Progressive Stages of Experiencing Emptiness

Here is a piece I wrote some years ago (2011 or earlier) about the experiential aspects of the “Progressive Stages of Meditation on Emptiness”.

Lama Shenpen’s book of that title was written from talks given by Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche, and is available on Amazon. Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche (1813 – 1899), amongst his many writings, expounds this idea, that what are taught as philosophical views are better seen as ways our experience appears to us in meditation at different times, inspired by different insights. By knowing the limitations of each ‘view’, we can avoid becoming stuck at any point, and in this way, recognising the ‘views’ associated with each insight allows a progressive deepening of our vision of emptiness.

In some “non-dual” teachings there seems to be an unspoken assumption that seeing what is false in the notion of self equates to enlightenment. Kongtrul’s / Khenpo Rinpoche’s / Lama Shenpen’s practical guide to the exploration of emptiness reveals the shortsightedness of this attitude.

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The notion that we have a persisting unchanging personal identity or self, which you may or may not see as a soul, is a belief. Careful examination of our experience provides no evidence to support this eternalist view, indeed the impermanence of the elements of body and mind was a key teaching of the Buddha. It is sometimes assumed that the opposite – that there is no self – must be the case, and furthermore that this realisation constitutes the enlightenment of the Buddha. Yet if enlightenment is really the discovery that we are nothing, this seems like a nihilism of the person – how is that so wonderful?

The Buddha certainly encouraged investigating our ideas of being a self – much of which doesn’t bear close scrutiny – but I’ve yet to see the sutra where he gives the answer to this conundrum of whether or not there is a self. And if he had definitively stated that there is no self, this would be a well-known reference indeed (in fact, when specifically asked, the Buddha remained silent, S.N.44.10*). Generally in Buddhist philosophy, such views of nihilism and eternalism are seen as “the devil and the deep blue sea”- and neither explanation describes the discoveries of actual meditation experience.

What do we find when we examine for ourselves the assumption that we are a continuously persisting self, separate from others and the world? The Buddha’s suggestion of dividing everything we can find experientially of ourselves into five collections (in Sanskrit: skandhas) is still a useful method. Different teachers define them differently, but as long as we include every aspect of our physical and mental experience within the categories of form, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness, then we can check to see if this self-identity can be found in any of them. Note that it is important to restrict our evidence to what we know experientially, excluding theoretical “knowledge”, or constructed assumptions of thought, because we know we already think we are a self, we are now looking for proof of that thought.

We could also divide our experience according to our five senses plus our thinking or mental sense, and look for a persisting self there. Were we familiar with what is represented by the four elements, earth, water, air and fire – or with five including space, we could see how we are comprised of these, none of which provide a basis for our sense of “me-ness”. Or we could take a modern view and see ourselves as composed of the chemical elements, or even as atoms, none of which have this me-ness.

Although it is hardly identifiable as a “me” which is different from your idea of you, I may be left after these investigations with a mere feeling of being an observer of all my changing experience. This is when the fifth skandha – the bare existence of consciousness – needs close attention. When we see that there can be no quality displayed in awareness without its being simultaneously known, and correspondingly no knowing aspect to awareness without something known, then we see through this illusion of subjective observer and object.

Complete conviction in this realisation would be liberation from the self, so have we reached enlightenment now? I would say we have reached something very precious and beneficial, which is known in Buddhist philosophical terms as the Sravaka view. We would experience an intimacy with the world and others, a sense of no separation, a constant dance of dissolving self-and-other-ness, you might say, nothing resting as self nor other, yet not neither and not both.

The results of this depend crucially on how matters develop from there. If a subtle pride in this transformation doesn’t blind us, we will wonder what exactly this experience is. This inherent reflexivity of awareness – the inescapable fact that whatever appears is therefore known to consciousness, and correspondingly all conscious knowing requires some appearance – can allow us to see all our experience as being, by its nature, mind – in that all we can ever know directly is awareness itself. This is true of what we took to be ourself as much as what we took to be something other. The “three spheres” of actor, action, and that acted upon, are no longer seen as separate – they collapse. This is similar to waking from a dream, which had seemed real and is now recognised as being merely mental imagery.

