How does emptiness become non-empty and cessation become unceasing?
If I wished to organize a lecture, the first question to consider would be “Where should we hold the lecture?” If there’s no space, it’s not possible for us to organize the lecture. Usually, when we want to organize something, we have to consider five factors: people, subject, time, place, and object. “Place” means space. Space has a very intimate relationship with our lives. For example, your pocket can hold things if it has space. You can put money in your purse if it is empty. It is because your nose, ears, mouth, stomach, intestines, and pores are empty that you can breathe, absorb nutrients, metabolize, and maintain your life. If all these spaces were not empty, people would not be able to survive.
Because there is emptiness, there is existence. If there were no empty space, we could not construct buildings. This is how emptiness gives rise to existence. Thus “cessation” and “emptiness” and the elimination of the unreal are the prerequisites for the manifestation of true, wondrous existence.
Xunzi, the great Confucian scholar, suggested that one needs to go through three stages to cultivate the mind: emptiness, unification, and stillness. The first stage, emptiness, means that one should create an appropriate “space” within one’s mind and not be stubborn or condescending. If one has space within, new knowledge can be easily absorbed and others’ suggestions are readily accepted. Progress will surely follow.
It says in one of the sutras, “If one wishes to know about the Buddha’s state of mind, one should expand one’s mind like empty space.” We have all seen space, but who can clearly describe its form and shape? Is space rectangular in shape, square, or circular? Space is everywhere. The space that fills a cup will take on a cup-like shape, while the space inside a box is rectangular in shape. Since space does not have any definite, fixed form, it can take on any form. The teaching on emptiness transcends both existence and non-existence. If we can expand our mind to be like the infinity of space, we will understand the Buddha’s state of mind.
To become a Buddha we must realize the true nature of wisdom and emptiness, and understand the truth of nirvana and cessation. Cessation means the extinction of birth and death and the severing of the cycle of rebirth. The cycle of rebirth is the reason for our suffering, which we must endure through long periods of anguish. Therefore, only by eradicating the cycle of rebirth—which we are caught in because of our desires—will we attain the ultimate freedom of no birth and no death. Hence, if we wish to be free from the pain of suffering, we must solve the problem at its root, that is, to extinguish all of our mundane desires.
When you hear that Buddhism advocates that people should eliminate all mundane desires, you may fear that if you become a Buddhist you are no longer free to marry, have children, make money, have a high position, or enjoy worldly pleasures. However, there is no need to worry. Buddhism is a religion that seeks peace and joy. It does not renounce normal living; what it rejects is overindulgence.
In fact, as a Buddhist, one can still marry, do business, and live a normal life.
There are those who say that Buddhism rejects affection. In reality, Buddhism strongly emphasizes affection; what Buddhism seeks to eliminate is selfish affection and desire. One should transform selfish affection into compassion and selfish desire into wisdom. The affection advocated by Buddhism is devotion, not possession. It promotes the compassion of giving, not wanting. The love advocated by Buddhism is love for all sentient beings, not just one specific being.
Affection that embodies compassion and wisdom will not go awry. Some people seek out romantic love all their lives. Although love may bring about happiness, it can also be a source of suffering. When we read the newspaper, we see that murders occur every day. When we examine the underlying causes of these crimes, we see that relationships and money are usually the main causes. Love without wisdom and compassion is a very dangerous trap.
There are some who believe that joy in life is nothing but the possession of love and money. Buddhism advocates that people should eliminate selfish affection and greed for money. In that case, what kind of happiness can one attain from Buddhism? Actually, Buddhism does not get rid of money itself, nor does it say that “money is a poisonous snake.” Being poor is not a sin, nor is being rich loathsome. Wealth in itself is neither good nor bad; the key lies in the way it was created and is used.
Some people have the misconception that Buddhism says that we must renounce all possessions. This simply is not true. Actually, Buddhism says that it is important to have things; it is just that the things we should have are different from what people generally think. According to Buddhism what we should “have” is joy, not just for ourselves, but for all sentient beings. The way to accomplish this goal is to develop the mind of non-attachment, that is, to have everything by not possessing anything.
I often say that we should consider “not having” as “having,” just as we should see emptiness as ex¬istence. As I mentioned earlier, without emptiness there is no existence; and in the same way we can only “have” things by “not having.”
When we possess things they are by nature limited, measurable, and calculable; whereas, “not having” is limitless, immeasurable, and boundless. In the eyes of most people, an enlightened person often behaves very strangely.
- The Truth of the Path Leading to the Cessation of Suffering
How can we remove the causes of suffering? The Buddhist teachings describe the process in great detail, and there are many teachings, including the four immeasurable states of mind, the four univer¬sal vows, the threefold training, the five precepts, the ten wholesome actions, the seven limbs of enlightenment, the Noble Eightfold Path, the thirty-seven practices to enlightenment, and the six perfections. All of these are considered part of the path, but for the sake of brevity it is best to describe the Noble Eightfold Path.
