From Ignorance to Emptiness
Today I’d like to take the opportunity to tell you some of my own ignorance and doubts, with the thought that we all come from the land of ignorance and doubt inasmuch as our parents and their ancestors before them were people with the defilements (kilesa) that led them to ignorance as well. Even all of us here: There’s probably not a one of us who slipped through to be born in the land of intelligence and freedom from doubt. This being the case, we all must be subject to doubts. So today I’d like to take the opportunity to resolve some of the issues that are on your minds by giving a talk instead of answering the questions you have asked from the standpoint of your various doubts, ranging from the most basic to the highest levels—which I’m not sure I can answer or not. But the questions you have asked seem to follow so well on one another that they can provide the framework for a talk instead of a question-and-answer session.
Each of us, before starting the practice and in the beginning stages of the practice, is sure to suffer from ignorance and doubt, as these are the qualities that lead to the states of becoming and birth into which all living beings are born. When we lay the groundwork for the beginning of the practice, we don’t have enough starting capital for intelligence to take the lead in every situation, and so ignorance is sure to find an opening to take the lead. And as for this ignorance: If we have never trained our intelligence to show us the way, the ignorance that holds the upper hand in the heart is sure to drag us in the wrong direction as a matter of course.
In the beginning of my own training, I felt doubts about whether the teachings of the Buddha—both the practices to be followed and the results to be obtained—were as complete as he said they were. This was an uncertainty that ran deep in my heart during the period in which I was debating whether or not to practice for the really high levels of Dhamma—or, to put it bluntly, for the sake of nibbāna. Before I had considered practicing for the sake of nibbāna, these doubts hardly ever occurred to me, probably because I hadn’t yet aimed my compass in this direction. But after I had ordained and studied the Dhamma—and especially the life of the Buddha, which was the story of his great renunciation leading to his Awakening to the paths (magga), fruitions (phala), and nibbāna; and then the lives of the Noble Disciples who, having heard the Dhamma from the Buddha, went off to practice in various places until they too gained Awakening, becoming witnesses to the truth of the Buddha and his teachings—when I had studied to this point, I felt a sense of faith and conviction, and wanted to train myself to be like them.
But the training that would make me be like them: How was I to follow it? The Dhamma—in other words, the practice that would lead the heart to awaken to the higher levels of Dhamma like the Buddha and his disciples: Would it still produce the same sorts of results or would it be fruitless and simply lead to pointless hardship for those who practiced it? Or would it still give the full results in line with the well-taught teachings (svākkhāta-dhamma)? This was my primary doubt. But as for believing in the Buddha’s Awakening and that of his disciples, of this I was fully convinced in my way as an ordinary run-of-the-mill person. The thing that formed a stumbling block to me in the beginning stages was the doubt as to whether or not the path of practice I would take, following the Buddha and his disciples, would lead to the same point they had reached. Was it now all overgrown with brambles and thorns? Had it changed into something other than the Dhamma that leads away from suffering (niyyānika-dhamma), even though the Buddha and his disciples had all followed this very same path to the land of peace and security?
This was my doubt concerning the causes in the practice. As for the results of the practice, I wondered whether the paths, fruitions, and nibbāna still existed as they had in the time of the Buddha. These doubts, which ran deep in my heart, I couldn’t tell to anyone else because I felt there was no one who could resolve them for me and dispel them from my heart.
This is why I had my hopes constantly set on meeting Ven. Ācariya Mun. Even though I had never met him before, I had heard his reputation, which had been spreading from Chieng Mai for quite some time, that he was a monk of distinction. By and large, the people who would tell me about him wouldn’t speak of him in terms of the ordinary levels of noble attainments. They’d all speak of his arahantship. This had me convinced that when I had finished my studies in line with the vow I had made, I’d have to make the effort to go out to practice and live under his guidance so as to cut away the doubts running deep in my heart at that time.
The vow I had made to myself was that I would complete the third grade of Pāli studies. As for Dhamma studies, whether or not I would pass the examinations was of no concern to me. As soon as I had passed the third-level Pāli exams, I’d go out to do nothing but practice. I’d absolutely refuse to study or take the exams for the higher levels. This was the vow I had made. So the aim of my education was the third level of Pāli studies. Whether it was my good or bad fortune, though, I can’t say, but I failed the Pāli exams for two years, and passed only on the third year. As for the three levels of Dhamma studies, I ended up passing them all, because I was studying and taking the examinations for both subjects together.
