Shunyata – Three Discourses on Emptiness

by

These are three talks on emptiness as the Buddha referred to emptiness. All three relate to the three suttas cited in the article below. These talks were recorded during a series of classes at Cross River Meditation Center in May 2018.

Related Talks

Introduction

Shunyata – Three Discourses on Emptiness is an article on the Buddha’s teachings on emptiness. I will cite three suttas where the Buddha teaches the meaning and application of emptiness, shunyata (Pali: Sunnata): The Cula-Sunnata Sutta, The Maha-Sunnata Sutta, and The Kaccayanagotta Sutta.

All Buddhist teachings are not consistent with what the Buddha taught as a direct path to awakening, or full human maturity. Through the cultural and individually influenced views of what Buddhism should be, modern Buddhism has developed many contradictory and often antagonistic “paths” than what the Buddha first taught 2,600 years ago.  (See Modern Buddhism – A Thicket of Views) [1]

The Buddha awakened to the profound understanding that it is ignorance of Four Noble Truths that initiates the process of ongoing conceit, or “I-making” resulting in confusion, deluded thinking, and suffering. This teaching is presented in the Paticca-Samuppada-Vibhanga Sutta, the sutta on Dependent Origination. [2]

This often misunderstood and misapplied teaching simply states that from ignorance of Four Noble Truths, through twelve observable causative links, all manner of confusion, deluded thinking, and disappointing and unsatisfactory experience arises.

Each link in the chain of dependencies originates in certain conditions. Ignorance is the initial condition that the ensuing conditions are dependent on for their origination. What this means is that anything that follows from this initial ignorance, including well-intended but misinformed adaptations and accommodations that misapply or ignore The Four Noble Truths can only continue ignorance. This is immediately obvious when the contradictions between the Buddha’s application of emptiness is compared to the common and customary use of emptiness prevalent in modern Buddhism.

This is true in the many misapplications of Dependent Origination and in a broader sense in the modern compulsive push to further adapt and accommodate Buddhist teachings to find a reconciled and conciliatory modern Western Buddhist practice. This need for reconciliation is a somewhat subtle form of continued I-Making or conceit – the heart of the problem that is resolved by the Buddha’s direct teachings.

Much of the later-developed Buddhist schools treat emptiness and nothingness as a mystical environment to be realized where all “Dharmic” contradictions can be reconciled. What is often overlooked in the customary use of emptiness is that this adapted use of emptiness now becomes the repository for what has been avoided by ignoring The Four Noble Truths.

This adapted application of emptiness then provides a conceptual acceptance-through-avoidance that allows for continued ignorance. All that can’t be logically reconciled from this initial ignorance is now labeled emptiness or nothingness. Ie.: There is “No-self,” “There is no path,” there is only “nothingness.” This is also a subtle form of asceticism and annihilation which is clearly an extreme view that is avoided by the middle-way guidance of the entire Eightfold Path as the framework for Dhamma practice.

This conceptual application rooted in wrong view then allows for ignorance of the Three Marks of Existence – Anicca, Anatta, and Dukkha. Anicca, Impermanence, and Anatta, the Not-Self characteristic, describe the ever-changing environment in which wrong views of self arise seeking to establish a permanent self-identity. This self-establishment is both unreasonable and impossible. The result is ongoing confusion, ongoing deluded thinking, and ongoing disappointing and unsatisfying experiences. This is, in a word, Dukkha, the arising of which is The First Noble Truth – Dukkha occurs. [3]

For those new to Buddhism, or anyone confused by modern “dharmas,” it is important to recognize and acknowledge these significant differences so that the purpose and foundation of any Buddhist practice is clearly understood.

There is nothing skillful in attempting to reconcile the many contradictory forms of modern Buddhism into one hybridized individual or group Buddhist practice when a misapplication or ignorance of the Four Noble Truths is the result. Continued ignorance only continues ignorance.

The modern conceptual applications of emptiness are themselves originating in ignorance of Dependent Origination. Often the Paticca-Samuppada-Vibhanga Sutta is altered or completely ignored in order to allow for the modern concepts of interdependence, interconnectedness, and inter-being. It is this initial ignorance of Dependent Origination that allows for the contradictory modern applications of emptiness and the many modern contradictory Buddhist practices.

This modern confusing doctrine hopes to show that all things, including all human beings, are infinitely interdependent, constantly interconnected, and can only thrive through inter-being. It is this amorphous and interdependent soup that somehow reconciles in a doctrine of emptiness: All things are interdependent, interconnected and inter-be and so “empty” of a separate existence.

Simple physics shows that there are elements common to all physical objects. The commonality of physical elements does not resolve the problem of Dukkha occurring from individual craving for and clinging to impermanent views and experiences. Resolving Dukkha and physical elemental commonality have no useful relationship as far as awakening is concerned.

Of course the Buddha did not teach to see oneself in everything and to see everything as oneself. The Buddha taught that everything in the phenomenal world is discrete and carries the Three Marks Of Existence. The Buddha awakened to the profound understanding that the common human problem of greed, aversion, and deluded thinking arose from ignorance.

Greed, or craving, or desire; Aversion, or hatred; and deluded thinking, are known as The Three Defilements common to unawakened human beings – those lacking the full maturity that is developed through gaining understanding of Four Noble Truths.

