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Purification and emptiness

Part of a series of teachings from the 2012-2013 New Year's Purification Retreat at Sravasti Abbey.

  • Combining purification practice with meditation on emptiness
  • How understanding dependent arising helps to dispel guilt over destructive actions

We just finished a retreat on Vajrasattva and have been talking about purification and the Four Opponent Powers. I realized there was one point that I just mentioned briefly but should have spoken more about regarding the purification we’re doing by the Four Opponent Powers. What this does is lessen the strength of the negative karma so that when it ripens, the suffering result won’t last as long or won’t be as powerful. But the only thing that really eliminates the karmic seed from the mindstream is the meditation on emptiness.

In other words, recitation of Vajrasattva mantra and the other methods that I mentioned is like burning the seed. So, you may still have a burnt seed that’s in a field, but that’s different than having no seed whatsoever. You may make the seeds smaller. You may make it so it can’t ripen. You may purify a lot so that it’s burnt. But the only thing that really takes it out of the mindstream all together is the realization of emptiness. For that reason, meditating on emptiness is really important. 

In the Vajrasattva practice, you want to especially remember that you are not some concrete, inherent entity. Vajrasattva is not some self-existent personality. And we need to especially remember that our negative karma isn’t cast in concrete. One of the ways to see the emptiness of all these things is through the meditation on dependent arising. So, especially in terms of our karma, the actions we do are caused, aren’t they? 

A karma is an action. An action is not cast in concrete. It’s something that came, that arose due to causes, and it ceased when that causal energy ceased. And it also brings effects of its own. Just by the fact that a karma—an action—is dependent in that way means it’s not truly existent, which means it can be purified. If our karma were cast in concrete and existed from its own side, independent of other factors, there would be no way to create it. And even if we created it, there would be no way to purify it.

Meditating on emptiness

I think it’s very useful to meditate on emptiness when we’re doing purification. Also, if a person is prone to feel guilty about their negativities, meditating on emptiness is very, very effective because you begin to see that the person that created that negativity and who we are now are not exactly the same person. They exist in the same continuum—so I’ll experience the result of what a previous moment of myself did—but I am not exactly that same person. 

So, there’s no need to beat myself over the head for the mistakes I made because we’re not the same person. But there is the need to purify it, because who I am at a later moment exists in the same continuum with the person who did that action and will experience the result of what I did before. 

I think meditating on emptiness really gets us out of all this self-centered guilt about “I’m such a bad person” and so on, because all of that is based on holding ourselves as some independently existing person that never changes—a person that doesn’t exist depending on other factors. And that’s clearly not the case at all. Okay? So when you’re doing purification, it’s very important to meditate on emptiness at the same time.

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.