This is a recorded interview in 2022. Gobind based in Australia inquired into emptiness and wisdom. This is a transcribed and edited version of the interview.
G. If I were to communicate what emptiness was, what would I say? Perhaps emptiness is the lack of inherent existence in all conditioned phenomena? A deconstruction of reality shows that nothing truly exists, but what is the experience of emptiness? How will I know when I come across it?
What is it that confirms or negates emptiness? Does it have causes and conditions? What is wisdom? How will I know when I come across it? What are the causes and conditions of wisdom?
Christopher: You are diving in at the deep end of life’s swimming pool.
I will endeavour to respond. Even an intellectual understanding of emptiness is something. So firstly, appreciation for your questions, important and challenging. Going deep can bring about a transformative view.
What is emptiness? A person gets caught up in a situation flooded with thoughts, views, projections and feelings. Perhaps, there is a story or rationalisation in the mind. Suddenly, the person sees through all this reactive stuff going on in the mind and might even say to themselves, “I just saw through it. I saw the emptiness of it.” This is a genuine confirmation of emptiness. It is liberating to see the emptiness when things appear to be in a certain way, and we realise they are not like that.
That is one feature of emptiness. As you said, nothing has any inherent existence.
A second example of emptiness. I wear a watch.
My daughter doesn’t wear a watch. She says: “Dad, its only single functional. I like multi-functional things. What is the watch? The watch consists of all the conditions that brought it together. If the watch had its own independent existence, it would be independent of all these causes and conditions with a ‘watch-ness’ to it.
Things arise due to causes and conditions confirm an unarguable truth.
A third example of emptiness. What is the tree? The tree depends on a seed, earth, water, light, energy and more. Without the conditions, there is no tree. It is the same for us.
The regularity of reflection and meditation on causes and conditions confirm the authenticity of dependent arising of a story, watch, tree or anything else. Every thing, sentient or insentient, is empty of its own existence.
G. What are the causes and conditions of emptiness?
C. If we isolate emptiness, we have made it a thing -like a story, watch or tree. Once we have a notion of a thing, then we have causes & conditions. Emptiness is not a thing. Sunyatta (Sanskrit for Emptiness) reveals the emptiness of independent self-existence, of experiences, things and anything else manifesting in the universe including the universe.
G. What is an experience of emptiness?
C: An experience arises, stays and passes. It forms together and then it passes. We share this experience right now together and it will pass in a few minutes when the experience ends. It means it forms together and dissolves due to causes & conditions. It stays due to causes and conditions and ends due to cause and conditions.
There is no inherent self of Gobind, nor Christopher, nor experience. There is the emptiness of its self-existence. I don’t have to have an experience of self of emptiness because every experience confirms the emptiness of self-existence.
C. Understand? The good, bad and ugly all confirm emptiness. Why would I want a special experience when every experience confirms it?
G. I logically understand that. I always get stuck in the fact that things remain the way that they are. They fall into fall into, a sense of nothing really has changed.
C. This is a common perception. Let us look at the viewer forming the view of the experience. The view arises – namely, it is just as it was or nothing has changed. Rather than pursuing an experience, a great insight or sudden revelation, you will know plenty of times where you have completely unproblematic experiences – peaceful, joyful, chilled out, cool. It is important to recognise views of such experiences because they are not problematic. This is another way of seeing the emptiness of unfolding experiences due to conditions.
If the experience is problematic, it becomes a thing. My anger, my state of mind, my thinking – whatever it might be. We grasp onto the experience, which gets pulled together as a real issue. Then comes the challenge. How can I show the emptiness of a problematic experience? This means to see and change the causes and conditions for the experience, not grasp onto the experience through reactive views.
We get stuck with the issue, glued to it through wanting, ego and identity. We see emptiness through non-suffering. There’s the seeing of emptiness of holding and clinging onto. Things come, stay and pass. That’s the direct experience. So that’s non problematic. We need an eagle eye. When things become problematic, then it takes wisdom to see the emptiness of that. So non- suffering is another way of saying – see the emptiness. Suffering is not seeing the emptiness of clinging which enables a wise response.
When seeing the emptiness, the suffering starts to lose its power, its substance.
G. Is wisdom the seeing of emptiness?
C. Wisdom is a bridge.
G. What do you mean by that?
C. People on retreats and outside retreats find the wisdom to deal with specific situations.
If they see well and clearly, they see the emptiness of holding and clinging to experiences and explore the conditions and view supporting the problem.
G. Isn’t the realisation and understanding in the way that you and I are talking about shows the dynamics of an unfolding process. There is an evolutionary becoming, a change, with no inherent existence of anything, not in this moment, not in the next.
C. Exactly. Can we find the language between what exists and what does not exist?
Human beings go back and forward between existence of and non-existence of – wanting existence of or not wanting the existence of. What is the middle way between these two kinds of wanting. The middle way reveals the freedom revealed through realising emptiness of clinging to existence and none-existence. This is the key. In my listening to people, some may show wisdom and freedom in some areas of their life but not in other areas.
If the wisdom isn’t there, this is an issue. A person gets stuck, trapped or caught up in something. He or she has not realised it is unresolved. Emptiness makes everything possible and frees us up. We need to understand this. Seeing the emptiness of inherent self-existence is liberating.
This means the whole dynamic of life occurs due to the lack of self-existence. Knowing emptiness frees up this seeing. We appreciate it and understand it more, it. There is an authentic freeing up going on. It does not have to be a strong emotion or a powerful theme. Emptiness confirms an authentic unfolding.
Emptiness is an ongoing exploration.
G: What is an example?
C. Nagarjuna, the 2nd Century Buddhist sage, wrote his treatise on the middle way of emptiness called the Mulamadhyamakakarik. I have known this text for 50 years and more with its 27 chapters, all in short verses. As a monk under Ajhan Buddadasa, I listened to his teaching on voidness, (emptiness), with reflection and reading. Even after decades of reflection on emptiness, some verses go right over my head. Sometimes, I understand. Wow. It is constant exploration. People who think they have got it haven’t understood emptiness. Holding onto the view ‘I’ve got it’ makes emptiness into a thing through reification. Remember suffering about a thing/issue arises due to grasping and ignoring causes and conditions. It’s a lifelong exploration.
May you never think you got it. There is no it to get!
G. Thank you very much.