The Importance of Realizing the Ultimate Nature, Emptiness
THE PREVIOUS VOLUMES of the Library of Wisdom and Compassion predominantly explored the method aspect of the path—the topics leading us to aspire to be free from saṃsāra and to generate bodhicitta and joyfully work for the liberation of all sentient beings. The ultimate nature of phenomena was explicitly spoken of from time to time because it underlies all these topics. The emptiness of inherent existence is the space in which all phenomena exist.
Now we will turn to make the ultimate nature—the emptiness of inherent existence—the chief object of our exploration. Emptiness is the ultimate mode of existence, and the wisdom realizing it directly is the only medicine that can cure saṃsāra and its duḥkha once and for all. This wisdom, coupled with bodhicitta, removes both afflictive and cognitive obscurations, enabling us to become fully awakened buddhas who are of great benefit to all beings.
Why Realizing Emptiness Is Important
All of us share the wish to be happy and to overcome duḥkha. Upon close examination, it is evident that the situation in saṃsāra is utterly unsatisfactory. Its faults—especially birth, aging, sickness, and death, which we undergo without choice—continuously plague us in one rebirth after another. All the seeming pleasures of saṃsāra are transient and leave us dissatisfied. Chasing after them ensnares us in a cycle of excitement followed by disillusionment and depression. When we become fully aware of our 6predicament in saṃsāra and the danger of it continuing, strong aspiration for liberation and full awakening arises.
Ceasing saṃsāra entails eradicating its causes—afflictions and polluted karma—which are rooted in the ignorance grasping persons and phenomena as inherently existent. To identify this ignorance and the false object it grasps necessitates observing our mind closely, seeing how we easily assent to and grasp as true the false appearance of everything existing under its own power, independent of all other factors. Correctly identifying this self-grasping ignorance that is the root of saṃsāra is extremely important, for without this we will not be able to eliminate it.
Having correctly identified self-grasping and its erroneous object, we must ascertain that such inherently existent persons and phenomena do not exist at all. Doing this involves refuting inherent existence, which is called the “object of negation” (pratiṣedhya or niṣedhya,2 T. dgag bya), because we need to prove to ourselves that it does not and cannot exist. Through contemplating correct reasonings that refute inherent existence, a correct assumption regarding the emptiness of inherent existence will arise. There are many levels of correct assumption that are gained over time until a correct inference knowing emptiness is gained. This conceptual realization of emptiness is then combined with a mind of serenity to attain the union of serenity and insight on emptiness. Through familiarization with emptiness by meditating with the union of serenity and insight over time, the conceptual appearance of emptiness gradually fades away and profound wisdom increases until it directly perceives emptiness, the ultimate nature of reality.
Again, by meditating over time with the wisdom directly perceiving emptiness, the levels of afflictions and their seeds are gradually cleansed from the mindstream. Continued meditation gradually removes the cognitive obscurations—the latencies of ignorance and the factor of the appearance of inherent existence—from the mind. When this wisdom is complemented by faith, collection of merit, and bodhicitta, full awakening is on the horizon.
Thus if we seek true peace and if we take the Buddha’s teachings to heart, there is no other choice than to cultivate the wisdom realizing emptiness. Āryadeva’s The Four Hundred (CŚ 135cd–136ab, 288) tells us:
All afflictions are overcome
through overcoming ignorance.
When dependent arising is seen,
ignorance does not arise.
It is the only doorway to peace;
it destroys wrong views;
it [captures] the attention of all buddhas—
this is called selflessness.
All existents—be they impermanent or permanent—exist depending on other factors. Being dependent, they lack an independent, inherent essence that makes them what they are. These dependent arisings’ lack of inherent existence is their fundamental or final mode of existence. It is the object realized by all buddhas of the past, present, and future; it is the object of the meditative equipoise of all śrāvakas, solitary realizers, and bodhisattvas. Through it, nirvāṇa and full awakening are attained. The King of Concentration Sūtra (Samādhirāja Sūtra) says (MP 71):
If phenomena are individually analyzed as selfless
and what has been analyzed is meditated on,
that is the cause for attaining the fruit, nirvāṇa.