When I went up to Chieng Mai, it so happened that Ven. Ācariya Mun had been invited by Ven. Chao Khun Dhammachedi of Udorn Thani to spend the Rains Retreat (vassa) in Udorn, and so he had left his seclusion and come to stay at Wat Chedi Luang in Chieng Mai at just about the time of my arrival. As soon as I learned that he was staying there, I was overwhelmed with joy. The next morning, when I returned from my alms round, I learned from one of the other monks that earlier that morning Ven. Ācariya Mun had left for alms on that path and had returned by the very same path. This made me even more eager to see him. Even if I couldn’t meet him face to face, I’d be content just to have a glimpse of him before he left for Udorn Thani.
The next morning before Ven. Ācariya Mun went on his alms round, I hurried out early for alms and then returned to my quarters. There I kept watch along the path by which he would return, as I had been told by the other monks, and before long I saw him coming. I hurried to my quarters and peeked out of my hiding to catch a glimpse of him, with the hunger that had come from having wanted to see him for such a long time. And then I actually saw him. The moment I saw him, a feeling of complete faith in him arose within me. I hadn’t wasted my birth as a human being, I thought, because I now had seen an arahant. Even though no one had told me that he was an arahant, my heart became firmly convinced the moment I saw him that that was what he was. At the same time, a feeling of sudden ecstasy hard to describe came over me, making my hair stand on end—even though he hadn’t yet seen me with his physical eyes.
Not too many days after that, he left Wat Chedi Luang to head for Udorn Thani together with his students. As for me, I stayed on to study there at Wat Chedi Luang. When I had passed my Pāli exams, I returned to Bangkok with the intention of heading out to practice meditation in line with my vow, but when I reached Bangkok a senior monk who out of his kindness wanted to help me further my Pāli studies told me to stay on. I tried to find some way to slip away, in keeping with my intentions and my vow, because I felt that the conditions of my vow had been met the moment I had passed my Pāli exams. Under no terms could I study for or take the next level of Pāli exams.
It’s a trait with me to value truthfulness. Once I’ve made a vow, I won’t break it. Even life I don’t value as much as a vow. So now I had to try to find some way or another to go out to practice. It so happened during that period that the senior monk who was my teacher was invited out to the provinces, so I got the chance to leave Bangkok. Had he been there, it would have been difficult for me to get away, because I was indebted to him in many ways and probably would have felt such deference for him that I would have had difficulty leaving. But as soon as I saw my chance, I decided to make a vow that night, asking for an omen from the Dhamma that would reinforce my determination in going out this time.
After I had finished my chants, I made my vow, the gist of which was that if my going out to meditate in line with my earlier vow would go smoothly and fulfill my aspirations, I wanted an unusual vision to appear to me, either in my meditation or in a dream. But if I wouldn’t get to go out to practice, or if having gone out I’d meet with disappointment, I asked that the vision show the reason why I’d be disappointed and dissatisfied. But if my going out was to fulfill my aspirations, I asked that the vision be extraordinarily strange and amazing. With that, I sat in meditation, but no visions appeared during the long period I sat meditating, so I stopped to rest.
As soon as I fell asleep, though, I dreamed that I was floating high in the sky above a large metropolis. It wasn’t Bangkok, but I don’t know what metropolis it was. It stretched as far as the eye could see and was very impressive. I floated three times around the metropolis and then returned to earth. As soon as I returned to earth, I woke up. It was four a.m. I quickly got up with a feeling of fullness and contentment in my heart, because while I had been floating around the metropolis, I had seen many strange and amazing things that I can’t describe to you in detail. When I woke up, I felt happy, cheerful, and very pleased with my vision, at the same time thinking to myself that my hopes were sure to be fulfilled, because never before had I seen such an amazing vision—and at the same time, it had coincided with my vow. So that night I really marveled at my vision. The next morning, after my meal, I went to take leave of the senior monk who was in charge of the monastery, and he willingly gave permission for me to go.
From there I set out for Nakhorn Ratchasima Province, where I spent the rains in Cakkaraad District. I started practicing concentration (samādhi) and was amazed at how my mind developed stillness and calm step by step. I could clearly see my heart settle down in peace. After that the senior monk who was my Pāli teacher asked me to return to Bangkok to continue my studies. He even had the kindness to come after me, and then continued further out into the provinces. On the way back he was going to have me accompany him to Bangkok. I really felt in a bind, so I headed for Udorn Thani in order to find Ven. Ācariya Mun. The progress I had been making in concentration practice, though, disappeared at my home village of Baan Taad. The reason it disappeared was simply because I made a single klod. I hadn’t even spent a full month at Baan Taad when I began to feel that my mind wasn’t settling down in concentration as snugly as it had before. Sometimes I could get it to settle down, sometimes not. Seeing that things didn’t look promising and that I could only lose by staying on, I quickly left.