All things in the phenomenal world carry the Three Marks Of Existence. For the forty-five years of his teaching career the Buddha taught consistently that:

  • The Five Clinging-Aggregates, what is perceived as a “self,”  are anicca, impermanent.
  • Whatever is impermanent, that is dukkha, unsatisfactory.
  • Whatever is dukkha, that is without attaa, without a permanent self.
  • What is without self, that is not mine, that I am not, that is not my self.
  • Thus should it be seen by perfect wisdom as it really is. Who sees by perfect wisdom, as it really is, his mind, not grasping, is detached from taints; he is liberated.” (SN 22.45)

Grasping after concepts that seek to establish a self in an environment of emptiness or nothingness, or in an inherent inner Buddha-nature or Buddhahood is still grasping and is rooted in ignorance.

The Buddha did not teach an “empty” nature of the phenomenal world implying that nothing actually exists. He taught that nothing exists that should be used to establish or maintain a permanent substantial self through clinging self-referential views to objects, events, and ideas.

Rather than attempt to establish a self in everything (clinging to impermanent objects, events, and ideas) or to crave for establishment of self in discrete, impermanent phenomena, or conceptual “dharmas,” both extreme views, the Buddha taught emptiness as a way of describing that followers of his Dhamma should be empty of clinging to objects, events, views, and ideas, and should not attach any notion of self into, or onto, the impermanent phenomenal world.

Ultimately, emptiness refers to having a mind that is empty of any internal disturbance caused by self-referential clinging to objects, events, views, and ideas, including external identification with “Buddhist” practices that were never taught by the Buddha.

Emptiness as emptiness relates to the Buddha’s teachings is mostly a verb rather than a noun. It is skillful in this sense to see emptiness as emptying a glass of dirty water rather than seeing emptiness as a grand cosmic environment to aspire to or as the definition of an awakened “self.” The Buddha taught to “empty oneself of craving and clinging” and to “empty” the world of self-referential clinging views.

The Buddha, having awakened to Dependent Origination, taught an Eightfold Path to end ignorance and bring an end to craving for, and clinging, to “all things interconnected with me” or “all things I am interdependent on” or “all things that I am inter-being with.”


The Cula-Sunnata Sutta

The Lesser Discourse on Emptiness

My commentary below is italicized

The Buddha was at Savatthi in the Eastern Monastery, a local palace. The Buddha’s chief attendant and cousin, Ananda, returning from seclusion, asked the Buddha: “On one occasion I heard you say ‘I now remain fully dwelling (in the quality of mind) in emptiness.’ Did I hear this correctly? Did I learn this correctly? Did I remember this correctly?”

The Buddha replied “Yes, Ananda, you heard that correctly, you learned it correctly, and you remembered it correctly. Now as before I remain fully dwelling in emptiness. Just as this place is empty of elephants, and cattle, and empty of gold or silver, empty of assemblies of women and men, and there is only this non-emptiness of this community of monks. Even so, Ananda, when not distracted by the perception of the village, not distracted by the perception of a human being (with self-referential views), there is only mindfulness of a wilderness with no distractions to what is not present. (There is no discursive or speculative thought) The mind takes pleasure and finds satisfaction in being mindful of wilderness. The mind quiets and delights in the perception of wilderness.

“Wilderness” is metaphor for the pleasant abiding in samadhi, non-distraction, free of the distraction of craving for, and clinging to, the mundane objects of the village (immediate surroundings: “elephants, and cattle, gold or silver, assemblies of women and men.”)

Emptiness of the Perception of “The Village”

“It is then understood that whatever disturbances that would arise from being distracted by the things of the village are no longer present. Whatever disturbances that would arise from being distracted by the perception of a (permanent) human being are no longer present. There is only the single-minded (well-concentrated, samadhi) focus based on the mindfulness of wilderness.  It is understood that this perception is empty of the distraction of the things of the village (immediate surroundings).

“There is only this non-emptiness of the perception of wilderness. It is seen as being empty of what is not there (empty of disturbance by external self-identification, empty of ignorance) What is present is seen as there is only this. This is the entry into emptiness which is in accord with reality and is undistorted and pure.

The Buddha here is describing initial emptiness from the withdrawal of self-identification with things of the local environment. The mind is calm and at peace empty of disturbance arising from sensory stimulation rooted in wrong view. This relates directly to Dependent Origination – When this isn’t, that isn’t – when ignorance is abandoned confused fabrications do not arise.

Emptiness of the Perception of Earth

“Furthermore, Ananda, as concentration increases within the framework of the Eightfold Path, the perception of wilderness and of human beings falls away. Dispassionate mindfulness of the earth arises. (Dispassionate spaciousness of thinking arises) The mind takes pleasure and finds satisfaction in being mindful of the perception of earth. The mind quiets and delights in the perception of earth.

“Just as a bull’s hide is stretched free of wrinkles with many stakes, (mindfulness) free of distraction to the ridges and hollows, the rivers and oceans, the trees and stumps and brambles, the craggy irregularities of the earth, non-distraction based solely on the perception of the earth (free of discriminating thoughts) it is now understood that this perception is empty of a (permanent) human being, empty of the perception of a wilderness. Now there is only the non-emptiness of the perception of the earth.

Concentration has increased but there continues a subtle self-identification to the earth. This is further entry into emptiness which is in accord with reality and is undistorted and pure.

The Buddha here is describing a non self-referential view of the Earth meaning the mind is free of being distracted by the ever-changing qualities naturally inherent in the Earth. In the Bahiya sutta the Buddha teaches Bahiya that ‘In what is seen, there is only the seen, In what is heard, there is only the heard, In what is sensed, there is only the sensed, In what is cognized, only the cognized.’ – no self-referential views [4]

Emptiness of the Perception of the Infinitude of Space

“Furthermore, Ananda, as concentration increases within the framework of the Eightfold Path, the perception of wilderness and of human beings, and of the earth falls away. Dispassionate mindfulness of the dimension of the infinitude of space arises. The mind takes pleasure and finds satisfaction in being mindful of the dimension of the infinitude of space. The mind quiets and delights in the perception of the dimension of the infinitude of space.

