Meditation on Emptiness and Tonglen (Taking and Giving)

By Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche
Florence, Italy 1990 (Archive #678)

Teachings by Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche, given in Florence, Italy, on July 20, 1990. Rinpoche begins with an explanation of emptiness, then teaches tonglen, or taking and giving—the meditation practice of generating bodhicitta by taking on the suffering of others and giving them happiness.

Edited by Ven. Ailsa Cameron. Second edit by Sandra Smith.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche at Lawudo Retreat Centre, Nepal, 1990. Photo: Merry Colony.
Actualizing the Wisdom Realizing Emptiness

I'm very happy to meet those who I'm meeting for the first time and those whom I have met before. Before the discourse we're going to do some meditation, basically on ultimate nature.

As explained by the fully enlightened being, Shakyamuni Buddha, from his own experience, by meditating on the reality or ultimate nature of the I, the five aggregates, the twelve doors of the senses, the eighteen elements and other phenomena, and actualizing the wisdom understanding the very nature of these things, this is the main weapon, like an atomic bomb, to destroy the very root of all problems.

Without the wisdom directly realizing the ultimate nature or emptiness of the I, aggregates and all the rest of the phenomena, there is no way to eliminate the root of all our problems. There is no way to eliminate the sufferings of birth, old age, sickness and death, or the worry and fear of meeting undesirable objects and separating from desirable ones. The root of all these difficulties we go through in our life cannot be eliminated without wisdom. No matter what other realizations we have, whether of tantra or even bodhicitta, until we are able to actualize the wisdom realizing the ultimate nature of the I and so forth, the root of the whole problem cannot be eliminated. Only by having this wisdom can we eliminate the root of the entire samsaric suffering.

Without achieving this wisdom realizing emptiness, no matter what other realization we have, there is no way we can end the suffering of samsara, no way to reach the end of the entire problem, which means no way to achieve liberation. Once we achieve liberation, it is impossible to experience suffering again. The root of the entire problem is the ignorance not knowing the ultimate nature of the I and aggregates. No other realization can directly eradicate this ignorance—only wisdom. Therefore, listening, reflecting and meditating on the ultimate nature of everything is the most important thing.

To think about emptiness for even one second is very fortunate. Going beyond hallucination and touching the ultimate nature for even one second is great purification. So many heavy negative karmas are purified just by that. A sutra mentions that even questioning whether there is such a thing as emptiness or not shatters samsara into pieces. This expresses how powerful meditation on the ultimate nature of things is.

The teachings also say that simply generating the wish to experience the Middle Way view of emptiness purifies many heavy negative karmas, such as the ten non-virtues and even the five uninterrupted negative karmas, which are the heaviest among all the negative actions. The five are killing your present-life father or mother, causing blood to flow from a tathagata or a buddha, killing an arhat, and causing disunity among the Sangha. These negative karmas are called "uninterrupted" because immediately after death one is born in hell, without any other rebirth intervening. So, even this very heavy negative karma can be purified by generating the wish to understand the ultimate nature or shunyata.

The wisdom realizing emptiness takes us beyond the lower realms, beyond samsara, beyond all obscurations, to the peerless happiness of full enlightenment, the state of cessation of all mistakes and perfection of all qualities. Therefore, making offerings to the Prajnaparamita, the Wisdom Gone Beyond, teachings—for example, printing the texts—accumulates inconceivable merit because of the subject. These scriptures explain the true path, emptiness, the ultimate nature.

So, I'm not going to give you all the details of this. However, it is mentioned that the merit of sentient beings making offerings to millions of stupas for many millions of eons in worlds equaling the number of sand grains of the River Ganges would be far exceeded by the merit of making an offering to the Prajnaparamita scriptures. These scriptures explain the ultimate nature and show the path that liberates us from all suffering and its causes, enabling us to cease all the obscurations in the mental continuum.

Meditating on the meaning of ultimate nature for even one second becomes an inconceivable purification. So many heavy karmas are purified. The benefits of meditating on emptiness are hard to understand; they don't fit in our ordinary mind. Many benefits of listening to, reflecting and meditating on the teachings on emptiness are explained in the sutras. There are inconceivable benefits, therefore we should feel extremely fortunate that at this time we have the opportunity to meet the teachings showing the unmistaken path, the unmistaken view.