In coming from Nakhorn Ratchasima to Udorn Thani, my purpose had been to catch up with Ven. Ācariya Mun, who had spent the rains at Wat Noan Nives, Udorn Thani. I didn’t reach him in time, though, because he had been invited to Sakon Nakhorn before my arrival, so I went on to stay at Wat Thung Sawaang in Nong Khai for a little more than three months.
In May of that year, 1942, I left Nong Khai for the town of Sakon Nakhorn, and from there went on to the monastery where Ven. Ācariya Mun was staying in Baan Khoak, Tong Khoam Township, Muang District, Sakon Nakhorn Province. When I reached the monastery, I found him doing walking meditation in the late evening dusk. ‘Who’s that?’ he asked, so I told him who I was. He then left his meditation path and went to the meeting hall—he was staying in a room there in the meeting hall—and conversed with me, showing a great deal of kindness and compassion for the incredibly ignorant person who had come to seek him out. He gave me a sermon that first evening, the gist of which I’ll relate to you as far as I can remember it. It’s a message that remains close to my heart to this day.
‘You’ve already studied a good deal,’ he told me, ‘at least enough to earn the title of “Mahā.” Now I’m going to tell you something that I want you take and think over. Don’t go thinking that I underrate the Dhamma of the Lord Buddha, but at the present moment no matter how much of the Dhamma you’ve studied, it will serve no purpose in keeping with your status as a scholar other than simply being an obstacle to your meditation, because you won’t be able to resist dwelling on it and using it to take the measure of things when you’re trying to calm your heart. So for the sake of convenience when fostering stillness in your heart, I want you to take the Dhamma you’ve studied and put it away for the time being. When the time comes for it to benefit you, it will all come streaming in to blend perfectly with your practice. At the same time, it will serve as a standard to which you should make the heart conform. But for the time being, I don’t want you to concern yourself with the Dhamma you’ve studied at all. Whatever way you make the mind still or use discernment (paññā) to investigate the khandhas, I want you first to restrict yourself to the sphere of the body, because all of the Dhamma in the texts points to the body and mind, but the mind doesn’t yet have any firm evidence and so can’t take the Dhamma learned from the texts and put it to good use. The Dhamma will simply become allusions and labels leading you to speculate elsewhere to the point where you become a person with no foundations, because the mind is fixated on theory in a manner that isn’t the way of the Lord Buddha. So I want you to take what I’ve said and think it over. If you set your mind on the practice without retreating, the day will come when these words of mine will impress themselves on your heart.’ Of what I can remember him saying that day, this is all I’ll ask to tell for now.
I felt an immediate sense of faith and conviction in him as soon as I saw him face to face that night, both because of my conviction in the Dhamma he was so kind to teach me, and because of the assistance he gave in letting me stay under his guidance. I stayed with him with a sense of contentment hard to describe—but also with a stupidity on my own part hard to describe as well. He himself was very kind, helping me with the Dhamma every time I went to see him.
My practice when I first went to stay with him was a matter of progress and regress within the heart. My heart hardly ever settled down firmly for a long period of time. The first rains I spent with him was my ninth rains, in as much as I had spent my first seven rains in study, and one rains in Nakhorn Ratchasima after starting to practice. During that first rains with Ven. Ācariya Mun, there was nothing but progress and regress in the area of my concentration. After the rains, I went up to stay on a mountain for more than two months and then returned to be with him, my mind still progressing and regressing in the same way. I couldn’t figure out why it kept regressing even though I was intent on practicing to the full extent of my ability. Some nights I was unable to sleep all night long out of fear that the mind would regress, and yet it would still manage to regress. And especially when the mind was beginning to settle down in stillness, I’d accelerate my efforts even more, out of fear that it would regress as it had before—and even then it would regress on me. After a while it would progress again and then regress again. When it had progressed, it would stay at that level for only three days and then regress right before my eyes.
This disturbed me and made me wonder: Why was it able to regress? Was it because I had let go of my meditation word? Perhaps my mindfulness (sati) had lapsed at that point. So I made a note of this and promised myself that no matter what, I would have to keep the meditation word in charge of my mind at all times. Regardless of where I would go, and regardless of whether I was in or out of concentration—even when I was sweeping the monastery compound or doing any of my chores—I wouldn’t allow my mind to slip away from buddho, the word I liked to repeat in my meditation.
At this point, when the mind would settle down into stillness, if it could continue to think of the meditation word buddho in that stillness, I wouldn’t let go of it. If the mind was going to regress in any way, this was where I would have to know.
