When speaking of emptiness there seems to be a distorted sense of what that term means. It often comes across as some incredibly deep metaphysical reality separate from the day-to-day humdrum of modern ‘civilized’ being. It’s an easy belief to develop. It’s all empty and I am the co-creator of reality. It is easy to fall into the belief but having the belief does little good for us. It’s just a belief. There is no one, vast emptiness ‘out there’ somewhere. Emptiness is one, vastness you create by letting go.
Emptiness is a way of approaching perception, a way of looking at experience. In this approach nothing is added to and nothing is taken away from the raw data of physical and mental events. We simply look at events in and of themselves as they appear in the mind and the senses without evaluation or assessment of whether there’s anything lying behind them.
This approach is called emptiness because it’s empty of the conjectures and beliefs we usually add to experience to make sense of it. The narratives and world-views we fabricate to explain who we are and explain the world in which we live. These narratives and mindsets have their value, the Buddha found that some of the more abstract questions they raise, more often than not, distract us from a direct experience of how events influence one another in the proximate present. They get in the way when we try to understand and solve the problem of our personal suffering and almost guarantee an emotional outbreak.
An outbreak of emotion is like a bomb exploding in a pond. Everybody gets wet. Instead of a pristine experience of reality, we find ourselves confronted with a mob of egos, each one vying for supremacy over each competing sense of self. Ego is just another emotional reaction to stimuli.
To be aware of the present we have to use skillful means, otherwise we will be mystified by the contesting egos and flood of emotional reasoning. We have the tendency to develop a notion of awareness and try to become aware of that instead of awareness itself. We tend to believe it is something we have to get, attain or try to manufacture. Ironically, this intent, this conceptualization makes us oblivious to what it was we were meant to be aware of in the first place. We try to become mindful instead of being aware of the mind as it tries to become and tries to attain, following the three kinds of desire that cause us suffering: kāma-taṇhā (craving for sensual pleasures), bhava-taṇhā (craving for existence), and vibhava-taṇhā (craving for non-existence).
The approach of emptiness is very much about practicing letting go. It is very effective for minds obsessed by compulsive thinking. In this practice we simplify the meditation process to just two words – ‘letting go.’ We don’t have to develop this essential practice and then that very cool recommended practice, achieve this level of dhyāna/jhāna, go into that, and understand this great master; read the suttas and sutras, study the Abhidhamma and Abhidharma, learn Pāli and Sanskrit and study the Mādhyamaka and the Prajñā Pāramitā, take initiations and Go Forth in the Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions. Just let go, let go, let go and do that some more. Be grateful, it’s very simple and saves you from getting caught in huge amounts of suffering and spending mega bucks on flimsy but interesting theory. Just let go. You don’t have to be the lion of Buddhism radiating love and compassion throughout the world, letting go of that too. Be an earthworm who knows only two words: ‘Let go.’ Don’t be conceited or foolish.
We have obsessive minds, obsessed with things that cause us pain and lead us into difficulties in life. Our society has taught us how to fill up the mind, how to jam it full of ideas, prejudices, regrets, anticipations and expectations. If you really want to be happy let it go — end the senseless clinging now.