Through any other cause one does not go to peace.
It is crucial to seek the correct antidote to ignorance. Although a variety of religious practices and philosophies benefit people, not all of them explain the correct view of the nature of reality. I have been to more than one Kumba Mela, a Hindu pilgrimage and festival held every twelve years at the confluence of the holy rivers Ganges, Yamuna, and the mythical Sarasvatī. It is one of the largest religious gatherings on the planet, attended by, among others, Hindu yogis who live in the Himalayas and meditate on the practice of inner heat (candālī). From the Buddhist perspective, although these yogis have great faith in their gurus and have renounced the pleasures of this life, they are not able to cut the root of self-grasping. Similarly, some of my Christian friends weep when they speak of their love of God, but they too aren’t able to stop rebirth in saṃsāra.
Although we Buddhists learn and apply the antidotes to specific afflictions—such as meditating on impermanence to counteract 8attachment and on love to subdue anger—these antidotes alone cannot eradicate self-grasping ignorance. In Clear Words (Prasannapadā), Candrakīrti explains (FEW 37–38):
Among the extensive teachings in nine divisions—discourses and so forth—rightly proclaimed by the Buddha,
based on the two truths and corresponding to the forms of behavior of worldly beings,
those spoken for the sake of removing attachment do not remove hatred,
and those spoken for the sake of removing hatred do not remove desire.
Moreover, those spoken for the sake of removing arrogance and so forth do not overcome other defilements.
Therefore, they are not very pervasive, and those teachings are not of great import.
But those spoken for the sake of removing confusion overcome all afflictions,
for the Conqueror said all afflictions thoroughly depend on confusion.
Attachment, anger, arrogance, jealousy, and so forth are problematic in our lives and applying the specific antidotes to them—contemplating impermanence, cultivating love, rejoicing in others’ good fortune, and so forth—subdues them temporarily. However, their seeds still remain in our mindstream, ready to rise up in an instant as full-blown afflictions. To cut these off so they can never reemerge, eradicating them from the root is imperative. The only antidote capable of eradicating self-grasping ignorance (also called “confusion”) is the wisdom realizing the subtle selflessness of persons and phenomena. By realizing emptiness, we cease to assent to or grasp ignorance’s false appearances. At that time, there is nothing that can act as a basis for us to give rise to afflictions such as attachment and anger.
What Is Emptiness?
Emptiness is equivalent to suchness (tattva).3 Candrakīrti describes it as the complete refutation of self-existence with respect to all internal phenomena (those conjoined with sentient beings’ minds) and external phenomena (those not so conjoined).
Among Buddhists and non-Buddhists there are many different assertions regarding selflessness and suchness (emptiness). Those that are incorrect fall into two extremes: the extreme of nonexistence, deprecation, or nihilism where too much has been negated, and the extreme of absolutism, permanence, eternalism, or superimposition where not enough has been negated. In his commentary to the Treatise on the Middle Way, Buddhapālita says that in the first turning of the Dharma wheel, the Buddha presented selflessness as an antidote to counter distorted ways of viewing our aggregates as a self. However, the selflessness presented there is not the final understanding of selflessness, because not enough has been negated. Although the Yogācārins go a step further and reject the reality of the external material world, they still maintain the reality of the internal subjective consciousness. This, too, is a form of exaggerated views where not enough has been negated. Meanwhile Svātantrika Mādhyamikas, in their commentaries on Nāgārjuna’s works, insist that phenomena possess some objectified basis on the conventional level. They, too, have fallen to the extreme of superimposition or absolutism. Materialists, on the other hand, say that the self and the world arise randomly without any causes, and people who misunderstand the Prāsaṅgika view say that according to that view nothing at all exists because ultimate analysis negates all existents. These people, who resemble scientific reductionists, also fall to the extreme of deprecation. The Middle Way view as presented by the Prāsaṅgikas avoids both these extremes by realizing the suchness that is the emptiness of inherent existence and still being able to establish conventional, dependent existence.
The view of superimposition exaggerates what exists by saying that dependent arisings exist inherently. This view is faulty because if things existed inherently, they would be independent of all other factors, such as causes and conditions, parts, and so forth. In this case, the person would be permanent because it would exist without depending on causes and conditions. 10Such an independent, permanent self would continue unchanged eternally after death.
