The Freedom of Emptiness

At the heart of the path of the paramitas is prajna, or wisdom—but a wisdom that goes beyond our conventional ideas about it. Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche unpacks how that kind of wisdom works.

By Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche

Photograph by Albarrán Cabrera.

From the time Siddhartha Gautama was a young child, he burned with the essential questions: What is the meaning of life? Who am I? What is everything about? As he grew up, his contemplation of these matters became all-consuming. As we know, in adulthood he renounced the life of ease and power he’d been born into and devoted himself to seeking wisdom.

He received instruction in an array of spiritual traditions, from some of the most illustrious philosophers and meditation teachers of the time. A profoundly gifted student, he swiftly completed these various paths, and in some cases, he exceeded the teachers themselves. None of it, however, provided the kind of answers he was longing for.

We all are buddhas, right here, right now.

Siddhartha arrived at the conclusion that learning about meditation, no matter how sophisticated the education, wasn’t enough—he should really buckle down and focus on actually practicing. In this spirit, he embarked on a retreat on the banks of the Niranjana river; for six years, he took part in no activities apart from practice. However, even after this mammoth effort, he was still not fully satisfied that he had attained the type of ultimate wisdom he was after.

Finally, at Bodh Gaya, he simply let it all go. He let go of practice, let go of study, let go of meditation. He let go of the path itself. He meditated with nonmeditation—he just let everything be, as it is. And at last, when he began to let it be as it is, everything came together. Overnight, he discovered the true answer he had been so ardently seeking.

The answer: that there is no answer. Not only is there no answer, there’s no question. Everything is in fact perfect. Our nature is wonderful as it is. This is what the Buddha referred to as prajnaparamita, “beyond wisdom.” This understanding is what constituted the Buddha’s full enlightenment.

Prajnaparamita transcends knowledge. What we typically think of as “knowledge” has built-in limitations: there is concept, there are subject and object, there is a particular view. But the ultimate truth the Buddha realized is beyond concept, beyond subject and object; it is beyond philosophy, view, time, matter, suffering; it is beyond yes or no, pure or impure, right or wrong. It is totally open and free, yet it is the basis of love, compassion, wisdom, and awareness. It allows everything else to arise: emotions, thought, perceptions. It allows everything that comes from great wisdom, wisdom that is beyond wisdom.

Upon his initial discovery of this ultimate wisdom, the Buddha declared, “I found the dharma, the nectar. It is profound and peaceful, beyond concept, uncontrived luminosity. Even if I teach it to others, no one will understand. Therefore, I will remain in the forest in silence.” The answer was beyond knowledge, wisdom, and concept—even if he were to try to share it, he was sure there would be no one capable of comprehending it. So he remained in the forest, in seclusion.

But not for long. While he was in the forest, Brahma and Vishnu appeared before him, offering him a wheel and conch shell and imploring him to go forth and teach. So he went to Varanasi and approached five fellow ascetics with whom he had previously practiced. Once they heard Buddha had let go even of meditation, and especially ascetic practice, they saw him as having taken the wrong path, and they abandoned him, leaving for Sarnath. But Buddha did not give up.

He sought them out again, and this time, when they met Buddha, they were joyous. They could perceive that the Buddha had become enlightened, and they asked him to show them the way.

It is said that the Buddha gave three major teachings, three “turnings of the wheel of dharma”; the first of these was given there, in Sarnath. At that time, he did not reveal everything he had come to understand, but he did teach that selfhood is not what we perceive it to be.

Generally speaking, we all have a concept of self. We think of this self as solid, single, permanent, and independent. The Buddha taught that on the contrary, the true nature of the self is impermanent, interdependent, and in so many pieces. In other words, there’s multiplicity there. Consider how many composite parts are involved in self: matter, senses, feeling, concept, habitual tendency, consciousness, and so forth. And each one of those also has various different factors. So this seemingly solid “self” can be divided up in countless ways, and all these divisions exist in relation to each other—interdependent. Moreover, they are all continuously in the process of changing with time—impermanent. According to the first turning of the wheel of dharma, knowing this is the ultimate wisdom, or prajna.

That wisdom connects with samatha, the awareness of breathing. Once you establish breath awareness, you can take a look at the self. And what will you find? Impermanence, impermanence, impermanence! You will see that body, feelings, mind, phenomena—the four foundations of awareness—are all impermanent, are all inter­dependent. That seeing, according to the first teaching of the Buddha, is wisdom.

Later, when the Buddha taught at Vulture Peak in Rajgir, he explained that even when you integrate this understanding of impermanence, multiplicity, and interdependence, there’s still some kind of concept there, on the subtle level. You’re not yet totally “beyond.” This is because the true nature of existence is neither permanence nor impermanence, neither independence nor interdependence, not single or multiple. It is beyond concept. It is total freedom. The secret of the universe is emptiness.

