Under the rose-apple tree

Under the rose-apple tree

Thursday, 11 February 2016

The Emptiness of an Unencumbered Mind: Cūḷasuññatasuttaṃ

If emptiness as an unencumbered state of mind is – as described in the Piṇḍapātapārisuddhisuttaṃ and in the Cūḷasuññatasuttaṃ – an abode (vihāra), then the abode of emptiness (suññatāvihāra) cannot be an absolute, fixed abode.

For one thing, the original meaning of vihāra has strong connotations of free movement, like walking up and down for recreation, or a place of recreation.

The deeper philosophical objection to seeing emptiness as a fixed abode will emerge, chapter by chapter and verse by verse, in process of studying Nāgārjuna's MMK. The point in short, however, is that emptiness is not an absolute but a relative teaching. There is no such thing, as a thing-unto-itself, as emptiness. Emptiness is something not being there in something – like tea not being there in a cup, for example.

When in everyday language we speak of an empty cup, we mean a cup that is empty of tea or empty of water. When a Zen master speaks figuratively of an empty cup, he means a student who is empty of his own fixed ideas, and who is therefore well suited to receiving the teaching. As Tich Naht Hahn points out with inspiring clarity in this youtube video, an actual cup that we describe as an empty cup is in fact full of air. There is no such thing, as a thing unto itself, as an empty cup. An empty cup is dependent for its emptiness on whatever is not filling it – like tea or water.

Because emptiness is something not being there in something, it is not possible, even for a fully awakened sambuddha, to dwell in emptiness as a thing in itself.

People who are not really interested in what the Buddha taught, Buddhist scholars and the like, opine that this take on emptiness is a Mahāyana teaching that began with Nāgārjuna. But study of Pali suttas confirms that such an opinion is uninformed nonsense.

The Majjhima Nikāya has two suttas with emptiness in their title. MN121 is titled Cūḷasuññatasuttaṃ, The Lesser Discourse on Emptiness, and MN122 is titled Mahāsuññatasuttaṁ, The Greater Discourse on Emptiness. These are the first two suttas in a section of ten suttas within the Majjhima Nikāya grouped as the Suññatavaggo, the Section on Emptiness.

The stage for the Cūḷasuññatasuttaṃ is a location east of Sāvatthi, known as Migara's mother's mansion. 

Yena Bhagavā tena... 
Where the Glorious One is, in that direction...

Ānanda approaches, and asks whether he has remembered correctly that, in the past, he heard the Buddha tell him:

“Suññatāvihārenāhaṃ ānanda, etarahi bahulaṃ viharāmī”ti.
“I now, Ānanda, am dwelling abundantly in the abode of emptiness.”

The Buddha affirms that yes, this is true, and adds:

“Pubbepāhaṃ ānanda, etarahi pi suññatāvihārena bahulaṃ viharāmi.”
"Now also, as before, Ānanda, I am dwelling abundantly in the abode of emptiness.”

The Buddha then immediately clarifies, as explained above, that “I am empty” must mean that I am empty of something. The Buddha clarifies this point with reference to the concrete place where they are, which is currently full of monks, but empty of, for example, elephants:

“Ayaṃ migaramātupāsādo suñño hatthigavāssavaḷavena, suñño jātarūparajatena...”
“This Migara's mother's mansion is empty of elephants, cows, and horses; empty of gold and silver...”

When it comes to emptiness as an abode in which the meditator aspires to dwell, the same principle applies. The meditator's practice is not “to empty the mind” in the abstract, but to empty the mind of whatever is disturbing the mind. 

Just as the Buddha teaches Nanda in SN Cantos 15 and 16 to eliminate faults in order of their grossness, in the Lesser Discourse on Emptiness the Buddha teaches Ānanda to begin with an idea or perception or meditative consciousness (sañña) that is a basis for unity. Paradoxically, such an idea, or such a meditation-object, is ultimately not conducive to unity. Insofar as sañña is understood to mean an idea, an idea is just a disturbing thing to be abandoned -- as indicated by the title of SN Canto 15, Abandoning Ideas, and by the description of the four dhyānas in SN Canto 17. Insofar as sañña is understood to mean a meditation-object, a meditation-object ultimately not conducive to unity; it is rather conducive to basing one's efforts on the disturbing separation of subject and object. 

The Buddha teaches Ānanda then, to abandon ideas, or perceptions, or meditation objects, one by one, until ultimately even the idea of "balanced stillness without a meditation object" (animitta cetosamādhi) is also abandoned. 

By this process of emptying, the meditator finally arrives at...

parisuddhaṃ paramānuttaraṃ suññataṃ,
the emptiness which is pure, of the highest order, and unsurpassed.

This abode of emptiness is empty of the polluting influences of desire, becoming and ignorance. Its realization is therefore described using the oft-repeated formula:

Khīṇā jāti
"Destroyed is (re)birth

vusitaṁ brahmacariyaṁ
accomplished is the spiritual life

kataṁ karaṇīyaṁ
done is what ought to be done

nāparaṁ itthattāyā ti 
there is no more of this mundane state." 

For Zen practitioners devoted to "just sitting," then, Cūḷasuññatasuttaṃ might thus be a useful point of reference. 

Such devoted Zen practitioners, my late teacher Gudo Nishijima used to observe, generally tend to be perfectionist sorts who are interested in being good as opposed to bad, and right as opposed to wrong. I, Mike Cross, was not the only one whom he painted with this brush. Partly with that in mind (but see also below), I have translated daratha as "imperfection." 

In his translation, to which I referred in preparing the above, Thanissaro Bhikkhu translated daratha as "disturbance."  Ānandajoti Bhikkhu suggested "sorrow," which is closer to the Pali-English dictionary's definition -- anxiety, care, distress.

But on reflection, I think that a certain irony can be discerned running through the Cūḷasuññatasuttaṃ, so that the practitioner is concerned with the eradication of imperfections that are implicated with ideas, until such time as he or she ultimately arrives at the state of imperfection which is his or her own being. 

Also relevant to this Sutta, then, is Dogen's observation in SBGZ chap. 73 that if water is too pure, fish cannot live in it. 

And especially relevant, in my book, is a rhetorical question that FM Alexander posed to one who was trying to be right: 

'Don't you see that if you get perfection today, 
you will be farther away from perfection than you have ever been?'

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