They Are Without Inherent Existence
When we say "all," that means everything, including the Buddha, enlightenment,
and the path. Buddhists define a phenomenon as something with characteristics,
and as an object that is conceived by a subject. To hold that an object is something
external is ignorance, and it is this that prevents us from seeing the truth of
The truth of a phenomenon is called shunyata, emptiness, which implies that the
phenomenon does not possess a truly existent essence or nature. When a deluded
person or subject sees something, the object seen is interpreted as something
really existent. However, as you can see, the existence imputed by the subject
is a mistaken assumption. Such an assumption is based on the different conditions
that make an object appear to be true; this, however, is not how the object really
is. It's like when we see a mirage: there is no truly existing object there, even
though it appears that way. With emptiness, the Buddha meant that things do not
truly exist as we mistakenly believe they do, and that they are really empty of
that falsely imputed existence.
It is because they believe in what are really just confused projections that sentient
beings suffer. It was as a remedy for this that the Buddha taught the Dharma.
Put very simply, when we talk about emptiness, we mean that the way things appear
is not the way they actually are. As I said before when speaking about emotions,
you may see a mirage and think it is something real, but when you get close, the
mirage disappears, however real it may have seemed to begin with.
Emptiness can sometimes be referred to as dharmakaya, and in a different context
we could say that the dharmakaya is permanent, never changing, all pervasive,
and use all sorts of beautiful, poetic words. These are the mystical expressions
that belong to the path, but for the moment, we are still at the ground stage,
trying to get an intellectual understanding. On the path, we might portray Buddha
Vajradhara as a symbol of dharmakaya, or emptiness, but from an academic point
of view, even to think of painting the dharmakaya is a mistake.
The Buddha taught three different approaches on three separate occasions. These
are known as The Three Turnings of the Wheel, but they can be summed up in a single
phrase: "Mind; there is no mind; mind is luminosity."
The first, "Mind," refers to the first set of teachings and shows that
the Buddha taught that there is a "mind." This was to dispel the nihilistic
view that there is no heaven, no hell, no cause and effect. Then, when the Buddha
said, "There is no mind," he meant that mind is just a concept and that
there is no such thing as a truly existing mind. Finally, when he said, "Mind
is luminous," he was referring to buddhanature, the undeluded or primordially
The great commentator Nagarjuna said that the purpose of the first turning was
to get rid of non-virtue. Where does the non-virtue come from? It comes from being
either eternalist or nihilist. So in order to put an end to non-virtuous deeds
and thoughts, the Buddha gave his first teaching. The second turning of the Dharma-wheel,
when the Buddha spoke about emptiness, was presented in order to dispel clinging
to a "truly existent self" and to "truly existent phenomena."
Finally, the teachings of the third turning were given to dispel all views, even
the view of no-self. The Buddha's three sets of teaching do not seek to introduce
something new; their purpose is simply to clear away confusion.
As Buddhists we practice compassion, but if we lack an understanding of this third
seal-that all phenomena are empty-our compassion can backfire. If you are attached
to the goal of compassion when trying to solve a problem, you might not notice
that your idea of the solution is entirely based on your own personal interpretation.
And you might end up as a victim of hope and fear, and consequently of disappointment.
You start by becoming a "good mahayana practitioner," and, once or twice,
you try to help sentient beings. But if you have no understanding of this third
seal, you'll get tired and give up helping sentient beings.
There is another kind of a problem that arises from not understanding emptiness.
It occurs with rather superficial and even jaded Buddhists. Somehow, within Buddhist
circles, if you don't accept emptiness, you are not cool. So we pretend that we
appreciate emptiness and pretend to meditate on it. But if we don't understand
it properly, a bad side effect can occur. We might say, "Oh, everything's
emptiness. I can do whatever I like." So we ignore and violate the details
of karma, the responsibility for our action. We become "inelegant,"
and we discourage others in the bargain. His Holiness the Dalai Lama often speaks
of this downfall of not understanding emptiness. A correct understanding of emptiness
leads us to see how things are related, and how we are responsible for our world.
You can read millions of pages on this subject. Nagarjuna alone wrote five different
commentaries mostly dedicated to this, and then there are the commentaries by
his followers. There are endless teachings on establishing this view. In Mahayana
temples or monasteries people chant the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra-this is also
a teaching on the third seal.
Philosophies or religions might say, "Things are illusion, the world is maya,
illusion," but there are always one or two items left behind that are regarded
as truly existent: God, cosmic energy, whatever. In Buddhism, this is not the
case. Everything in samsara and nirvana-from the Buddha's head to a piece of bread-everything
is emptiness. There is nothing that is not included in ultimate truth.
Question: If we ourselves are dualistic, can we ever understand emptiness, which
is something beyond description?
Buddhists are very slippery. You're right. You can never talk about absolute emptiness,
but you can talk about an "image" of emptiness-something that you can
evaluate and contemplate so that, in the end, you can get to the real emptiness.
You may say, "Ah, that's just too easy; that's such crap." But to that
the Buddhists say, "Too bad, that's how things work." If you need to
meet someone whom you have never met, I can describe him to you or show you a
photograph of him. And with the help of that photo image, you can go and find
the real person.
Ultimately speaking, the path is irrational, but relatively speaking, it's very
rational because it uses the relative conventions of our world. When I'm talking
about emptiness, everything that I'm saying has to do with this "image"
emptiness. I can't show you real emptiness but I can tell you why things don't
In Buddhism there's so much iconography that you might think it was the object
of meditation or an object of worship. But, from your teaching, am I to understand
that this is all non-existent?
When you go to a temple, you will see many beautiful statues, colors and symbols.
These are important for the path. These all belong to what we call "image-wisdom,"
"image-emptiness." However, while we follow the path and apply its methods,
it is important to know that the path itself is ultimately an illusion. Actually,
it is only then that we can properly appreciate it.