Into the Depths of Emptiness

Master Sheng Yen surveys the path to enlightenment, explaining how it progresses and where its pitfalls are. Our intellectual understanding, our temporary realizations, even the exalted state of oneness—all must be dropped to realize the deepest emptiness, the highest truth.

By Sheng-yen

Photo by Candice Ecidnac.

We can speak of two kinds of emptiness: the emptiness of the dharma of teachings and the emptiness of the dharma of mind. The emptiness of the dharma of teachings can be understood through analysis and logic. The emptiness of the dharma of mind, however, can only be realized through actual experience. There is a real experience of this emptiness of the dharma of mind, but not all so-called experiences of emptiness are genuine.

Many students of Indian or Buddhist philosophy think they fully understand emptiness. Actually, what they understand is merely a part of the emptiness of the dharma of teachings. One can arrive at a shallow understanding of emptiness of the dharma of teachings by analyzing the components of the body and mind, which in Buddhism are called the five skandhas. In Sanskrit, skandha means “aggregate,” or “heap.” The five skandhas include the material and the mental aggregates; they constitute our life, our being, and what we think of as our “self.” They are phenomenal components organized in time and space through causes and conditions.

In arriving at emptiness through analysis, we look at each skandha and see that none contains an inherent self. We see that what we call our self is actually a composite of these five factors, none of which is a self-entity. Also, we find no self outside of the skandhas.

The skandhas fall into three groups. First is the material skandha of form. Then there are three mental skandhas: sensation, perception, and volition. The fifth skandha is a spiritual component, consciousness. When we are born, we have a complete existence consisting of physical, mental, and spiritual components, but after we die only consciousness remains.

To repeat, as we analyze the five skandhas, we conclude that what we call the self is in fact composed of these skandhas, none of which has self-nature. Since all material and mental components are inherently changing, each skandha is itself empty of inherent nature. We conclude that the self, being made up of the five aggregates, is also impermanent and empty.

Can we say that the self that is composed of the five skandhas actually exists? Yes, in a sense we can, but this is not what Buddhism calls real existence. This self that we get at birth comprises physical, mental, and spiritual components, but when we die, only the component of consciousness remains. Consciousness, in and of itself, does not create karma. It does not think; rather, it’s just a mental entity. In order to practice, one needs a body. Consciousness alone cannot do spiritual practice, and it cannot attain liberation. Since the self is composed of these five aggregates and is also impermanent, we say that our self is “false,” or we can say that it is “provisional.” This is also called no-self.

Thus, through analysis, we can view emptiness from two perspectives. First, we see that the self is composed of the five aggregates, and therefore has no inherent self-nature. The second aspect is seeing the emptiness of inherent nature—that everything is without a nature of its own. The emptiness of inherent nature means that not only is the self empty of inherent nature, but each of the five skandhas is also individually empty. To clarify, if something had inherent nature, then it would never change, as it would be an ultimate reality. Therefore, anything that changes is empty of inherent nature.

One time, a Westerner, seeing that I was a monk, came up to me and asked, “Master, what is reality?” My response was, “I don’t know.” He looked extremely disappointed and forlorn, and said, “Why don’t you know this?” To which I replied, “Because there is no thing called reality. So how could I know it?”

The emptiness that is arrived at through logic is a kind of dialectic, but different from Western ideas of dialectic. It is the dialectic of the Madhyamaka philosophy of Buddhism. When we apply this special dialectic, we find that there is no left, no right, no middle, no front, no back, no past, no future, no present, and neither good nor evil. However, this dialectic does not give rise to a passive or negative view of the world; it affirms the existence of causes and conditions, but denies the existence of inherent nature. Things are said to lack inherent nature, because logical analysis shows that this is the case. Therefore, the conclusion is that things are inherently empty.

The viewpoint of the Madhyamaka after such logical analysis is called a position of affirming emptiness. It is not a neutral viewpoint, not a kind of middle between two extremes. Because one cannot affirm any place, one cannot affirm the middle either.