But what exactly is emptiness? Although many people assume that emptiness is nothing, it’s not nothing. “Nothing” doesn’t exist.

Think of it like a dream. While dreaming, you are able to see a dream house. You can walk up to its front door and step inside. You might go into its kitchen and pour yourself a glass of water from its tap. In reality, there is no house there at all, but at the same time, a house is appearing. We see this situation explained in the Heart Sutra, the essence of Buddha’s teaching on Vulture Peak. The Heart Sutra states, “Form is emptiness; emptiness also is form. Emptiness is no other than form; form is no other than emptiness.” This is the ultimate wisdom. But how do we practice with that?

First, we examine the sense of self. We all have some feeling or notion of “me,” an “I” that decidedly exists. And we can tune into this sense of “me,” just stay with it, in the same way that we simply stay with the breath when we’re doing breath meditation. Some people find a feeling of “me” around the heart, others feel it around the head. We can ask ourselves, “Who am I? Who is this? Where do I come from? Where do I begin and end?” Posing questions such as these is one possible approach. Another is not asking anything, just staying with the felt sense of “me.”

When we do these practices, typically one of two things happens. One is that there suddenly seems to be no definite “me” to find after all. That’s wonderful—that is nonconceptuality, nonself. It is freedom. Or, we might locate a “me.” If this is the case, we can consider what exactly this “me” consists of. For instance, there are sensations, there is a consciousness and a body. That body has flesh, blood, organs—so many different parts—and every part is in constant flux. When you conduct this kind of examination, you cannot find anything that can truly be called “I.” Atoms, time, space, gravity—everything, in the end, cannot be pinned down or even located; everything loses its meaning. Yet it is not nothing. Just as the house in the dream has a kitchen faucet where we can fill a glass with water, just as a rainbow in the sky shimmers with colors but is completely insubstantial, just as a mirage resembles a lake in the desert, everything is capable of manifesting.

When we recognize that, then rest with this understanding in samatha meditation, that awareness—that being with emptiness—is vipassana, the main practice of prajnaparamita.

Our true nature is emptiness. But it’s not an absence. Nor is it solely emptiness: there is luminosity, clarity, all the enlightened qualities. And, although it’s complete emptiness, it has the ability to manifest.

Shakyamuni Buddha taught that from this standpoint, every being is actually a buddha. It doesn’t matter who you are, it doesn’t matter what religion you practice or what background you come from, what skin color you were born with or what gender you are, it doesn’t matter if you’re a human or an animal or even the smallest insect—all sentient beings have this great innate quality of buddha­nature. And within that innate quality is awareness, love, and compassion, as well as wisdom, capabilities, and kayas. The only problem we have is that we do not recognize this. Indeed, the only difference between a buddha and other sentient beings is this recognition. Apart from that distinction, we all are buddhas, right here, right now.

The practice associated with this aspect is what we call “nature-of-mind” practice. It is preserved within the Vajrayana, especially within Dzogchen, Mahamudra, and Madhyamaka. Those three main practices encompass nature-of-mind practice.

Connecting to prajnaparamita, to this wisdom, is key to living our everyday lives sanely. Ordinarily, our minds are extremely small and narrow; we go about our lives utterly mired in dualistic thinking. The kleshas of aversion, pride, jealousy, and other negative emotions have us in an iron grip. Sometimes, we become so overwhelmed with the pain our negative emotions cause us, we lose all hope. We give in to our unhappiness completely and reject everything, falling into nihilism. That’s too loose. And sometimes, we get so engaged with phenomena that we inadvertently get bound up in it. Our minds become tangled in expectations, hope, and attachment. We get too tight.

In all aspects of life, balance is crucial. If a relationship feels claustrophobic, for example, it doesn’t go well for either party. But disinterest is no good, either. In the realm of work, study, and education, clamping down too hard and overdoing it doesn’t lead to good results, but zoning out and taking no action is also no good. This principle of balance applies to all the activities of our lives. The wisdom that Buddha attained, this prajnaparamita, goes beyond the realms that usually ensnare us. It leads us to find true freedom within ourselves.

To completely open the mind and heart is what we call having a fearless view, fearless belief, or fearless experience. It’s a deeper level of existence, one we can choose to occupy. We can engage in each moment with that total openness, and in that openness, in that fearlessness, we can go about our lives with dignity and freedom. This is prajnaparamita, the profound wisdom the Buddha taught for the benefit of all.

Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche

Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche

Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche is a meditation master in the Kagyu and Nyingma lineages of Tibetan Buddhism. He is the guiding teacher of the Tergar Meditation Community, a global network of meditation groups and centers. His books include Turning Confusion into Clarity and In Love with the World: A Monk’s Journey Through the Bardos of Living and Dying .