Geshe Dakpa Topgyal from the Charleston, South Carolina Tibetan Society has been a friend of Geshe Dorjee, our resident teacher, since he and Geshe Dorjee were young monks at the age of 12 years old. We are delighted to include transcripts from a few of his recent teachings on our site.
Tonight our talk is on Emptiness. When we introduce Buddhism, one can introduce 2 principles. (1) The principle of interdependent nature of reality, and (2) the principle of non-harming or non-violence. The Buddhist practices, such as loving kindness, compassion, and helping and benefiting other living beings, such as charity, generosity, patience tolerance, and ethics, comes under the second principle.
The Buddhist concept of emptiness, and the deep levels of wisdom, that fully realizes the meaning of emptiness, comes under the first principle, the principle of interdependent nature of reality.
In brief, the entire Buddhist practice and teachings comes under the cultivation of wisdom and the cultivation of loving kindness and compassion
Emptiness means the infinite potential that allows for the possibility of everything that can occur or appear. So in that sense, the Buddhist concept of emptiness does not mean empty of the functionality of things and objects. What then is the meaning of emptiness?
The things and objects are empty by real existence or absolute existence or intrinsic reality or entity. The key thing is that things and objects appear to our ordinary mind in a very different way than they really are! But our ordinary mind, or the perception of an ordinary being, believes and assumes that things are as they appear. This causes problems, such as emotional confusions, frustrations, and disappointments.
In reality, the appearance of things to our ordinary mind, does not match the true nature of the things. Or, the appearance of the things does not hold the truth of the things, the way they really are. The confusion that arises from the lack of understanding of the things the way they really are, not as they appear to our mind can only be eliminated by the understanding of emptiness, the true nature of the things and the object. Then the question is: ‘How do the things and objects appear to our minds?’. In a very different way than they actually are. Things appear to our minds as substantially real. We get a sense of inherent existence of things and objects as existing on their own, or within themselves, having a sort of independent status. But, the actual nature of the things and the objects is dependent on various causes and conditions and various factors. The things and objects exist only dependent on mutual support of various factors and total lack of self sufficient status, nothing existing on their own without depending on causes, conditions, and name, imputation. For example, a glass: Whenever we see a glass, we get a sense of ‘glassness’, something that a glass has, its own quality that serves as a ‘glassness’. But in fact, glass has no quality on its own that serves as a ‘glassness’. That does not mean the glass does not exist. A glass is nothing more than the mere collection of millions of fast moving atoms. The whole idea of a glass is totally dependent on the various parts, and the atoms that compose this glass. Therefore, if we search for the essence of glass, we cannot find it besides the millions of atoms. Every single atom that the glass consists of, are not The Glass. Now, a glass is only a name or label that is imputed on this collection of these atoms. In this sense, the glass is empty by real existence or substantial existence or absolute existence. If there is any glass that exists in a absolute way, on its own, then nothing can take place on that same glass. But this is not the case. Since the glass is empty by absolute existence, there is all sorts of possibilities. If we put a handle on it that same glass will turn into a cup. If a spout, it becomes a pitcher.
In general, the concept of emptiness, or the meaning of emptiness, is beyond words, beyond thoughts, beyond expression. It can be only experienced precisely through meditation training or practice. Of course, at the initial state, one should have a precise intellectual understanding of emptiness through studying and learning. But still, there is a duality because one has not yet fully understood emptiness in a meditative state. In brief, the Buddhist understanding of emptiness means understanding the way the things really are, not as they appear to our mind.
Student : Geshe la, I have some intellectual understanding of emptiness, but how do I get to the meditative understanding?
Geshe la : In order to get a meditative understanding, one really needs constant contemplation on the nature of things. Then one will gain a little deeper level of understanding of emptiness, what we call the inferential understanding. Of course, the inferential understanding of emptiness has a heavy influence of intellectual understanding. With continued practice you are able to deepen, strengthen and stabilize the inferential understanding. Then your understanding of emptiness becomes sort of spontaneous, free of intellectual effort and conscious effort. It is this that we call meditative state or experiential understanding. So, it is all about practice!
Student : So then, is awareness or consciousness the only thing that has absolute existence?
Geshe la : No.
Student : Does anything?
Geshe la : Everything, whether it is material or consciousness, lacks absolute existence. Nagarjuna, the great master of emptiness, has said, “There is no single phenomena that is not interdependent. Therefore, there is no single phenomena that is not empty”. In this sense, even the consciousness, or awareness, is dependent upon various earlier and later instant moments of consciousness.
Student : In western Psychology, there is the idea of the prima materia and the prima causa : A fundamental particle and a fundamental cause from which all cause and effect come. Is this the result of eternalistic philosophy, or does it have Buddhist equivalents?
Geshe la : No, no Buddhist equivalent. In an ancient Hindu school, called Samkya. This school asserts that every phenomena comes or arises from the one single eternal cause, which they call the fundamental principle. This is exactly the same as what you mentioned, but totally denied by Buddhist philosophy. If we believe, or accept what you mentioned, then the effect that comes from the eternal cause would exist forever, or would not exist forever. That is not the case.
Student : Why does all this arise at all then?
Geshe la : According to Buddhist understanding, every phenomena comes or arises with no cause arises from what we call space particles. Not from a supernatural being, or power, or creator.
Student : What are space particles?
Geshe la : Space particles, you can ask the modern physicist. The idea of the big bang, we have a similar concept in Buddhism when we talk about the physical world. There are two eras, one is the age of dissolution and the other, the age of construction. The big bang is the same as dissolution of the whole physical world. After the dissolution, there is a time of emptiness, only the particles (subatomic) still exist. This is called the space particles, the fundamental cause for the reappearance of the physical world.
Student : The form of emptiness and the form of the totality. Same or different?
Geshe la : Same, but our problem is that when we see things in the form of totality, we are not able to see emptiness, and when we are able to see emptiness, we are not able to see the totality. It is something like, the understanding of totality destroys, or kills, the understanding of emptiness, and the understanding of emptiness destroys, or kills, the understanding of totality.
Student : But the form is the same?
Geshe la : Yes, the form is the same.