Shunyata: How Emptiness Leads to Enlightenment.

Via Linda Lewis
on Dec 22, 2012
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Part four in a series on Buddhist meditation awareness practice. Click here for part one, here for part two and here for part three.

To practice prajnaparamita (see article III of Awareness Practice) is to mix mind with space without sliding into nihilistic absorption, without “spacing out.”

To meditate in this way is to rest awareness in space while being wide awake. Words can point to this experience, but the experience is indescribable. Yet it is helpful to know that dwelling on space as a reference point is still dualistic confusion.

Shunyata or emptiness is non-dwelling on anything. Enlightenment is realizing that thoughts and emotions and the world of form are all the play of the mind, appearance-emptiness. We can actually practice this until we are no longer caught in the duality of subject and object, internal and external, I and other. Such concepts are removed through the understanding and repeated experience of emptiness or shunyata.

As Trungpa Rinpoche says, “having thrown everything away, we begin to feel the living quality of peace…(which) has a strong character, an invincible quality, an unshakable quality, because it admits no gaps of hypocrisy.”[1]He goes on to say, “Complete openness is complete victory because we do not fear, we do not try to defend ourselves at all.”

So this openness or emptiness is not sterile, it is also the origin of all the natural enlightened qualities, such as compassion. For when there are no boundaries, compassion naturally arises.

Then we truly wish the “Four Immeasurables” for everyone:

May all sentient beings enjoy happiness and the root of happiness.

May they be free from suffering and the root of suffering.

May they not be separated from the great happiness devoid of suffering.

May they dwell in the great equanimity free from passion, aggression, and prejudice.

The point of practicing awareness is to be open-hearted and open-minded. That is why the Heart Sutra’s exponent of prajnaparamita, Avalokiteshvara, is also the bodhisattva of compassion (see Awareness article III). There is no separation between the experience of spacious openness and post-meditation compassion. If our discursiveness and conflicting emotions are not gradually diminishing, we should question ourselves. Self-reflection is the willingness to see our short-comings and is another valuable form of prajna.

Are we really putting attention on the breath? Are we then relaxing into the space to which the breath takes us? Or are we seduced by every thought? If this is happening, do we remember to look at the mind that thinks? What happens then? Are we recognizing and letting go of habitual patterns? Do we have the motivation and stamina for daily practice?

Such questions wake up practice. We do not need to judge ourselves or give ourselves a hard time for having a hard time. That would be what Trungpa Rinpoche called “double negativity.” But simple self-reflection keeps us honest.

The good news is that every time we return to the breath or remain in the openness of space, we are undoing habitual patterns of wandering and fixating. And even if we only once in a session glimpse the true nature of mind, we are uncovering again that clarity-emptiness, energy-emptiness, awareness-emptiness. And then post-meditation we may discover that we are less fixated and more flexible and available to others.

Trungpa Rinpoche encourages us: “Sudden enlightenment comes only with exhaustion. Its suddenness does not necessarily mean that there is a short cut…Meditation is…fully being in the nowness of this very moment.”

But enlightenment is not usually a do-it-yourself project. A meditation master is essential for mind to mind transmission, which can happen formally or in a casual encounter. This master teacher can be whoever you thoroughly connect with. The sixth patriarch was an illiterate layman, yet Korean, Vietnamese, Chinese, and Japanese Chan and Zen traditions trace back to him.

The present Seventeenth Karmapa says, “Resting evenly in this free expanse that is the mind’s nature is practicing deep insight.”

If we are not able to do so, perhaps we need a meditation master.

[1] VCTR, Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, ‘Shunyata” chapter.


Ed: Edith L.

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About Linda Lewis

Linda Lewis met the Vidyadhara Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche in 1972 and, following Rinpoche’s invitation, immediately moved to Boulder, Colorado to be a part of his young and vital sangha. The predominant themes in her life have been teaching in contemplative schools–Vidya, Naropa, and the Shambhala School in Halifax, Nova Scotia–and studying, practicing, or teaching his Shambhala Buddhadharma wherever she finds herself.


