What the Buddha Said About Emptiness

For the past three weeks we’ve been working with the Medicine Buddha Sadhana. Many people when entering into the Sadhana practice are looking for a magical remedy to their problems. That is not the point of the Medicine Buddha. The point is zeroing in on emptiness and so closer to nirvana. Physical healing becomes incidental. If it happens, well, that’s wonderful, but understanding is more valuable – after all, everyone becomes ill, everyone dies. Nothing you can do will avoid these.
This reminds me of an apocryphal story in which a man came to the Buddha and explained all of his problems and issues with life. He wanted the Buddha to help him make all of these problems and issues go away. The story goes, the Buddha listened quietly and told the man, “Dharma can help you with sixty-two problems and one it can never help you with. You have this sixty-third problem.”
“What is this sixty-third problem?” The man was astonished as if e were just given a terminal medical diagnosis.
“It is just this, you don’t want any problems.”
This is the way many approach the Medicine Buddha. They want someone to take away their problems. Approaching the Medicine Buddha Sadhana, or any practice within the scope of authentic Buddhism, comes from the place of accepting the fact that the First Noble Truth is reality – stress and mental pain, what we call suffering, are realities of life. Dissatisfaction will occur. Lasting and complete happiness are not attributes of ordinary life.
What the Buddha actually said about emptiness can be the key to a happier life. Understanding how emptiness works is growing into wisdom. The Buddha had a simple test for measuring wisdom: you are wise to the extent that you can get yourself to do things you don’t like doing but know will result in happiness and to refrain from things you like doing but know will result in pain and harm. This is the practice of relinquishment or “renunciation.” It takes a subtle, multi-level discipline many seem to want to avoid.
There is a radical importance to intentional action in shaping our experience of happiness and sorrow, pleasure and pain. With action so important and yet so frequently misguided, wisdom has to be tactical, strategic, in nurturing actions that are truly beneficial. It has to outwit short-sighted preferences to yield a happiness that lasts.
This standard for wisdom is direct and earthy. Buddhist wisdom is very often couched in terms of the mystical and in esoteric language and is rarely presented in a straightforward, common sense way. The phrase “Buddhist wisdom” implies abstract and contradictory teachings that get in the way of common sense and are counter-intuitive. Emptiness being a noteworthy example.
We are told that in emptiness nothing – as opposed to no thing – has any inherent existence; on an ultimate level, things aren’t what we usually think of as “things.” They are simply processes that are in no way separate from all the other processes on which they depend.
This idea is philosophically sophisticated idea and fascinating to consider, but ultimately quite irrelevant in terms of daily life. It doesn’t provide much obvious help in getting you up early on a cold morning to meditate nor in convincing you to give up a destructive addiction or help you in your relationships.

About Sensei Mui

Sensei Mui is a Buddhist monk who took formal refuge and bhikkhu ordination as a Theravada monk in Thailand during the early 1970s. Since those days he has both studied and was ordained in multiple Mahayana lineages. Today the main focus of his practice and teaching is from the Pure Land perspective. He currently acts as the Director and Administrator for Hongaku Jodo, an educational and practice oriented organization of Buddhist teachers of Dharma, pure and simple.
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