by Zasep Tulku Rinpoche
Union of Sutra & Tantra Series
September 1998, Vancouver, BC, Canada
(transcribed from audio/video tape)

Tonight we will discuss the concept of shunyata wisdom, and we will also discuss meditation on shunyata.
First I would like to lead meditation on shunyata, or emptiness. When we meditate on shunyata, first it is very important to meditate on the emptiness or shunyata of person. Shunyata of person, or emptiness of person, or no-self. So according to tradition it is always suggested that one should do meditation on shunyata and start the meditation with analytical mind. So first we ask question to ourself, "Who am I?" We should ask question, "Who am I?" So I'd like you at this point to ask question to yourself, "Who am I?" and find out what kind of answer you can find, or is there answer or no. So please ask this question, "Who am I?" [Meditate.]
We ask this question to ourselves, "Who am I?" So perhaps you find many answers: "I am man. I am human being. I am a Canadian. I am a teacher. I am a photographer. I am a writer. I am a singer. I am a musician. I am a cOkay I am a driver. And I am a nice person, and so on and so forth. You can label, you can find lots of words, "I am this, I am this, I am this, I am that." What does that mean? Why do I say, "I am a photographer" and what does that mean? So this is a label, this is a word. This is a concept. We include this label. It is not much different than saying, "This is a table. This is a bOkay This is a watch. This is a bell. This is a teacup." It is all labels. And so when I say, "I'm a photographer," Okay, what does that mean?
Okay, I'm a photographer, but what makes me a photographer? Now where is the photographer? I can't become a photographer without having camera, and I have to have a camera. Camera itself alone can't become a photographer. I alone without a camera can't be a photographer. And so, me having a camera alone doesn't make me a photographer. I have to go take photos, shoot pictures and produce photo and then I'm called photographer. So there's so much involved there: photo and taking photo and act of making photo and so on and so forth. These are all activities. But what is photographer?
Or when we say, "I am a man," or "I am a woman." So where is the woman? We need to search and we need to go through. LOkayand lOkayand lOkayon ourselves, try to find where is me - me or self or I. Those are different concepts - me, self or I. All those concepts are different concepts. Then you practice, you do analytical meditation. Where is me?
The photographer, individually - like, I lOkayat the photo, the camera - that's not a photographer. This body - that's not the photographer, body alone. What about the mind - mind alone is not the photographer. If you lOkay you meditate step by step, one by one, dividing me and part of me, then you lOkay You cannot find, you can't find, me or self. Except this concept of me or I, this person, human being, man or woman, or photographer or writer. Whatever you're called - a concept. And this concept, this label and all these different parts. Other than that, you can't find one self, or what we call independent self. Person is, we call empty of substantial and autonomous existence.
Person is empty of substantial and autonomous existence. Because when we lOkay when we meditate on this way, we cannot find. So that vacuum, that emptiness, is called "emptiness of person" or personality. That is called shunyata or that is called no-self. So that is important. That is an important realization. When you realize that, then you realize emptiness. You realize also, then one will realize egolessness, egolessness. No ego. No self. So therefore, ego-grasping and self-grasping will diminish, will dissolve, because one realizes, one got realization: "There is no self. There is no me."
So when you realize there is no me, no self, no inherent existent self, no independent existent self, that realization is called the wisdom of no-self. And that wisdom is called, in Tibetan, "ne lug tog pen sherub." (??) "Ne lug" means "the true nature." The true nature, the true nature of self. "Tog pen sherub" means the wisdom of realizing the true nature of self. The true nature of self is empty. No inherent existence, no independent existence. And this realization is very important.
Lama Tsong Khapa said, "If you do not have the wisdom, that wisdom that understands the way things exist" This is the way things exist. Everything exists this way. Like I, myself, do not exist inherently or independently. Likewise, others. And likewise, all phenomena. This realization is important. If you do not have this wisdom, you cannot eradicate the root of existence. This means one cannot eradicate the root of samsara. One cannot get rid of the root of all the defilements. One cannot get rid of ego-grasping. We cannot get rid of, eradicate, self-cherishing mind and one cannot get rid of self-grasping. One cannot eradicate attachment and anger, jealousy, envy, and so on and so on. And therefore, one cannot eradicate karma. If one cannot eradicate karma, unwholesome karma, then one cannot eradicate the cyclic existence, like the death and birth and old age, sickness and all the suffering of samsara.