The view of deprecation denies the existence of what does exist. This involves thinking that if phenomena do not exist inherently, they do not exist at all. Those who hold this view say that if the inherent existence of impermanent, dependently arising things were negated, then these things could not perform the function of creating effects. In that case, when the person dies, he or she would become totally nonexistent, there being no continuity of the person and thus no rebirth.
Both extreme views are based on the premise that if phenomena existed, they must exist inherently, and if they don’t exist inherently, then they don’t exist at all. Those adhering to the view of absolutism say that since phenomena exist, they must exist inherently. Otherwise they would be totally nonexistent, and that is not acceptable. Those holding the view of deprecation assert that since phenomena don’t exist inherently, they don’t exist at all. People who fall to either of these extremes are unable to establish dependently arising phenomena. In his Commentary on [Āryadeva’s] Four Hundred, Candrakīrti says (EMW 179):
Therefore, here (1) this [deprecation] is an erroneous view of nonexistence due to deprecating—as nonexistent—dependently arisen causes within the thoroughly afflicted (saṃsāra), and [phenomena] within liberation or the very pure, which are compounded [by causes and conditions] and are like illusions, and (2) a view of thingness (inherent existence) also is erroneous because an inherently existent nature does not exist. Hence, in this way those who propound that things have an inherent nature incur the fault that dependent arisings do not exist and incur the faults of the views of permanence and of annihilation.
The correct view is the view of the Middle Way that proclaims the dependent arising of all phenomena and their emptiness of inherent existence are complementary. This book will delve into emptiness and explain how emptiness and dependent arising come to the same point. It will also enable us to gain a correct understanding of emptiness and develop the tools to realize it in our meditation.
Emptiness, Its Nature, Its Purpose, and Its Meaning
The nature of emptiness is the mere negation of grasping inherent existence; the purpose of teaching emptiness is to eliminate that grasping that lies at the root of all afflictions and duḥkha; the meaning of emptiness is that all phenomena lack inherent existence and exist dependently.
The nature of emptiness is the absence of an objectified basis for grasping—anything in relation to which we could say “This is the self” or “This is such-and-such phenomenon.” In his Commentary on Bodhicitta (Bodhicittavivaraṇa), Nāgārjuna says (BV 51–52):
The abiding of a mind that has no object
is defined as the characteristic of space;
[so] they accept that meditation on emptiness
is [in fact] a meditation on space.
With the lion’s roar of emptiness
all [false] pronouncements are frightened;
wherever such speakers reside,
there emptiness lies in wait.
“A mind that has no object” is a mind that does not grasp any phenomenon to have an objectified or inherently existent basis. As long as we believe there is an objectified basis—something that by its own nature is that object—grasping its inherent existence will arise. That this happens is confirmed by the fact that we so quickly react to people, objects, and events with attraction and rejection, based on believing they have their own inherent nature; they exist as self-enclosed, independent things just as they appear to. In Sixty Stanzas of Reasoning (Yuktiṣaṣṭikākārikā), Nāgārjuna asks (YS 44):
Those who assert the conditioned things
as being established in terms of ultimate reality,
why wouldn’t the faults of permanence and so on
not arise within their minds?
If the impermanent things that surround us in daily life existed 12independent of all other factors, they would be unable to change. Someone who asserts inherent existence should therefore believe conditioned phenomena are permanent, a view that our experience refutes, since we and everything around us is in constant flux.
To avoid these errors, it is crucial to analyze if the basis of objectification we believe exists is actually findable. When we search for an essence of things—a person, paycheck, or rainstorm—instead of finding an objectified basis, we find their emptiness of inherent existence. If we then search for the essence of that emptiness, we find in turn its emptiness. Seeking an essence, we find only essencelessness. This lack of an objectified basis applies when we search for the essence of persons, phenomena, and their emptiness.
