As a young child I used to sit on my grandfather’s lap while he meditated. At two or three years old, of course, I had no idea what meditation involved. My grandfather didn’t give me instructions and didn’t speak to me about his own experience. Yet, as I sat with him I felt a sense of deep comfort, together with a kind of childlike fascination with whatever was going on around me. I felt myself becoming aware of something becoming brighter and more intense in my own body, my own mind, my own heart.
That something, when I was old enough to fit words to it, is a kind of spark that lights the lives of all living beings. It has been given various names by people of many different disciplines, and its nature has been debated for centuries.
In many Buddhist teachings, it’s known as buddhanature. The term is a very rough translation of two Sanskrit words, often used interchangeably: sugatagarbha or tathagatagarbha. Sugata may be roughly understood as “gone to bliss,” while thatagata is usually interpreted as “thus-gone.” Both refer to those, like the Buddha, who have transcended, or “gone beyond,” conflict, delusion, or suffering of any kind—a condition one might reasonably understand as “blissful.” Garbha is most commonly translated as “essence,” although on a subtle level, it may also suggest “seed” or “root.” So a more accurate translation of buddhanature might be the essence of one who has gone beyond conflict, delusion, and so on to an experience of unclouded bliss. 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.
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 shunyata 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 anything can refer to thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations.
An Emptiness Exercise
I’d like to give you a little taste of emptiness through a practice 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 understood 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 process 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 automatically 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 commonly as “objectless,” because it doesn’t involve—as some other variations do—focusing attention on a particular object, like a sound, or a smell, or a physical thing like a flower, a crystal, or a candle flame.
The instructions for this meditation are simple:
- Just straighten your spine while keeping the rest of your body relaxed.
- Take a couple of deep breaths.
- Keep your eyes open, though not so intently that your eyes begin to burn or water. You can blink. But just notice yourself blinking. Each blink is an experience of nowness.
- Now, let yourself be aware of everything you’re experiencing—sights, sounds, physical sensations, thoughts, and emotions.
- Allow yourself to be open to all these experiences.
Inevitably, as you begin this exercise, all sorts of thoughts, feelings, and sensations will pass through your experience. This is to be expected. This little exercise is in many ways like starting a weight-training program at the gym. At first you can lift only a few pounds for a few repetitions before your muscles get tired. But if you keep at it, gradually you’ll find that you can lift heavier weights and perform more repetitions.
Similarly, learning to connect with nowness is a gradual process. At first you might be able to remain open for only a few seconds at a time before thoughts, emotions, and sensations bubble up to the surface and consume your attention. The basic instruction is simply not to chase after these but merely to be aware of everything that passes through your awareness as it is. Whatever you experience, you don’t have to suppress it. Even latching onto irritations—"Oh, I wish that kid next door could turn down his music." "I wish the family upstairs would stop yelling at each other"—are part of the present. Just observe these thoughts and feelings come and go—and how quickly they come and go, to be replaced by others. If you keep doing this you’ll get a true taste of emptiness— a vast, open space in which possibilities emerge and combine, dance together for a while, and vanish with astonishing rapidity. You’ve tasted one aspect of your basic nature, which is the freedom to experience anything and everything.
Don’t criticize or condemn yourself if you find yourself following after physical sensations, thoughts, or emotions. No one becomes a buddha overnight. Recognize, instead, that for a few seconds you were directly able to experience something new, something now. You’ve passed through theory and ventured into the realm of experience. As we begin to let our experiences come and go, we begin to see them as less solid. They may be real, but we begin to question whether they’re true.
Experience follows intention. Wherever we are, whatever we do, all we need to do is recognize our thoughts, feelings, and perceptions as something natural. Neither rejecting nor accepting, we simply acknowledge the experience and let it pass. If we keep this up, we’ll eventually find ourselves becoming able to manage situations we once found painful, scary, or sad. We’ll discover a sense of confidence that isn’t rooted in arrogance or pride. We’ll realize that we’re always sheltered, always safe, and always home.
The exercise described above raises another aspect of our basic nature, and now I’m going to let you in on a little bit of unconventional understanding.
As mentioned earlier, according to many standard Tibetan translations, the syllable nyi means “ness”—the essential quality of a thing. But I was taught that the nyi of tongpa-nyi, on a symbolic level, refers to clarity: the capacity to be aware of all the things we experience, to see the stuff of our experience and to know that we’re seeing it.
