Emptying out Misconceptions – Making sense of Madhyamaka

Upcoming Events

Open Teaching Webcast

With Pema Khandro

April 24, 2019
A 30 minute guided meditation and online teaching with Pema Khandro. Free and open to the public. Click Here to Register What is Dakini Day? The Dakini (known in Tibetan as Khandro) is the principle of spacious dynamic wisdom in Tibetan Buddhism. This is a monthly class to support your meditation practice and meet the […]

Skillful Means

With Pema Khandro

April 27, 2019
Closed Retreat, for Vajra Sangha Members. Free for Sustainer Members and Above, or $90 Love offering [...]
Register Now

Dzogchen Day Webcast

With Pema Khandro

May 8, 2019
Guided meditation and discussion with Pema Khandro. This 30 minute online class is free and open to Buddhist Yogis Sangha Members only. Click Here to become a Member Join online for this monthly class to practice meditation and discuss esoteric Buddhism with Pema Khandro. This class is a joyful opportunity to connect with the Buddhist Yogis […]
Closed

Open Teaching Webcast

With Pema Khandro

May 22, 2019
A 30 minute guided meditation and online teaching with Pema Khandro. Free and open to the public. Click Here to Register What is Dakini Day? The Dakini (known in Tibetan as Khandro) is the principle of spacious dynamic wisdom in Tibetan Buddhism. This is a monthly class to support your meditation practice and meet the […]

Invoking the 100,000 Dakinis

With Pema Khandro

June 7 - 9, 2019
Dakini Mountain ~ This meditation retreat will offer the extraordinary opportunity to chant and study Invoking the 100,000 Dakinis, an inspiring Tibetan Buddhist prayer from the Dakini’s Heart Essence.
Register Now

Dakini Mountain, Grand Opening Celebration

With Pema Khandro

June 9, 2019
Join Pema Khandro and the Community of Buddhist Yogis at Dakini Mountain for this auspicious occasion! Sunday June 9th, Grand Opening Celebration    
Register Now

Dzogchen Day Webcast

With Pema Khandro

June 12, 2019
Guided meditation and discussion with Pema Khandro. This 30 minute online class is free and open to Buddhist Yogis Sangha Members only. Click Here to become a Member Join online for this monthly class to practice meditation and discuss esoteric Buddhism with Pema Khandro. This class is a joyful opportunity to connect with the Buddhist Yogis […]
Closed

Open Teaching Webcast

With Pema Khandro

June 26, 2019
A 30 minute guided meditation and online teaching with Pema Khandro. Free and open to the public. Click Here to Register What is Dakini Day? The Dakini (known in Tibetan as Khandro) is the principle of spacious dynamic wisdom in Tibetan Buddhism. This is a monthly class to support your meditation practice and meet the […]

Dzogchen Day Webcast

With Pema Khandro

July 10, 2019
Guided meditation and discussion with Pema Khandro. This 30 minute online class is free and open to Buddhist Yogis Sangha Members only. Click Here to become a Member Join online for this monthly class to practice meditation and discuss esoteric Buddhism with Pema Khandro. This class is a joyful opportunity to connect with the Buddhist Yogis […]
Closed

Open Teaching Webcast

With Pema Khandro

July 24, 2019
A 30 minute guided meditation and online teaching with Pema Khandro. Free and open to the public. Click Here to Register What is Dakini Day? The Dakini (known in Tibetan as Khandro) is the principle of spacious dynamic wisdom in Tibetan Buddhism. This is a monthly class to support your meditation practice and meet the […]

The Radiance Retreat – Detox and Rejuvenate

With Aruna Rig'dzin and Satya Shiva

July 25 - 28, 2019
Free your body of deep-seated toxins and undigested material. Far deeper than fasting can go, this weekend retreat will guide you in how to safely uproot the toxins that are buried in your system. You will be guided through a traditional cleanse based on the ancient wisdom of Ayurveda, Traditional Chinese and Himalayan Medicine. The retreat also includes bliss yoga, meditation, organic vegetarian meals, and communion with nature for a holistic mind-body renewal. The retreat will be led by Aruna Rigdzin and Satya Shiva, directors of the Yogic Medicine Institute. They have offered private treatments, group cleanses and panchakarma retreats each…
Register Now