At the end of our search for an objectified essence, all that remains is emptiness—the absence of inherent existence—which is like space. Space is defined only in negative terms; it is the absence of obstruction. Aside from this, nothing can be pointed to as being space. Similarly, when we search for the essence of any object with ultimate analysis, only emptiness—the absence of inherent existence—is found. In this way, the teachings on emptiness dismantle any basis for grasping, and the meditative equipoise on emptiness is called “space-like meditation.”
Essentialists—philosophers who assert that the person and aggregates truly exist—do not refute enough and leave an objectified basis for grasping inherent existence. Although some of them, such as the Yogācārins, negate an external world, by affirming the true existence of consciousness they too maintain a basis for grasping. Svātantrikas leave room for grasping because they accept inherent existence on the conventional level. Prāsaṅgikas—those who negate inherent existence both ultimately and conventionally—dismantle any basis of grasping.
In the Treatise on the Middle Way (Mūlamadhyamakakārikā), Nāgārjuna states that whatever is dependent arising is empty, and that holding phenomena as being dependently designated is the Middle Way view. In other words, he equates the meaning of emptiness with the meaning of dependent arising. Understanding this prevents falling to the two extremes. Such a view is like a lion’s roar that decimates all wrong views.
In the opening verses of chapter 24 of Treatise on the Middle Way, someone who misunderstands the meaning of emptiness thinks that Nāgārjuna’s refutation of inherent existence undermines both the Buddhadharma and mundane conventions. 13Not accepting the meaning of the Perfection of Wisdom sūtras, he accuses Nāgārjuna of being a nihilist (MMK 24.1–6):
If all these were empty [of inherent existence],
there would be no arising and no disintegration,
and it would [absurdly] follow for you
that the four truths of the āryas would not exist.
Since the four truths would not exist,
knowing thoroughly, abandoning,
meditating on, and actualizing [them]
would not be logically feasible.
Since those would not exist,
the four fruits also would not exist.
When the fruits do not exist,
abiders in the fruit would not exist;
approachers also would not exist.
If those eight persons did not exist,
the spiritual community would not exist.
Because the four truths would not exist,
the doctrine of the excellent also would not exist.
If the doctrine and spiritual community did not exist,
how would the buddhas exist?
If emptiness is construed in this way,
the existence of the Three Jewels is undermined.
The existence of effects,
what is not the doctrine, the doctrine itself,
and all conventions of the world—
all these are undermined.
The objector says that if everything is empty of inherent existence, nothing could arise and cease, and thus true duḥkha and true origins would not 14arise and could not cease. If that were the case, then true paths could not be cultivated and true cessations could not be actualized. In short, the four truths of āryas would not exist. If the four truths didn’t exist, thoroughly knowing true duḥkha, abandoning true origins, meditating on true paths, and actualizing true cessations would not be possible. If these weren’t possible, the four fruits of stream-enterer, once-returner, nonreturner, and arhat would not be feasible, nor would the four approachers to these states and the four abiders in them. In that case, the Saṅgha Jewel and the Dharma Jewel would not exist, and if these did not exist neither would the Buddha Jewel. Cause and effect, the Dharma teachings, and all societal conventions would be negated. In short, the objector claims that emptiness is equivalent to total nonexistence and would undermine both the ultimate truth (true cessations and nirvāṇa) as well as all mundane conventions (true duḥkha, origins, path, and everything else in the world).
Nāgārjuna replies that this person has misunderstood the nature of emptiness, its purpose, and its meaning, and as a result his mind is proliferating with many pernicious misconceptions. Nāgārjuna then explains that the nature of emptiness is peaceful (quiescent) and not fabricated by the mental elaborations of inherent existence; it is the absence of all dualistic appearances. The purpose of realizing emptiness is to eliminate afflictions, polluted karma, and cognitive obscurations, and the meaning of emptiness is dependent arising.
Nāgārjuna then directly confronts the objector’s points, saying that his understanding is completely backward, and the situation is the opposite of what he believes: the fact that all phenomena are empty of inherent existence allows all the functions and relationships of saṃsāra and nirvāṇa to exist. If phenomena existed independent of all other factors, they couldn’t interact with other factors and thus couldn’t arise, change, function, or cease (MMK 24.14):
For whom emptiness is feasible,
all is feasible.
For whom emptiness is not feasible,
all is not feasible.
