On Emptiness & Fullness.

Right Understanding is the first step in the Noble Eightfold Path, the guidelines set forth by the Buddha so that we can seek what he sought.

It represents overcoming suffering by understanding the true nature of things.

What is the true nature of things?

Buddhist teachings express this in two different ways. These ways seem to be different, but really, they’re two sides of the same coin.

One is Shunyata, usually translated as Emptiness.

Emptiness is sometimes misinterpreted as nihilism. It is the concept that nothing has inherent existence. Everything in the universe, including you, is dependent upon everything else. Everything is just a collection of things that are influencing other things.

If we really think about this, we know it’s true. Of course everything is interdependent. But, we tend to not live this way. We tend to think of the world as separate from ourselves, and that can lead us to all kinds of trouble. Selfishness and greed come from not recognizing that we are simply part of a whole.

The other concept is Tathagatagarbha, usually translated as Buddha Nature.

It’s the concept that we are one with everything because any separation that we perceive is a result of delusion. Most importantly, the concept of Buddha Nature indicates that we already know this.

At the core of our being, we are already enlightened. We don’t always realize it, because our minds are often clouded by delusion. We cling to the idea that we are an independent self. If we can realize our interdependence, or as I like to say, Unleash our Buddha Nature, we will be happier and suffer less.

Why are there two concepts for this?

I think it’s because what we are trying to grasp is something deep, something that is hard (or impossible) to grasp with words. We try to grasp it with concepts like these, but the truth is we have to experience it ourselves with our own spiritual insights. Our minds are wired to label things—that’s why these labels were created, but ultimately, the labels aren’t sufficient.

One of my friends once said to me, “I don’t believe we become nothing when we die… I believe we become everything.” I asked if there’s really any difference.

Sometimes when I am deep in insight meditation, I feel the truth of Shunyata. Sometimes in compassion meditation, I feel the truth of Tathatagarbha.

Wisdom tells me that I am nothing and compassion tells me that I am everything.

It seems like a paradox, but it is the truth.

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Ed: Sara Crolick

{Photo: Andrea de Kejizer}

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Daniel Scharpenburg

Daniel Scharpenburg lives in Kansas City. He’s been practicing Buddhism for nearly 20 years. He teaches at the Open Heart Project Sangha and is a Zen Teacher (Fashi) in the Dharma Winds Zen Order. His main focus is on mindfulness practices rooted in the earliest Zen teachings and compassion practices rooted in the Bodhisattva Tradition. He has taken Bodhisattva Vows and Brahmajala Precepts and he is affiliated with the Zen Buddhist Order of Hsu Yun.
Find out more about Daniel on his blog and connect with him on Facebook