Let’s try to make it less abstract. There is a “left” that arises from causes and conditions; there is a “right” that is also made up of causes and conditions, and there is a “middle” that is due to causes and conditions. Everything is just causes and conditions, whether it’s to the left, to the right, or to the center. Why do we not take a stand anywhere? Why don’t we affirm any position? We don’t affirm any position because each place is without inherent nature. The goal of such logic is not to explain things, but to remind us not to cling to things because everything is changing. Everything exists because of causes and conditions, and everything lacks inherent nature.

Emptiness of the Dharma of Mind

Now I will talk about the emptiness of the dharma of mind. I will begin with a story from the Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch, Huineng (Japanese: Eno). When Huineng was still at Huangmei, the monastery of the Fifth Patriarch, Hongren, he worked in the kitchen milling rice. One day, the abbot Hongren, in an effort to find his dharma heir, asked the monks to write a verse expressing their own understanding of dharma. None of the monks were willing to do this except the head monk, Shenxiu, who, when the other monks were asleep, wrote a verse on the wall in the Chan hall. It went like this:

The body is a bodhi tree,
The mind is a bright mirror.
Always diligently polish the mirror,
And do not let dust collect.

“The body is a bodhi tree” means that we use the body as the foundation through which we cultivate enlightenment. The second line, “The mind is a bright mirror,” means that the mind is like a mirror that reflects what is in front of it without adding any self-centered view. If you can imagine it, the mind is like a circular mirror that can reflect everything around it, in 360 degrees. The meaning of the third line, “Always diligently polish the mirror,” is that we should be diligent in using dharma methods to dissipate or eliminate vexations and wandering thoughts. The fourth line, “And do not let dust collect,” means that one should work hard to train the mind so that it does not permit vexations to stain our clear, mirrorlike mind.

So, please, everyone take a guess. Does this poem express a realization of formlessness? Does it demonstrate a true understanding of the dharma of mind? Yes or no? [The participants reply, “No.”]

But does this poem express something good? Yes, of course it does. Practitioners need to behave like this. In any case, according to the Platform Sutra, by then Huineng had already realized the dharma of mind after hearing someone quote from the Diamond Sutra. Because he was illiterate, Huineng asked one of the monks to read him Shenxiu’s verse on the wall. That night, after hearing Shenxiu’s verse, Huineng had someone help him to write the following lines on the wall, next to Shenxiu’s verse. Huineng’s poem went like this:

Bodhi is originally without a tree,
The mirror is also without a stand.
Originally there is not a single thing.
Where is there a place for dust to collect?

“Originally there is not a single thing” means that there are no real substantial forms called bodhi, buddhanature, or emptiness. Huineng is saying that bodhi is not a substantial thing.

People often think that enlightenment is an experience whereby we can feel a certain thing, or discover exactly what this “thing,” enlightenment, is. This is an incorrect view, because enlightenment, or “seeing the nature,” is an experience of emptiness. It is the experience of phenomena as being empty and insubstantial.

Most Eastern and Western philosophies and religions believe in a highest, or ultimate, reality to which they give names such as “oneness” or “God.” Actually, we enter this oneness when we experience unified mind in meditation. In the West, it may be called oneness, but according to the Chan dharma, we need to put down this unified mind, to let go of it. We do not want to think of this unified mind as the highest, or ultimate, truth.

But how do we get to what is the highest truth? We have to drop everything, and then we will come to the point of formlessness, or nonattachment to all forms. Forms are products of causes and conditions. As such they are changing and nonsubstantial. They still exist; it is just that the enlightened mind does not abide in them.

This idea of formlessness is different from theories that postulate an original substance or an original cause. Buddhadharma, in contrast, advocates the idea that everything arises because of causes and conditions, and is therefore empty, or formless. Now, let’s compare the emptiness of the dharma of the teachings with the emptiness that is actualized in the dharma of mind. The emptiness of the dharma of teachings is arrived at through logical deduction or through analysis. In both cases we are using the mind to reach understanding.