10 Responses to “Shunyata: How Emptiness Leads to Enlightenment.”

  1. Padma Kadag says:

    Merry Christmas Linda!

  2. Paul says:

    Thank you Linda.
    Many practitioners these days do not have the resource of a meditation master. There is a plethora of written material as well as on line access to teachers yet the master teacher may be difficult for most to affiliate with for direct transmission. Some may feel at a loss due to this absence despite their dedication to practice and the three jewels.
    What might help mitigate this sense of "missing teacher" for those remote practitioners.
    Thank you.
    I look forward to your articles.

  3. Linda V. Lewis says:

    Actually, living in North America we are blessed with quite a few master teachers, but one does need to make an effort to connect with any one of them. Here in Nova Scotia and frequently in Colorado is Sakyong Mipham R., who is currently doing a retreat in Kalapa Valley, Cape Breton. There is also Dzongzar Khyentse R. who teaches in BC and California annually, and who just finished a retreat with his students in India. There is Ponlop R based in Seattle, Washington, who travels and teaches. Mingyur Rinpoche is currently in the midst of a 3 year wandering-hidden yogi retreat probably somewhere in Northern India or Nepal who will come out of retreat and teach brilliantly again. And then last spring/early summer we had the teaching visit of Tsoknyi R here in Halifax, NS. You can go on line and check out these teachers' teachings, and then try to make a point to be where the one with whom you seem to connect will be teaching next. Being a pilot, you have the advantage of getting around! Good luck. But you won't need luck if you make it a priority!

  4. HI Linda:

    It seems there is an attempt here to reverse engineer enlightenment — in otherwords, emptiness as a practice vs a result? I encourage you to read my own experience of a sudden awakening/transmission. One thing that is so clear now: The seeker (the meditator, the yogi practictioner, the student) dissolves instantly and it is seen that it was inessential. The waking/realisation reveals all the efforting, was the mind working at achieving what is a matter of grace.

    very best,

    Lori Ann

  5. Linda V. Lewis says:

    There's no instant enlightenment without gradual practice. Sudden enlightenment does come, but after much practice. All practitioners who really meditate have glimpses, and temporary experiences. It's even easy intellectually to understand impermanence without practicing. But to see the lack of self and the lack of any substantial entity in phenomena takes time, as our habitual ignorant pattern is to think there is a self to put first. Once we see emptiness, that experience needs to be stabilized.
    Many of us are on the path to enlightenment, it is our birthright, but do we realize this full time? One sign is unconditional compassion, not tit for tat compassion, not hoping to get anything back from generosity, not fearing consequences, just on the spot open heart full time. Are you like that? How many people do you know like that? The best examples I can think of tend to be the Tibetan gurus in the comment above, or Zen masters, Thic Nat Hahn, etc. People who have spent their lives dedicated to dharma and living it.

  6. […] Emptiness is sublime. Though it is a void, it is transparent and vivid. See if you can find a way to allow some emptiness into your life. Reflecting on a fear or a recent loss can bring you to a place that feels like the edge of a cliff. Instead of pushing those feelings away, find a safe way to experience them for a moment or two. […]

  7. […] Teaching emptiness to the Western student is the most difficult thing, because as soon as I teach emptiness they think about psychological emptiness. Psychological emptiness of having a big hole in your heart. Or you’re lonely or depressed or depleted. Meaninglessness. Something is not there and they need to fill. They think emptiness is that, very negative. […]

  8. […] Shunyata: How Emptiness Leads to Enlightenment. ( […]

  9. Tom Snow says:

    when Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, in the Heart Sutra famously said as Gautama Buddha sat in samadhi in front of him, "emptiness is form, form is emptiness," he did not mean the world of form; he meant the form that is the first skandha; the cornerstone of ego; that is why the Vajracharya Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche said (still says), Shunyata is not about the emptiness of the world, it is about the emptiness of our perceptions of the world.