As soon as I had taken note of this point and had made my promise, I started repeating the word buddho. As I was repeating it, the mind was able to settle down quickly, much more quickly than it had before. It would let go of its meditation word only when it had settled snugly into stillness. At that moment, whether or not I would think buddho, the awareness of that stillness was already solidly ‘buddho ‘ in and of itself. It wouldn’t be forming any thoughts at all. At that point I’d stop my repetition. As soon as the mind made a move to withdraw—in other words, as soon as it rippled slightly—I’d immediately start pumping the meditation word back in again as a means of keeping the mind in place. At the same time, I’d keep watch to see at what point the mind would regress. I abandoned my concern for the progress or regress of the mind. No matter how far the mind might progress or regress, I wasn’t willing to let go of my meditation word. Even if the mind was going to regress, I’d let it regress, because when I had been determined that it not regress, it had still regressed in spite of my determination.
Now, though, I felt no more concern for whether the mind would progress or regress. I’d simply force it to be conscious of buddho. I’d try to be aware of progress and regress only in terms of the heart that had buddho in charge. This was where I would know. This was where I would clearly see. This was the one spot in which I’d place my confidence. I wouldn’t have to concern myself with progress or regress.
As time passed, the mind that had once progressed and regressed didn’t regress. This was what made me realize: The fact that the mind had kept regressing so often was because of a lapse in its meditation word; mindfulness must have slipped away at that moment for sure. So from that point on I kept my meditation word continually in place. No matter where I’d go or where I’d stay, I wouldn’t let mindfulness lapse. Even if I were to be on the verge of death, I wouldn’t let mindfulness slip away from buddho. If the mind was going to regress, this was the only place where I’d try to know it. I wouldn’t concern myself with the matter in any other way. As a result, the mind was able to establish a foundation for itself because of the meditation word buddho.
After that came my second Rains Retreat with Ven. Ācariya Mun. Before the rains began, my mind felt still and firm in its concentration, with no regressing at all. Even then, I refused to let go of my meditation word. This kept up to the point where I was able to sit in meditation without changing to any other position from early night until dawn.
During my second rains with Ven. Ācariya Mun, I held to sitting in meditation until dawn as more important than any other method in my practice. After that I gradually eased back, as I came to see the body as a tool that could wear out if I had no sense of moderation in using it. Still, I found that accelerating my efforts by means of sitting all night until dawn gave more energy to the heart than any other method.
The period in which I was sitting up all night until dawn was when I gained clear comprehension of the feelings of pain that arise from sitting in meditation for long periods of time, because the pain that arose at that time was strange and exceptional in many ways. The discernment that investigated so as to contend with the pain kept at its work without flagging, until it was able to understand the affairs of every sort of pain in the body—which was a solid mass of pain. At the same time, discernment was able to penetrate in to know the feelings of the heart. This did a great deal to strengthen my mindfulness, my discernment, and my courage in the effort of the practice. At the same time, it made me courageous and confident with regard to the future, in that the pains that would appear at the approach of death would be no different from the pains I was experiencing and investigating in the present. There would be nothing about those pains that would be so different or exceptional as to have me deceived or confused at the time of death. This was a further realization. The pain, as soon as discernment had fully comprehended it, disappeared instantaneously, and the mind settled down into total stillness.
Now at a point like this, if you wanted to, you could say that the mind is empty, but it’s empty in concentration. When it withdraws from that concentration, the emptiness disappears. From there, the mind resumes its investigations and continues with them until it gains expertise in its concentration. (Here I’ll ask to condense things so as to fit them into the time we have left.) Once concentration is strong, discernment steps up its investigation of the various aspects of the body until it sees them all clearly and is able to remove its attachments concerning the body once and for all. At that point the mind begins to be empty, but it doesn’t yet display a complete emptiness. There are still images appearing as pictures within it until it gains proficiency from its relentless training. The images within the heart then begin to fade day by day, until finally they are gone. No mental images appear either inside or outside the heart. This is also called an empty mind.
This kind of emptiness is the inherent emptiness of the mind that has reached its own level. It’s not the emptiness of concentration, or of sitting and practicing concentration. When we sit in concentration, that’s the emptiness of concentration. But when the mind has let go of the body because of the thorough comprehension that comes when its internal images are all gone, and because of the power of its mindfulness and discernment that are fully alert to these things, this is called the emptiness of the mind on its own level.