This capacity is the cognizant aspect of our nature: a very simple, basic capability for awareness. This basic, or natural, awareness is merely a potential. Just as emptiness is a capacity to be anything, clarity is the capacity to see anything that enables us to recognize and distinguish the unlimited variety of thoughts, feelings, sensations, and appearances that continually emerge out of emptiness. Without clarity, we wouldn’t be able to recognize or identify any aspect of our experience. It’s not connected with awareness of any particular thing. Awareness of a thing—in terms of a subject (the one who is aware) and an object (the thing, experience, etc., of which the subject is aware)—is something we learn as we grow up.
This cognizant, or knowing, aspect of our nature is often described in Tibetan as o-sel-wa, which can also be translated as luminosity—a fundamental capacity to illuminate, or shed light on, our experiences and, thus, to know or be aware of them. In his teachings, the Buddha sometimes compared it to a house in which a lamp has been lit and the shades or shutters have been drawn. The house represents the patterns that bind us to a seemingly solid perspective of ourselves and the world around us. The lamp represents our luminous quality of the spark of our basic nature. No matter how tightly the shades and shutters are closed, inevitably a bit of the light from inside the house shines through. Inside the house, the light from the lamp provides the clarity to distinguish between, say, a chair, a bed, or a carpet—which corresponds to our personal thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations. As this light seeps through the shades or shutters we see other things—people, places, or events. Such experiences may be dualistic; that is to say, a tendency to perceive our experience in terms of self and other, “me” and “not me,” but if we take a moment even to appreciate such glimpses we can arrive at a deeper, broader experience of basic, or natural clarity.
Meditation: Tasting Clarity
To experience clarity it is often necessary to embark on another shamatha exercise, this time using a formal object as the focus of our attention. I advise using a physical object, like a clear glass, because that object is already clear and transparent. Start off by setting such an object where it can easily be seen whether you’re sitting in a chair, on a meditation cushion, or on the floor.
Take a few moments to rest in objectless shamatha, in order to open yourself to experience. Then look at the object you’ve chosen—no longer than a minute for a little while—a process that isn’t all that different from staring at a TV screen or a person ahead of us in a line at a grocery store.
Then, slowly, slowly, turn your attention from the object of attention to the aspect of your being that is capable of perceiving objects. Recognize your ability to simply see and experience things. This ability is all too often taken for granted.
When we first begin to rest our attention on an object, we tend to see it as distinct or separate from ourselves. The capacity to make such distinctions is, according to neuroscientists and psychologists with whom I’ve spoken, in part a survival mechanism that helps us distinguish between objects in our environment that can harm us and objects that can help us. This survival mechanism, in turn, influences our internal sense of "I" as uniquely defined beings—solid and separate from "not I."
Now, let’s just take a taste of clarity.
- First, just rest in open presence.
- Then turn your attention to the object on which you’ve chosen to focus. Thoughts, feelings, and judgments about the object will almost inevitably arise: "This is pretty." "This is ugly." "This is—I don’t know—it’s just a glass." You may even wonder, as I did many years ago when I was first taught this practice, "Why am I doing this?"
- The point of the practice—the "why" of it—lies in the next step.
- After focusing for a few moments on an object, turn your attention inward, from the object to the awareness that perceives not only the object, but also the various thoughts, feelings, judgments surrounding it.
As you do so, a very gentle experience of what many of my teachers called “awareness of being aware” emerges. You’ll begin to recognize that whatever you see, however you see it, is accompanied by emotional, and cognitive residue—the stuff that remains from being a neglected child, a failure in the eyes of parents or teachers, the victim of a schoolyard bully.
When we turn our awareness inward, we begin to decompress the images we hold about ourselves and the world around us. In so doing, we begin to use the process of distinction rather than be used by it. We begin to see how past experiences might turn into present patterns. We glimpse the possibility of a connection between what we see and our capacity to see.
From Open Heart, Open Mind: A Guide to Inner Transformation by Tsoknyi Rinpoche with Eric Swanson. © 2012 by Tsoknyi Rinpoche with Erie Swanson. Published by Harmony, a division of Random House. Reprinted with permission.
Originally published in the March 2012 Lion's Roar magazine and on LionsRoar.com. Reproduced with permission.