Classic and Contemporary Buddhist Works

Emptiness - Preface

The Foundation of Buddhist Thought, Volume 5

Preface

In this book I have tried to explain how we can cultivate within ourselves the understanding of the ultimate reality of how things and events exist, based on my very limited understanding and experience of emptiness. The book itself offers no comprehensive guide to the most esoteric teachings on emptiness, but is rather aimed at the beginner who wishes to gain some small insight into this subject, a subject that is extremely important for anyone who takes the Buddhist path seriously.

At the very beginning of his teaching career the Buddha introduced the concept of emptiness. The path that leads to the cessation of suffering, the fourth noble truth, is in essence the eightfold noble path, and within this path is right view. Even though we can interpret right view in many different ways, inferring many levels of subtlety, within Mahayana Buddhism it is generally agreed that the most profound level of right view is the understanding of selflessness or emptiness. It is also agreed that, along with compassion, developing an insight into emptiness is vital for someone on the path to enlightenment.

Why is emptiness so crucial? We who are bound to unenlightened existence need to realize it in order to be free. Born of delusion and karma, we are caught up in an endless round of birth, aging, sickness, and death, and we are almost powerless to break this vicious cycle. The root of that process is fundamental ignorance, and we will be forever chained to unenlightened existence until we uproot it. The opposite of this basic mis-reading of our experience is the wisdom that understands the nature of reality at the deepest level. The most fundamental mode of existence of all phenomena in the universe is that they are absent of the intrinsic reality that our ignorance instinctively ascribes to them. And only the wisdom realizing emptiness has the full ability to counteract that ignorance that keeps us trapped in cyclic existence. In this context, understanding emptiness is vital.

In A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, the great Indian master Shantideva starts the chapter on wisdom with:

All of these practices were taught

By the Mighty One for the sake of wisdom.

Therefore, those who wish to pacify suffering

Should generate this wisdom.

This verse tells us how crucial it is to develop an understanding of emptiness. Therefore in this book I have tried to use whatever limited knowledge and experience I have of the subject to explain how to gain this perfection of wisdom.

This book is a companion to the second book of the Foundation of Buddhist Thought series, Relative Truth, Ultimate Truth. The two truths are those of conventional and ultimate reality, and although I talked about both, in that book I focused more on relative, conventional reality. I deliberately saved the discussion of ultimate truth for this book.

Emptiness also links with the fourth book of the series, The Awakening Mind. The awakening mind is bodhichitta, the mind that seeks enlightenment in order to free all beings. It is a mind that is filled with great compassion, and because of that, sees that we need enlightenment to best serve others. That needs a full realization of emptiness.

As the great Indian master Chandrakirti says, to achieve enlightenment we need the two wings of method and wisdom, like the two wings of a bird. The Awakening Mind deals with how to develop love, compassion, bodhichitta, and other vital minds such as patience, ethics, and so on—the method side of the practice. This book deals with the other “wing,” the wisdom of emptiness. Just as a bird can’t fly with only one wing, likewise, we who seek to awaken need both method and wisdom.

I feel quite embarrassed. So many great teachers have taught extensively on emptiness; so many great texts have been written about it. We have over two thousand years of wisdom showing us how to develop this most crucial mind, and I, with so little knowledge, am adding yet another book on the subject. And yet, somehow I feel this book might be beneficial. I feel there is a gap between the extremely simplistic explanations of emptiness that are available, and the extensive, profound, and difficult to comprehend texts of the great masters. I hope this book will help to fill that gap. My motivation is sincere, and I genuinely hope that what I have written here can help those of you who, like me, are at the beginning of your quest for some higher understanding of the nature of this universe we live in. I further hope that, from this beginning, you may continue and study the great texts, meditate on this most profound of all subjects, and in the future come to have some actual realization of emptiness. If that can happen, then this book has been very worthwhile.