However, to actually realize emptiness, we use Chan methods such as silent illumination1 and huatou2. Regardless of which method we use, when our mind reaches a unified state, we should not cling to that state. But we cannot just do this at will; we must continue to apply our method, again and again, until even unified mind disappears of its own accord. What remains is no-mind, or the actual realization of emptiness.

When conditions in our practice mature, and we encounter some kind of acute stimulus—certain sounds, words, or sights—all doubts and questions may suddenly disappear. Or perhaps suddenly we are able to put down our already stabilized mind, and all thoughts instantly disintegrate and shatter. It is as if we have just broken through a silk cocoon in which we have been confined. Not only has the cocoon disappeared, but the silkworm has disappeared. We are free of all burdens. Everything still exists, but there is no self; that is to say, there is no clinging and vexation associated with our self. This emptiness is reached through spiritual practice, and is different from the emptiness reached through analysis or logic.

When seeing the nature, one realizes that all phenomena are insubstantial and that the self has always been nonexistent. At this time, one is able to put down all attachments. However, sooner or later, depending on the person and the depth of the experience, one’s self-centeredness and attachments return. Therefore, it is extremely important to continue using methods of practice. For example, when we are practicing huatou at the deeper level called “watching the huatou,” we feel at one with the huatou; we have become the huatou. At this level, we may experience things like unified mind, dilution of the sense of self, and even emptiness. If we continue to practice at this level, our realization will deepen.

Regardless of whether or not one can repeat the experience, seeing the nature is extremely valuable. Although one still has self-centeredness, many vexations will have been eliminated. Having experienced putting down one’s mind, one also develops a high degree of self-confidence and will never again lose one’s spiritual practice. This experience is like suddenly seeing light for the first time. Although the light will fade or disappear, the individual will still know what that light is, because he or she has actually seen it. Something like this happens when one experiences seeing the nature, or emptiness. A shallow experience of enlightenment can be called seeing the nature, while a deeper experience of enlightenment can be called liberation.

There is also the case where someone has some kind of an experience and then mistakenly believes they are enlightened. For instance, while using the method they eventually reach a point where they have no wandering thoughts. It may even seem for a time that there is no sense of self, and they experience a feeling of being in infinite space. In this infinite space, there is no sun, no moon, and no earth—just space. They may think that this is an experience of emptiness, but actually this is just samadhi—a relatively shallow samadhi, one in a series of stages of samadhi.

There are also people who, while practicing meditation or engaging in daily life, have very strong concentration, and suddenly time and space, as well as the method, drop away. These people are using their brain in a very tense way, and suddenly they enter a vast, empty space that could be filled with light, or even without light. They may think that they have experienced emptiness. But actually, this is just a case where the practitioner’s mind may have become unstable due to too much tenseness in the practice. It is not an experience of emptiness or enlightenment. So, it is essential that we relax our minds and bodies as we use our method.

We have talked about the experience of emptiness via the dharma of mind, in which one uses a practice method to realize emptiness, or formlessness. By using the practice method, one learns to let go of the self and to realize this emptiness. Are there people who are able to actualize emptiness without using a method? Yes, but they are extremely rare.

What Good Is Enlightenment?

Are you engaged in spiritual practice for yourself or for the sake of others? The idea of practicing for other people might sound very strange. Yet, because we are practicing how to contemplate emptiness, which implies no-self, it would also be strange to be practicing for ourselves. So, are we just wasting time here?

Actually practice is not for the sake of anything. You practice just to practice. These past two days, I have talked a lot about emptiness, about enlightenment, seeing the nature, and such things. I have said that after enlightenment, one realizes no-mind, no-self, and no-form. With all these negations, what can we say is the good of enlightenment?

To answer this, we should remember the line from the Diamond Sutra, “Abiding nowhere, give rise to mind.” Abiding nowhere means seeing one’s self-nature. It means not clinging to form, allowing the wisdom of no-self to arise. As this wisdom appears, compassion will also appear along with it. This union of wisdom and compassion is called bodhi mind, or bodhicitta—the wisdom of no-self together with nondiscriminating compassion. So bodhi mind is not just limited to wisdom, as some people may think.