This view of the universe of our total experience as being “mind only” is known as the Cittamatrin view. It can be an enlightening experience, as long as we don’t slip into solipsism – the delusion that there is nothing outside my own mind and so I can do what I want. Such a distortion of the “mind-only” view by an egotistical sense of self shows the need for realising the emptiness of self first – as in the progression of views of emptiness taught by Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche * Another distortion of this stage could be the belief that nothing has any meaning because none of it is real – a nihilistic view. This remains a potential pitfall, of which more later.

sri lanka monkeys & elephants

Onward, onward, ever onward! Can we find this mind as anything we can pin down or distinguish? Is it something which persists through time? As events unfold linearly, it seems obvious that it does exist in time. Back to the meditation cushion: thoroughly testing our idea that time runs from past, through present, to future, we find that nothing of past and future can be found in our direct experience apart from the thoughts of them. This puts a spanner in our works, since our ways of thinking and speaking have an inbuilt assumption of linear time. It’s much like freeing ourselves from the assumption of self and other.

In this way we discover the “Power of Now” as Eckhardt Tolle* calls it, yet we cannot quite work out what the present moment is, bound as it seems to a past which seems to trail away continuously from it. In meditation we see the thought we have just been thinking, without realising that that very conceptualising of it as being a thought is itself thinking! It becomes like trying to see your own eyes.

We move into knowing the “now” as something we cannot catch, and everything else as our concepts: the “e-ternal” present is literally outside time. This discovery that everything which is real is something that cannot be grasped or defined is one we come to recognise as a hallmark of truth (as Lama Shenpen has often pointed out). It’s also something which continually frustrates scientists, who believe they will be able to describe reality exactly.

We can further question our assumptions about our experience by looking at space: size and distance. We can see it in front of us, yet it cannot have an upper limit, despite what astronomers say about the size of the universe; furthermore, size can only be relative – if everything halved in size simultaneously, we would not know. And what is the smallest dimension? Divide that in two…

These and many other ways of testing our working assumptions about the world are the legacy of the Madhyamaka philosophers, notably Nagarjuna,* and they serve to break down our belief in a world of nameable graspable things. Anything we take as being real, solid and definable, can be subjected to this analysis, and will not hold up in the face of it. “Form is emptiness…”*

If we are brave enough to let go of everything we thought we depended upon, this analytical process can lead to profound insight – so is this now ultimate enlightenment? Or does this lead us from a devil of material eternalism into a deep blue sea of universal nihilism? Not only is there no self, there is no world, nor is there any thing or process definable as mind (mind as distinct from what?).

pyrenees skyline

When we wake from a dream we realise that the different objects and happenings of the dream, which had seemed real, were only a dream: there was nothing real there. But this is still not the same as if there had been no dream. It is not what we thought is was – but it’s not nothing either.

Just as the breaking down of our false ideas about a self didn’t leave nothingness, the collapse of our mistaken interpretations of our whole experience doesn’t leave a hollow blankness either. In fact, as meditative experiences of this kind show, there is a tremendous upsurge of something which feels significant, something real and profound, something universal and central to who we truly are. Just as when we let go of negative reactions like hatred, desire, defensive isolation, arrogance or inferiority, what bubbles up spontaneously is in that indefinable area of peace, love, compassion, confidence, and a paradoxical feeling of being grounded in groundlessness.

When we drop the unreal, we are never left with nothing. Yet if we try to identify and hold on to whatever comes, we are back in delusion again immediately. Philosopher Hilary Lawson* calls this process “closure” – trying to pin down aspects of “openness” into fixed concepts.

We can go a long way by negating all views or statements, and some would say this is the only sure thing we can do – philosophically this is the rangtong view of enlightenment.* But in our hearts we know there is more to enlightenment than this. This is like a map that says: “you are not here – no, not there either, nor there…” – you are still left with the feeling that you are at least somewhere, even if it is indefinable on a map.