Since phenomena are empty by nature, all the faults the objector accuses 15the Mādhyamikas of having actually accrue to him. Nāgārjuna confronts the objector with the undesirable consequence of his wrong views (MMK 24.20):
If all these were not empty [of inherent existence],
there would be no arising and no disintegration,
and it would [absurdly] follow for you
that the four truths of the āryas would not exist.
Because phenomena lack inherent existence, they exist dependently. True duḥkha arises dependent on its causes, true origins. These can be overcome by realizing true paths, which bring true cessations. True paths and true cessations are the Dharma Jewel, and the Saṅgha Jewel, which includes the eight approachers and abiders to stream-entry, and so on, and the ārya bodhisattvas, has actualized them. Since the Saṅgha Jewel is feasible, the Buddha Jewel is also possible. All mundane and supramundane realizations and attainments are feasible, as are cause and effect and all worldly conventions.
In this way, Nāgārjuna clarifies that the meaning of the Perfection of Wisdom sūtras’ statements about emptiness are definitive and can be understood just as they are expressed. In addition, the above argument clears away all doubt regarding the existence of the Three Jewels and the four truths: because phenomena are empty and arise dependent on other factors, all phenomena in saṃsāra and nirvāṇa are feasible.
1. Why is realizing emptiness important?
2. What is the purpose of realizing emptiness?
3. What are the disadvantages and inaccuracies of the view of superimposition and the view of deprecation?
4. Review Nāgārjuna’s argument that because all phenomena are empty of 16inherent existence and exist dependently, the four truths as well as the Three Jewels and the path to full awakening exist.
Suitable Vessels to Receive Teachings on Emptiness
For teachings on emptiness to benefit us, we must be proper vessels. Scriptures contain warnings about the danger of teaching emptiness to those who are not suitable vessels, and doing so transgresses a root bodhisattva percept. The chief danger is that an untrained person will misunderstand the teachings, mistake the emptiness of inherent existence for total nonexistence, and fall to the extreme of nihilism (deprecation), thinking that nothing exists or that actions do not bring results. It is especially deleterious if people disbelieve the law of karma and its effects and cease to care about the ethical dimension of their actions. Behaving recklessly, they create destructive karma, winning for themselves only an unfortunate rebirth.
Alternatively, by misunderstanding the teachings on emptiness, someone may think that emptiness is nonsensical, thus hardening their belief that all phenomena inherently exist. Abandoning suchness, they close the door to liberation by falling to the extreme of absolutism (superimposition). Such wrong views perpetuate duḥkha in saṃsāra for a long time to come. The Sakya scholar-adept Drakpa Gyaltsen (1147–1216) summarizes the disadvantages of incorrectly understanding emptiness in “Parting from the Four Clingings” (26):
There is no liberation for those who grasp at existence;
there is no higher rebirth for those who grasp at nonexistence;
those who grasp at both are ignorant;
so place your mind freely in the nondual sphere.
Those who grasp inherent existence cannot realize emptiness; until they relinquish that view, they cannot attain liberation. Those who grasp nonexistence negate the law of karma and its effects and ignore the ethical dimension of their actions. As a result, fortunate rebirth eludes them. Those who hold both the view of absolutism and nihilism are confused and cannot 17progress on the path. The view of emptiness is the remedy of all these wrong views.
Āryadeva mentions the qualities of suitable disciples: they are open-minded and willing to hear new ideas, intelligent and able to discern the validity or error in those teachings, and earnest, having a sincere spiritual motivation. Some arrogant people erroneously think that they have understood the subtle meaning of emptiness. Teaching their wrong view to others, they not only harm themselves but also lead others astray.
Candrakīrti speaks of external signs that a teacher may look for to determine if a student is ripe to hear teachings on emptiness (MMA 6.4–5):
Upon hearing about emptiness even while an ordinary being,
whoever gives rise repeatedly to great inner joy,
tears flowing from utter joy moisten the eyes,
and the hairs of the body stand on end,
they have the seed of the mind of complete buddhahood.
They are vessels for the teaching of suchness.
The ultimate truth is to be revealed to them.
In him, qualities that follow after that will arise.
