stages by relinquishing the previous stage - not clinging to it). You will remember, at each stage the monk sees for himself that that which went before and was put aside, is now empty as far as his awareness of a profounder reality is concerned. When he comes toward the end, he comes to this extraordinarily interesting statement: ...'He attends to solitude (ekatta, translated as solitude here, but which also means unity or Oneness, aloneness) - it is very important, this word aloneness, because, transcendentally, aloneness is the Totality! The individual being, realising ultimate reality in actual awareness, not discriminative consciousness, realises aloneness, which is not being lonely, restricted to one's own self-consciousness. One has completely dissolved the barriers of self-consciousness, the isolatedness of self-consciousness is completely transcended and then there is the aloneness which is the total Oneness - the One Total Reality, and this is the transcendent realisation, no longer subject to time/space, which means, to any sort of limitation, which the Buddha called touching Nirvana with the body. Nirvana is the Absolute, is invisible, unbearable, untouchable and so forth. But, nevertheless, he says touching Nirvana with the body because this realisation of Nirvana is not yours by any manner of means! It is the total reality which comes to fruition in that mode of transcendent awareness, through you the individual. This is the extraordinary Mystery! The infinite demonstrates its infinitude through the finite! Immortality demonstrates its immortality through you the mortal! This is something that you must not build into a kind of logical, intellectual system, you cannot do it. You can be it in mind and consciousness. Not the consciousness which is discriminative, that is to say which knows in terms of 'I' the subject know. That is the object which 'I' know. The subject/object differentiation has disappeared in consciousness, in awareness (that is why I used the term awareness).

Then we come to the point where he talks of 'the solitude which is grounded on the concentration of mind that is signless', and the signs were: anicca, usually translated as impermanence but which I suggested we would better translate as the relative; nicca (being the word for the Absolute), and the Absolute is not the opposite of the relative. Whereas impermanence and permanence are true opposites, comprised within a duality, which one does not break through, actually.

But the Absolute and the relative are not opposites to each other. The innumerable relatives that constitute existence are all subsumed wholly and completely in the Absolute. That is why the Absolute is not an opposite, it is the best possible word one can find. Infinite is another word. You see the significance of those words Absolute or Infinite, they represent the Immeasurable! Everything else represents the measurable, the limited, the finite, the constrained. Here there is no constraint and in the absence of that constraint, obviously awareness of that cannot mean consciousness discriminatively, because all discriminative consciousness is confined within the limitations of time/space and measurability.

If you were to study the Rig Veda very carefully (and there are other things too which you can study) you will see how the God Varuna is represented as the Measurer! He measured out the spaces. It means, that aspect of consciousness which, because of its confinement, measures out everything. That means, limits everything and functions only in terms of limitation; that is what Varuna represents. The same with the Greek Uranus, the Measurer, the Limiter, the Confiner. So this is Signless, (Anicca) and it is Anatta. It is not ultimate reality, atta meaning ultimate reality, it is Anatta, and it is Dukkha. Dukkha, fundamentally, in its transcendental sense of being far from the Infinite, and it is all in our own consciousness. Because we are in the state, basically, of ignorance. We have not seen reality. And 'seen' in this context means being reality in Awareness. You cannot see reality because then it is an object of sight by me a subject. As long as that separation is there it is not the ultimate seeing reality in terms of the Supreme Communion, so that is Dukkha.

Then, you recollect, he goes on to say that the monk comprehends thus: 'This concentration that is signless is effected and thought out.' A very important point 'effected and thought out'. But whatever is effected and thought out, that is impermanent. When the monk becomes conscious of experiencing this state of the Signless (Anicca, Anatta, Dukkha) the experiencing is in terms of what we here would call unconsciousness, it is an unknowing Knowing. And the unknowing Knowing means that in the depths of mind, the utterly purified Whole Mind, the Holy Mind, you are that which you are seeing. You are that which you touch or hear or taste or smell, and so forth. This is a great mystery, unless and until it comes to you naturally, effortlessly! And, afterwards, the mind will make mental constructs interpreting that Ineffable Unity. The Divine Union as the mystics call it. So, when the mind forms mental constructs, then the Signless state is effected and thought out in order to talk about it, otherwise you cannot talk about it. You cannot even think about it! You cannot remember it in the way that we remember any particular experience, or object, or event, or whatever it is. There are those who say that the Buddha was not concerned with anything transcendent. That he was concerned with, and presented, everything in terms of the individual man, finding out for himself, quite reasonably, logically and so forth. But read the Brahmacarya Sutta's carefully, and the Buddha repeats again and again, 'not to be known by mere logic'; particularly Aristotelian logic. But Aristotelian logic was after his day, he was talking of the logic of his day there. The five step syllogism; not the three step one. 'Is effected and thought out'. But whatever is 'effected and thought out' naturally changes. It is not (again, the word used is permanent, nicca) the Absolute, it is the relative. And if it is the relative, therefore it is liable to undergo dissolution change and fade away.

