Left to right: Roshi Joan Halifax, Ari Goldfield, Rev. Konin Dhammadipa Cardenas

Ask the Teachers: How can I move from understanding emptiness philosophically to experiencing it directly?

“I think I have some intellectual understanding of the Buddhist teachings on emptiness, but when I look at the world or at myself, I don’t see them as empty. How do I go from a philosophical understanding to a direct experience of emptiness?”

By Ayya Dhammadipa

Left to right: Roshi Joan Halifax, Ari Goldfield, and Rev. Konin Dhammadipa Cardenas. Photos by Noah Kodo Roen, Vero Kherian Photography, and Caroline Mardock Studio.

Question: I think I have some intellectual understanding of the Buddhist teachings on emptiness, but when I look at the world or at myself, I don’t see them as empty. How do I go from a philosophical understanding to a direct experience of emptiness?

Roshi Joan Halifax

I traveled to St. Simons Island, off the coast of Georgia, to sit on a hard, bare bench in a small white clapboard church that was a place of gathering for prayer and song for generations of the Black people on that island.

Bessie Jones, a great singer of old songs from her culture, was someone whom I loved and respected. She was part of the group called the Georgia Sea Island Singers. Alan Lomax had introduced us and we immediately bonded. That day in ’84, I was there for her funeral. There she was, laid out in her coffin, her face serene, her hands folded at her waist, her people gathered about her coffin looking so very awake and also in grief.

Simply relax and recall who you really are.

I found myself thunderstruck by the words of the preacher, who said, “What you loved is not what is lying there in that coffin!” I have sat with those words for fifty years. Maybe he meant something different than I was to come to understand. Sure, we all loved her soul, but I also got something else; Bessie was made of non-Bessie elements. Bessie Jones was not her body, not her songs, not her race, not her history. Sure, she was all that and there were non-Bessie elements.

Not too long after that, 1987, I sat under a big oak tree in Ojai, California, when Thich Nhat Hanh picked up a piece of paper. He asked: “What is this?” Some poor soul in the gathering said: “A piece of paper!” Thay sweetly looked at the young man and said: “When I see this paper, I see a tree, and the man who brought down the tree. I see the truck bringing it to the saw mill….” And so forth.

My mind turned to Bessie Jones, and I knew Thay was right; in the end, we are empty of a separate self-identity.

Years later, my good friend Kaz Tanahashi asked to meet with me. He had sat a Zen sesshin and had a breakthrough about the. Instead of the word emptiness, in the “form is emptiness and emptiness is form” trope that we hear chanted so often, he realized that emptiness really means boundlessness, for in fact we are made up of boundless interconnected components, and as well, space or openness is without boundary. Kaz would also suggest that these interconnected valences pointed to a state of mind.

I have chanted the Heart Sutra at the bedside of many dying people. Every time I came to the word emptiness, I tightened up a little. So, I adopted Kaz’s approach. Thus, I urge you to consider what I have shared in these stories. There are many ways to interpret so-called emptiness, and in the end, it is up to you to actually and directly experience boundlessness or so-called emptiness. It is not a big deal. You can do this. Simply relax and recall who you really are.

Ari Goldfield

Good for you for making it this far! You’re seeking to directly experience the very core of your being, beyond words and thought. That’s truly a heroic challenge, and you’ve needed a lot of dedication and perseverance to get to the point of even being able to ask this question. Wonderful.

Now is the time to allow your intellectual mind to relax. It’s done its job, and can safely hand things over to the part of you that feels and experiences.

Begin doing this by feeling into your interdependence with the world—your connectedness; your interbeing. As Nagarjuna explained, emptiness is inseparable from interbeing. And as we open to the reality of how interconnected we are with our fellow beings and fellow elements of our world, our feelings of separateness and aloneness dissolve in an experience of aliveness, flow, and intimacy.

