How to Experience Emptiness?

Emptiness is an idea that is firmly attached to Eastern traditions, specifically Buddhism.

In the Heart Sutra, we encounter this: “Form is Emptiness and Emptiness is Form.”

What is Emptiness?

The original word in Sanskrit is Shunyata.  The root word within it is Shunya, which means zero, no-thing, empty.  

Shunya (and as a result, Shunyata) is often misunderstood as vacuum or void.  Which further leads to people mistaking the basis of our being as emptiness that is we are nothing, we are zero, which can only lead to a cynical view of existence.

What is meant here is something quite different. Tsyoknyi Rinpoche says this, about so-called Emptiness:

… the basis of experience is beyond our ability to perceive with our senses and or to capture in a nice, tidy concept. Maybe a better understanding of the deep sense of the word may be ‘inconceivable’ or ‘unnameable’.

Tsyoknyi Rinpoche

i.e If we started with the meaning of Shunyata as implying ‘nothing‘, or rather, ‘no-thing‘, then we begin to see what is being implied here.  An experience beyond our conventional way of seeing things, and labeling them.  i.e. An experience that is Unnameable.

Without this clarity of what is meant by Emptiness, we, as practitioners can easily fall into great traps that lie ahead in our practice.

Experiencing Void in Meditation

For instance, we often hear meditation practitioners say something like this:  “I experienced a great emptiness, a great void, a big blank wall in my meditation.” As if to suggest that they are experiencing THE Emptiness that the Heart Sutra is talking about.  Or feeling that they’ve reached the vacuum beyond which there is nothing to achieve, nowhere to go.

See this exchange below between a student and Ramana Maharshi…

Student:  When I meditate, I reach a stage where there is a vacuum or void.  How should I proceed from here?

Ramana Maharshi:  Never mind whether there are visions or sounds or anything else or whether there is a void.  Are you present during all this or are you not?  You must have been there even during the void to be able to say that you experienced a void.  To be fixed in that “you” is the quest for the “I” from start to finish.

… and he proceeds to clarify this …

Ramana Maharshi:  “It is the mind that see objects and has experiences and that finds a void when it ceases to see and experience, but that is not “you”.  You are the constant illumination that lights up both the experiences and the void.”

… and further more …

Ramana Maharshi:  “We see objects all around us, but in complete darkness we do not see them and we say, ‘I see nothing’; even then the eyes are there to say that they see nothing.  In the same way, you are there even in the void you mention.”

The Implication

The one experiencing the void is still a separate-I.  How can that void, which we may experience in meditation, possibly be the Emptiness referred to in the Heart Sutra, which, as we have seen above, is more correctly understood as ‘Unnameable‘?

The closest that a separate-I will ever get in its quest to experience True Self, in meditation, is this void.  This void, is nothing more than the limited clone made by the mind of the separate-I, from the vastness of the Unnameable.

That separate-I has to drop.  Only in the recognition of the illusion of the separate-I, can True Self be known.

Ramana Maharshi:  First one sees the Self as objects, then one sees the Self as void, then one sees the Self as Self, only in this last there is no seeing because seeing is being.

Only the Unnameable Self knows the Unnameable. Itself.

The formlessness of Self and form are one and the same!  Hence “Form is Emptiness and Emptiness is Form.”

Which brings us back to the original question.  How does one experience Emptiness (as meant in the Heart Sutra)? 

Experiencing Emptiness?

By recognizing who the real “I” is, or what our true nature is.

Want to experience Emptiness?  Know thy self!

How to know True Self?  The simplest answer to that is: “Summa Iru” (“Be Silent” in Tamil language).



* Check out the official page on the book, “What is Enlightenment? A Simple Guide” which demystifies enlightenment.

* Available now, “Awaken: An Experiential Exploration of Enlightenment” – Get the guidance you may need for inquiring into your real nature. It helps you realize Reality in direct experience.

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