From Emptiness to form and back again by Catherine Rathbun


Arising from nothing, we return to nothing. Throughout life, except during the short period of our youth, we have a deep suspicion that there is no permanency, although every human effort seems bent in the direction of trying to make things which are of lasting importance. Along with a sense of the fleetingness of life, we are tormented by preoccupations of ourselves and our place in the world. Somehow, deep down, we intuit that we are not really the substantial, permanent self that we wish we were. We are inadequate to the task of stopping time and circumstance.

When it does not cause depression, this sense of inadequacy translates into a sense of purpose. This purpose may be selfish or altruistic. But if we sustain the fallacy that who we are or what we do IS permanent, our endeavours become ego driven. From this comes an increase of grasping which only increases our sense of struggle and our suffering. The experience of the Buddha showed him how much this grasping mind contaminated our understanding of reality. The term he used when teaching about impermanence and the insubstantiality of all created things is Anatta.

This ceaseless, unending round of impermanent creation and dissolution is called Anicca. In our quieter moments, we can acknowledge the rhythm of life and see how birth, youth, old age and death are a natural part of all created things. But most of the time, we keep blinkers on our experience, refusing to acknowledge the passages, except in rueful moments. Moaning about birthdays, rubbing on the wrinkle cream, tummy tucks and facelifts are all extensions of this refusal to accept change.

In the present age we have become familiar with the phrase ‘constant change’ but we tend to apply it to external factors. We change houses, jobs, countries, even marriages more easily than at any time in human history. Only in nomadic times did people wander so freely between different parts of their world. But their world did not include airplanes; the sphere of our wanderings is now much larger.

Despite all this change consciousness, we hang stubbornly onto the permanency of self. Why is this? What is it that we are trying to preserve? Only when life delivers a deep blow, when we lose someone we love, or when we fall seriously ill do we have to confront the deeper dynamic in which we all participate.

No one really escapes. So the question is: How do we cope with this roundelay? The wheel of life, the Tarot? Can we learn to understand and be in synchrony with it, rather than fight it? Our organism will always fight to stay alive; that is an existential fact. But what else is it that fights? If we deny this fight, we can end up bemoaning our fate, shouting at a world that does not play fair with us. But fighting blindly is equally troublesome and unsatisfactory.

The practice of meditation introduces us to those intuitive moments that connect us to another reality beyond the relative world of ‘us and them’. Here there is no fight; nothing other than awakened wisdom is present in the moment of fully letting go into the ‘no self’. Great peace floods our awareness and we are not only at peace with ourselves but intuitively connected as one with the universal flow. After a strong experience of this, the rest of the world is seen differently.

This is what the teaching of Krishnamurti speaks of and more recently, Eckhart Tolle in The Power of Now. For myself, this experience came following the birth of my eldest son in 1969. From that time on, I knew that there was work to be done on the planet that would enable many people to experience this deeper reality. For, once such a moment is strongly experienced, it is never forgotten.

In the Christian tradition there is a saying, that “Man cannot see the face of God and Live”. If the psyche is untrained, as mine was in 1969, that seems a literal statement and delusion can result. My early experience was so strong and so demanding of my attention that I felt willing to let go of everything, even life itself, if that was what was called for. Self sacrifice is, after all, a deep part of the Christian mindset and I thought of myself as a person attempting to live out the teachings of Jesus. Of course, my knowledge was so muddled and partial that it was understandable that doctors thought I was merely delusional and indeed, there was lots of delusion mixed with the insights. Luckily for me, I knew enough to know that I needed teaching to put into context some of what I was experiencing. And that is how I came to Buddhism. Its teaching includes logic and reasoning as well as the intuitive and has good logical stepping stones for training and understanding the mind.

For some people, a strong experience of this entry into and union with the divine can bring despair. There are no places to hide and no goalposts to hang onto. Still others veer into hedonism after an experience of deep selflessness. This has been a puzzling phenomenon in recent times, among people who seem to have ‘awakened’. When a deep sense of union is present, all is seen as divine. Those who have not purified the self through sufficient preparatory practices may fall into this problem. If they have not invoked the ideals of the Bodhisattva, been trained in the Mahayana teachings or developed the Christ consciousness of charitable work so that self viewing has been loosened, the grip of the self will tend to lead them into hedonism. The reasoning goes like this: “After all, if everything is divine, then I am divine, then everything I do is divine. Right?” Well… yes and….NO!

The teaching of the Buddhist path steps into this conundrum by working to craft a middle way to help us gradually relinquish the grasping to the small self.

Vajrayana practices provide a slow set of stepping stones called the Arising Yogas towards the release of our self preoccupation. We do this through identification with anthropomorphic figures that are self created but also semi-autonomous. By self identifying with positive qualities, we grow more positive and more peaceful and friendly. By imagining other entities coming to help us, we open ourselves to a multi-dimensional world.