Dzogchen Day Webcast

With Pema Khandro

August 14, 2019
Guided meditation and discussion with Pema Khandro. This 30 minute online class is free and open to Buddhist Yogis Sangha Members only. Click Here to become a Member Join online for this monthly class to practice meditation and discuss esoteric Buddhism with Pema Khandro. This class is a joyful opportunity to connect with the Buddhist Yogis […]
Closed

The Innermost Heart of Freedom: Dzogchen Meditation Retreat

With Pema Khandro

August 21 - 25, 2019
Dakini Mountain ~ This is a meditation retreat for the wired and weary to settle into focused calm, to rest into the nature of mind and tap into profound depths. This is the fourth Annual Dzogchen Retreat, five days of Buddhist meditation practices that will surprise you with the wonderful power and expansiveness of mind [...]
Closed

Open Teaching Webcast

With Pema Khandro

August 28, 2019
A 30 minute guided meditation and online teaching with Pema Khandro. Free and open to the public. Click Here to Register What is Dakini Day? The Dakini (known in Tibetan as Khandro) is the principle of spacious dynamic wisdom in Tibetan Buddhism. This is a monthly class to support your meditation practice and meet the […]

Dzogchen Day Webcast

With Pema Khandro

September 11, 2019
Guided meditation and discussion with Pema Khandro. This 30 minute online class is free and open to Buddhist Yogis Sangha Members only. Click Here to become a Member Join online for this monthly class to practice meditation and discuss esoteric Buddhism with Pema Khandro. This class is a joyful opportunity to connect with the Buddhist Yogis […]
Closed

Meditation Instructor Training

With Pema Khandro, Aruna Rig'dzin and Satya Shiva

September 14 - October 4, 2019
The Meditation Instructor Training supplies the fundamental knowledge and experience necessary to lead meditation classes and one-day meditation intensives [...]
Register Now

Open Teaching Webcast

With Pema Khandro

September 25, 2019
A 30 minute guided meditation and online teaching with Pema Khandro. Free and open to the public. Click Here to Register What is Dakini Day? The Dakini (known in Tibetan as Khandro) is the principle of spacious dynamic wisdom in Tibetan Buddhism. This is a monthly class to support your meditation practice and meet the […]

Laughter of the Dakinis – Chod Retreat

With Chodpa Kunzang Dorje and Pema Khandro

October 4 - 6, 2019
This meditation retreat focuses on Buddhism’s esoteric practice for transforming the most difficult experiences into opportunities for awakening. It is a method which harnesses the heroic energy of enlightened intent to change neurotic mind patterns and heal from traumas.….[…]
Register Now

Chod & Chod Dances

With Chodpa Kunzang Dorje

October 7 - 10, 2019
Vajra Sangha Only ~ Closed Retreat. This meditation intensive focuses on Buddhism’s esoteric practice for transforming the most difficult experiences into opportunities for awakening. It is a method which harnesses the heroic energy of enlightened intent to change neurotic mind patterns and heal from traumas. It is a practice for opening to intrinsic wholeness, loving compassion, and natural resilience [...]
Register Now

Dzogchen Day Webcast

With Pema Khandro

October 9, 2019
Guided meditation and discussion with Pema Khandro. This 30 minute online class is free and open to Buddhist Yogis Sangha Members only. Click Here to become a Member Join online for this monthly class to practice meditation and discuss esoteric Buddhism with Pema Khandro. This class is a joyful opportunity to connect with the Buddhist Yogis […]
Closed

Vajra Sangha Retreat

With Pema Khandro

October 10 - 13, 2019
Closed Retreat ~ The annual Vajra Sangha retreat is a private weekend retreat full of deep practice of meditation and study of Dzogchen, Buddhism’s esoteric philosophy. It is a celebratory reunion of the Vajra Sangha from all over the world. The retreat is led by Pema Khandro Rinpoche at her headquarters in Virginia, Khandro Ling.
Register Now