Now comes the important part, 'When he knows this thus, sees this thus, his mind is freed from the (asava is translated here as canker. But I suggest we translate asava as the exudation; the overflow of the spilling-over of consciousness and I believe this is a much better way of seeing it, and that is the literal meaning too of asava in this case) spilling over of his awareness into sense-pleasures, into the becoming process. The ego wanting to assert itself and become this, become the other and so forth, into the overflow of the ignorant state.' The ignorant state meaning the state which is unaware of Total Reality - that is ignorance! And he goes on, 'He comprehends this perceiving as empty of the overflow of sense-pleasures because when he sees this thus he becomes freed of these three asavas.' The becoming asava, the spill-over into sense-pleasures into becoming, into the ignorant state; the state of being unawake to Total Reality. 'And he sees now that this is empty of this canker, empty of ignorance, empty of becoming. And there is only this that is not emptiness, namely the six fields of sense: seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, smelling and discursive thinking, the sixth field of sense, conditioned by life, grounded on this body itself. That is the inescapable thing, whilst one is alive'. It is very important to bear this in mind. But note that this final stage, as taught by the Buddha'-Himself, regarding the Doctrine of Emptiness (Sunna), where he says, ...'Thus' Ananda, this comes to be a true, not mistaken, utterly purified, (the same adjectives he uses before - and, in this last case) incomparably highest realisation of Emptiness.

So now, 'incomparably highest realisation of Emptiness' is the realisation of the emptiness of the overflow into sense-pleasures, into becoming, into the state of ignorance. The state in which one is out of Communion.

So, 'touching Nirvana with the body' and living constantly in that state, which is the fruit of Emptiness, the fruit of the realisation of Emptiness, and the fruit of the realisation of Emptiness is the utter freedom from sense-pleasure; from becoming, the passion to become, and the state of non-communion, of being ex-communicated from the Absolute, Total Reality.

In the discourse, in the first volume of the Majjhima, where he is talking to Aggivessana, he says outright, ...'And I, Aggivessana, compose my mind, calm it and abide in that first fruit of concentration, which is the Sunnataphalasamadhi (the fruit of the Emptiness). And because the Tathagata, the Holy One, completely realises by being in constant communion with Reality, the Emptiness, meaning the transparency of that state; utterly transparent, the light is unhindered, it is All-Light, there is no doubt. He dwells constantly in that state.' And Aggivessana tries to catch him out by saying, ...'But do you grant that after the midday meal you fall asleep!' And the Buddha replies, 'Yes, Aggivessana, I have a little nap, afterwards, but, I go to sleep completely mindfully!' Thereupon Aggivessana gives up trying to out-do the Buddha. Now, how does this discourse end at the last paragraph? "Evam pi 'ssa esa, Ananda, yathabhucca avipallata parisuddha (utterly purified) paramanuttara (incomparably highest) sunnata vakkanti bhavati. It is absolutely wonderful, really, the way it climaxes.

You know, one finds that the discourses are difficult to read because of the repetitions. The Hammerklavier Sonata of Beethoven's is very difficult to play, you have got to work, work, work, very hard! You have got to be an absolute master; you have got to have the passion, the pure passion. That psychical energy within you, which characterises the living organism, mind you. Which, because you are sensible, intelligent and care for that which is most worthwhile, that energy is directed wholly towards such realisation. Just as your musician directs all his energies to the realisation of' transcendent beauty when he gives you immortal music. That one has to do for oneself. Do not say, "I have not got the energy. I am not made that way." You, as the living organism, are the embodiment of the locked-up energy of ten to the power of twenty-eight atoms! One with twenty eight noughts after it! Now work out the equation E = MC squared, in relation to that, and see what an atom formation you are. Now release that energy into this realisation and you will be, for the first time, fairly human. A pure human - the happy creator; that is the meaning of human. We have no conception of that which lies before us and our possibilities.

