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The Greater Discourse on Emptiness

Phiroz Mehta, Middle Way (Volume 69:2 p. 89) August 1994

The Oak Room Talks, given at the Buddhist Society Summer School 25th August 1975

The Mahasunnatasutta

This discourse, which is called, 'The Greater Discourse on Emptiness', starts off with laying the scene, as is usual with every discourse: 'And the Lord was staying among the Sakyans near Kapilavatthu (his birth-place, the Sakyans were his own people, his own clansmen) in Nigrodha's park. Then he enters Kapilavatthu for almsfood. And, as he comes back, he approached the dwelling-place of Kalakhemaka (Kala means 'black' - he must have been very, very dark in his skin colour) for his own sojourn for the day.

Now at that time many lodgings were being prepared in the dwelling place of Kalakhemaka. So when the Lord had seen this, it occurred to him: "Many lodgings are prepared in this dwelling-place. Are many monks staying here?" At that time the venerable Ananda, together with many monks, was making up robe-material in the dwelling-place of Ghataya, another one of the Sakyans. Then the Lord, after emerging from solitary meditation towards evening, approached the dwelling-place of Ghataya, sat down, and while he was sitting down said to Ananda, "Many lodgings, Ananda, are prepared in the dwelling-place of Kalakhemaka the Sakyan. Are many monks staying there?" And Ananda says, "Yes, it is our time, revered sir, for making up robe-material." Then the Buddha gives a very remarkable discourse. Let us attend to this very carefully because it is extremely significant:

"Ananda, a monk does not shine (that is to say, shine in the Buddha's Teaching) who delights in his own group, or who delights in any other group..... He is one who cannot acquire at will, without trouble, without difficulty, that which is the happiness of renunciation and aloofness (from sense-pleasures). The happiness of calm (which is conducive to allaying attachment, aversion and confusion). The happiness of self-awakening, (which conduces to the goal of awakening to the Way).... But if a monk dwells alone, remote from a group, he will be one who acquires at will, without trouble, without difficulty, that which is the happiness of renunciation, the happiness of aloneness, of calm and of self-awakening."

Naturally, this is something of a blow to all of us, who quite naturally go to societies, meetings, schools, groups and so on; this is what the Buddha says.

"Indeed, Ananda, (he says), the situation does not exist when a monk, delighting in his own group, or in some other group, entering on the freedom of mind which is temporal, or on that which is not temporal and unshakeable, will abide in it, will remain in it."

'We know how it is with ourselves in our own lives. We have our moments of exaltation. Everything seems clear and wonderful and the soul seems to be washed white, like the driven snow. And, then, a little while later, there is upheaval, there is disturbance and that heavenly condition is gone. We cannot abide in it. It does not 'stay put' as we say. And then we make the mistake of passionately longing to regain that state. What we really long for is our mental construct of that state and our mental construct is like a photograph. It is not a living thing, it is a picture of the past, which is gone and which belongs to conditions which no longer prevail! If we really understand that and see it, we will be completely free of saying, "Ah, if only I could get back that, or hear this, or see that and so on and so on ... which happened at such and such a time in the past. It would be so wonderful." Really, it would not be, you know. The Now, the living moment, is the thing of wonder. Is the thing that will make your heart light up and your mind be filled with light. The mere repetition of the past is like trying to converse with the corpses of one's dead friends.

Then he goes on to say, 'But if the situation does exist when it is expected of a monk who dwells alone, remote from a group, that, entering on the freedom of mind that is temporal, or on that which is temporal and non-temporal and unshakeable, he will abide in it.' And then the Buddha apparently says something which is not relevant to what went before, or what comes afterwards, but I will read it:

"I, Ananda, do not behold a single material shape wherein is delight, wherein is content, but that from its changing and becoming otherwise, there will not arise grief, sorrow, suffering, lamentation and despair."

'Not a single material shape'; it changes and because of the change, with the implication that one desires that there shall be no change, that is the point. If one does not desire that it shall not change, well, all right, then there is no grief or lamentation afterwards. But the changing, and the desire that it should not change and be different, is the thing that causes sorrow and suffering. Think, in our own lives, especially those of us who are parents. The little one: "Oh, such a wonderful, beautiful thing! Perfect! Like a little rose. A little darling." We forget all the troublesome side for the moment. Then the little one grows up and there is a kind of wistful feeling, "Oh, he is changing. Going now, all on his own. He no longer plays with me, he plays with the fellows next-door." Then he goes to school, perhaps does very well and once again we feel pride and joy in the achievement. He gets through university, goes off on his own and establishes himself elsewhere. Then father and mother mope about by themselves, recollecting the beautiful past that is gone for ever. Don't we do that? Grief, lamentation, etc. 'Not a single material shape which does not change'. Every single thing changes! Do not grasp, let it go. However the sentence is stuck in between what went before and what is coming now.