Notice that as local self-referential identification lessens, perceptual spaciousness increases.

“It is now understood that whatever disturbances that would arise based on the perception of wilderness, or human beings, or of the earth, do not arise. The mind is empty of these perceptions. There is only the non-emptiness of the perception of the dimension of the infinitude of space. The quality of mind is regarded as empty of what is not there. This is further entry into emptiness which is in accord with reality and is undistorted and pure.

Concentration and non-clinging have brought deepening calm. The practitioner has not physically left the initial environment but the mind is increasingly empty of disturbance.

Emptiness of the Perception of the Infinitude of Consciousness

“Furthermore, Ananda, as concentration increases within the framework of the Eightfold Path, the perception of wilderness and of human beings, and of the earth, and of the dimension of the infinitude of space falls away. Dispassionate mindfulness of the dimension of the infinitude of consciousness arises. The mind takes pleasure and finds satisfaction in being mindful of the dimension of the infinitude of consciousness. The mind quiets and delights in the perception of the dimension of the infinitude of consciousness.

“It is now understood that whatever disturbances that would arise based on the perception of wilderness, or human beings, or of the earth, or the dimension of the infinitude of space, do not arise. The mind is empty of these perceptions. There is only the non-emptiness of the perception of the dimension of the infinitude of consciousness. The quality of mind is regarded as empty of what is not there. This is further entry into emptiness which is in accord with reality and is undistorted and pure.

As increasing local self-referential identification lessens, perceptual spaciousness increases.

Emptiness of the Perception of the Dimension of Nothingness

“Furthermore, Ananda, as concentration increases within the framework of the Eightfold Path, the perception of wilderness and of human being, and of earth, and of the dimension of the infinitude of space, and of the dimension of the infinitude of consciousness falls away. Dispassionate mindfulness of the dimension of nothingness arises. The mind takes pleasure and finds satisfaction in being mindful of the dimension of nothingness. The mind quiets and delights in the perception of the dimension of nothingness.

“It is now understood that whatever disturbances that would arise based on the perception of wilderness, or human beings, or of the earth, or the dimension of the infinitude of space, or of the dimension of the infinitude of consciousness do not arise. The mind is empty of these perceptions. There is only the non-emptiness of the perception of the dimension of nothingness. The quality of mind is regarded as empty of what is not there. This is further entry into emptiness which is in accord with reality and is undistorted and pure.

Non-emptiness of the perception of the dimension of nothingness refers to the quality of mind of knowing that it is empty of disturbance. “Nothingness”  refers to a quality of mind that is free of self-referential views that would otherwise cause disturbance.

Emptiness of the Perception of the Dimension of Neither Perception nor Non-Perception

“Furthermore, Ananda, as concentration increases within the framework of the Eightfold Path, the perception of wilderness and of human beings, and of the earth, and of the dimension of the infinitude of space, and of the dimension of the infinitude of consciousness, and of the dimension of nothingness falls away. Dispassionate mindfulness of the dimension of neither perception nor non-perception arises. The mind takes pleasure and finds satisfaction in being mindful of the dimension of neither perception nor non-perception. The mind quiets and delights in the perception of the dimension of neither perception nor non-perception.

“It is now understood that whatever disturbances that would arise based on the perception of wilderness, or human beings, or of the earth, or the dimension of the infinitude of space, or of the dimension of the infinitude of consciousness, or of the dimension of nothingness, do not arise. The mind is empty of these perceptions. There is only the non-emptiness of the perception of the dimension of neither perception nor non-perception. The quality of mind is regarded as empty of what is not there. This is further entry into emptiness which is in accord with reality and is undistorted and pure.

“The quality of mind is regarded as empty of what is not there” – Concentration and refined mindfulness have developed to the point where recognition of equanimity is realized.

The dimensions (fabricated mind-states) of nothingness and of neither perception nor non-perception were studied by the Buddha from his early teachers Alara Kalama and Uddaka Ramaputta. Their teachings were from the Veda’s which modern Hinduism is based on. The Buddha rejected these teachings as  “This Dhamma leads not to disenchantment, or to dispassion, or to cessation, or to stilling, or to direct knowledge, or to Awakening, or to Unbinding, but only to reappearance (ongoing I-making) in the dimension of nothingness” in regard to Alara Kalama’s teachings and “This Dhamma leads not to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to stilling, to direct knowledge, to Awakening, nor to Unbinding, but only to reappearance in the dimension of neither perception nor non-perception” in regard to Uddaka Ramaputta’s teachings. These mind-states were seen by the Buddha as rooted in ignorance of Four Noble Truths.

The Mahayana schools of Buddhism have adopted these teachings rejected by the Buddha to support the view of emptiness as an environment to establish the self in, rather than recognizing that the striving for realizing these dimensions is a (subtle) doctrine of I-making.) [5]

Release From All Fabricated Views – Profound Emptiness

“Finally, Ananda, having abandoned the perceptions of the dimension nothingness and of the perception of the dimension of neither perception nor non-perception,  one abides in single-minded concentration, free of self-referential views. The quality of mind is regarded as empty of what is not there. There is a satisfied and pleasant abiding. The mind quiets and is gratified in single-minded concentration. free of self-referential views.