So, I think there is justification for slightly amending that phrase, 'Abiding in emptiness, now, as formerly, I abide in the fullness thereof.' Amend 'in the fullness thereof ' to 'abide fully in the emptiness'. Completely! Totally! We must be free of this misconception, which easily comes up, that this fullness, referred to, is something contained in the emptiness. We think analogically. We go to a shop and buy a box of oranges. The box is a container and if the oranges are not there we say, ordinarily disregarding the fact that air is there, "This box is empty!" Then we put other objects inside this container. The oranges are the contained, within the container. Now we say the box is full. Now we think of Sunna (you see, this is the trouble of trying to think of things transcendental before we can think sensibly of things which are within our grasp), things transcendental, analogically, with things that are anicca, which are measurable. Sunna is the Immeasurable. Do not forget that! Where the Immeasurable, the transcendent is concerned, container and contained are an identity. Only when one begins to understand, has one glimmer of light in connection with that, then we begin to understand 'the state of Samsara is Nirvana and Nirvana is Samsara'. Container and contained in terms of transcendence are an identity, because neither container nor contained are measurable. It is a case of the complete transformation of your mode of awareness. That if you can feel this - if you don't let the brain jump up like a monkey, or like a puppy, go yapping about this objection or that objection, this question or that question, just be quiet. Then, this receptive, responsive sensitivity, the mind, which is the All-Mind, will be allowed to function freely. It will not put up obstacles in the path of the Light, which will Enlighten you! So, keep that in mind.

Now, in this connection, there is a most valuable discourse, quite a short one, addressed to Sariputta, and it is called 'The Discourse on Complete Purity for Alms-Gathering'. The title leads you to expect something different, really, from what it is about: 'At one time the Lord was staying near Rajagaha in the Bamboo Grove at the squirrels' feeding place. (Just these little touches make the thing come alive, you can picture it, can't you). Then the venerable Sariputta, emerging from solitary meditation towards evening, approached the Lord; having approached and greeted the Lord, he sat down at a respectful distance. (Now remember he had been meditating and he approached). The Lord spoke thus to the venerable Sariputta as he was sitting down at a respectful distance: "Your faculties are very bright, Sariputta, your complexion very pure, very clear. In which abiding are you, Sariputta, now abiding in the fullness thereof ?"

'Your faculties are very bright', we can wonder, what is the meaning of this? When one is fully Awake, all the senses function perfectly. You are really wide-awake, you are All-There. And in the case of an Arahat, you are All-There in a state of complete purity, complete transparency. Because of that, your complexion is very pure, very clear. In which deep state of communion are you, (I am putting it in modem words). Sariputta, abiding fully in that state? And Sariputta answers:...... Abiding in emptiness do I, revered sir, now abide fully in it." "It is good, Sariputta," says the Lord. "You, Sariputta, are now indeed abiding in fullness in the abiding of great men." Now, we must understand 'great' here means those who are themselves Tathagatas, Buddhas, Arahants and so on. They are the ones referred to as 'great men'. Nothing measured here, as the Buddha Himself has said, the Tathagata is untraceable, immeasurable, transcendent. Where transcendence is concerned there are no comparisons. We know something about that in our own life, if we have ever really loved, all comparison disappears, where true love is concerned. Anybody who starts comparing love does not know the beginning of love, he cannot even write the first letter 'L' properly - although he may be there, in 'ell....... It is good, Sariputta, for this is the abiding of great men'. That is to say, Emptiness.

"Wherefore, Sariputta, if a monk should desire: 'May I now abide in fullness in the abiding in emptiness that monk should consider thus. (Now here are the tests, the means by which one can know. This is why this is so important). The monk should consider, ...'On the road by which I entered the village for almsfood (hence the title of the discourse) in which I walked for almsfood or on the road by which I left the village after (walking for) almsfood - did I have there in my mind desire or attachment or aversion or confusion or sensory reaction in regard to material shapes cognisable by the eye?' You see? 'If I was abiding in emptiness, I can test that by observing, by being mindful of the fact, that as I walked through the village, was there any trace of desire, attachment, aversion, confusion, or sensory reaction (the senses, of course, function in so far as they receive impressions) in regard to material shapes cognisable by the eye?' Then he says that ...'if there had been, then an effort should be made to be free, to be released from these evil, unskilled states. But if there was no such reaction then that monk, oh Sariputta, with rapture and joy can forsake these unskilled states, training himself day and night in states that are skilled.

...'Again, Sariputta' (he repeats the same formula and applies it to sounds cognisable by the ear, smells cognisable by the nose; taste, touch and mental states cognisable by the mind). Now, if there was desire. etc, arising out of any of these stimuli, then he should get rid of those evil unskilled states. But if there was no such reaction, there was complete purity, then the monk with rapture and joy, free of them, trains himself day and night in states that are skilled.