Now we come to something very important,

"Ananda, the Tathagata has fully awakened to this abiding.... That is to say, by not attending to any signs. .... The entering on, and abiding in, an inward emptiness." (Because he does not attend to any signs: Anicca, Anatta, Dukkha), he enters on, and abides in, an inward emptiness...

And in this discourse we will get the very meaning of the Heart of Emptiness. "And if, Ananda, while the Tathagata is abiding in this abiding, people come to him and he gives a discourse, then, the Tathagata with his whole mind tending to aloneness, remote, delighting in renunciation, bringing to an end all the things on which the cankers, the asava, are founded, speaks in that assembly as one intent only on inspiring them."

This is very significant! He says the same sort of thing in other contexts too in the discourses. He is not concerned with answering anybody's questions. With solving anybody's particular worldly problems. He composes his mind. He enters into that state of Emptiness. And in that state of emptiness, which is the state of utter transparency of mind, of utter purity of the whole psyche, he speaks only in order that they may be inspired. So he speaks to them as if they were not there! That is the extraordinary thing about it. He does not consider things this way: "Oh, now this man has this sort of complex or difficulty and upset. I must say something which will help him." He does not do anything of the sort. He expounds the Dharma! And he expounds it, he affirms it, transcendentally, always!

This is a very important point to remember, because all healing, all whole-making, comes directly from a transcendent level, a transcendent depth. No healing, no perfecting can come from a situation at its own level. At its own level you can counteract. That is to say you can take measures for counteracting that which is ill or suffering. That which is undesirable to us imperfect people. But that is not healing. The whole-making always comes out of the transcendent depth itself. Because in that transcendence is subsumed the Totality of all that is, Here and Now! The perishable world, the mortal world, is completely subsumed within that transcendent reality, immortal, infinite, immeasurable. Every one of the great teachers did that. It is a point which we all forget, to our cost. Because, what we do in life we go chasing after this remedy, after that remedy. In order that our particular picture of an ’ought to be', our particular desire of how things should go and we would be satisfied. This is the mistake! We are interferes with the natural course of things, which follows out of complete harmony with that eternal Order which lies at the heart of the Cosmos. The Rta of the Rg-veda. This is why understanding the teachings of the Buddha, or any of the great spiritual teachers, really understanding, brings liberation in every way. It is as if there was a mighty building with hundreds and hundreds of lights, and a man goes around pressing every single switch for every separate light. It would be dawn again before he had finished with so many hundred switches. But if just touched the main switch and lo and behold, the whole place is lit up. Finished! That is the significance and meaning of setting your sights upon the transcendent. So that is how the Tathagata speaks. "Wherefore, Ananda, if a monk should desire: 'Entering on an inward emptiness, may I dwell therein,' (not fall back out of it - not get caught up again in the state of conflict and confusion, engendered by samsara) then that monk should steady, calm, make one-pointed and concentrate his mind precisely on what is inward." (And by this inwardness he means complete emptiness, in which he will fully abide; abiding in the fullness thereof, as it is translated in this text).

How then does the monk train so that he enters and abides in this inward emptiness? "Aloof from sense-pleasures, from unskilled states of mind." What are these unskilled states of mind? Sense-pleasures we all understand. Aloof from them; but aloof from unskilled states of mind. The unskilled states are brought about because of the Five Hindrances. One is the passion for sensational delight. The other is malevolence; and under that term everything associated with malevolence is concerned: hate, anger, ill-will, jealousy, violence (in any and every form) and so on. Then worry and flurry, sloth and torpor, and the wrong kind of doubt. We started, this morning, with a meditation on the body. Let the body be at ease. Let it be natural. Be at home in the Universe. It is at ease - there is no worry and flurry then with the life of the body, every moment of the day and in every action that it performs. With that absence of worry the mind, also, is freed of worry. We are worried about this, worried about that, and so forth. And what are we worried about? And to what is this worry intimately related? The self-misconcept, the misperception of one's Self. The body is a reality, it is there until it is dead. The body/mind organism is there until it is dead. But we have a misconception about it. We do not know it at all. We do not understand it! We 'do not know our own self', as we say. Because of this state of ignorance, worry arises. We do not know what the purpose of our existence in the world is. We do not know how to be in tune with it. For that reason, also, we are full of worries, because we have wrong purposes.