“It is understood that this single-minded concentration, free of self-reference, is fabricated and formed through thought. Having abandoned all self-referential views it is understood that whatever is fabricated and formed through thought is impermanent and subject to cessation. Understanding the impermanent nature of all fabrications the mind is released from the stress of sensuality, from the stress of becoming, (I-making) and from the stress of ignorance. It is understood that birth (of further ignorant views) has ended, the integrated life has been lived, the path is complete. There is nothing left clinging to the world.

The mind is now free of fabricated mind-states or “dimensions” rooted in ignorance.

“It is understood that whatever disturbances that arose from the stress of sensuality, from the stress of becoming, (I-making) and from the stress of ignorance, are no longer present. There is now only the minor disturbance connected to the six-sense base that is dependent on the body with life as the condition (of disturbance). There is only the non-emptiness connected with the six-sense base and dependent on this body with life as the condition.

“What is not present is understood as empty of what is not present. Whatever remains is understood as what is present – in what is seen there is only the seen, in what is heard there is only the heard, in what is cognized there is only what is cognized.

“So, Ananda, this is (final) entry into emptiness which is in accord with reality and is undistorted and pure.

“Ananda, whoever enters and remains in this emptiness, whether past, present, or future, they all enter in this same emptiness that is undistorted and pure, superior and unsurpassed.

“Therefore, Ananda, train yourself to enter in this same emptiness that is undistorted and pure, superior and unsurpassed.

This is what the Buddha said and Ananda was delighted in his words.

End of the Cula-Sunnata Sutta

In describing to Ananda the meaning of emptiness that is in accord with reality and is undistorted and pure the Buddha describes it as free of self-referential views: “in what is seen there is only the seen, in what is heard there is only the heard, in what is cognized there is only what is cognized.”

The Buddha has described the progression of understanding of emptiness from physical form, perceptions and fabrications, and conceptual applications of mind-states of non-perception and nothingness to an undistorted and pure reality that is based on recognizing and abandoning all self-referential views rooted in ignorance and formed by fabrications.  it is important to also note the relationship that this sutta has to understanding the Three Marks of Existence. [3]


The Maha-suññata Sutta

The Greater Discourse on Emptiness

The Buddha was in Kapilavatthu at the Banyan Park. Returning from his alms round he noticed the many resting places prepared at Kalakhemaka, the Sakyan’s, dwelling and wondered if there were many monks living there.

Ananda and many other monks were at the dwelling of Ghata making robes. That evening the Buddha went to Ghata’s dwelling. He asked Ananda about the many resting places at Kalakhemaka’s dwelling and if there were many monks living there.

Ananda replied, “yes, teacher, many monks are in attendance there and we are making robes for them.”

The Buddha was concerned with the social aspects of living as a close community. He remarked to Ananda that “A Dhamma practitioner does not flourish if they delight in company and is committed to delighting in company. A Dhamma practitioner does not flourish if they delight in being part of a group and rejoices in being a part of a group.

“It is indeed impossible when a Dhamma practitioner delights in company, is committed to company, who delights in being a part of a group and rejoices in a group that they will achieve the pure pleasure of renunciation, of seclusion, of unbinding and release, and of self-awakening.

“Ananda, it is indeed possible for one who lives alone, withdrawn from company and withdrawn from groups can achieve the pure pleasure of renunciation, of seclusion, of unbinding and release, and of self-awakening.

“Ananda, it is impossible for a Dhamma practitioner who delights in company and is committed to delighting in company, who delights in being part of a group and rejoices in being a part of a group is able to enter and remain in the release from self-referential views that is temporary and pleasurable, or in the more refined release from self-referential views that is not temporary and is beyond fabrication.

In a typical translation cessation of self-referential views are described as “awareness-release” as in the ending of object-subject views. Release from self-referential views is translated directly from the Pali as “awareness-release.”

“Ananda, it is indeed possible for one who lives alone, withdrawn from company and withdrawn from groups to enter and remain in the release from self-referential views that is temporary and pleasurable, or in the more refined release from self-referential views that is not temporary and is beyond fabrication.

“I do not see even a single being who would not experience confusion, delusion, and suffering from being passionate and taking delight in company and groups.

Delight, in this case, is referring to clinging to a self-identity arising from entanglements with others and forming an identity as one of a particular group – taking an identity from association with a group or accommodated practice. Rather than taking refuge in a well-focused sangha, the Buddha has noticed those whose entanglement and associations with unfocused groups (un-focused on the Four Noble Truths) that is leading them to further confusion, deluded thinking and suffering. This is similar to the reference of ‘clinging to the village’ in the Cula-Sunnata Sutta cited earlier.

Notice the nearly endless modern “Buddhist lineages,” schools, and smaller groups that establish themselves (furthering I-making) with special names and unique practices yet still insist that they are “Buddhist” while contradicting much of what the Buddha teaches.

“Ananda, there is a pleasant abiding discovered by the Tathagata, not attending to any self-referential views, who enters and remains in an internal quality that is empty of any self-referential views, an internal emptiness.

“While abiding in this pleasant abiding he is visited by others, his mind well-established in seclusion and having abandoned the fermentations that develop from clinging to company and group’s, converses with others only when necessary and skillful, and then they take their leave.

“So, Ananda, practice to enter and remain in internal self-referential emptiness. Free of clinging one can now develop concentration. When withdrawn from the results of ignorant views, well-concentrated, one enters and remains in the first jhana. As concentration deepens one enters the second jhana, and the third jhana. Finally, one enters and remains in the fourth jhana – a quality of mind that is pure and calm with no discrimination between pleasure and pain. This is how one becomes unified within, and well-concentrated. [6]

“This Dhamma practitioner is settled in internal self-referential emptiness. Their mind does not crave internal self-referential emptiness. Peace and calm is understood as being empty of clinging views and unconditioned mindfulness.