When this stage is reached, the mind is truly empty. Even though the body appears, there’s simply a sense that the body is there. No image of the body appears in the mind at all. Emptiness of this sort is said to be empty on the level of the mind—and it’s constantly empty like this at all times. If this emptiness is nibbāna, it’s the nibbāna of that particular meditator or of that stage of the mind, but it’s not yet the nibbāna of the Buddha. If someone were to take the emptiness of concentration for nibbāna when the mind settles down in concentration, it would simply be the nibbāna of that particular meditator’s concentration. Why is it that these two sorts of emptiness aren’t the emptiness of the Buddha’s nibbāna? Because the mind empty in concentration is unavoidably satisfied with and attached to its concentration. The mind empty in line with its own level as a mind is unavoidably absorbed in and attached to that sort of emptiness. It has to take that emptiness as its object or preoccupation until it can pass beyond it. Anyone who calls this emptiness nibbāna can be said to be attached to the nibbāna in this emptiness without realizing it. When this is the case, how can this sort of emptiness be nibbāna?
If we don’t want this level of nibbāna, we have to spread out feelings (vedanā), labels (saññā), thought-fabrications (saṅkhāra), and consciousness (viññāṇa) for a thorough look until we see them clearly and in full detail—because the emptiness we’re referring to is the emptiness of feeling, in that a feeling of pleasure fills this emptiness. The mind’s labels brand it as empty. Thought-fabrications take this emptiness as their preoccupation. Consciousness helps be aware of it within and isn’t simply aware of things outside—and so this emptiness is the emptiness of the mind’s preoccupation.
If we investigate these things and this emptiness clearly as saṅkhāra-dhammas, or fabrications, this will open the way by which we are sure some day of passing beyond them. When we investigate in this way, these four khandhas and this emptiness—which obscure the truth—will gradually unravel and reveal themselves bit by bit until they are fully apparent. The mind is then sure to find a way to shake itself free. Even the underlying basis for saṅkhāra-dhammas that’s full of these fabricated things will not be able to withstand mindfulness and discernment, because it is interrelated with these things. Mindfulness and discernment of a radical sort will slash their way in—just like a fire that burns without stopping when it meets with fuel—until they have dug up the root of these fabricated things. Only then will they stop their advance.
On this level, what are the adversaries to the nibbāna of the Buddha? The things to which the mind is attached: the sense that, ‘My heart is empty,’ ‘My heart is at ease,’ ‘My heart is clean and clear.’ Even though we may see the heart as empty, it’s paired with an un-emptiness. The heart may seem to be at ease, but it depends on stress. The heart may seem clean and clear, but it dwells with defilement—without our being aware of it. Thus emptiness, ease, and clarity are the qualities that obscure the heart because they are the signs of becoming and birth. Whoever wants to cut off becoming and birth should thus investigate so as to be wise to these things and to let them go. Don’t be possessive of them, or they will turn into a fire to burn you. If your discernment digs down into these three lords of becoming as they appear, you will come to the central hub of becoming and birth, and it will be scattered from the heart the moment discernment reaches the foundation on which it is based.
When these things are ended through the power of discernment, that too is a form of emptiness. No signs of any conventional reality (sammati) will appear in this emptiness at all. This is an emptiness different from the forms of emptiness we have passed through. Whether this emptiness can be called the emptiness of the Buddha, or whose emptiness it is, I’m afraid I can’t say, other than that it’s an emptiness that each meditator can know directly only for him or herself alone.
This emptiness has no time or season. It’s akāliko—timeless—throughout time. The emptiness of concentration can change, in terms of progress and regress. The emptiness on the formless or image-less (arūpa) level, which serves as our path, can change or be transcended. But this emptiness exclusively within oneself doesn’t change—because there is no self within this emptiness, and no sense that this emptiness is oneself. There is simply the knowledge and vision of things as they are (yathā-bhūta-ñāṇa-dassana)—seeing this emptiness in line with its natural principles as they actually are, and seeing all phenomena as they actually are, as they pass by and exist in general. Even virtue, concentration, and discernment—the qualities we use to straighten out the heart—are realized for what they are and let go in line with their actuality. Nothing at all remains lurking in the nature of this final stage of emptiness.
I ask that we all reflect on these three kinds of emptiness and try to develop ourselves to attain them—and especially the last form of emptiness, which is an emptiness in the principles of nature, beyond the range where any other person or any conventional reality can become involved with us ever again. Our doubts, ranging from the beginning levels of the Dhamma to this ultimate emptiness, will find resolution, with our own knowledge and vision acting as judge.
So now at the end of this talk—which started out with my telling you of my own ignorance step by step and then strayed off to this final emptiness, which is a quality somewhat beyond my powers to explain any further—I’ll ask to stop, as the proper time seems to have come.
May happiness and contentment be with each and every one of you.
1. A small umbrella-like tent used by meditating monks.