Group Leader Training

With Pema Khandro

October 15 - 17, 2019
The Group Leader Training Program serves the need for training leaders who will serve their local communities, to connect them with the tools for meditation practices and for studying fundamental Buddhist views. Click Here For More Details and Pre-Requisites [...]
Contact Register@BuddhistYogis.org for More Information

Open Teaching Webcast

With Pema Khandro

October 23, 2019
A 30 minute guided meditation and online teaching with Pema Khandro. Free and open to the public. Click Here to Register What is Dakini Day? The Dakini (known in Tibetan as Khandro) is the principle of spacious dynamic wisdom in Tibetan Buddhism. This is a monthly class to support your meditation practice and meet the […]

Dzogchen Day Webcast

With Pema Khandro

November 13, 2019
Guided meditation and discussion with Pema Khandro. This 30 minute online class is free and open to Buddhist Yogis Sangha Members only. Click Here to become a Member Join online for this monthly class to practice meditation and discuss esoteric Buddhism with Pema Khandro. This class is a joyful opportunity to connect with the Buddhist Yogis […]
Closed

Public Program

With Pema Khandro

November 21, 2019
San Diego, Ca ~ Public Program
Register Now

Open Teaching Webcast

With Pema Khandro

November 27, 2019
A 30 minute guided meditation and online teaching with Pema Khandro. Free and open to the public. Click Here to Register What is Dakini Day? The Dakini (known in Tibetan as Khandro) is the principle of spacious dynamic wisdom in Tibetan Buddhism. This is a monthly class to support your meditation practice and meet the […]

Dzogchen Day Webcast

With Pema Khandro

December 11, 2019
Guided meditation and discussion with Pema Khandro. This 30 minute online class is free and open to Buddhist Yogis Sangha Members only. Click Here to become a Member Join online for this monthly class to practice meditation and discuss esoteric Buddhism with Pema Khandro. This class is a joyful opportunity to connect with the Buddhist Yogis […]
Closed

New Years Retreat ~ Vajrasattva

January 20, 2020
Begin the New Year with a Day-long meditation retreat. You will practice Vajrasattva meditation, the practice cherished by Tibetan Buddhists for clearing past karma and restoring confidence and awakening compassion wisdom of your innermost mind. This retreat will be held in Los Angeles, Seattle, Santa Cruz, Grass Valley and Berkeley led by the Buddhist Yogi’s Sangha’s Meditation Instructors and Group Leaders [...]
Register Now

– The Buddhist teaching on emptiness offers radical perspective that breaks through the chains that bind us, the concepts and assumptions that obscure our perception. But emptying out misconceptions about emptiness requires a journey through the wide wonderful world of Buddhist philosophy.

Early Buddhism centered around the radical idea that at the core of the person there is no fixed, eternal self. In a time and place where the culture orbited around the believe that atman – a true self was the answer to the spiritual journey, the Buddha’s teaching suggested that clinging to fixed concepts of self is actually the driving force behind dissatisfaction.

Instead, the world as we know it is entirely relational, made up of interrelated parts. No person exists apart from all the factors that have made up that person, including the components of the individual, the input from others, and the dependance on others to live and thrive. We are all made up of each other in a network of interdependence. We are made up of a matrix of causes, conditions. Even our thoughts did not originate from an independent space, they arise from a culture, dependent on a language and learned patterns. Recognizing this interrelatedness is a key to the wakefulness, knowledge and love that is possible.

From the perspective of the great perfection teachings of Buddhism, discovering our “true self,” could be supplanted by the more present moment goal of finding our “true state,” our a way of being that is not constructed or contrived, but is naturally present. Instead of looking for “true self,” we could look for the “natural state.”

Beyond Concepts

As Mahayana Buddhism spread, the emphasis on the doctrine of no-self was expanded, extended to all phenomena. This view points that there is no fixed and intrinsic reality underlying anything. In other words, reality as we know it is interdependently arising and thus everything is empty of any inherent independent existence.

