Shunyata, Running on Empty Part I….

Shunyata, Running on Empty Part I….

Have ever been driving and have your car stop running?  After some checking you realize that you forgot to stop and get gas, your tank is “empty”.  If I ask you what your tank is empty of you will say obviously, gas!    In the morning when you get to the bottom of your coffee cup, the cup is empty of what?  Obviously coffee!  If you are out at the range shooting your favorite pistol and you suddenly hear a click, click, sound the gun is empty.  The gun is empty of what, obviously bullets!  When I mention the Buddha’s teaching on Emptiness called Shunyata, he is referring to all things being “empty” of what?  Obviously……………wait for it………………hummm……………. well maybe it isn’t so obvious!

Shunyata is another of the more difficult Buddhist concepts to get your mind wrapped around.  This stems from the fact that, like in the earlier examples, the way we generally think of empty is equivalent to nothingness or a void.  The problem is that the Buddha’s teaching on emptiness says that everything is very full!  Very full indeed!

So why the confusion?  Well like I mentioned in my last blog on Karma the Buddha’s teaching is not a jumbled up collection random thoughts that do not go together or even contradict each other. The Dharma is an incredibly deep set of teachings that when understood properly flow seamlessly from one teaching to the next without any contradiction.  Ultimately this collection of teachings all point to ultimate truth of Reality that the Buddha experienced in his Enlightenment. So why do they sometimes seem to contradict?  As I have already mentioned you have to understand the core basic concepts to begin to understand the more complex ones.  The problem is if you have some misunderstanding of a basic concept then when you try to understand a teaching new to you unfortunately you will impose some of your incorrect notions on the subject you are trying to understand.  You will therefore end up with an incorrect understanding that will lead you further away from the Buddha Dharma.  This is one of the reasons that Buddhist traditions have always stressed the relationship between the teacher or master and the student.  The master is there to keep the student from going astray and shows them the correct path (to understanding) to follow.

I have always been on the move and had difficulty staying with any teacher for very long.  To complicate things further when moving from place to place you will find that not all styles or traditions are available everywhere you may go. In some locations there may not be any teachers or schools at all.  So for me gaining an understanding of these concepts was very difficult at first.  Then one day while studying a Buddhist sutra (scripture)  I read a passage where the Buddha suggested that after he died that the monks should use the Dharma (his teachings) as their teacher.  Reading this caused a light bulb lit up in my mind.  If I could start with the simpler teachings and try to get a good grasp of them I could use them to correlate to when I came across something I did not understand or that seemed confusing.  I have used this method ever since.  Since I started this blog with the purpose of trying to help others that do not have an abundance of teachers or schools nearby, and may even be trying to learn on their own,  I wanted to pass this concept on.

One thing that I would like to touch on briefly is the notion of the Pali scriptures being older than the scriptures in Sanskrit.  I use the term scripture only in the sense of a religious writing or document and because it is usually a common term for religious writings in the west. Although the Buddhist writings are considered to be the actual words of the Buddha they are not considered infallible as the Christian Bible generally is.  I believe that the Buddha used Upaya (skillful means) to teach his sermons.  This meant that what he taught and how he taught it depended on who and where he was teaching. Therefore when reading a Buddhist scripture you need to take that into consideration. There are many ways that scholars and archeologist try to determine when a scripture was written.  I do not want to go into it here but I find many of their methods fallible.  But one method is trying to determine when different concepts or teachings are first introduced and then using that to date the scripture.  The general thought is that the Pali scriptures associated with the Hinayana tradition are older than the Sanskrit scriptures which are generally associated with the Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions.  One of the reasons for that is some Mahayana concepts were thought to be developed at a later date.  I contend that although some of the Mahayana concepts were developed later many can be found in the Pali scriptures even if not in as an elaborate form.  This could be due to the Buddha’s use of Upaya.  The other thing to consider is that Pali was a common language spoken at the time by average people.  Sanskrit on the other hand was used as a language to convey religious thought similar to Latin.  So it seems reasonable that the more complex ideas would be easier to covey in Sanskrit then in the common language Pali since it was a higher language.


So what are all things empty of?  Let’s take a look at an early Pali scripture.  It is the Sunna Sutta  (Empty) from the Samyutta Nikaya (Connected Discourses or Kindred sayings) .


Then Venerable Ananda went to the Blessed One and on arrival, having bowed down to him, sat to one side.  As he was sitting there he said to the Blessed One:

“Venerable Sir, it is said, ‘Empty is the world, empty is the world. ’In what way, venerable sir, is it said, ‘Empty is the world’?”

“It is, Ananda, because it is empty of self and what belongs to self that it is said, ‘Empty is the world.’ And what is empty of self and what belongs to self.

Forms are empty of self and what belongs to self.

Eye-consciousness is empty of self and what belongs to self.

Eye-contact is empty of self and what belongs to self.

Whatever feeling arises with eye-contact as a condition, whether pleasant or painful or neither-painful-nor-pleasant, that too is empty of self and what belongs to self.

(The same is repeated for the other five senses)

“The ear is empty….”

“The nose is empty….”

“The tongue is empty….”

“The body is empty….”

This Sutta (Sanskrit Sutra) is saying that all phenomena that can be sensed by any of the six senses is “empty of self and what belongs to self”.  If you remember from my previous blog about Anatta (not-self) the Buddha taught that there is “not an abiding or permanent self”.   The self can be thought of as the self” that we normally think of, the I that we always refer to.  This self that we think of as being a independent, continuous, existence separated from all other things. The “I” that doesn’t need to worry about anyone or anything else except for “itself”.  The “I” that as long as “I” am doing alright I do not need to worry about the people starving, the wars, and all the other injustices of the world because all that other stuff is happening to someone else, not “me”.   I am not saying that all people are bad or do not think about these things at all.  If we are honest with ourselves I think that most of us will see that we do only give these things a superficial consideration or at least take little action in reference to them.

We will look at what is the most pivotal sutra on Emptiness in Part II.

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