The wisdom realizing emptiness gives us the possibility to escape from problems forever. Achieving this ultimate happiness mainly depends on this realization. As I mentioned before, only the wisdom realizing emptiness can directly eradicate the ignorance which is the root of the whole samsaric suffering. Therefore we should feel extremely fortunate and attempt to learn more, to listen, reflect and meditate more. As much as possible, in our everyday life we should attempt to meditate on emptiness even for a minute or a few seconds, especially once we have heard teachings that reveal the unmistaken view and we have some basic understanding of what ultimate nature means. Realizing emptiness gives us the opportunity to be free from the whole of samsara and all suffering.

So, we should not waste time, we should not waste the opportunity. We must meditate as often as possible, even for a few seconds. We must meditate. Not meditating on emptiness, or not even remembering it for even one day is a great loss. Meditating on emptiness itself becomes great purification. For example, when it comes to purification methods in tantra and sutra, reading the Prajnaparamita teachings is one of the methods. Meditating on emptiness is one of the most powerful purifications.

Even if you are doing Vajrasattva meditation, you are still advised to remember emptiness. The Vajrasattva recitation-purification becomes very powerful by remembering emptiness. Making offerings to these scriptures or copying them and meditating on them, are all regarded as very powerful purification practices. Anyway, you should not waste the opportunity, especially if you have studied these teachings and have some basic understanding of them. Even rising doubts about emptiness has a great effect—it shatters samsara into pieces.

In particular, meditation on the Heart Sutra is very important, and it's a very enjoyable meditation. If you know how to meditate, it's better than LSD!

If you don't meditate on emptiness, it's a great loss since this meditation is the most precious, most important thing in life, the solution to all problems. Also, by actualizing the wisdom realizing emptiness, you can help others; you can free all other sentient beings from all sufferings and all problems. This opportunity to free all others from suffering and lead them to ultimate happiness comes from whatever understanding you have of emptiness in your day-to-day life, from meditating on The Essence of Wisdom, which is a condensed teaching on emptiness.

No matter how many teachings we have heard on emptiness—hundreds of volumes, hundreds of times—the whole point of hearing so many teachings on emptiness is to meditate, to see the truth, to see the ultimate nature. Through developing this wisdom, we are then able to achieve the liberation that is forever free from samsara, forever free from all suffering, and we can achieve great liberation, full enlightenment, with complete cessation of even the subtle obscurations.

This depends on meditating in your daily life on the teachings you have heard, on what you have understood. You have to put the teachings into practice. For those who practice tantra, meditation on emptiness comes without choice there in the sadhana. It is very important to pause there, even for a few seconds, to meditate.

Even if you don't understand exactly the complete meaning because it is so subtle, even if you don't get the whole idea, it is still extremely important just to read that teaching. Even to recite it mindfully has great meaning; it becomes a great purification and leaves so much imprint on the mind. That itself makes your mind closer and closer to seeing the truth, to generating wisdom.

Do not commit any unwholesome action,
Enjoy creating perfect virtue,
And subdue one's own mind.
This is the teaching of the Buddha.

Self, action, object; friend, enemy, stranger; all the sense objects—desirable, undesirable, indifferent—all these are transitory in nature, changing within each second due to causes and conditions. These things can cease at any time. This also applies to our own body, our possessions, our friends and relatives.

Therefore, there is no reason to have the dissatisfied minds of desire, anger and ignorance, or the wrong conception that these things are permanent, that they do not change but last forever. There is no benefit in believing this, since it is not the nature of these things. It brings only problems, confusion. All these things change and cease. When that happens, there is a problem in the mind, a problem in the life. However, if we are aware of their nature there is no way for confusion to arise, so the mind stays tranquil.

And since all these things—self, action, object; friend, enemy, stranger; good and bad—are nothing other than mere imputation, they are all completely empty of the real [thing] that is appearing from its own side.

So, everything is empty. In emptiness there is no such thing as this emptiness or that emptiness. In emptiness there is no such thing as emptiness of subject, emptiness of object, emptiness of action. In emptiness there is no I, action, object. Now, with this awareness read the Heart Sutra. This awareness is itself the meaning of the Heart Sutra.