All our ambitions, for instance, in life are wrong purposes. That which you are destined to fulfil is the thing you have to discover. If you are born with a gift for writing symphonies or driving steam engines, or mending a road, whatever it is - if' you are born with a natural gift for that, then that is your destiny in life. Do it! Let it happen quite easily and naturally.

So there are worries, and then one is in a flurry about the whole thing. If we have a dinner party, what a flurry we are in. "Oh, what shall I get today? I could not get this," and frantically telephone twenty different grocers for whatever it is. And there we are ... worry and flurry. Let it be all right if it was not available - it is not available. Let us be happy with what is. Do not neglect anything but take it in our stride.

There are certain things we cannot take in our stride. The ship in mid-Atlantic has sprung a leak and is sinking rapidly. Right, there is no option for me. The women and the children have to get off first and it is sinking at such a rate I will go down with it, all right. Let me go down remembering the Truth is the one immortal reality. "Oh," you say, "It is easy to say when you are sitting very comfortably talking high philosophy. Let me see you do it in actual fact." Very well, come with me and if we have the honour and pleasure to enjoy our shipwreck, then we will know! Then there is doubt. Doubt is an important thing to consider. One has always to have an open mind, constantly enquiring. Is this so, or is something else a truer representation of the reality? That sort of doubt is essential for growth. But this carping doubt, expressed in its worst form by the nuisance of a clever intellectual who constantly says, "Oh, I do not agree with you. I doubt that! I doubt what you say!" He is not doubting anything of the sort, he is merely asserting his ego and behaving badly. Not that doubt, but the open-minded Questioning, the constant enquiring; that kind of doubt is necessary. But all the other aspects of doubt have to be dropped.

So these are the Five Hindrances; the unskilled states of mind. Then one enters the different meditations. Dr Horner uses the term 'the first meditation ... the second ... the third ... the fourth' to represent the different Jhanas (the Dhyanas): the stages and the states of attentiveness. Where attentiveness intensifies more and more; these are the different Jhanas.

Then, at the fourth jhana, one is in the state of perfect equanimity and even-mindedness. Then one is in that state where one has realised the Emptiness. What are you empty of ? The passion for sense-pleasures; the unskilled states of mind. One is emptied of all impurity. When one is in that state, the psyche, the mind, is utterly transparent. There is nothing cluttering it up. You might ask, that apart from the moral aspect of it, which one can understand and appreciate, what other things clutter up the mind? Every single fixed belief, idea, concept, conviction, the memory of past experience and so on ... all these things clutter up the mind. Our biases, our prejudices, our preconceptions and our assumptions, however fundamental, they all clutter up the mind. I may be a genius, but whatsoever assumptions I raise up, on which, as an unchangeable basis, I try to live life, that assumption is an obstruction to the realisation of Truth. Our conceptions and certain assumptions, always emerge in the given situation. There, they are thrown out by the living process of the creativity of' the mind. And, for the time being, in the limited context in time and space, they have their place and they have to be utilised. But what we unfortunately do is: "Ah, now we have got the Truth and for the next 25 million years this shall be IT!" It won't! It will not last 25 million seconds even! It is a long time, 25 million seconds. It will not last; it will not hold water. So, do not cling to them. Our ideas, however brilliant, however wonderful and penetrating, they are all temporary. All right, see the flash ... live through it .. understand it fully ... do not grasp it ... let it go! Then the mind remains in that transparent state, which is the meaning of the Void, the Emptiness. And then, when one is like that, one will discover that throughout one's life, throughout all one's experience, throughout each and every day, no covetousness or dejection or any evil states of mind will flow in upon one. All the asavas, the spilling-over of one's consciousness, of one's attentiveness into all the ill states has completely ceased. And it is that which is the real meaning of the Void, as the Buddha himself taught it. Centuries later, the great philosophers, and religious men, of course, arose and produced wonderful systems of metaphysics, based upon this idea of the Void. The reality of the Void is that you the living person are free of all evil. You have emerged out of your subhuman state into the pure and truly Human. The Son of Man, in the true sense; the Son of Mind.