Lama Tsong Khapa said, "Despite your acquaintance (?) with renunciation and bodhicitta, thus wOkayhard at the means to realize the interdependence of things." Despite you may have realization of renunciation, you may have realization of the bodhicitta and you may have profound realization of renunciation. You may have these strong feelings of renunciation, you know. You realize the life, you realize the human life, the essence of the human life, the value of life or life in general has no really meaning, no greater meaning than temporary benefit, creating temporary happiness, solving temporary suffering, and so on and so forth. And there's not great meaning. Therefore, one realizes that Dharma realization is most important, most beneficial. So you have this strong feeling, feeling of yearning to be liberated from samsara, from cyclic existence. Wish to be free, free. So this realization is called renunciation.
You could have that realization and you have this strong desire to practice meditation and Dharma day and night, day and night. And when someone has a very deep renunciation, realization of renunciation, he or she sometimes forgets so many things, forgets worldly things. The worldly activities are no longer important. Sometimes they meditate and forget about food, like dinner, and just keep practicing, meditating, meditating. It happens so easily.
For example, when you love gardening, when you have so much passion for gardening, you are out there in the garden digging and planting flowers, herbs, and taking out weeds and landscaping, and you forget how the time went so fast. You forget the time. All of a sudden you realize you spent six hours in the garden. You forgot lunch. When you have so much love and passion. Similarly, when you are hiking or doing whatever - fishing, painting, singing or dance, whatever you do. Likewise, when you have so much love or kind of like passion toward nirvana and free oneself from samsara, one gets into this kinds of state of mind. You even forget about eating lunch, and all these mundane things are not important. So one can have all these kinds of realizations.
Also one can have strong realization of bodhicitta, loving kindness, love toward all sentient beings, unconditioned love, impartial love. So much compassion and love you dedicate your life and your time and energy for the sake of others. One can have those realizations. But if one does not have the realization of shunyata, emptiness, then it is not possible to cut the root of samsara. You cannot eradicate the root of cyclic existence, as I mentioned.
So there's still self-grasping and self-cherishing, self-grasping and even now the self-grasping, the grasping of personality, will arise. So the realization of shunyata is considered very important, and the realization of shunyata - once you have a taste of shunyata, a glimpse of realization of shunyata, or emptiness - that realization is very powerful. And it will eradicate all kinds of defilements.
And one of the famous Buddhist Mahayana scriptures called the 400 Verses by Aryadeva, it says, "Even those with few merits have no doubt about this Dharma. Even those who still have their doubt will tear existence to tatters." So it means those people who have little merit and does not have doubts about shunyata, doubt does not arise, in other words question does not arise. This means in order to have some question or understanding or arising question, you ask question, "What is shunyata? What is no-self? What is the doctrine of no-self? I'd like to find out about this question of emptiness." But in order to have that kind of question arise, be able to have that kind of question arise, one must have some merit, some virtuous mind, because this question is a very profound question.
And once you have that question, "I want tOkayow what is emptiness? What does that mean? What does shunyata mean? Is shunyata and emptiness are the same thing, or different? What does that mean?" If you have questions - if you're questioning, if you're questioning and analyzing, doing some sort of analytical meditation, read, think and discuss and debate, having doubt - that in itself is very meaningful. He said because of that mind will make samsara, the power of that mind makes samsara become - how shall I say? English word tatters - like you have a piece of cloth, you chop it down, make it become pieces. Or chopping vegetables, become small pieces. Chop a brick, make little bricks. Crashing rOkay, become little rOkay. Like that. When you have doubts about shunyata, this is good doubt. Doubt is good and actually there are different kinds of doubt. This kind of doubt is questioning doubt.
Normally we don't even have doubt because we are so caught up with worldly things and worldly existence. And we have this thick kind of mind, you know, black and white mind, good/bad, absolute good and absolute bad, right and wrong, and so on and so forth. When you arise questions, when you ask questions, "What is right? What is wrong? Is there right or wrong, and what does that mean?" Anyway, questioning about shunyata is very powerful. It says it is very meaningful. It is worthwhile to investigate, spend time on studying and meditating.
So it is not easy to understand. Sometimes we think, "Why do we make such a big deal about this shunyata, this so-called emptiness? If it's all emptiness, why bother?" We dOkayow everything's impermanent. At some point everything disappears, everything falls apart, deteriorates, degenerates, or gone. Everything becomes history - life, society, and wealth, possessions, family and one's own body, and so forth. Everything becomes history, we know. We know intellectually, but knowing intellectually is different than knowing what you feel.
So we ask this question, "What is this emptiness? Why is it so important? What is the big deal?" So we ask questions, but it's difficult to understand. That's why there are so many interpretations about shunyata according to different schools of thought, schools of Buddhism. And according to Buddhist history there are two main Mahayana schools and two main Hinayana schools and they all have different interpretations about shunyata. And within those two Mahayana schools, they also have slightly different interpretations of what is shunyata. And then within Tibetan tradition, we have four different lineages or sects, and each lineage or sect has a little bit different interpretations of shunyata. Within one sect, also, there are also a different interpretation according to different lamas or different philosophers.
