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Emptiness and non-duality

Emptiness and non-duality

Part of a series of Bodhisattva’s Breakfast Corner talks given during the Green Tara Winter Retreat from December 2009 to March 2010.

  • Impermanence isn’t the ultimate nature of phenomena and only applies to conditioned things
  • The perception of emptiness is non-dual, without the experience of subject and object

Green Tara Retreat 017: Emptiness and non-duality (download)

One little piece from yesterday about why we’re not meditating on impermanence as the ultimate nature of phenomena and why that isn’t the thing that’s going to bring us liberation. First of all, that’s because impermanence isn’t the ultimate nature of phenomena. It pertains only to conditioned things. Even with conditioned things the impermanence is much easier to realize, even subtle impermanence meaning that phenomena are changing moment by moment by moment. That’s easier to realize than their lack of inherent existence. The lack of inherent existence is really the deepest mode of being. Whereas impermanence, while applying to conditioned things and being how they exist because they are produced by causes and conditions, is not their deepest mode of existence. Also, impermanence doesn’t apply to permanent phenomena, whereas emptiness does. Emptiness is talking about the ultimate nature of all phenomena, permanent and impermanent. You can see that emptiness as the basic reality is much more pervasive and is much more profound.

Audience: Can you give an example of a permanent phenomenon?

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): An example of a permanent phenomenon is permanent space. Permanent space is the lack of obstruction in a place. Also cessation is a permanent phenomenon; it’s the lack of the afflictions or an affliction. When we get into the philosophy you see that, in fact, there are probably more permanent phenomena than impermanent ones. But that’s a whole other topic and we won’t get into that today.

Somebody is asking about when the wisdom realizing emptiness and emptiness become non-dual, which is, when there is the direct perception of emptiness non-conceptually, are they permanent or impermanent?

Emptiness as a negation is permanent. The wisdom realizing emptiness is impermanent. In the experience of that wisdom mind realizing emptiness there’s no thought of permanence/impermanence. There’s no thought of anything. They’ve become non-dual in the sense that there’s no experience or feeling of subject and object. It blows my mind to even think about. What would that be like? To have an experience where you don’t have this feeling of: there’s a mind perceiving an object, and especially there’s me perceiving an object. You can see so much how our six senses, and the perception through the six senses, bring about this feeling of I, or self. Because there’s this contact with sights, and sounds, and smells, and tastes, and touches. We’re having these different cognitions and so there’s a feeling of, “Well, there’s a cognizer.” If there is an object, there is a cognizer. And there is a cognizer. There’s no problem with that.

But then we think, “This cognizer is me.” This solid self-existent independent me that’s sitting out there, separate from the object that’s getting cognized, and they just kind of bump together somehow. This one’s solid, this one’s solid, and they bump together. Whereas, when you really start thinking about dependent arising you see that the whole process of cognition is dependent, and something becoming an object depends on something else being the subject and vice versa.

Somebody was saying, “Are they both, the wisdom mind and the emptiness, non-affirming negatives or are they a positive phenomena?” Well, emptiness is a non-affirming negative and the wisdom realizing it is a positive phenomenon. But again, within that experience, there’s none of that kind of perception or thinking or anything like that. There’s just the experience of emptiness.

Audience: Is all direct perception non-dual?

VTC: No. When you’re seeing the blue of that bottle top lid there’s the blue and there’s your mind. That’s dual. See, that’s another reason why emptiness is so special. It is when you have the direct perception of it, there’s no experience of a subject-object duality.

Audience: And that only happens with emptiness?

VTC: Yes, it only happens with emptiness because emptiness is the only thing that exists the way it appears. Everything else exists falsely. It appears inherently existent. As soon as you have the appearance of inherent existence you have the appearance of subject and object; because there’s an inherently existent object, an inherently existent subject, so all those things go together.

Audience: Is that obscured or false cognizer …

VTC: The whole thing of valid cognizer, that’s a whole different discussion. Let’s not get into that one today. Write it down, I’ll put it in the pile of ever-growing questions and we’ll talk about valid cognizers.

Venerable Thubten Chodron

Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.