How We Come to Understand Emptiness

In the last article, we talked about the two truths: conventional reality and ultimate reality. How do we live if we really understand this paradoxical concept? The bodhisattva begins by affirming the distinction between things, thinking that he is in Samsara and he really wants to leave it. He starts out with some sense of distinction. Then, as he study emptiness, he realizes that there is no difference between Samsara and Nirvana. Nirvana isn’t anymore a kind of a goal you have to reach from where you are.

The Two Stages of Thinking About Emptiness

You have to ask yourself whether there is any difference between that first stage of thinking and the second. I hope you stay with me. The first is a stage where you distinguish between Nirvana and Samsara. In the second stage, you don’t distinguish between the two. What about the distinction between these two stages? Is that distinction real?

When you ask that question to yourself, what happens is that you come back into the first stage. There is no distinction between the stage of no distinction and the stage of distinction. I’m presenting this to you in a way that sounds absurdly abstract, but let me try to clarify it a bit.

The Third and Final Stage

The tea ceremony is studied in the Zen tradition. They learn to handle a ball and tea, bringing in a ritual way, a real experience of emptiness. Let’s say that at the beginning a ball is a ball and tea is tea. When you start to study Zen, a ball is no longer a ball and tea is no longer tea. Then, when you are awakened, when you come back to the conventional awareness of things, a ball is a ball and tea is tea. The process of meditation is involved in this tea ceremony. It is meant to take you from ordinary experience into an experience of emptiness, and then back to the conventional reality.

This is the third stage of thinking about emptiness. It involves a wise appropriation of the categories of the world. This is an appropriation with a sense of freedom and buoyancy. Emptiness, in the end, is that kind of freedom that we talked about before which characterizes Buddhist people.

This article is part of the series about Emptiness.

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