Prajñā Paramitā 3: Emptiness


Red Cedar Dharma Hall, September 11, 2013

Let’s appreciate together what one of our Japanese founders said about Prajñā Paramitā. This is Taizan Maezumi roshi, founded of Zen Center of Los Angeles who has many disciples teaching all over the country.

[Teachings of the Great Mountain, p72-76]

So prajñā paramitā is wisdom that doesn’t depend on permanence or solid positions or being right. For the last two weeks we discussed that it’s wisdom with a basis in a more accurate understanding of the nature of reality. And that one reflection of that reality is the Buddha’s 3 marks. So let’s again review these.

Annica – impermanence
Dukkha – unsatisfactoriness (suffering)
Anatta – no abiding self

Later Buddhists took this a step further. They thought, well what is this stuff that is impermanent, if everything is fully impermanent than what is it that be in some kind of solid way that we can give it a designation. If you look hard at the concept of impermanence it seems to imply some thing that is not permanent. And the same logic applies to the idea that there is some experience that do not satisfy. And some self that isn’t solid and abiding.

And that brings us to emptiness. Shunyata – Śūnyatā with the Sanskrit diacriticals. This word is an adjectival form of the word “śūnya” which in Sanskrit means zero or empty. It’s a descriptive word. Emptiness itself is not a thing. It’s a way at looking at everything we experience, cognize, and think. That it’s all empty.

Empty of what you might ask?

Empty of separateness, empty of solidness, empty of any intrinsic nature. Emptiness teachings help us see, little by little, that all designations are temporary and approximate. That nothing can quite be nailed down. We say this box top is blue. But of course there are many blues. What blue to do we mean? And blue is an experience in our eyes and brain. What about a color blind person, we could tell them it’s green and they would agree right? So is it green? And we can see that it’s blue plastic which looks completely different from a blue wall or a blue car, or any other blue object, and yet we say this is “blue” and the car is “blue” as if they were in some way the same or shared a characteristic in some abiding way.

This all sounds a little silly but where it gets useful is when we see how we fix ourselves and others into certain positions based on how we think.

I am this kind of person, you are that kind of person.

Of course the three marks help us soften up. She is that kind of person but she’s changing too, and I know it’s dumb to try to manipulate her into being a certain way so I’ll feel good that’s not going to work, and I know it’s kind of silly to think of myself as a separate person from her. So impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and no abiding self help us to lighten up.

The idea is that emptiness is even more powerful medicine. There is no person. No her, no me, no how she was before, no changes. We can think about emptiness as negative like in the Heart Sutra. But remember as I was saying last week, that “no” in the Heart Sutra is not negating those categories – there is seeing and hearing and so on, that’s common sense, but it’s pushing us to soften around our powerful assumptions of what’s being seen and heard and who it is that is doing the seeing and hearing. It’s encouraging us to explore those categories and filters. And take a fresh look.

They often say in the Zen koan literature that ordinarily people have dust in their eyes. They can kind of see what’s going on but it’s kind of fuzzy because of all of the dust. The room is full of swirling dust and we all have to squint. And the emptiness teachings clear the air. It’s like we’re seeing each other and ourselves the first time. That’s the kind of seeing that is doing by the “no eyes” in the Heart Sutra.

And this powerful negation is shown in chapter 1 of the Prajñā Paramitā Sutra in 8,000 Lines as really great news if we can handle it. There are no bodhisattvas and there is no Prajñā Paramitā, the bodhisattvas who understand this and don’t freak out are ready to course in the perfection of wisdom.

Let’s do a little exercise and discuss what we notice.

1) pass out little plastic toys, just take one and hold it in your hand, don’t look at it particularly
2) feel the reality of the object – breathe
3) notice what images the mind is constructing – are you feeling sensations in the hand or constructing a picture in your mind of what the object might look like? what happens in the mind as you hold the object and are curious about it
4) now look at the object briefly for 2 or 3 seconds, then cover it again
5) visualize it in your mind as specifically as you can, exactly what does it look like
6) now look at it again and really get stable – hold it at a good distance in your hand or put it on the floor. if you want to lie down that’s fine, get really comfortable so you can look at the object for quite a while
7) focus on it completely – really look carefully, encourage yourself to hold you attention on it much longer than you usually would
8) if you have to name the object what would you call it?
9) keep looking
10) what have you noticed about the object that you didn’t notice before?
11) now see if you can see the space around the object, seeing the object as negative space?
12) now imagine you are the object, do an exchange with it, as you look at it imagine what it is seeing when it looks at you

In one of the Tibetan systems, Mahamudra, they say there are 6 wrong views that come from not understanding emptiness. Let’s see if you experience studying the perception of this little plastic toy can any connection to these.

1) Things stay the same for a while – limited view of impermanence – did you perception of the object stay the same the whole time?
2) I control my experience. Did you have total control of your experience of cognizing this object?
3) I am at the mercy of external forces and have no control. Same question.
4) Everything is exactly as I see it, and no other way.  If your perception of the toy changed over time, then this can’t hop dup.
5) The reality of experience is coming from the outside completely. Was what you experienced all from the toy?
6) The reality of experience is coming from the inside completely. What what you experienced only from your mind?

The essential point of emptiness is that everything – all dharmas – dharma with a little “d” here meaning experience, stuff, everything that can be known – all dharmas are empty of a quality we assume them to have which the Buddhists call svabhāva – often translated own-being, another translation is self-essence. Some essential quality that makes a car a car, makes me me, makes you you.

This term own-being shows up in the Hymn to the Perfection of Wisdom we just chanted right? “She has a clear knowledge of the own-being of all dharmas, for she does not stray away form it.” and that clear knowledge is that there is no own-being. All dharmas are empty of it. And this investigating the own-being of dharmas sets in motion of the wheel of dharma. It allows the whole thing to operate.

Prajñā Paramitā then is the wisdom that rests in emptiness.

The great Western translator of these Prajñā Paramitā sūtras, Edward Conze, apparently summed it up this way:
“The thousands of lines of the Prajñā Paramitā can be summed up in the following two sentences: 1) One should become a bodhisattva, i.e. one who is content with nothing less than the all-knowlege attained through the perfection of wisdom for the sake of all beings, and 2) there is no such thing as a bodhisattva, or as all-knowledge, or as a ‘being’, or as the perfection of wisdom, or as an attainment. To accept both of these contradictory facts is to be perfect.”

Home work – for the next week stop once in a while and just perceive something. Just look at something. Just listen. Listening meditation is good. And see if you can notice the way consciousness assigns simplistic and limited labels to things – like “a tree” – and stay with the perceiving to more subtle concepts and perceptions – “red and green leaves, upthrust trunk” and just keep going a while” movement, space in between shapes, light reflecting” just take that in a bit as a practice. Sometimes you may have a sense of the exploding of our conceptual habit of assigning limited categories to things which is this believing in the own-being of things.

About Nomon Tim Burnett

Spiritual Director and Zen priest Nomon Tim Burnett has been a student of Zoketsu Norman Fischer since 1987 when he was a resident at San Francisco Zen Center's Green Gulch Farm. After sitting practice periods at Green Gulch and Tassajara Zen Monastery, Tim helped found the Bellingham Zen Practice Group in 1991. Tim was ordained as a Zen Priest by Norman in 2000 and received Dharma Transmission in July, 2011. A person of wide-ranging professional interests, Tim has been a botanist, carpenter, elementary school teacher, writer, and computer programmer. In addition to his work at the Spiritual Director of Red Cedar Zen Community, Tim is Executive Director of Mindfulness Northwest.
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