...'And again, Sariputta, a monk should consider thus:' 'Do I fully understand the five groups of grasping?' Mainly rupa - shape or form. Do not restrict the meaning of rupa to the physical body as we understand it. Rupa is a shape, or a form; any shape or form; a mental shape or form; an emotional one; an imaginary one, working from the imagination - they are all shapes! And they play a much greater part in our lives, especially those of us who are inclined to live the religious life, than physical shapes and forms - and, of course, it includes physical shapes also. So that is one, then Vedana- feeling. Feeling in its widest meaning, its all-inclusive meaning of sensations, of mental feelings (that is a curious thing to say). In the Brahmajala Sutta, the Buddha refers at the end of it to 'these are the mental writhings of people who feel that, "Ah, this is the truth or that is the truth." And they say, "Oh, they had an 'intuition' and that their intuition, of course, is absolutely true." Beware of intuition! Punna, insight, buddhi, is not mere intuition. Remember, Hitler had his intuitions. Torquemeda and their company had their intuitions and all the most terrible devils who have strutted across the world stage, harming themselves and their fellow men, had their intuitions. Never mind the intuitions, it may be good, it may not be good. It is a beginning, if you like, yes. So observe it! Punna means unerring insight, and it is unerring because the mind is utterly free and, as the Buddha said, not liable to delusion - then that is insight. Be very careful of the misuse of the word intuition in connection with our daily life and particularly with that aspect of it which is specifically concerned with the release of the religiousness which lies right at the bottom of our heart. Right at the Centre of our Being. Then Sunna, thoughts, ideas, particular concepts. Sankhara: the pattern of concepts, the pattern of feelings, the thought processes exposed, the volitions, the plans and so forth, and any sort of mental confection. I think confection is the best translation in English, in connection with Sankhara. A very difficult word! Its root point, the most important point in connection with Sankhara is this: 'It is that which is put together, a synthetic product. Not a living integration, a mechanical synthesising: this impression, that impression, this idea, that idea; these different desires, these different objects. You synthesise the whole thing and you synthesise it with the mind, which is self-oriented, self-concerned and desires of fulfilling your own ambitions and so on.' So beware of all Sankharas. And as the Buddha said, "See them. Be mindful! They are Anicca, Anatta, Dukkha." Into the wastepaper basket! Then, finally, Vinnana itself, this discriminative consciousness. It is so significant, so extraordinarily important that the Buddha said, Vinnana itself is Anicca, Anatta, Dukkha. But when he talked of the Sunnataphalasamadhi and what it means to live in that state, the abiding, which was the Immutable, from which there was no falling away; which is the unshakeable state. As it is said, in connection with that, remember the phrase the Buddha uses in other contexts. It comes in the Majjhima, it also comes in the Digha Nikaya. The question is: "Where is it that fire, water, earth, air, etc, do not find footing?" Actually, the question is worded in the wrong way, in the Digha, by Kavaddha, where it says, "Where do these end? Where do they disappear into?" And the Buddha says, "Don't ask the question that way. But ask, 'Wherein, is there no foothold for earth, air, fire and water?' Meaning no foothold for that which is relative, which is not the Absolute and which is not the Ultimate Reality, Dukkha.' And the Buddha answers (note very carefully), "Vinnanam anidassanam anantam sabbato pabha. " In the one case he uses the word pabha, which comes in the one Nikaya. The other Nikaya has pabham. One means: accessible everywhere; the other means: shining everywhere. Now, vinnana means: discriminative consciousness, anidassanam means: without any characteristics. Therefore, out of the sphere of the measurable, out of the sphere of all limitation. Anantam: Endless, therefore Beginningless! There is no proceeding about it. No ending about it and therefore no mortality about it. The Self. Subsisting, if you like to use that word, the Immortal, the Transcendent. You see now why the wise person talks only in terms of negatives in relation to the Transcendent. In Christian mysticism also you find this quite early on, during the first millennium. We can say what God is not, but we cannot say what God is! Neti, Neti of Yajnavalkya, in the Upanishads, and so forth. So the Buddha uses that phrase, 'Discriminative consciousness: characterless, indescribable, nondescript, endless, everywhere accessible, All-Shining.' This is very significant 'everywhere accessible, All-Shining'. Now you think of the 'Light in the darkness, and the darkness knew it not'. But the one who can take up the Cross of Dukkha and transmute all Dukkha, in terms of Supreme Communion, converts that darkness into pure transparency and the Light within fills it with its plenitude. Enlightenment!

So these are some of the tests. Do I fully understand the five groups of grasping? And the same formula goes on, and then, again, "Sariputta, a monk should consider thus: 'Are the four applications of mindfulness developed by me? Are the four right efforts ... the four bases of psychic power ... the five controlling faculties ... the five powers ... the seven links in awakening ... is the ariyan eightfold Way developed by me?' " Now, if all these questions can be rightly answered, then indeed you are abiding in that state. And abiding fully in that Emptiness, that Sunnata, which represents the Absolute. The Sunnata which is the Unconditional identity of the conditioned and the unconditioned. Do not attempt any concepts here, concepts will never reach there! But in your innermost Awareness you can be lighted up and that light fills you. And you are silent then!

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