Joyfully Experiencing Emptiness

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Dear Still Water Friends,

This Thursday evening, after our meditation, we will explore the Buddhist concept of emptiness, Sunyata in Sanskrit.

In common English, if someone says “I am feeling empty.” we usually understand it to mean that he or she is lacking energy, emotion, or connection.

The emptiness of Sunyata is something very different. Sunyata describes a characteristic of all phenomena: they are empty or void. In the mindfulness tradition, the capacity to experience the emptiness of things is identified as one of the Three Doors of Liberation (along with signlessness and aimlessness).

As I understand it, sunyata is a teaching, a tool, to help us overcome a pervasive mental illusion. As I look around my office I see books, monitors, file cabinets,and tables. I may think of them as unchanging things. Similarly, if I look in a mirror, or look into myself, even though I know that I am getting older and changing, I may imagine an unchanging inherent nature or self underneath the changing surface.

The teaching of emptiness is that that there are no unchanging or no separate things. In this world, everything is in flux and transition, everything is being changed. The air and the acid in the pages are disintegrating my books. The discussion I had this morning changed who I am. Nothing is spared: all the objects of the material world, everything in me or you, every teaching, every idea, every God. They are all empty in the sense of being in flux, changeable, not separate.

When Thich Nhat Hanh talks about emptiness he often says that each separately appearing thing, such as a flower, is both empty of a separate self and full of the cosmos.

The philosophy of emptiness offers us a sublte and illuminating vision of reality. The teaching of Sunyata, however, also offers us a way of practice.

When we begin to meditate we are usually taught to become aware of each in-breath and out-breath. For most of us it is a pleasant calming experience. Our minds seem clearer. Once we settle, it is seductive to spend the time we have allotted for meditation exploring the things of the world: working out our careers, working on our relationships, completing our plans and to do lists.

The practice of emptiness asks something else of us: to let go of our planning and thinking and become exquisitely aware of each apparent thing we observe in ourselves and in the world around us. To recognize each "thing" as it is in the moment, as it was, and as it will be. To know, as the Diamond Sutra suggests, that "All phenomenon are like a dream, an illusion, a bubble and a shadow, like dew and lightning."

You are invited to be with us this Thursday and to share how you have experienced the emptiness of phenomena in your meditation and in your life.

Warm wishes,

Mitchell Ratner
Senior Teacher


Thich Nhat Hanh on Emptiness
[From a Plum Village Dharma Talk on
July 7, 1998]

Emptiness means the absence of a separate existence, such as when you look at this flower, you can touch first of all the nature of impermanence. You don’t just talk about impermanence, you actually experience the nature of impermanence at first hand. And then you can go deeper, because the insight of impermanence helps you to see the nature of interbeing. It’s always changing, and what is in front of you is made of several elements. The flower has the sunshine in it. Sunshine is a component of flower. You do not call sunshine “flower,” but you discover that without sunshine a flower cannot be. So you discover that a flower cannot be by itself alone, it has to interbe with non-flower elements, like sunshine, like clouds, like rain, like minerals, like earth, like the gardener. There is a multitude of elements that we call non-flower elements. And the flower is possible only with the coming together of these non-flower elements. That is why the flower is described as empty of a separate entity. So the insight of interbeing helps you to get deeper into the reality of the flower. Emptiness is the lack of a separate entity. When you continue to focus your attention, your concentration, and your deep looking on it, you might discover that this flower contains the whole universe. You might discover that the extremely tiny contains the extremely large, and you may be liberated from the idea of big and small. You may get free from the idea of “this” and “that”, you may get free from the idea of “I” and “you,” because I contain you, and you contain me, and we contain the whole universe. You may get rid of the idea of birth and death, just by looking into the heart of a flower.