Now, if you, the person, are utterly void of all ill, then Universal Mind, this mysterious energy of which we know nothing, Inconceivable! Unimaginable! will function through you, freely, fully, because you are the one who is unresisting to the Truth. And the meaning of Truth in the religious context, in the religious sense, is just this: 'That you are so completely attentive to whatsoever there is around you and within you at the moment, is seen for exactly what it is. Your intelligence is utterly pure, utterly shining.' And it is this kind of intelligence and this kind of Mind which is implied in the ascription of omniscience, Sabbannu, as they say. The All-Knowing state, Sarvajhana, to the Holy One's. It does not mean that they are walking encyclopedias. But they are so pure, they are so Awake, that intelligence functions utterly freely. This kind of perception is a transcendent perception; other perception is always in terms of intermediaries. To start with, 'I', the subject, am looking at something else; an 'elseness' in my own consciousness, which is the object, and there is a relationship. There are all sorts of limiting criteria involved in the interpretation of that which 'I' am seeing. But in this intermediary of interpretation is us. It is a transcendent state of mind. It is knowing by being the thing. But then you may say, "What is the use of that to us here?" I will tell you: That 'knowing by being' activity which goes on because oneself is completely pure, the Emptiness is a reality within oneself. The Void is a reality within oneself, makes an impress upon the whole psycho-physical organism, particularly upon the brain cells.

When we emerge out of that condition of deep meditation and function in the ordinary way in the world of things, using our senses and using our logical, intellectual processes, then this impress which is locked up in the brain begins to take shape and form - and the shapes and forms are shapes and forms which are the inevitable. product of our conditioning from childhood. If we have been conditioned from childhood with words like: God, Heaven, the angels, the archangels, the forces of light and darkness, and so forth, we will utilise these verbal and conceptual forms in which to suggest the transcendent. That is all we can do! That is why whatsoever is written, whatsoever is said with regard to the transcendent is definitely not transcendent, Anatta. Do understand this, then one of the difficulties inherent in conventional orthodox Buddhist presentation of this teaching of Anatta will disappear.

So now, when the mind is in full, free functioning like that, through you, the unresisting one to Truth, to reality, the Paramarthasatya, and to the bliss of Nirvana , then the true meaning of Nirvana is actually realised by it. What does Nirvana mean? Take its literal first meaning. Nirvana means blown out, extinguished. What is blown out, extinguished? The Fires of Greed, Hate, Delusion! The clinging to the thirst for sentient existence. Such is the practical, factual meaning of Emptiness, the Void! For you the religious who are concerned with walking on the Way, the Brahmacarya. The intellectualist, the philosopher, the man who wants to write tomes and commentaries and whatnot, for him he will spill out cobwebs and cobwebs of wonderful logical thought-systems. But for you, in actual practice, this is the Fires of Greed, Hate and Delusion which are blown out. When they are blown out, Nirvana is manifest through you. Now you see why I always say you will never enter Nirvana, or achieve or attain Nirvana. But because you or I have done our real duty, we are the trustees of this psycho-physical organism, which is the Temple of the Transcendent itself : non-compulsive. That is why the transcendent is never manifest through the thousands of millions of people in the world. They are free to choose, "Which way shall I go?" You see? We are trustees, then, for this and our business is to keep it clean and pure. If we keep it clean and pure, lo and behold, transcendence manifests freely! This is why we ascribe, we use words like, immortality, infinity infinite love, infinite patience, infinite wisdom to the transcendent. What other words can we use? Is there any suggestive word? That they suggest a transcendent reality is true. It is for us to let that Truth release itself. Now bear in mind the Buddha's own words:

"This, alone, is not emptiness, not void. Namely, the six sense fields, conditioned by life, grounded on the body itself."

The body itself The whole of it, including your head, everything, is not Void. This is the one thing that is the not emptiness, the Buddha distinctly says so:

"This alone is not emptiness." Namely, the six sense fields, conditioned by life, grounded on the living body..... (that is the not Void).

Everything else can be made for it by the religious, if he treads the Way. What is voided is greed, hate, delusion, the sense lusts, the five hindrances all that. All the ill states. Then, the pure body, the living, existent, is the actual embodied Dharmakaya, the Dharma body. "Who beholds me, beholds Dharma," said the Buddha. Do you think this was an empty boast? An actual fact, if one could understand what he meant. The Tathagata is Dharma and Brahmabhuta. He says, "Become Dharma! Become Brahma! Become the Truth! Become the transcendent." Where can we start? We can only start Here and Now, with this which is not Void.

So I hope we begin to understand what is meant by this word Void, the Sunna, as it is used in the religious teachings in India, both Hindu and Buddhist. Otherwise we merely bandy about the word uselessly.

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