“Having emptied themselves of self-referential views they remain mindful of internal and external emptiness. Their mind is beyond disturbance. Free from external or internal disturbance they are brilliant and alert and at peace. They take pleasure in the emptiness of self-referential views. They have developed skillful concentration.

“Whether walking, standing, sitting, or lying down, this Dhamma practitioner knows that no craving, or regret, or any unskillful quality will arise. Their speech is not base, or vulgar, or common, or ignoble, or harmful, or unnecessary, or does not lead to disenchantment, or to dispassion, or to cessation, or to calm, or to direct knowledge, or to unbinding, or to self-awakening. They are unconcerned with kings or robbers or food or armies or gossip or talk of existence or nonexistence or any talk rooted in self-interest. Their mind is alert and well-concentrated.

“This Dhamma practitioner develops the Right Intention to engage in Right Speech that is free of craving and clinging and is scrupulous, supportive of the Dhamma, and leads to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to calm, to direct knowledge, to unbinding, and to self-awakening. Their mind is alert and well-concentrated.

“This Dhamma practitioner develops the Right Intention to think skillful thoughts, free of group influence, that lead to renunciation, to harmlessness, to the cessation of confusion, delusion, and stress. Their mind is alert and well-concentrated.

“While dwelling in seclusion, their mind well-concentrated, mindfulness of Right Intention provides the framework to recognize and abandon thoughts that are base, vulgar, common, ignoble, hurtful, that do not develop disenchantment, dispassion, release, calm, direct knowledge, self-awakening, unbinding.

“They maintain the Right Intention to think thoughts that are noble and develop renunciation, harmlessness, and liberation. They are well-concentrated and empty of disturbing thoughts.

“Ananda, develop refined mindfulness of the six-sense base to understand how contact with the senses creates disturbance and inflames passion. Ask yourself if there is any disturbance formed by engagement and self-identification with regard to contact at the six-sense base.

“If upon mindful reflection you find that disturbance has arisen from contact then you will know that you are not empty of craving and clinging. But, if you find that there is no disturbance that arises in your mind from contact at the six-sense base then you will know the craving for sensory satisfaction has been abandoned. The quality of your mind will be well-concentrated and empty of disturbing thoughts.

In these two sentences, the Buddha is describing very clearly how to recognize and abandon I-making through the well-integrated framework of the Eightfold Path.

“The Five-Clinging Aggregates should be seen as arising and passing away: Form arises and passes away, feelings arise and pass away, perceptions arise and pass away, fabrications arise and pass away, (deluded) thinking arises and passes away.

“Maintaining refined mindfulness, any conceit that supports the Five Clinging-Aggregates is abandoned and this one is mindful that they have emptied themselves of any disturbance formed by ignorance. The quality of mind is well-concentrated and empty of disturbing thoughts.

“Ananda, the qualities that are developed through the Dhamma are singularly useful in developing understanding of reality. They are noble, transcendent, and cannot be affected by ignorance.

Developing Right Intention to recognize and abandon all craving for and clinging to self- referential views develops “emptiness of craving and clinging” and emptiness of all self-referential views. The Five Clinging-Aggregates, once the self-created vehicle for ongoing confusion, deluded thinking and suffering is now understood clearly as separate and impersonal components of impermanent phenomena.

“Now, Ananda, what do you think is a proper goal for a disciple even after a rebuke from their Teacher?

Ananda: “You are our Teacher and your Dhamma is our guide. Please explain this statement for our long-term benefit.

“Ananda, it is not skillful to follow a teacher simply to hear discourses or dogma. You have done this for a long time and have understood them according to your views. But, talk on modesty, contentment, seclusion, non-entanglement, persistence, wisdom, virtue, and concentration, talk that is scrupulous, conducive to refined mindfulness, that develops directly dispassion, disenchantment, cessation, calm, unbinding, and the direct knowledge and vision of release, is skillful to attend and to hold in mind.

Mindfulness means to “hold in mind” or to “recollect.” Here The Buddha is teaching Ananda that when views are not inclined away from ignorance they will fail to understand the purpose of the dhamma. Furthermore, the Buddha is teaching Ananda that the Dhamma must be integrated as the framework for one’s life rather than a simple intellectual engagement with the teachings.

“This being the case failure to empty one’s self of clinging to ignorant views will lead to the long-term suffering for a teacher, or student, or anyone engaged with the Dhamma. How does this occur? For a teacher, even dwelling in seclusion, becomes enamored by offerings of trinkets or praise and falls into the Three Defilements. This can only develop further confusion, deluded thinking, and suffering.

The Three Defilements are greed, aversion, and deluded thinking.

“There is also the case of a student, lacking understanding, imitates the teacher and has failed to empty themselves of clinging to ignorant views and becomes enamored with trinkets or praise and falls into the Three Defilements. This can only develop further confusion, deluded thinking, and suffering.

“Then there is the case where one engaged with the Dhamma fails to empty themselves from clinging views. A Tathagata has arisen in the world, a worthy and rightly self- awakened one. Dwelling in seclusion, he avoids becoming enamored by offerings of trinkets or praise and does not fall into the Three Defilements. His mind is calm and empty of disturbance. A student of the Tathagata, dwelling in seclusion, becomes enamored by offerings of trinkets or praise and falls into the Three Defilements and lives in luxury. This can only develop further confusion, deluded thinking, and suffering.

