真空妙有 – True Emptiness is Wondrous Existence

Besides eating a frosted-flake, seaweed, and mayonnaise sandwich today at lunch (a long and enjoyable story, summarized in the near-excuse, “it was not my idea”), my life these days is not much worth writing about, unless you find Chinese grammar drills interesting. So, this post will be more Dharma-focused; it will, also hopefully be a bit short (but punchy!), otherwise I’d probably talk my way into trouble.

The sandwich, by the way, was pretty good.

As an antidote to a possible view stemming from last week’s post that impermanence is something special, unique, or even “real”, I’d like to offer a few things here that may help keep all this in proper perspective.

It is important to remember that the purpose of both the teaching and contemplation of impermanence is to help us enter into and allow our view to be transformed by a compete awakening to emptiness.

Emptiness, in turn, is not something to understand, for it is not a concept. It is not something to see, as it has no real form. We can’t “hang our hat on it,” nor can we compare it in our minds with other thoughts and ideas. It isn’t something to contemplate, though we can tune our minds more in its frequency.

Emptiness, instead, is something to observe, to see; and by observing it properly, “we” become more truly what we already are: awake and free.

However, before get myself into any more trouble with words, I’m going to let Master Yin-shun finish this post with what I find to be very helpful words on this matter. The long quote below is from this chapter (entitled Sunyata [or Emptiness] in the Mahayana Context), found in this book (a free .pdf called Teachings in Chinese Buddhism, part of a much larger collection of the Master’s writings.)

This is a bit challenging to read, but well worth the effort:

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Contemplating the Implications of Emptiness and Stillness (Nirvana) by Observing Worldly Phenomena

All existences exhibit void-nature [emptiness] and nirvana-nature [liberation]. These natures are the reality of all existence. To realize the truth, we have to contemplate and observe our worldly existence. We cannot realize the former without observing the latter. Consider this Heart Sutra extract, “Only when Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva practiced the deep course of wisdom of Prajna Paramita did he come to realise that the five skandhas (aggregates, and material and mental objects) were void.”

Profound wisdom leads us to the realisation that all existences are of void-nature. The sutras demonstrate that the profound principle can be understood by contemplating and observing the five skandhas. We cannot realize the truth by seeking something beyond the material and mental world. The Buddha, using his perfect wisdom, observed worldly existence from various implications and aspects, and came to understand all existences.

In summary, there are three paths to this observation [of emptiness]:

  1. We should observe the preceding state and the current state of conditions. (i.e., observation according to the concept of time.)
  2. We should observe existences according to their inter-relationships. i.e., observation via the concept of space (either two or three-dimensions).
  3. We should observe the true nature of all myriad beings. This is like observing the worldly existences of a point, a line and an area. Those with supreme wisdom understand the true nature of all worldly existences by observing vertically the relationships between the preceding and current conditions, and horizontally the interrelationships. Then we can understand the true meaning of void-nature and nirvana-nature.

By observing the preceding-stage and the current-stage conditions, we can verify the Law of Impermanence of all worldly existences. All existences, be they material or mental, be they the material world, or the physical or mental states of sentient beings, are subject to continuous change.

After the current state of conditions have ceased to exist, the newly-formed state materializes. This is the state of rising and falling. The rising and falling of each small moment reveals that all existences are ever-moving and ever-changing.

On the other hand, since all existences are of nirvana-nature, they appear from the perspective of time, to be ever-changing. They never stay the same even for the briefest moment. Impermanence implies existences do not have a permanent entity. This is another implication of the nature of sunyata and stillness.

Ultimately everything returns to harmony and complete calmness. This is the nature of all existence. It is the resting place for all. If we can understand this reality and remove our illusions, we can find this state of harmony and complete calmness [wherever we are].

All our contradictions, impediments and confusions will be converted to equanimity. Free from illusion, complete calmness and peace is be the result of attaining nirvana. The Buddha emphasised the significance of this attainment and encouraged the direct and profound contemplation on void-nature [emptiness]. He said, “Since there is no absolute self-nature thus every existence exhibits void-nature [emptiness]. Because it is empty, there is no rising nor falling. Since there is no rising nor falling, thus everything originally has been in complete calmness. Its self-nature is nirvana.”

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“….there is no rising or falling.” = Impermanence is not.

The calligraphy that began this post, 真空妙有 (zhēn kōng miǎo yǒu), is a very interesting set of characters in Chinese Buddhism. It is, also, very difficult to translate into English: “True Emptiness is Wondrous Existence,” or “Real Emptiness Mysteriously Exists,” or “The Real Void is [nothing other than] Profound Existence.” This quartet plays an interesting and important role in Chinese Mahayana; one that I am not all that familiar with, but have found it rich with wonder. It also speaks to what Master Yin-shun describes as contemplating “void-nature” in “worldly phenomenon.” In other words, using our own experience to see for ourselves.

So, in one sense, it doesn’t matter how this phrase is translated. The point is to discover it ourselves, in ourselves, and that it “is” ourselves.

Ok. That’s all. I need to go to bed.

Sorry if this is more confusing than anything. I’d encourage a good reading of the chapter of Master Yin-shun’s book linked above as relief from any indigestion from this post, as the chapter is a very good explanation, as much as anything can be, about emptiness.

As always, I hope you are well. Thank you for reading.

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