We can say that wisdom, or prajna, is not three things: it is not experience, it is not knowledge, and it is not thinking. Rather, wisdom is the attitude of no-self. We can also speak of three things that compassion is not: it is not ordinary sympathy, it is not fixed on any object, and it does not seek goals. Compassion is not the same as love. Through compassion, one helps all sentient beings without discriminating between one and the other, and one impartially gives benefit to all sentient beings. Again, compassion has no fixed recipient, and because it is formless, it has no goal in mind—one is not compassionate in order to get something. Compassion is helping sentient beings in just the right way for each individual.

I want to give you a kind of formula that describes wisdom and compassion. I will give you the basic structure of this formula, but you must fill in the blanks yourself. It goes like this: Wisdom is not (blank), not (blank), and not (blank). Compassion is not (blank), not (blank), and not (blank). Can you fill in the blanks? This is very important, for if you’ve seen the nature, the three nots of wisdom and the three nots of compassion should arise in your experience of enlightenment. If your experience after seeing the nature is not in accordance with these definitions, your experience has some problems.

Please recite: “Wisdom is not knowledge, wisdom is not experience, and wisdom is not thinking.” [Participants recite.]

Wisdom is the attitude of no-self.

And now for compassion. Please recite: “Compassion is not sympathy, compassion has no fixed recipients, and compassion is without a goal.” [Participants recite.]

Compassion is impartially benefiting all sentient beings in just the right way.

Many people superstitiously or erroneously believe that after enlightenment, they would have nothing left to do, that practice would be all over with. They think that enlightenment is fantastically wonderful, and they also hope that other people can confirm for them that they have seen the nature. But if at the time of supposed enlightenment, no wisdom or compassion arises, if these qualities of bodhi mind do not arise, then this is not actual enlightenment. It is a false experience. So, if you have such an experience, you can look into it to see if such qualities have arisen. However, I emphasize that you should still consult a qualified teacher who can recognize an enlightenment experience.

I have said that seeing the nature is not the same as enlightenment. After seeing the nature, for several days one will be full of wisdom and compassion, vexations will not arise, and one’s self-centeredness will not be so strong. But after some time, vexations will return. However, one’s confidence will be quite strong, and one will develop a strong sense of humility. This humility exists because one realizes that one still has a long way to go to achieve liberation, and an even longer journey to buddhahood. So, one will be very humble, and will not be arrogant about this achievement.

From what I have seen, the great practitioners in different spiritual systems are all very humble. They all think that they have insufficient practice and insufficient attainment. Although the Chan masters sometimes used methods such as striking, shouting, and scolding, it was not done out of arrogance. These are methods that, when used in the right way, can give a disciple just the right kind of help.

The great Tibetan lamas I have met, practitioners of high spiritual attainment, are still quite humble. But there are some practitioners who have had a little experience in samadhi, who have not really seen the nature, yet behave arrogantly. This arrogance is a manifestation of their vexations.

Recently I met a great lama, who was the incarnation of Tsongkapa, the great Tibetan teacher. I said to him, “You must be the reincarnation of Tsongkapa, the teacher of the First Dalai Lama. According to belief, this also means you are the avatar of Maitreya Buddha.”

He said, “Well, you know, that is what people believe. I am just a practitioner. It is just that Tibetans believe that I am the emanation body of Maitreya and the teacher of the First Dalai Lama.”

Then I asked him, “Does this mean you are not actually the reincarnation of Tsongkapa?”

He replied, “That’s the belief. I can’t deny this belief, either.” I said, “Are you Maitreya?” And he said, “Well, I practice the methods of Maitreya.”

So, he wouldn’t affirm that he actually was Maitreya. He just considered himself a practitioner and one who learned from Maitreya.

It was the same way with the current Dalai Lama. When I asked him, “Everyone believes that you are an emanation body (nirmanakaya) of Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva. Are you Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva?” He said, “I am a little bhikshu who every day makes many prostrations to the Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva.”