“In this regard, Ananda, a Dhamma practitioner who fails to empty themselves of the defilements can only continue, confusion, deluded thinking, and disappointment.

“Do not engage with the teacher or the Dhamma in opposition. Engage with the teacher and the Dhamma with friendliness. That alone will be for your long-term well-being and happiness.

“And how do students engage in opposition to the teacher? When the teacher teaches the Dhamma with understanding and concern for the student’s well-being but the students do not listen or apply themselves to understanding, they stray from the Dhamma. This is how students oppose the teacher.

The Buddha here is referring to students that insist that the Buddha should teach a “dharma” that fits their own confused views rather than teach a useful and well-focused Dhamma. This is the theme of many suttas. The Saddhamma Sutta is one example. [7]

“And how do students engage with the teacher and the Dhamma in friendliness? When the teacher teaches the Dhamma with understanding and concern for the student’s well-being and the students listen and apply themselves to understanding, they do not stray from the teacher or the Dhamma. This is how students engage with the teacher in friendliness and not in opposition.

“Ananda, engage with me and the Dhamma in friendliness. This will be for your long-term well-being and happiness.

“I will not hover over you but I will remind you again and again of the Dhamma. What is not essential will be gone and what is essential will remain.”

This is what was said and Ananda was delighted in the Buddha’s words.

End of the Maha-Sunnata Sutta

The next to last sentence of this sutta – “I will not hover over you but I will remind you again and of the Dhamma. What is not essential will be gone and what is essential will remain” is significant as it speaks to the misunderstanding that an all-encompassing application of the Dhamma is useful or effective or that anything of value is lost in renunciation and developing emptiness of clinging. What is abandoned is of no value and what remains is of singular importance.

The Buddha is also teaching Ananda how to clearly know that a Dhamma teacher is well grounded in the Dhamma and not seeking to establish themselves as having a special understanding or has developed special methods or is seeking to gain followers: And how do students engage with the teacher and the Dhamma in friendliness? When the teacher teaches the Dhamma with understanding and concern for the student’s well-being.” In other words, a true Dhamma teacher teaches not to establish contradictory practices but has studied and integrated the Buddha’s actual teachings and now their only concern is for the student’s well-being.

The Buddha consistently described an awakened human being, an Arahant, as unbound, or released from clinging to any phenomenal object, event, view, or idea. Rather than teaching that all things are interdependent, interconnected, or “inter-be,” the Eightfold Path develops the compassion and wisdom to free all beings from clinging to the world by freeing oneself, including a Dhamma teacher, from clinging.


The Kaccayanagotta Sutta

Emptiness and Right View

The Kaccayanagotta Sutta is a teaching on Right View and also a clear explanation of the common misunderstandings of “emptiness” and non-duality. The common applications of emptiness and non-duality are extreme (wrong) views of existence and non-existence and create a deluded doctrine of emptiness and non-duality by fixating on these views as if they are the only views possible. When the Buddha’s teachings are fully developed it is clear that all things in the impermanent phenomena world are discrete in a practical sense.

The insistence on a non-dual doctrine obscures reality and contradicts Right View and the entire Eightfold Path. As seen here the Buddha shows that a non-dual doctrine is an extreme (wrong) view rooted in ignorance of Four Noble Truths.

The simple teachings on Dependent Origination are used by the Buddha to show what is meant by the Eightfold Path as the “middle way” that avoids extreme views. Notice that there is nothing in the direct teachings of Dependent Origination that would imply a doctrine of interdependence, interconnectedness, or inter-being, as these are non-dual teachings rooted in ignorance and wrong view. The “world” is a metaphor for confused and deluded views that result in unsatisfactory experiences, or Dukkha.

The Kaccayanagotta Sutta

The Buddha was staying at Savatthi, at Jeta’s Grove, Anathapindika’s monastery. The monk Kaccayana Gotta approached the Buddha with a question: “I don’t understand Right View. Can you teach me how Right View relates to the world?”

“Kaccayana, the confusion and deluded thinking in the world arises from polarizing views. There is the view of (permanent) existence and a view of (permanent) non-existence. When the origination of confused and deluded thinking is understood and abandoned, from Right View it is seen that ‘non-existence’ does not occur. Furthermore, When the cessation of confused and deluded thinking is understood and abandoned, from Right View it is seen that ‘existence’ does not occur.

“The world is sustained by attachments, by clinging to conditioned thinking and wrong views rooted in ignorance (of Four Noble Truths). One who has developed Right View no longer clings to attachments, or fixated (conditioned) thinking, or self-obsession. It is understood that stress arising is stress arising. It is understood that stress passing away is stress passing away. In this, their knowledge is independent of other views. This is how Right View relates to the world.

“The view that everything exists is a wrong view and the view that nothing exists is another wrong view. My Dhamma avoids extreme views. I teach from the middle, I teach the Eightfold Path as the middle way that avoids extreme views.

“The middle way shows that suffering originates and is dependent on ignorance:

  • From ignorance (of Four Noble Truths) as a requisite condition come fabrications.
  • From fabrications as a requisite condition comes consciousness.
  • From consciousness as a requisite condition comes name-and-form.
  • From name-and-form as a requisite condition comes the six sense-base.
  • From the six sense-base as a requisite condition comes contact.
  • From contact as a requisite condition comes feeling.
  • From feeling as a requisite condition comes craving.
  • From craving as a requisite condition comes clinging and maintaining.
  • From clinging and maintaining as a requisite condition comes becoming.
  • From becoming as a requisite condition comes birth.
  • From birth as a requisite condition comes aging, sickness, death, sorrow, regret, pain, distress and despair.