Increasingly, we realize the strong part that mind plays in causing this creation. Then, through dissolving any visualization at the end of each practice and sitting quietly for a few moments in some imagined ‘emptiness’ we slowly allow the ideas of emptiness or non-substantiality to creep into our psyches. The Chenrezig Sadhana practice uses the following words to encourage this state: “free from viewing and viewed, inseparable from emptiness, without regard for duality, for deity, or for mantra.”

At the time that Gautama the historic Buddha taught, the way to a spiritual life was always the way of the renunciate. It was not that out of the ordinary for a young man to take up the homeless life in order to develop himself. At first, after his awakening, he was reluctant to teach because he did not think anyone would believe him. The grip of self referencing and self affirmation underlies so much of what humans do, that he felt it an impossible task. Understanding how difficult it was to see and experience the ‘no-self’, he encouraged people to give up the ordinary life and take up the life of a bikkhu or bikkshuni. Thus, he drew a line in the sand for many people. That line exists for some, to this day. I.e. if you are not a monk or a nun, you cannot really be expected to awaken to the truth of the world.

However, over time, different schools of Buddhism have developed various techniques to introduce the teachings of emptiness. Some are harsh and uncompromising. The practice of Za-zen is one example. Tremendous dedication needs to be undertaken by the practitioner to sit staring at a blank wall and waiting until thoughts are no longer grasped but seen as a stream, then the stream is interrupted and finally ceases to flow altogether.

The breath meditations of Theravada Buddhism are somewhat softer. A person does anapanasati first, which is a tranquillity practice, gently returning the consciousness to the breath again and again. Finally, as if by magic, the breath fills the mind, the mind goes quiet. There is only the organism breathing in and out and we are at peace and one with the universal flow.

In Tibetan schools, various techniques developed over time to help students understand the concepts of emptiness. In the Gelugpta School the initial emphasis was placed on subtraction. Logic is an important Buddhist discipline; through its use, the student is led to investigate the skandhas to see that they are unreliable witnesses to true reality. True reality is something ‘other’ or ‘more’ than what we experience as form, feeling, perceptions, mental contents and ordinary consciousness.

In the Karma Kargyu School, a form came into being that is called Mahamudra. It is more intuitive than the other forms above. In the Nyingma school, Dzogchen is an even more intuitive way of confronting the final barricades of the self. Both are considered to be advanced practices, preceded by prior understandings.

Preparations for doing these practices used to be extensive. Many years of Arising Yoga were traditionally undertaken by a practitioner, in order to prepare the mind for the ‘shock’ of anatta. However, in the present day, these practices have been opened to even beginning students of meditation. If approached with care, there is no danger to either a beginning or advanced student and both can benefit from a period of retreat doing these practices.

Indian Mahamudra turns up in the 11th to 13th centuries C.E., practiced by the Mahasiddhas. Its entry into Tibet found a ready home amongst the tantrists, to whom all life is sacred and worthy of investigation. The story of King Indrabhuti illustrates this. He did not wish to give up his engagement with a world he saw as beautiful and worthy but did earnestly wish to plumb the depths of his mind and to awaken. It is said that his previous merit was very great and that he did awaken quickly, once he was introduced to the practice of Vajrayana.

No matter how great the thirst for awakening may be, the average person seldom has the ability to enter a lengthy retreat. So it is a great blessing that we are able to access these teachings, even within a limited time frame. Mahamudra is an ideal practice for us Westerners who feel tied to our family and community commitments, because it works initially through the very sense doors we use on a day to day basis.

The teaching of Mahamudra, which I do during the summer retreat, allows us to move through the sense doors to an understanding of ‘non-clinging awareness’. Simply being. It is vitally necessary to learn how to empty our full minds and hearts in order to become present to the deeper reality of All Pervading Presence, which we call Enlightenment Mind. In Christian terms, this may be referred to as the God Presence, particularly when it is not connected to a sense of form but is experienced as a formless open presence.

However, we yearn for form, and that too is part of our nature. It is the reason that so many new plots and plans turn up in the mind after only a few days of quiet retreat. These new creative ideas can be stimulating and productive. They often illumine the day to day life immensely. But there is a deeper wisdom to find that arises only after we learn to let go of the plots and plans of the daily world we inhabit.

Yearning for form is the reason we are born into a womb. The consciousness becomes so full of longing for a home that it is drawn down into the womb and hence into a new incarnation.

The extent to which we have been able to train ourselves to hold the wide open mind of pure presence is the extent to which we may be able to direct our consciousness to a wholesome birth. There is a popular idea that we choose our parents but it is through the force of karma that we arrive in a place and time. Only the great adepts can choose their path. The rest of us are at the mercy of our thoughts, words and deeds and the totality of the energy they have created.