So, as we look at people with great spiritual achievements, such as the enlightened Chan patriarchs and Chan masters, we can see that most of them were very much like ordinary monks—in fact, more humble than the average monk. They did not go around thinking, “I’m enlightened, so I’m different from everyone else.” They saw themselves as the same as other people. The difference is that they viewed the world in a different way. They did not impose labels on the world, such as good and evil, or have thoughts such as, “I like this” or, “I don’t like that.”

If they saw a sick person, they would try to help the person get treatment; if they saw the hungry, they would try to give food; if there was war, they knew that war was a very cruel thing, and they hoped to avoid war. If a fire broke out, they would try to find a way to extinguish the fire. However, in the midst of all these activities, their minds would not fluctuate.

So, they did not have extremes of love and hatred, and they did not have all kinds of fears, anxieties, jealousies, and doubts. They just did whatever was necessary. This is indicative of their wisdom and compassion, of their bodhi mind, their bodhicitta.

Huineng’s verse continues:

Yet this gateway into seeing the nature
Cannot be fully comprehended by the ignorant.

I have talked a lot about emptiness and wisdom and realization, but at the same time, we can also say there is no real gateway to such wisdom, to such knowledge of the dharma, because for the enlightened, the dharma of mind is already present before them. When one realizes wisdom, one sees that there was no gate to go through, since one has always been inside the gate. This is why Chan is sometimes called the gateless gate. As for the foolish, they cannot even see the gate, much less go through it.

For both the wise and the foolish, this gate is really a doctrine or method to give us a direction; it is a dharma gateway into seeing the nature. But once we see the nature, we realize there was no gateway to go through. That is the meaning of Huineng’s “gateway.”

Some may think that practice is the gateway to seeing one’s nature, but practice is actually a direct way to see the nature. We just practice dropping the self and phenomena, and letting go of all forms. In particular, we have to let go of the unified mind. Many people cling to the stage of unified mind. They feel that since they are unified with the universe, they no longer have a self. While they may no longer have the individual self, they have still taken the universe as their self. There is still an existent self that is at one with a limitless universe. At this stage, they are not yet enlightened and need to abandon this state of mind.

In both the huatou and silent illumination methods, our practice may reach the state of unified mind. In huatou, this occurs when the great doubt arises; in silent illumination, it happens when one feels at one with the environment. If it seems like we are speaking of two kinds of unified mind, that is correct. The difference is that in the case of huatou, one is not yet in samadhi; one is still grappling with the great doubt. However, both are states of unified mind.

There are some who consider unified mind to be enlightenment, and I do not wish to dispute that. However, unified mind is not Buddhist enlightenment, because there is still a notion of self; there is still an “I” who feels at one with the huatou, or with the universe. For a practitioner of Chan, unified mind is a stage in the practice, but not yet realization. One needs to go beyond unified mind to where the “self” has been totally left behind, and one experiences no-mind. At this point one may actually realize the dharma of mind. And yes, this can be called enlightenment.

1 In silent illumination, the practitioner focuses on the act of “just sitting.” Silent illumination is similar to the shamatha-vipashyana (insight meditation) of Theravada, as well as to the shikantaza (“just sitting”) of Japanese Zen.

2 The huatou (Jpn., wato; literally, “head of a thought”) method is similar in most respects to the gong’an (Jpn., koan) practice. The main difference is that rather than meditating on the whole gong’an, the practitioner of huatou continually asks a question that can be taken from a gong’an, or it may be an original question, such as, Who am I? The intent and end result of both gong’an and huatou are otherwise similar.

© Dharma Drum Publications. This article is based on a talk Master Sheng Yen gave at a Chan retreat in Moscow, which was organized by Wujimen, a Russian martial arts club.



Master Sheng-yen (December 4, 1930 – February 3, 2009) was a Chinese Buddhist monk, teacher of Chan Buddhism, and the founder of Dharma Drum Mountain.