Experiencing interbeing isn’t hard to do, and we can find opportunities to do so throughout our day. The next time you’re out in nature, take a few quiet moments to let your senses take in your environment. Open your consciousness to the beautifully rich, varied, and alive world with which you are interwoven. Recall that you are made of the earth of the mountains and trees; the water of the lakes, rivers, and clouds; the fire of the sun; the wind of the atmosphere. Take some time to enjoy the feelings arising from this experience.

At other times, open to your experience of your relationships—both the difficult and the good ones (though leaving aside the traumatic ones is totally fine). Whatever feelings are there, as long as they don’t feel incapacitating, let them come. Let yourself feel the pain, joy, anger, and anguish, and then the love and closeness that hold it all. Or if you feel distant and cut off from others, gently and warmly welcome the experiences of those feelings too. Feelings are the stuff of our interbeing. Feelings are simply the energy, aliveness, and play of our very own consciousness, so they’re really no danger to us at all. And by opening to feelings’ energy and play, we experience a level of reality that is empty of solidly discrete entities occupying fixed and separate locations in space; empty of concreteness; empty of polar opposites like good, bad, wrong, and right. It’s a reality that’s interesting, wondrous, and hopeful. This is a pretty good emptiness to have as part of our lives.

If and when it still feels difficult, remember that all the countless buddhas and bodhisattvas love you, and are continually blessing you with their love. Their wish is for you to live in full appreciation of the inseparability of joy and pain; suffering and delight; samsara and nirvana. They warmly bid you to join them in their song and dance. Opening your heart to their love and care for you is a great way to experience the emptiness of any separation between your heart and theirs.

Rev. Konin Dhammadipa Cardenas

Since emptiness means the lack of permanent or independent existence of all things, it implies that you too are insubstantial, fleeting, and conditional. It implies that you too are subject to cessation. This is how all phenomena are described in the early Buddhist suttas such as Majjhima Nikaya 121, the Shorter Discourse on Emptiness. In that sutta, the Buddha confirms that he “abides in emptiness” and then describes one method for developing this perception. He begins by telling his attendant, Ananda, that they can look around and see that the house they are staying in is empty of elephants. Most of us can say the same. Then he says that by focusing on the perception of unity or oneness of the members of the sangha that are in the house, Ananda can know that his perception is empty of some things, elephants, but that there are other things that are present, monastics. The Buddha goes on to describe a series of meditations, including the formless perceptions, in which one progresses through extremely vast and increasingly subtle perceptions of reality—the unity of the natural environment, earth element, boundless space, boundless consciousness, and other perceptions culminating in the signless samadhi of the mind. In each case, one leaves behind the prior perception by focusing on the unity of the more subtle perception. At this point, he describes the liberating insight that these perceptions can produce. Specifically, they produce the insight that all perceptions, even the most sublime states of mind, are conditional and produced by intention. Therefore, they must, at some point, cease.

Try looking closely at changing phenomena, both what is present and what is absent.

In terms of practice off the meditation seat, this teaching points us toward investigating the presence and absence of phenomena as a method for studying their conditionality and emptiness. A few years ago, I was on retreat when I noticed that the big oak I was looking at suddenly went from not having a shadow to having one, and then back again. It was overcast that day, but when the clouds parted, the shadow of the tree appeared. Then, when the clouds covered the sun again, the shadow disappeared. For me, it was a moment of clearly noticing conditionality. While attending to the same tree, I could see that the presence or absence of a particular condition created a different perception. When the clouds were present, there was no shadow; when the clouds were absent, there was a shadow. That shadow is like your sense of self. The shadow is not inherent to the tree, and likewise, your sense of self is not inherent to the phenomena that you think of as you. Try looking closely at changing phenomena, both what is present and what is absent.

Ayya Dhammadipa

Ayya Dhammadipa

Ayya Dhammadipa has been practicing Buddhism since 1987. She was ordained as Rev. Konin in the Soto Zen tradition in 2007 but moved ten years later to Aloka Vihara, where she took up the Theravada Forest Tradition, a natural extension of her longtime metta practice and study of the Pali suttas. She was recently ordained as a bhikkhuni. She also teaches in Spanish, is an interfaith chaplain, and enjoys being a mother