Consequently, the move to learn to hold the mind in emptiness is a necessary precursor to inhabiting form. Learning to cultivate not clinging to old forms and old ways is the starting point. Riding the wave of thought, emotions, and various energies instead of becoming always entangled in them begins the journey of freedom from their thirsty grasp. Sometimes teachers seem to teach as if all emotions are poisonous and so, a mistaken idea has grown about awakening. It is not a state where there is a permanent emotional flat line but a place where reason and passion can be balanced and seen for what they are: the passing parade. After all, the ups and downs of life eventually all dissolve. Buildings fall; countries dissolve; people come and go. Nothing is permanent. It is only when we try to stop the flow that things become painful.

As we learn to be comfortable with a dissolving world of self, we see others differently. Our enemies are just suffering beings and really products of our own minds. There are harmful people and situations in this world and we must do what we can to try to help matters. But we must learn that we cannot save another, really, they must learn to save themselves.

If we can live this philosophy, then no matter the numbers of our days, whether they be long or short, they will be full of contentment and joy. It is a great blessing at the end of the day to say to oneself: “I have done the best that I can do this day. May my errors be forgiven and may I learn to correct them tomorrow.”

In the world of the teaching, paradox is always present. The paradox here is that the experience of emptiness is a necessary precursor to correct form. By this I mean that unless we can let go fully into an expansive mind state, we will not be able to clearly choose an appropriate form for our thoughts and our activities. Here is a mystery, really. But it is one that I have observed in my own life and in the lives of many others, as well. The creativity that arises from finally letting go into openness is much deeper than the creativity that arises from an ego oriented formation. The greatest music and the greatest art of our planet have often been associated with the churches or with meditative thought. Einstein said that all his ideas came to him after a period of deep contemplation, so this may be a natural law that affects us all.

The Buddhist teaching says: “The essence of mind is emptiness; its nature is clarity; its natural activity is unimpeded.” Kalu Rinpoche has also said: “The essence of mind is emptiness; its nature is unimpeded; its natural activity is compassion.”

If we examine these two statements, we can learn a great deal. Entering the deep quiet of the empty state of mind, we find peace and openness. Returning to the world, we find we are clearer about many things and new things become possible. Alternatively, in the second statement, we can see upon returning to the world that everything is possible (i.e. unimpeded) and then we can choose our path.

If it is true that our natural activity is compassion, it is perhaps so only because we have freedom of choice. There are two ways to see this. One: our prepatory work with the Arising Yogas of the Tibetan Foundation Practices has purified our desires so much that we only wish to act with compassion. Or two: once we realize the true nature of dependent arising and see how we are all interdependently arising, then there is nowhere else to go that makes sense except to strive to develop compassionate action.

In this way, we begin the move from selfishness to selflessness. This move has to do with seeing into the nature of the world as it truly is and acknowledging that our part in it actually counts for something. A small ‘something’, mind you, but nevertheless, it is something. The enslavement of the ego is not a thing you ‘give up’ but it is something whose nature you can clearly see for what it is. Once this step has been taken, the work of service becomes intrinsically bound into the life. In Christian terms, we begin the work of agape.

The force of charitable work in the Christian tradition is a great gift to all humanity. Indeed, to all creation. Unfortunately, it has sometimes been misused to bring about a forced conversion motif to preserve and augment the establishment of various churches and denominations. When this is combined with the motif of self sacrifice, enslavement rather than freedom can result.

In following the teachings of Buddhism, we can fall in love with emptiness, preferring inaction to action, feeling smug in our quietism. This, too, causes suffering, particularly amongst those around us.

Comprehension of the interblend of all creation can help to lead us out of these mistakes. This understanding of dependent arising is now spreading, as more and more people acknowledge the harm our human activities have done to the planet. We are being made vividly aware of the destruction of the rainforest through human greed. Every day, bird, animal and plant species are disappearing. Increasingly, the citizens of the world are falling ill from the force of pollution buildup in their bodies. All this we see from a negative point of view. It is hard to see anything positive in this scenario and people may be forgiven for turning their backs on the problems. They feel unable to affect or stop the avalanche of negative conditions that seem to be the daily fare of our lives.

Perhaps we need to turn this scenario on its head and look to the positive things we can do. Humans are incredibly creative and the revolutions in thought that have translated into new technologies in the last 100 years are truly staggering. If we can learn to apply our ingenuity to the problems we face, we may be able to ‘pull the rabbit out of the hat’.

Strangely, the Buddhist teaching of vivid, open presence that we have been calling ‘emptiness’, could provide the missing link. It needs to be brought into the experience of more human beings. By slowly enabling us to let go of our many egotistical formations, we could all learn to move more deeply and creatively towards new ideas and new solutions.

Not clinging to old forms may I arise into open spaciousness
Not clinging to emptiness may I arise into new form
May all awaken

© March 2008 Catherine Rathbun (Jetsun Yeshe)