People familiar with the doctrine of emptiness from past lives and those who have wisdom arisen from hearing and wisdom arisen from reflecting on emptiness may have these physical reactions when they hear teachings on emptiness in this life. However, weeping or one’s bodily hair standing on end during teachings do not necessarily indicate that a person is a completely suitable vessel for learning about emptiness, because these physical signs could occur for a variety of reasons. On the other hand, the absence of these signs does not mean that those people are not suitable vessels to hear teachings on emptiness. People who have heard teachings on the stages of the path, have conviction in the infallibility of karma and its effects, and do not stray from their teacher’s instructions should learn and study emptiness and will receive great benefit from doing so.
Maitreya’s Ornament of Clear Realizations says that suitable vessels for teachings on emptiness are students who have made offerings to the Three Jewels, created roots of virtue, and are under the guidance of a qualified 18and virtuous spiritual mentor. A great collection of merit is needed before learning about emptiness to ensure that the student will adequately think about the teachings, reach correct understandings, and thus benefit from the teachings. Students of the Buddhadharma must be willing to exert effort to examine the teachings on emptiness with unbiased wisdom and to persevere until they gain the correct view.
To make your mind receptive to emptiness, engage in practices to accumulate merit and purify negativities and develop a firm foundation in the Buddhist worldview and the four truths. In addition, cultivate humility and be willing to familiarize yourself with the foundational teachings, such as those on impermanence, duḥkha, and karma and its effects, without impetuously jumping ahead to more advanced teachings. By studying and practicing the foundational topics, your confidence in the Dharma and in yourself as a Dharma practitioner will increase.
Try to learn and reflect as your spiritual mentor and the lineage masters instruct so that you are not the confused students Āryadeva speaks about: people who, not understanding the teachings, fault the Buddha for not explaining them well, think emptiness means that nothing whatsoever exists, or favor views that make them feel emotionally comfortable although those views are not supported by reasoning. I heard a story about a Buddhist monk who converted to Christianity. When a friend asked him why, he responded, “Buddhism explains things that are impossible for me to do, such as realize emptiness. But in Christianity, I just have to have faith and God will provide for everything. I can do that.”
Do not take the teachings about emptiness for granted. Following his awakening, the Buddha reportedly reflected:
Profound and peaceful, free from elaboration, uncompounded clear light—
I have found a nectar-like Dharma.
Yet if I were to teach it, no one would understand,
so I shall remain silent here in the forest.
“Profound and peaceful” refers to the true cessation that is the focus of the first turning of the wheel of Dharma. “Free from elaboration” alludes to the content of the second turning of the wheel, and “uncompounded clear light” 19indicates the third turning of the wheel.4 These teachings are precious, and fearing that no one would understand them, the Buddha almost didn’t teach. Receiving these teachings is a dependent arising, and making ourselves receptive students prior to receiving the teachings and enthusiastically investigating the teachings afterward create the cause for our spiritual mentors to instruct us on emptiness.
If we follow an intelligent approach to the Buddha’s teachings, diligently study them, and gain a correct understanding, the Buddhadharma will endure. But if we rely only on faith and worship the Three Jewels without valuing their realization of emptiness, how long will the Dharma exist in our world? If we can explain the Buddha’s philosophical views on the basis of reason and science, people today will pay attention. Thus it is important to study the sūtras and the treatises, commentaries, and autocommentaries of the great Indian scholar-adepts. The classical Indian commentaries unlock the meaning of the terse root verses and enable us to discern the assertions of other tenet systems from those of our own.
When people who are suitable vessels hear teachings about emptiness, good qualities will arise in them. Candrakīrti says (MMA 6.6–7a):
After adopting an ethical code, they will always abide in ethical conduct.
They will practice generosity, cultivate compassion, meditate on fortitude,
and fully dedicate the virtue of these toward awakening
for the sake of liberating migrators.
They will respect the exalted bodhisattvas.