 

Editor’s Preface

Emptiness, selflessness, voidness, shunyata—there are many terms used when discussing the wisdom side of the Buddha’s teaching. It is so subtle that it’s all too easy to get lost in the esoteric arguments and forget just how relevant this subject is to us, especially in this time of crisis. Geshe Tashi is not using hyperbole when he says that the Buddha was being “truly revolutionary” when he proposed that phenomena had “no self.”

Being absent of intrinsic reality seems like an odd characteristic to hang a whole world of suffering on, but the simple fact is we fail to see this as the cause of it all. We see things as objectively solid and uncaused, even though, were we to logically investigate it, of course they are not. From that, all attachment and aversion arise. Understanding emptiness is not, therefore, a philosopher’s plaything, but a vital tool to overcome suffering.

It’s not something that will happen immediately. In fact, for many of us there is a huge block to this understanding. Personally, every time I opened a book on emptiness I fell asleep within one page; every time I sat in front of a great master, it took five minutes. Guaranteed! But with perseverance I can now stay awake quite well. The next hurdle is to understand what is being said.

By perseverance something is absorbed. And by becoming convinced of the importance of understanding emptiness, the will to overcome the obstacles will grow. Fortunately, we don’t need a profound insight into emptiness to benefit. Just letting go of that sense of concrete reality really helps. Being softer about the consequences when something falls apart helps us so much. By applying ourselves to this subject, there will be profound changes within us, even if it might take some time for them to manifest.

I was reminded of the importance of developing an understanding of emptiness at a climate change meeting a short time ago. “The change is upon us” was the message, and those who suffer most will be those who cling to the old ways. With the onset of expensive fuel, the huge population increases, and the accelerating climate change, nobody can deny the need to accept change and work with it. And yet, without seeing how the sense of a concrete reality we instinctively ascribe to things is binding us to suffering and disappointment, it will be desperately difficult to watch as this life of gross consumption and comparative luxury disappears. For someone with a good understanding of emptiness, it might not be easy, but it will be infinitely easier.

And so, we need to know. And for that, we need skilled teachers who can offer us the gems of the great Buddhist masters in a way we can understand. I think, if you have read any of the other Foundation of Buddhist Thought books, you will agree with me that Geshe Tashi is such a person. He has not only a profound knowledge of the subject from his many years of study, but also the ability to render it in clear and accessible English. Moreover, he has a natural flair for delivering the Dharma in a way that is lively, inspiring, and very relevant.

Born in Purang, Tibet, in 1958, Geshe Tashi escaped to India with his parents one year later. He entered Sera Mey Monastic University at thirteen, and spent the next sixteen years working toward a geshe degree. He graduated with the highest possible degree of Lharampa Geshe.

After a year at the Highest Tantric College (Gyuto), Geshe-la began his teaching career in Kopan Monastery near Kathmandu, the principal monastery of the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition (FPMT). Geshe Tashi then moved to the Gandhi Foundation College in Nagpur, and it was at that time that the FPMT’s Spiritual Director, Lama Thubten Zopa Rinpoche, asked him to teach in the West. After two years at Nalanda Monastery in France, Geshe Tashi became the resident teacher at Jamyang Buddhist Centre in London in 1994.

Very early on in his teaching career at Jamyang, he observed that the passive, text-based learning usually associated with Tibetan Buddhist teachings in Western Dharma centers often failed to engage the students in a meaningful way. In an effort to provide an alternative to this traditional teaching approach while giving his students a solid overview of Buddhism, he devised a two-year, six-module study program that incorporated Western pedagogic methods. This book has grown out of the fifth course book of this study program, The Foundation of Buddhist Thought.

As with the other books in the series, many people have been involved with the development of this volume and I would like to thank them all. I would also like to offer my warmest thanks to Lama Zopa Rinpoche, the head of the FPMT and the inspiration for the group of study programs to which The Foundation of Buddhist Thought belongs.

 

How to cite this document:
© Geshe Tashi Tsering and Jamyang Buddhist Centre, Emptiness: The Foundation of Buddhist Thought (Wisdom Publications, 2009)

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