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Lions Roar : May 2012
SHAMBHALA SUN MAY 2012 44 One of the core teachings of Buddhism is that we all possess this essence, this root or seed. Buddhanature is hard to describe, largely because it is limitless. It’s a bit difficult to contain the limitless within the sharp boundaries of words and images. Although the actual experience of touching our awakened nature defies absolute description, a number of people over the past two millennia have at least tried to illuminate a course of action using words that serve as lights along the way. Emptiness Traditionally, one of the words that describes the basis of who and what we are—indeed, the basis of all phenomena—has been translated as emptiness; a word that, at first glance, might seem a little scary, a suggestion, supported by early translators and interpreters of Buddhist philosophy, that there is some sort of void at the center of our being. Most of us, at some point in our lives, have experienced some sort of emptiness. We’ve wondered “What am I doing here?” Here may be a job, a relationship, a home, a body with creaking joints, a mind with fading memories. If we look deeper, though, we can see that the void we may experience in our lives is actually a positive prospect. Emptiness is a rough translation of the Sanskrit term shun- yata and the Tibetan term tongpa-nyi. The basic meaning of the Sanskrit word shunya is “zero,” while the Tibetan word tongpa means “empty”—but not in the sense of a vacuum or a void, but rather in the sense that the basis of experience is beyond our ability to perceive with our senses and or to capture in a nice, tidy concept. Maybe a better understanding of the deep sense of the word may be “inconceivable” or “unnameable.” So when Buddhists talk about emptiness as the basis of our being, we don’t mean that who or what we are is nothing, a zero, a point of view that can give way to a kind of cynicism. The actual teachings on emptiness imply an infinitely open space that allows for anything to appear, change, disappear, and reappear. The basic meaning of emptiness, in other words, is openness, or potential. At the basic level of our being, we are “empty” of definable characteristics. We aren’t defined by our past, our present, or our thoughts and feelings about the future. We have the potential to experience anything. And any- thing can refer to thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations. An Emptiness Exercise I’d like to give you a little taste of emptiness through a prac- tice that has become known as “objectless shinay.” Shinay is a Tibetan term, a combination of two words: shi—which is commonly translated as calmness or peace—and nay, which means resting, or simply “staying there.” In Sanskrit, this practice is known as shamatha. Like shi, shama may be under- stood in a variety of ways, including “peace,” “rest,” or “cooling down,” while tha, like nay, means to “abide” or “stay.” Whether in Sanskrit or Tibetan, the combination terms describe a pro- cess of cooling down from a state of mental, emotional, or sensory excitement. Most of us, when we look at something, hear something, or experience a thought or motion, react almost automati- cally with some sort of judgment. This judgment can fall into three basic categories: pleasant (“I like this”), unpleasant (“I don’t like this”), or confused (“I don’t know whether I like this or not.”) Each of these categories is often subdivided into smaller categories: pleasant experiences are judged as “good,” for example; unpleasant experiences are judged as “bad.” As far as one student expressed it, the confused judgment is just too puzzling: “I usually try to push it out of my mind and focus on something else.” The possibilities represented by all these different responses, however, tempt us to latch onto our judgments and the patterns that underlie them, undermining our attempt to distinguish between real and true. There are many varieties of shinay or shamatha practice. The one that most closely approaches an experiential rather than a theoretical understanding of emptiness is known com- monly as “objectless,” because it doesn’t involve—as some other variations do—focusing attention on a particular