Emptiness: A Wake-Up Call by His Holiness

His Holiness the Dalai Lama
His Holiness the Dalai Lama during the Jangchup Lamrim teachings in Mundgod, December 2014.

Reflections on His Holiness’ teaching on Emptiness, at Ganden Jangtse Monastery in Mundgod, Karnataka, India on December 23, 2014, by YoWangdu’s Yolanda O’Bannon. This is the second in a series on the experience of the 2014 Mundgod Lamrim teachings. (The first was on the extraordinary making of Monk-Style Tibetan Flatbread at Drepung Loseling Monastery.)

In the month since Lobsang and I returned from the Jangchup Lamrim teachings in Mundgod, I have been reading through my scrawled notes of His Holiness‘ words – over and over – with an urgent need to hang on to the power and depth of his teaching, to some dim glimmers of understanding, and to the full, fresh, joy of the entire experience. 

Some of His Holiness’ teachings, honestly, hit me like a hammer between the eyes. What??!! Why haven’t I heard him say that before? How could I have missed something so important? And some were just rich, beautiful repetitions on themes I’ve heard through the years, like dear old friends reacquainting. Among those old friends was this, which His Holiness said early in the first morning of the first day of the teachings:

As the Buddha said, ‘Gold is tested by rubbing, so study my teachings, and don’t believe in me except by testing. Just as a goldsmith tests a piece of gold by rubbing, burning, and so on, you should examine my teaching and see if it is logical and also make experiments with it and see if it is beneficial. If so accept it.’ 

In the afternoon of that day, His Holiness made the first of a number of forceful references to the critical importance of an understanding of Emptiness as a means to attaining Enlightenment.  Time and again throughout the teachings, he circled back to this theme, but his language on the first day woke me up from a post-lunch lull and my aching knees. You can see and hear for yourself in the video of the Jangchup Lamrim Day One teachings below, starting at about the 13:00 minute mark and continuing for a few minutes. And you can read the brief excerpts I’ve pulled out below.

First a few comments His Holiness made earlier in the afternoon, for context:

Our short-term purpose is happiness in this life, but our long-term purpose is Liberation/ Enlightenment [Buddhahood]. There is no way to attain Buddhahood with a self-cherishing mind.

Then this:

There is a sort of saying or tradition that says: “If you listen, listen to Emptiness, If you think, think on Emptiness If you meditate, meditate on Emptiness”

And finally this, which is what really got my attention:

Me, too, every time I open my mouth I am more or less talking about Emptiness. That is because I am compelled to do so, because without the practice of Emptiness, nothing else works, because the only real practice that can overcome the self-cherishing mind is Emptiness. If we can overcome the self-cherishing mind and the self-grasping mind through the understanding of Emptiness, the graduated path [to Enlightenment] starts being realized. Bodhicitta too is an unsurpassable path but what can Bodhicitta do without Emptiness? The self-grasping mind boils down to our misunderstanding of phenomena and the only way to understand the clear nature of reality is through the understanding of Emptiness.

Nothing could be more clear to me than that at this moment, nothing matters very much except to begin some serious work to understand Emptiness. 

It’s a deep topic, and won’t be mastered in a moment or perhaps a lifetime, or an aeon, but there’s no time like now to get started. If you are called to explore it, too, here’s a very nice introduction by Lewis Richard in the Huffington Post, called Emptiness: The Most Misunderstood Word in Buddhism

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Updated on February 6, 2020. First published on December 25, 2018.

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