“Such is the origination of extreme views and the entire mass of confusion, delusion, and stress.

“Now,

  • From the remainderless fading & cessation of that very ignorance comes the cessation of fabrications.
  • From the cessation of fabrications comes the cessation of consciousness.  (conditioned thinking)
  • From the cessation of consciousness comes the cessation of name-&-form.
  • From the cessation of name-&-form comes the cessation of the six sense media.
  • From the cessation of the six sense media comes the cessation of contact.
  • From the cessation of contact comes the cessation of feeling.
  • From the cessation of feeling comes the cessation of craving.
  • From the cessation of craving comes the cessation of clinging and maintaining.
  • From the cessation of clinging and maintaining comes the cessation of becoming.
  • From the cessation of becoming comes the cessation of birth. From the cessation of birth, then aging & death, sorrow, regret, pain, distress, & despair all cease.

“Such is the cessation of this entire mass of stress and suffering.”

“Now this, monks, is the noble truth of stress:

  • Birth is stressful, aging is stressful, death is stressful; sorrow, regret, pain, distress, & despair are stressful.
  • Association with the unbeloved is stressful, separation from the loved is stressful.
  • Not getting what is wanted is stressful.
  • In short, The Five Clinging-Aggregates are stressful.

“And this, monks, is the noble truth of the origination of stress:

“The craving that makes for further becoming — accompanied by passion & delight, relishing now here & now there — i.e., craving for sensual pleasure, craving for becoming, craving for non-becoming.

“And this, monks, is the noble truth of the cessation of stress:

“The remainderless fading & cessation, renunciation, relinquishment, release, & letting go of that very craving.

“And this, monks, is the noble truth of the way of practice leading to the cessation of stress:

Precisely this Noble Eightfold Path — right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.

End of the Kaccayanagotta Sutta

In Conclusion

Everything the Buddha taught for the forty-five years of his teaching career was taught in the context of the Four Noble Truths. The First Noble Truth simply states that Dukkha occurs as a common consequence of human life. The second noble truth teaches the origination of dukkha: Craving originates and clinging perpetuates dukkha. Craving for self-establishing existential experiences arises from a misunderstanding of impermanence, the not-self characteristic, and resulting unsatisfactory experiences (Dukkha).

All phenomenal experiences carry The Three Marks Of Existence and are subject to confusion, delusion, and suffering. It is craving for and clinging to phenomenal existence, seeing a self in everything that occurs through self-referential views, that originates and perpetuates suffering. The third noble truth states that the cessation of confusion, delusion, and suffering is possible.  The fourth noble truth states that it is the Eightfold Path that develops the cessation of dukkha.

The Eightfold Path is the path the Buddha taught to overcome the common human problem of wrong or ignorant views developing conditioned thinking. Conditioned thinking is ongoing thoughts “conditioned” by ignorant views that can only develop further ignorant views unless the proper framework for recognizing and abandoning ignorant views is developed. This is the purpose of the Eightfold Path.

Much of the modern Buddhist views of emptiness are formed by ignorant views that arose from the individual and cultural influences that have altered the direct teachings of the Buddha.

The first factor of the Eightfold Path is Right View. Right View is ultimately viewing the world empty of any notion of a permanent self – there is no me here, this is not me, this is not mine.

Most modern Buddhist teachings present a doctrine of no-self residing in emptiness or a vast cosmic void – this is simply more “I” making. This contradictory view is what necessitated the split in the later-developed Mahayana Buddhist schools. [8]

This contradictory view of emptiness then necessitates the alteration of the Buddha’s teachings on Dependent Origination and now uses emptiness as the repository for everything that contradicts the Buddha’s direct teachings including, and most significantly, his actual teachings on emptiness.

Right View teaches that within the ever-changing environment of the phenomenal world there cannot be found  a permanent and substantial “I.” Stress and unhappiness arise due to a lack of understanding and the attempt to establish a substantial and permanent view of self into an environment that does not support such a view.

In this way, it is appropriate to see emptiness as a noun but only  as emptiness is seen as the need to continue to establish a view of self in some realm, now the realm of emptiness, but still be “Buddhist.” This notion of emptiness has caused the proliferation of modern “Buddhist” teachings that can not be reconciled with the Buddha’s teachings. This has led to the development of myths and legends and the need for speculation and blind faith.

The Mahayana schools are dependent on teachings, ascribed to the Buddha, but not presented until many years, sometimes many centuries after the Buddha’s death. Most legends have the Buddha, while still incarnate, traveling to a non-physical realm, a kind of Buddhist heaven, presenting these teachings to “higher beings” and subsequently protected by the “Snake People” until humanity was “advanced” enough to understand the teachings. These myths themselves can only be found in the need to continue a doctrine of “I.”

This justifying explanation also dismisses the forty-five-year teaching career of the Buddha as something to be ignored in favor of the more “advanced” teachings of the later-developed Buddhist schools. Ongoing ignorance requires ignoring the Buddha’s direct teachings to allow for the many contradictory teachings that have developed in the 2,600 years since the Buddha’s passing.

Out of fear of annihilation and of not understanding what the Buddha taught as awakening, they could not see what was plainly in front of them: The example of a human being who awakened through his own efforts and lived a human life, fully awakened, fully mature, for forty-five years.

The Buddha lived for forty-five years free of the need for his moment-by-moment life be any different than it was. He lived moment-by-moment in lasting peace and happiness with a calm mind, free of fetters, a mind of equanimity.