Can we say anything? Would this not be a trapdoor back into delusion again? You may have noticed that the qualities of experience referred to above which arise with letting go of reactions based on delusion, or which arise with any moments of genuine insight, are all qualities we associate with enlightenment. These are qualities such as peace, spaciousness, freedom, clarity, understanding, harmony, love, compassion, sensitive responsiveness, joy, equanimity, confidence, happiness, present awareness. What’s more, they are ones we already know to some extent, and we value them highly, we inherently recognise their significance – is this not why we seek enlightenment in the first place?

Again we notice there is nothing graspable, definable or quantifiable here, yet becoming more clearly aware of these aspects of enlightened nature can offer a valuable alternative to concluding merely that “everything is empty of self-nature”, the rangtong view. We can approach ultimate truth through discovering within our present experience our enlightened nature, the true nature of reality. This must be intrinsic to whatever we are, or we would never be able to become enlightened – after all, enlightenment cannot be created, otherwise it could also be destroyed. This inherent potential for enlightenment is referred to by all Buddhists as Buddha Nature. The view that enlightenment means discovering our own Buddha Nature – that such a true nature of reality can be found when everything false falls away – is called shentong.*

One great advantage of realising this is that we can begin here and now to pay attention to these aspects of our nature, to find our sense of groundedness in these heart-qualities, rather than in our constructed idea of self. This will give us the confidence to approach openness, and empower us to realise the emptiness of what we thought ourselves and our world were. We find that it’s not a loss of that – it never was truly there anyway – we learn that these false securities only ever caused suffering. Rather it is opening to who we essentially are, freeing ourselves from what obscured our enlightened nature.

Lama Shenpen, author of “The Buddha Within”, a detailed treatise on shentong and its relationship to the rangtong view, taking the Buddha’s simile of crossing in a boat from mundane view to enlightenment, likens rangtong view to facing backwards in that boat, focussing on the unreality of everything you are leaving behind, and shentong to facing forwards, becoming more aware of the reality you are moving towards.* Despite the often animated debate between holders of the two views, ultimate enlightenment does not deny either of them.

The problem is more in the dangers posed by following each as a means to enlightenment: in rangtong, the danger is nihilism, the misunderstanding that finding everything empty of what you thought was its nature means nothing exists at all. In shentong, the mistake that could be inferred is that some eternal characterisable reality is being proposed. As I hope I’ve made clear, neither of these are true.

My take on it? Rangtong: “the present moment is empty of being anything…”

Shentong: “ .. but This!”

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  • Samyutta Nikaya 44.10 “Ananda Sutta”, the questions of Vacchagotta

  • Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche & Lama Shenpen Hookham, “Progressive Stages of Meditation on Emptiness” 1986 (New edition 2003, publisher: Zhyisil Chokyi Ghatsal Trust). Also available as an audiobook.

  • “Power of Now” by Eckhart Tolle (publisher: Hodder)

  • A note on the “scientific project” to define the universe:
    In the light of this endeavour, note that when Einstein took the speed of light as the constant by which to examine the other assumed constants of the universe, he found that distance, time, and even matter were not fixed. And when quantum physicists began investigating – at the other end of the scale – very small aspects of the apparently physical world, they found that uncertainty in specifying both speed and location was not a fly in the experimental ointment, but a dependable principle!

  • Nagarjuna – lived in India around 150 – 250 C.E.

  • from the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra

  • Hilary Lawson, “Closure, A Story of Everything” Routledge, 2001

  • Tibetan, meaning “self-empty”

  • Tibetan, meaning “empty-of-other”

  • The Buddha Within” Shenpen Hookham PhD, S.U.N.Y. Press, 1991

  • Lama Shenpen offers a home-study course based on finding our Buddha Nature in our direct experience: “Discovering the Heart of Buddhism”. See

Five Cram 2011

4 thoughts on “Progressive Stages of Experiencing Emptiness

  1. hi five, long time no see – thanks for this. One of my all time favourite teachings… and I hadn’t known that Jamgon Kongtrul had written on it. Could you provide a reference to this or is it in some untranslated text? Lots of love Kamalashila


    1. Lama Shenpen has told me that Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche said that this was his source. So I do not know whether there is a translation of the original Jamgon Kongtrul writings. If you locate one, I would be delighted to know of it. Great to hear from you!


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