Wakeful presence in real reality is what Buddhism aims for. So for this goal, Buddhism offers practices and perspectives for  encountering reality with greater clarity, without barriers of concepts, conditions and assumptions standing in the way.

A potent way this clear perception was accomplished is through what is known as Madhayamaka – the middle way teachings most famously taught by the Indian pandit, Nagarjuna. Madhayamaka provides a way of looking at ourselves and reality that deconstructs all our fixed ideas. It suggests that no concept is thoroughly complete, it always falls short. This especially includes our dualistic frameworks such as ideas of good and bad, pure and impure, self and non-self. Ultimately reality itself defies dualistic concepts. If concepts are the primary way we engage with reality, then this is bound to be dissatisfying, because its not reality itself. It is like trying to eat a drawing of a chocolate cake. Concepts represent the reality but they are not the reality itself. They are just conventional designations that function practically to point towards something experiential. Thus Buddhism offers methods for more direct experience – engaging with reality in way that doesn’t need to negate thinking but emphasizes modalities for operating present moment wakeful experience, rather than fixed identities and rigid concepts.

Madhyamaka suggests that our dissatisfaction, suffering and confusion comes from believing that reality is more solid and definite than it really is. It points out how we impute onto reality qualities that are not intrinsic to it so we fail to see how much more open-ended, impermanent and dynamic things are. This the great teaching known in english as “emptiness,” (Tib. སྟོན་པ་ཉིད་ ston pa nyid).

Even though the doctrine of emptiness can seem abstract, practically speaking it has positive implications for every day experience. Even though we experience our obstacles and neurotic mind states as solid, definite and somewhat inevitable, they don’t actually have that quality. Our own habit of perceiving things as solid is what causes a patterned, predictable, solid experience. In actuality, ultimately the web of concepts that bind us to conditioned scripts is made up of something quite tentative, quite empty.

This view a cure for all fixed concepts.

Not Nothing

Thinking of emptiness is a way of continuously unravelling fixed preconceptions. While this could be disorienting, it also has another effect. Buddhist views are not just questions of ontology – the question of what is reality – what is not reality. Instead the teachings themselves are evocative of particular experiences. What is the result of dismantling our concepts? We are left with a heightened sense of  non-conceptual presence. It could be seen as states of meditation evoked through Buddhist philosophy – when concepts are used to dismantle concepts, what modes of experience does that leave us with?

This became an important nuance of interpretation for Buddhist philosophers. Shunyata, the paradigm of emptiness, indicates that reality is empty, but what does this really mean? We can see various approaches to understanding this in the various Buddhist vehicles and lineages.

However to say reality is empty is not to say that things are void, devoid or absent. This was emphasized by philosophers, Buddhist Yogis such as Longchenpa and the Nyingma lineage’s great perfection teachings. Understanding that reality is permeated by emptiness could lead to reifying emptiness. This is what Dakpo Tashi Namgyal, in his work on Mahamudra, word refer to as “clinging to emptiness,” (1)  a way of getting stuck on emptiness as an intellectual concept. Eventually, as meditative understanding matures, he says that both emptiness and non-emptiness are unified in the experience of the expanse of reality. (1)  The take home message is this – if there is clinging to emptiness this can lead to one the four extremes known as nihilism. That would be the idea that underlying everything is nothing, that nothing exists. It in its least extreme manifestation it is a way of talking about reality in terms of what it is not. Or in its most extreme interpretation it is a way of talking about reality as being completely illusory. However various schools of Buddhist thought (especialy Nyingma, Dzogchen and Kagyu Mahamudra teachings and general Buddha-nature discourse) took another approach to talking about reality, using positive terms, pointing to what it is and highlighted the importance of not reifying emptiness. This perspective makes way for the Buddha-nature teachings – in early times these ideas were found in Yogacara and became a foundation for great perfection teachings. In order for those ideas to be understood, an insight of emptiness itself has to arise – if everything is empty, then one would need to be careful not to make emptiness a thing itself.

In order words, in this perspective says emptiness is also empty.