Suitable disciples understand that emptiness and dependent arising are complementary, not contradictory. This increases and stabilizes their faith in karma and its effects, which is essential to avoid the extreme of nihilism. Convinced that realizing emptiness is the key to awakening, they are keen to learn, reflect, and meditate on emptiness from one life to the next without interruption. To ensure they have future lives with all the conducive conditions to do this, they create the causes for fortunate births by cherishing ethical conduct and purify any previously created causes so they cannot ripen. To prevent poverty from interfering with their ability to receive teachings 20and practice in future lives, they create the causes to receive life’s necessities by practicing generosity.
Aware that realization of emptiness conjoined with compassion will bring full awakening, bodhisattvas cultivate compassion and bodhicitta to ensure that they will continually follow the Mahāyāna and attain buddhahood. To prevent anger from creating destructive karma, destroying virtue, and propelling them to an unfortunate rebirth, they practice fortitude. Practicing fortitude also brings a pleasant appearance, so they can meet more people, especially āryas who will instruct them. Knowing that familiarizing themselves with emptiness is the way to overpower afflictions and defilements, they learn, think, and meditate on emptiness as much as possible and cultivate serenity focused on emptiness. To direct the merit from the above practices to full awakening, they dedicate it to attain buddhahood. Their respect for bodhisattvas increases exponentially because they understand that only buddhas and bodhisattvas can teach emptiness using a myriad of reasonings. To repay the kindness of the buddhas, they engage in the four ways of gathering disciples that give them the opportunity to instruct others on emptiness.
In short, suitable vessels do not erroneously think that the method aspect of the path, which includes compassion, bodhicitta, the collection of merit, ethical conduct, generosity, fortitude, and so on, is only to be practiced by those who have not understood emptiness. They know that although these practices are empty of inherent existence, they exist conventionally. They also contemplate the three—themselves as the agent, the actions engaged in, and the objects acted upon—as empty of inherent existence yet conventionally existent, and they dedicate their merit with that awareness. In this way, those who are suitable vessels practice both the method and the wisdom aspects of the path without deprecating either one.
The activities of listening to and teaching emptiness create great merit. The Gift of the Precious Child Sūtra (Āryasatpuruṣ Sūtra) says (EES 21):
Mañjuśrī, whoever listens [even] with doubt to this rendition of the teaching [on emptiness] generates much greater merit than a bodhisattva who, lacking skillful means, practices the six perfections for a hundred thousand eons. This being so, what need is there to say anything about a person who listens without doubt! 21What need is there to say anything about a person who imparts the scripture in writing, memorizes it, and also teaches it thoroughly and extensively to others!
Even though someone lacks skillful means—that is, doesn’t understand emptiness—and has doubt about it, he plants powerful seeds for liberation on his mindstream by listening to teachings about emptiness. If this is the case, a person who has full confidence in the teachings on emptiness creates that much greater merit. Needless to say, someone who teaches it without error creates extensive merit.
Why does someone who copies or memorizes a scripture create great merit? After all, nowadays we can easily photocopy or digitize Dharma texts without having a virtuous thought! It takes a long time to copy a scripture by manually writing it, and dedicating so much time and effort to writing it meticulously increases our respect for its contents. Copying it slowly provides time to contemplate the scripture’s meaning, and memorizing it entails repetition, which is conducive to contemplation. These activities of writing, memorizing, and reciting the scriptures connect us with the precious teachings. Because of this familiarity, when we later hear or read teachings the meaning impacts us more deeply. For this reason, monastics in Tibetan monasteries memorize and recite the scriptures beginning when they are young children.
Contemplating emptiness can prevent unfortunate rebirth. The Treasury of the One Thus Gone Sūtra (Tathāgatakośagarbha Sūtra) says (EES 21):
A living being—who, possessing all these [ten great nonvirtues], enters into the doctrine of selflessness and has faith and belief that all phenomena are from the beginning pure—does not take a bad rebirth.
For example, someone has committed a powerful destructive action that will result in an unfortunate rebirth in the next life. Embracing the teachings on emptiness, he generates tremendous faith and respect toward them and with great enthusiasm tries to understand these teachings. Even if he isn’t able to understand them fully, having a good understanding can prevent an unfortunate rebirth in the next life.
Many benefits accrue from instructing others on emptiness. However, teaching emptiness should not be done haphazardly, and much care is required. Two principal requirements are necessary: First, a pure motiv
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