Beyond Emptiness

by cat alip-douglas |
February, 2017
Beyond Emptiness: The Jivamukti Focus of the Month
gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi swaha

Gone, gone, real gone, beyond even the most gone. Ultimate wisdom remains when everything has dropped away.

The Heart Sutra

Recording of the Heart Sutra by Cat Alip-Douglas

“The Prajñaparamita gives us solid ground for making peace with ourselves, for transcending the fear of birth and death, the duality of this and that. In the light of emptiness, everything is everything else, we inter-are, everyone is responsible for everything that happens in life. When you produce peace and happiness in yourself, you begin to realize peace for the whole world. With the smile that you produce in yourself, with the conscious breathing you establish within yourself, you begin to work for peace in the world.”— from The Heart of Understanding, by Thich Nhat Hanh

The Heart Sutra (Prajñaparamita) is a prominent and important teaching in Mahayana Buddhism, gifted to us by the bodhisattva (bodhi means “awake,” sattva “being”) Avalokitesvara. The Buddhist mantra encourages us to investigate the nature of emptiness. Initially, a common mistake is to interpret emptiness as lacking any meaning at all. Indian philosophy places beliefs on a spectrum between āstika (there is, there exists) and nāstika (not āstika). However, after further study, a more balanced view becomes apparent which suggests an interconnected vastness; an absence of duality and opposites altogether. This idea of non-dualism may seem similar to the notion of oneness in Advaita Vedanta, but actually reduces it further to zero-ness, beyond singularity.

The Vietnamese Zen Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh encapsulates the notion of shunyata (emptiness) by suggesting that it means “empty of a separate self but full of everything in the cosmos.” In its simplicity, a new student might assume a sense of understanding. However, Nhat Hanh suggests that a mindful “intimacy,” or a meditative approach, is necessary to truly grasp its meaning. To penetrate all things is to effectively know it on a cellular level. Gone, gone scratches the surface of knowing the true nature of all things by thinking we “get it,” yet the sutra says go deeper – beyond gone, go further into the comprehension. For example, we may wish to consider how the meal that we see in front of us came to be. Instead of assuming that it arrives on the table as an isolated occurrence, we ponder the following questions: What are all the factors that made that meal? What are its ingredients? Did it involve the suffering of sentient beings? Are we conscious of how we are contributing to and perpetuating that suffering, purely on the basis of our individual consumption? To explore the process is to know deeply and honestly the co-existence and interdependent nature of all things, without looking away or with a superficial perspective.

After several years practicing yoga asana we may think we have found the application of mula bandha, only to realize it may not be what we thought it was. What begins as a gross physical pelvic contraction may eventually grow more subtle and refined. As we gain greater awareness, it becomes effortless when compared to the initial experience of an exaggerated gripping or forced exertion. The same can be true regarding the principles of alignment, ujjayi breathing, as well as the philosophical framework to which we subscribe. The longer we study, things we once thought we grasped in fullness are, in reality, beyond our comprehension.

At the heart of this is an awakening to the reality that our lives overlap and the suffering of one becomes inseparable from the suffering of others. We inevitably see more clearly how the consumption of dairy products and eggs undeniably and fundamentally affect the life of a cow and a chicken. The Heart Sutra reminds us we are accountable. We must look beyond the layers of knowing to which we have subscribed for so long — to go beyond even the most gone.

We can use this as daily inspiration to pull the rug out from underneath ourselves and to question all things. We often make the mistake of thinking we know so much, but really we hardly know anything in the deepest sense. Ultimate wisdom remains when everything else has dropped away.

Teaching Tips

  • Teach back bending sequences to create physical and emotional expansion of the heart. Relate to the idea that when our vision of the world becomes more expansive, our capacity to act beyond our own selfish needs also expands.
  • Ask the class to practice their favorite and least favorite asanas, and to notice the differences. Explain how all the asanas are empty. What may be easy or difficult for one student is not easy or difficult for another.
  • Teach mula bandha and ujjayi breathing in detail and describe how they act as the connective thread between the asanas.
  • Focus on one asana in detail, such as Adho Mukha Shvanasana. Investigate how it requires all the parts to be integrated to create the whole manifestation of Downward Facing Dog. For example, could the asana be sustained by the hands alone, feet alone, or even the breath alone without a physical body?
  • Read excerpts from works by Thich Nhat Hanh, such as “The Heart of Understanding” or the poem “Please Call Me By My True Names.”
  • During meditation practice encourage the students to focus on the emptiness of the space between the thoughts.