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Emptiness is a mode of perception, a way of looking at experience. It
adds nothing to and takes nothing away from the raw data of physical and
mental events. You look at events in the mind and the senses with no
thought of whether there's anything lying behind them.
This mode is called emptiness because it's empty of the presuppositions
we usually add to experience to make sense of it: the stories and
world-views we fashion to explain who we are and the world we live in.
Although these stories and views have their uses, the Buddha found that
some of the more abstract questions they raise -- of our true identity
and the reality of the world outside -- pull attention away from a
direct experience of how events influence one another in the immediate
present. Thus they get in the way when we try to understand and solve
the problem of suffering.
Say for instance, that you're meditating, and a feeling of anger toward
your mother appears. Immediately, the mind's reaction is to identify the
anger as "my" anger, or to say that "I'm" angry. It then elaborates on
the feeling, either working it into the story of your relationship to
your mother, or to your general views about when and where anger toward
one's mother can be justified. The problem with all this, from the
Buddha's perspective, is that these stories and views entail a lot of
suffering. The more you get involved in them, the more you get
distracted from seeing the actual cause of the suffering: the labels of
"I" and "mine" that set the whole process in motion. As a result, you
can't find the way to unravel that cause and bring the suffering to an
If, however, you can adopt the emptiness mode -- by not acting on or
reacting to the anger, but simply watching it as a series of events, in
and of themselves -- you can see that the anger is empty of anything
worth identifying with or possessing. As you master the emptiness mode
more consistently, you see that this truth holds not only for such gross
emotions as anger, but also for even the most subtle events in the realm
of experience. This is the sense in which all things are empty. When you
see this, you realize that labels of "I" and "mine" are inappropriate,
unnecessary, and cause nothing but stress and pain. You can then drop
them. When you drop them totally, you discover a mode of experience that
lies deeper still, one that's totally free.
To master the emptiness mode of perception requires training in firm
virtue, concentration, and discernment. Without this training, the mind
tends to stay in the mode that keeps creating stories and world views.
And from the perspective of that mode, the teaching of emptiness sounds
simply like another story or world view with new ground rules. In terms
of the story of your relationship with your mother, it seems to be
saying that there's really no mother, no you. In terms of your views
about the world, it seems to be saying either that the world doesn't
really exist, or else that emptiness is the great undifferentiated
ground of being from which we all came to which someday we'll all
These interpretations not only miss the meaning of emptiness but also
keep the mind from getting into the proper mode. If the world and the
people in the story of your life don't really exist, then all the
actions and reactions in that story seem like a mathematics of zeros,
and you wonder why there's any point in practicing virtue at all. If, on
the other hand, you see emptiness as the ground of being to which we're
all going to return, then what need is there to train the mind in
concentration and discernment, since we're all going to get there
anyway? And even if we need training to get back to our ground of being,
what's to keep us from coming out of it and suffering all over again? So
in all these scenarios, the whole idea of training the mind seems futile
and pointless. By focusing on the question of whether or not there
really is something behind experience, they entangle the mind in issues
that keep it from getting into the present mode.
Now, stories and world views do serve a purpose. The Buddha employed
them when teaching people, but he never used the word emptiness when
speaking in these modes. He recounted the stories of people's lives to
show how suffering comes from the unskillful perceptions behind their
actions, and how freedom from suffering can come from being more
perceptive. And he described the basic principles that underlie the
round of rebirth to show how bad intentional actions lead to pain within
that round, good ones lead to pleasure, while really skillful actions
can take you beyond the round altogether. In all these cases, these
teachings were aimed at getting people to focus on the quality of the
perceptions and intentions in their minds in the present -- in other
words, to get them into the emptiness mode. Once there, they can use the
teachings on emptiness for their intended purpose: to loosen all
attachments to views, stories, and assumptions, leaving the mind empty
of all greed, anger, and delusion, and thus empty of suffering and
stress. And when you come right down to it, that's the emptiness that