In that case, learning the Buddhist paradigm of emptiness and sorting out its meanings becomes a jumping off point for uncluttering experience and it ultimately leads beyond itself.

Emptiness of Other

One way of understanding this is through the Tibetan Madhyamaka philosophy known as other emptiness vs emptiness of itself, the “zhentong” and “rang tong” teachings (Tib. གཞན་སྟོང་དང་རང་སྟོང་ gzhan stong and rang stong). “Other emptiness” suggests that we understand what we are as being empty of everything else, empty of everything false,  empty of anything other than its natural luminosity. Empty yet not “nothing,” instead the buddha-nature presence takes place as underlying reality. This can be contrasted with the “emptiness of itself,” perspective advocated by what is known as the Prasangika Madhyamaka paradigm – that reality is empty – period. In this case that is a matter of saying what reality is not, without articulating what it is. It is deconstructive.

Luminous Presence & Emptiness

Another way of understanding this concept of emptiness is through the lens of Dzogchen, the great perfection which posits that reality’s emptiness is not separate from gnosis, the knowing wakeful fresh presence. Being takes place. It is empty, yet it appears and manifests. These two qualities are not contradictory. Instead it is a matter of co-emergence of emptiness, presence and appearances. Emptiness is not seen as absolute but instead a facet of the illusory like nature of apparent phenomena. Emptiness is a proccess, a kind unfolding dismantling of constructed realities, but the focus turns to the presence that those realities obscured. In some sense it is emptying out the fixation on anything but that presence itself.

The methods of fathoming the freedom from extremes and the like, according to the traditions of this Natural Great Perfection are generally similar to the Prasangika Madhyamaka. However in the Madhyamaka, emptiness is calculated to be an emptiness like space and is made the basis. Here, the mere constancy of gnosis, ever-pure, naked, all-penetrating and unaccomplished is made the basis. The phenomenon that arise from the sphere of such a basis are apprehended free from extremes, like space.”
– Longchenpa Lungi Terdzo – quoted in Van Schaik (2).

Conclusions

Why does this matter? The paradigm of “emptiness,” a Buddhist method for dismantling our assumptions about reality. It is a shift towards a focus on experience and the desolidifying of  intellectual constructs and assumptions.

Since our obstacles are held together by the unconscious assumptions generated from the matrix of concepts that obscure our true nature – understanding the idea of “emptiness” is a basis for emptying out our greatest obstacles. This goes beyond just identifying problematic concepts themselves, but instead is a matter of seeing that our reliance on concepts as permanent, definitive and total indicators distorts reality.

However ultimately, what paradigm of emptiness does is  – make room – it makes room for experience of presence, wakefulness. By dismantling rigid concepts, it makes room for another mode of experience, the awareness of the presence of gnosis that is the natural state.

 

(1) Namgyal, Dakpo Tashi, and His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Mahamudra: The Moonlight — Quintessence of Mind and Meditation. Trans. Lobsang P. Lhalungpa. 2nd edition. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2006. Print.377.

(2) Schaik, Sam Van. Approaching the Great Perfection: Simultaneous and Gradual Methods of Dzogchen Practice in the Longchen Nyingtig. Simon and Schuster, 2013. Print.

 

Pema Khandro
Pema Khandro is a Tibetan Buddhist scholar, humanitarian, and teacher in the rare lineage of Tibet’s Buddhist Yogis. Raised in the west, ordained in the Nyingma lineage, enthroned as a tulku and trained as an academic, Pema Khandro presents both a traditional perspective and a modern voice. Read more at: https://www.pemakhandro.org/pema-khandro-extended-biography/

  1. Wonderful! Thank you! This is so clarifying on the subject itself and how the different views evolved and fit together. I am inspired by your writing!

  2. Thank you. It’s great to have more explanation on this powerful teaching. It can be a bit difficult to digest sometimes. I’m reminded that originally I looked at written explanations of Buddhist teaching and thought to myself, I am never getting into this. For me, it was meeting teachers person to person that transmitted an experience. When I added that, the profound nature of the teachings, began to be revealed.

Comments are closed.