The Noble Eightfold Path includes eight factors that, when practiced correctly, lead to the cessation of suffering. These steps are right view, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right meditative concentration. The Noble Eightfold Path appears to be very simple, but to understand it thoroughly is not so easy. Let us take a look at each of the elements in the Noble Eightfold Path.
- Right View
Right view is what enables us to maintain our faith in the truth when faced with inequalities or difficulties. Worldly knowledge can be both good and bad. Sometimes it is not reliable and can mislead us. When knowledge is cor¬rupted, it turns into ignorance. Some people are extremely clever and when they do bad things, it is dou¬bly destructive! Knowledge is like a sharp knife. If not used properly, it can hurt others. Therefore, it is very important for us to know how to transform knowledge into wisdom and right view.
Transforming knowledge into wisdom and right view is not easy. The principle is the same as in tak¬ing photographs. The focus, distance, and shutter speed must be adjusted accordingly before one can take a clear and beautiful picture. Similarly, one can see the true nature of life and the universe as it really is, only if one has the right view. If one lacks the right view when observing this earthly world, seri¬ous mistakes will be made. It is like peering at flowers through a heavy fog or like blind people touching an elephant.
- Right Thought
Right thought is right volition, decision, and contem¬plation. It means not having thoughts of greed, anger, and ignorance. These three poisons of greed, anger, and ignorance are the main obstacles on our road to enlightenment. They continually occupy our minds and contaminate our pure nature. It is not easy to be rid of these three poisons. We have to exert effort constantly to maintain the right thinking needed to overcome these three poisons.
- Right Speech
Using right speech means that we should not lie, slander others, use harsh language, or utter frivolous speech. There is a Chinese proverb that says, “Illness comes from what you eat. Trouble comes from what you say.” Our mouth is like a very sharp axe. If we say something inappropriate, we will not only hurt others but also ourselves. Thus, it is very important that we choose our words wisely.
- Right Action
Right action means that we should not kill, steal, engage in sexual misconduct, or take intoxicants of any kind. Besides abstaining from doing unwholesome deeds, we also need to actively perform wholesome deeds.
- Right Livelihood
Right livelihood refers to the proper way of making a living; abstaining from unethical jobs such as operating gambling houses, selling alcoholic beverages or instruments that can kill; and operating slaughterhouses. Also, part of right livelihood is having well-disciplined habits such as getting an adequate amount of sleep, food, exercise, rest, and work. Right livelihood not only promotes efficiency and health, it also enables us to have a joyous family life and a stable society.
- Right Effort
Right effort means to apply our effort in four areas:
1) To not produce unwholesome qualities that have not been produced;
2) To eliminate the unwholesome qualities that already exist;
3) To nurture wholesome qualities that have not yet been produced; and
4) To maintain and multiply the wholesome qualities that already exist.
- Right Mindfulness
To have right mindfulness is to keep one’s attention, awareness, and mind focused on the four foundations of mindfulness:
1) The body is impure;
2) Feelings will always result in suffering;
3) The mind is impermanent;
4) All phenomena do not have a substantial self.
If we always contemplate the meaning of im¬permanence, suffering, and non-self, we will not be greedy for the triflings of this world. We will strive diligently for the Truth.
- Right Meditative Concentration
We should concentrate our volition and thoughts through meditation.
After his enlightenment, the Buddha started teaching what he had realized. The first time he taught the Dharma, he “turned the wheel of Dharma” three times by emphasizing different aspects of the Four Noble Truths. The first turning was instructive; he taught about the content and definitions of the Four Noble Truths. He said, “Such is suffering, which is oppressive; such is the cause of suffering, which beckons; such is the cessation of suffering, which is attainable; such is the path, which can be practiced.”
The second turning of the wheel was to provide encouragement. The Buddha persuaded his students to practice the Four Noble Truths, to eradicate afflictions and attain enlightenment. He told them, “Such is suffering, you should understand it; such is the cause of suffering, you should end it; such is the cessation of suffering, you should realize it; such is the path, you should practice it.”
In the third turning the Buddha shared his realization. The Buddha told his students that he himself had realized the Four Noble Truths. He encouraged all sentient beings to put forth their effort and strive to realize the Four Noble Truths just as he had done himself. The Buddha told them, “Such is suffering, I have understood it; such is the cause of suffering, I have ended it; such is the cessation of suffering, I have realized it; such is the path, I have practiced it.”
From the emphasis the Buddha put on the Four Noble Truths, we know they must be very important. The Four Noble Truths are the fundamental teachings of Buddhism. They have been practiced for over two thousand years. Their content is very profound indeed, such that it is difficult to express their profundity in such a short space.