Emptiness and Existence
by Venerable Sheng Yen
How we perceive “existence” and “emptiness” can reveal how shallow or deep our practice is. We need to understand this to avoid getting stuck, and to be able to make progress. Before we have gained some real benefit from practice, we perceive phenomena as real and existent. In this ordinary state of mind, the “self” is still deeply embedded in things: “my” body, “my” house, “my” friends, and so on. After practicing well, we may reach a state of concentration where there are only a few thoughts in our mind. At this time, the sense of self is lessened, and we may feel that we have finally cast away the world and everything in it. “I have thrown off all thinking.” “I am enjoying the bliss of liberation.” “I feel so carefree and light.” Dwelling on feelings of liberation and happiness like this only means that one’s perception of “emptiness” is false and one still sees phenomena as existent.
When one reaches the state of only one thought, or one-mind, one may feel unified with the universe and that one’s powers are unlimited. One also feels great sympathy and compassion for all sentient beings. At this point one is at the stage of “double affirmation,” or a deeper level of existence. Although there is an expanded sense of self, this sense is not “selfish” but rather, one feels a sense of energy and responsibility. The degree of mental power depends on the strength of one’s previous practice. One who is not backed up by a strong practice can still reach one-mind but will not have as great a sense of energy and responsibility — will not likely give rise to the feeling of being a saviour. Therefore great religious leaders are a rare occurrence in human history.
At the next stage of no-thought, or no-mind, one is said to be in the state of “double negation” in that one takes emptiness itself as empty. If a person is attached to emptiness (as in stage two), it is called “stubborn emptiness” or “illusory emptiness.” But at the stage of no-mind one actually recognises that even this emptiness is empty. Since one has emptied out emptiness, then existence is re-asserted, but it is an existence of non-attachment. One will definitely not feel that his world is meaningless, nor, if asked “How is your practice doing?” will one give a reply like “Oh, It doesn’t really matter if I practice or not.”
We usually feel something “exists” when we have strong feelings about it. If emptiness is also based on feelings and emotions, then it is not true emptiness. It is only when, not bound by feelings and emotional attachments, one genuinely experiences things as existing just as they are, that is, at the same time genuinely existent and also genuinely empty. For practitioners, only this can be considered the first level of entering the door of Chan.
Question: Can progress in practice be described as a series of negating one’s previous stage of attainment and affirming something new?
Venerable Sheng Yen: In actual fact the previous stage and what you are affirming now are not two different things. We say that vexations are just bodhi — that is, they are not two separate things. So “negation” is not saying that you have to detest or get rid of vexations before you give rise to wisdom. Nor can you achieve nirvana by negating samsara — they are one thing. It is only that in the process of the practice one’s perception of it varies [according to one’s experience].