So why are there so many different interpretations? Because this topic is very difficult to understand, and therefore, according to teaching, according to lineage, suggests that one should study this teaching very carefully. One should study first intellectually, find the right kind of text and commentary. Read and read, over and over, and then ask some explanation on these topics. And one should take teachings and commentary from a qualified master or teacher. And then one can have some intellectual understanding about shunyata.
And intellectual understanding alone is not enough. One has to experience. Conceptual understanding alone is not enough. One has to experience. Therefore, it is necessary to practice the preliminary practice. It is necessary to do preliminary meditation. It suggests that one should do foundation practice, such as Vajrasattva practice, prostration, and so forth. Also one should rely on guru and yiddam - the deities. One should make request and ask them to, when you need help, to purify our mind. And we need to accumulate merit, accumulate virtue.
So it is necessary to do those practices and then meditate on it. Meditate on emptiness. According to teaching, first one should first do meditation on emptiness of self, as I mentioned before, like the meditation that we did.
So you meditate and ask the question, "Where is me?" or "Where is I?" So you go through and let's say you lOkayat yourself, lOkayat your body, slowly go through from the top of your head to the bottom of your feet. And where is I, where is me? You lOkayat your face, your body, your skin, your hands, your arms, your stomach, your shoulder, your chest, your thigh, your knee, your feet, your toes. Is this me? Is this so? This is body. This is my body. This is only body. This is skin, this is human skin, this is flesh and bone. This is not me. Otherwise, there's too many self, too many "I" because we have so many parts. Our body has so many parts.
The human body is very complicated. There's so many things in the body, the way the body is made. It takes so long to study, tOkayow about human body. You have to go to school and study. Then especially if you want to study about the brain and it takes so long to understand, perhaps you never understand how it wOkay. Similarly, the heart and organs and so forth. So if this body is me, there would be so many me's so many self, so many I's, that's not possible. There's only one self, one "I", one so-called "I". So this body, it can't be me. I don't think this is me. This is not me.
So when you find out the body is not me, then what about feelings or perception, or the mind? So you break down, and you study intellectually and analyze logically. You study each individual skandas are not self, not me.
What about mind, then? Maybe mind is me. The mind who says, "Me" is me, must be me. Again, mind is even more complicated than the body. So many types of mind: positive mind, virtuous mind, non-virtuous mind, according to Buddhist philosophy there are fifty-one secondary minds and ten virtuous minds, twenty non-virtuous minds and so on and so forth. So many different mental events, mental factors. We have six major, what we call basic defilements or delusions, like ignorance, attachments, anger, jealousy, and doubt and wrong view and so forth. Like that, so many types of mind. So if the mind is me, or self, there will be so many again me and self. And that's not possible. So mind is also not me.
So then, where is me? And finally you can only say, "There is not really me. I'm not absolutely sure there is no me, but I can only say there is not me, because I can't find me. I don't know what happened to me. [Laughter.] I always believed, I always felt there is me since I was a little child. Begin to talk about, begin to say Mommy, Daddy, puppy, cat, and then me, me, me. Since then I always say me, and I, and self, and I always thought there was self, there's a me. But now I find out there is no real me, no real me. Me is only concept. I realize something now." So why do we call me then? If there is no me, why do we fool ourselves? Why do we call ourselves me, me, or you? Why?
We have to because we have to communicate on a conventional level. We have to put labels on so many things, labels like table and watch and clOkayand teacup and bOkayand so on and so forth. We have to put those labels in order to live and function, to survive, and so putting labels on things - she, me, you, he, and five people, three people. Like, I heard, according to Australian Aborigine, certain tribal people, they don't have many numbers. After five, then there's no numbers. So, "one person, three people, five people," then after that, "many people." "Many people." So I guess they don't need to count ten people, twenty people, fifty people. They didn't need to count people. And numbers are not so important. Just say, "Many people or few people. Some people." So it's a concept. So we put this label of "self", "me", but when we meditate on self, there is no self.
Then we meditate on others the same way. If I meditate on certain person, likewise the same way I meditate on myself, I turn around, meditate on, "There is no real he or she inherently existent." So then what is different between I and you, she and me, he and me? On a relative level we are different - we are different persons, different beings, different human beings - but what is really different? We have separate bodies; otherwise, what is different? Likewise, all things are like that.
Transcribed text courtesty of
Golden Blue Lotus Tara Center