To understand what we become when all views of self are abandoned, when all clinging to objects, events, thoughts, and views are abandoned, we only need to understand this one thing: A human being accomplished this and lived a full and effective and deeply meaningful life, and he taught how all human beings how to do the same.

Not fixing your view of self onto anything allows for the awakened experience of entering the stream as in a “stream-enterer.” Ceasing to define or identify your self with what is unfolding, what you have, what you may lose, what is arising that you want more of, what is arising that you want less of, allows you to enter the stream of awakening.

This is not the same as being compulsively focused on the present moment which has become a kind of modern worship. There is no actual point in time that can be called the present moment. The process of awakening is a continuum. Through wisdom, the understanding is gained to let go of all attachments and entanglements and be present within the unfolding of life’s events.

If there is still karma there will still be rebirth in each present moment that is subject to disappointment, a less than continually satisfying experience from the view of an ego-self. When the awakened, fully mature, state of mind has been achieved, reaction to life’s experiences cease to be satisfying, or disappointing, or neutral, and one has entered into the flow of a mind resting in equanimity.

A most important understanding that arises from clearly seeing emptiness is the understanding that the Bodhisattva vow It is not a path to awakening but something that the Buddha continually described as  occurring prior to his awakening as an “unawakened bodhisattva.”

To propose the possibility that the entire phenomenal world can be completely free of all manner of suffering is to ignore the First Noble Truth and from this ignorance to ignore the remaining three noble truths.

If motivation for compassion is to finally free others from suffering it is most skillful to stop promoting the doctrine that “we are all one,” with the “one” being an individual conceptual view of how the world should be, all connected by “buddha-nature” or “Buddhahood” or essential self, and leave people and objects free of all adornment arising from ignorance.

The only effective motivation for freedom from confusion, deluded thinking, and ongoing suffering is wisdom, not further arrogance, shame, or guilt. Promoting a doctrine of compassion alone, without the foundational understanding gained from the Eightfold Path creates unattainable conceptual goals to attain without providing the means for achieving true compassion informed with wisdom.

Teaching we are all one and we should all treat each other as one interdependent inter-being organism without providing the means for insight and understanding only leads to more confusion, more suffering, and more aggression. This leads many modern “Buddhists” to further confusion and often blame the “dharma” as false and ineffective, or blame themselves for not being able to achieve “Buddhahood” or to realize their “Buddha-Nature” or to individually solve the common human problem of suffering rooted in ignorance.

When you become disappointed with the world through refined mindfulness you become disenchanted. When you are mindfully disenchanted you understand the nature of suffering and the nature of the phenomenal world. Understanding the nature of suffering and the impermanence of the phenomenal world can only be achieved when pleasure-seeking and pain-aversion are mindfully recognized and abandoned.

When developed and fully integrated, the Eightfold Path shows that fixed views are also views that “fix” a self within these fixed views. This is also often referred to by the Buddha as “a confining space.” The Buddha’s teachings bring understanding and release from fixed views and develops the understanding of the potential of each moment to incline refined mindfulness towards awakening, towards full human maturity.

Each moment holds the potential to cease becoming rooted in ignorance and develop the requisite conditions, through the Eightfold Path, to become free of all ignorant views and live a human life from the peace and freedom of Right View.

In the Samyutta Nikaya 56.11, the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, the sutta setting the wheel of dhamma in motion, the Buddha’s first teaching, he presented the “middle way” of the Eightfold Path. In this sutta, the Buddha refers to the extreme views of existence and non-existence as the compulsion to engage in constant sensory stimulation (clinging to existence and experience) and the asceticism of denial (manipulated non-existence) both of which have been incorporated in modern Buddhist practices: “There are these two extremes that are not to be indulged in by one who has gone forth. Which two? That which is devoted to sensual pleasure with reference to sensual objects: base, vulgar, common, ignoble, unprofitable; and that which is devoted to self-affliction: painful, ignoble, unprofitable. Avoiding both of these extremes, the middle way realized by the Tathagata — producing vision, producing knowledge — leads to calm, to direct knowledge, to self-awakening, to unbinding.

“And what is the middle way realized by the Tathagata that — producing vision, producing knowledge — leads to calm, to direct knowledge, to self-awakening, to unbinding? Precisely this Noble Eightfold Path: right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right meditation.

“This is the middle way realized by the Tathagata that — producing vision, producing knowledge — leads to calm, to direct knowledge, to self-awakening, to unbinding, to Emptiness.”

Peace.

 

  1. Modern Buddhism – A Thicket of Views
  2. Dependent Origination
  3. Three Marks of Existence
  4. Mindfulness of Bahiya
  5. Cula-Saccaka Sutta
  6. The Jhana’s, Meditative Absorption
  7. The Saddhamma Sutta
  8. The Pali Canon

Cula-Sunnata Sutta

Maha-Sunnata Sutta

Kaccayanagotta Sutta

My Dhamma articles and talks are based on the Buddha's teachings  (suttas) as preserved in the Sutta Pitaka, the second book of the Pali Canon. I have relied primarily on Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s excellent and insightful translation of the Pali generously made freely available at his website Dhammatalks.org, as well as the works of Nyanaponika Thera, John Ireland and Maurice Walsh, among others, as preserved at Access To Insight.

Also, I have found Bhikkhu Bodhi's translations from Wisdom Publications Pali Canon Anthologies to be most informative and an excellent resource.

I have made contextual edits to the suttas from these sources for further clarity, to modernize language, to minimize repetition, and maintain relevance to Dependent Origination and Four Noble Truths.

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