The Very Heart of Buddhism

By Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche
Bodhgaya, India (Archive #1872)

Lama Zopa Rinpoche explains how to meditate on emptiness in daily life in this excerpt from a teaching given at Root Institute, Bodhgaya, on January 30, 2012. Edited by Ven. Ailsa Cameron.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche traveling out to the open Atlantic Ocean to bless it and the animals in it, USA, August 2016.

A star, a visual aberration, a flame of a lamp,
An illusion, a drop of dew, or a bubble,
A dream, a flash of lightning, a cloud—
See conditioned things as such!

This verse is showing the reality of I, action, object and all phenomena— hell and enlightenment, samsara and nirvana—the whole thing. It is showing the reality of all phenomena, particularly causative phenomena.

When you encounter problems in daily life, it is very good to think of this verse; it is very good to meditate on this. This verse is not only for use in teachings; it is for use anywhere. It is recited during teachings, but our mind is supposed to be aware of this verse in daily life. That is the point. It’s meant to help us to be aware of emptiness, to meditate on emptiness.

Even though many examples are given in this verse, the point is that the whole thing is a hallucination. What we talk about, what we believe, what we do (our actions of coming, going, eating, walking, sitting, sleeping), what we experience (forms, sounds, smells, tastes, tangible objects): the whole thing is a hallucination. Everything appears truly existent, real, and we believe it to exist in the way it appears to us. We’re living life in a total hallucination. There’s no real person, no real I; what appears to be real is a hallucination.

So, the illusion person goes to an illusion restaurant and pays illusion money to eat illusion food in that illusion restaurant. It is like that. It’s fascinating. If you’re continuously meditating on your life, it’s really fascinating. It’s really fantastic! You really enjoy your life. This is the best TV. This movie of yourself is the best movie. It’s the best sightseeing. Everything is a total hallucination. There’s no such thing there. There’s only what is merely labeled.

That’s another meditation: the merely labeled I merely labeled goes to the merely labeled restaurant and merely labeled pays merely labeled money to merely labeled eat merely labeled food. That’s another way to meditate. Whatever you’re doing, everything is always merely labeled, so nothing exists from its own side. Everything is empty. But to our hallucinated mind everything appears real: there’s a real I, real everything. At the real market, you do real buying of real food. At the real stupa, you do real circumambulations to do real purifying of real negative karma. There’s no such thing!

In our busy life, we need meditation on emptiness, the very heart of Buddhism. All the teachings of the Prajnaparamita are for wisdom. The Prajnaparamita comes in twelve volumes, in three volumes, then becomes shorter and shorter, down to the Heart of Wisdom, then the Prajnaparamita in a few syllables, and then the Prajnaparamita in one word, AH. That’s it. In Sanskrit AH is a syllable of negation. The Heart Sutra mentions that there is no form, no sound, no smell, no taste, no tangible object and many other things. In Sanskrit, instead of no, there is AH. The AH means that there is no truly existent I, no truly existent action, no truly existent object. There is no true existence on the merely labeled phenomena; there is no phenomena that has true existence. So, it means everything is empty, totally empty. But this is not nihilism. This is the Middle Way (or Madhyamaka) view, devoid of nihilism and eternalism.

Hell and enlightenment; samsara and nirvana; forms, sounds, smells, tastes, tangible objects; I, action, object: all these are not non-existent, which is nihilism, and not truly existent, which is eternalism. They exist in accordance with the Middle Way view, which means they exist in mere name, merely labeled by the mind. So, what the I or any other phenomenon is is something unbelievably subtle. Take the I, for example. What it is is something most subtle, the most subtle. It’s not non-existent but it’s like it’s non-existent. You can see that this is not nihilism but it’s like nihilism. The word like makes the difference, giving a different meaning. For our mind, when it comes to the realization, it’s like that. I haven’t realized it, but for the meditators who have realized emptiness, I is like that, like it doesn’t exist. All phenomena are like that.

So, one mindfulness meditation in daily life is to continuously practice awareness of the hallucination, looking at everything, which is a hallucination, as a hallucination, from morning until night. For example, when you’re going on pilgrimage, you can use that time to meditate on emptiness. From when you leave your room to go towards Rajgir (or wherever) until you come back, you can continuously use that time for meditation, looking at that which is a hallucination as a hallucination. You don’t need many words—just that. Practice this awareness with whatever you’re doing: the hallucinated I is hallucinated doing some hallucinated action. This leads to reality, to emptiness. What comes in your heart is that everything is empty. There’s no coming or going, there’s no car, there’s no road, there’s no Rajgir. (I mean, no truly existent ones, which is what appears to you and what you believe.) This is what comes in your heart.

If you go on a one-month pilgrimage in Tibet, you can do this. For the whole of that one month, you can meditate, practicing awareness of right view, the essence of Buddhism. Buddhism has three divisions, Hinayana, Mahayana Paramitayana and Mahayana tantra, which can be condensed into the lamrim teachings for the lower, middle and higher capable beings. There are then the three principles of the path: renunciation, bodhicitta and right view, the very heart of Buddhism. So, you can meditate on emptiness; you can integrate the practice in that way, exactly like a retreat. You’re traveling, you’re coming and going and doing many things, but if you’re able to keep your mind in this, it’s the same as doing retreat. It’s a question of keeping your mind in the practice of mindfulness, in meditation. It’s then fascinating, very enjoyable. Whether you are happy or having problems, if you look at things in this way, it’s most fascinating. There’s no real problem. There’s no real problem, in reality.

Since everything is merely labeled, you look at it that way. You look at the I and everything else in your life in that way, from morning until night. Whether you are sitting there in your room doing retreat or doing a pilgrimage or working in the office or having a meeting or cooking or cleaning or taking care of a baby or your parents or working as a doctor or as a nurse, keep your mind in meditation. You might have a very busy, very active life, but you keep your mind in meditation. With one part of your mind you’re doing things, but another part of your mind you always keep in meditation, looking at everything as a hallucination, as it is a hallucination; or looking at everything as merely labeled, as it is merely labeled; or looking at everything as empty, as it is empty. (The other meditation, the third one, is awareness of emptiness, looking at everything as empty. This is very, very good—the best.) Since that’s the way everything is existing, you look at it that way.

This is how to meditate on emptiness, the essence of Buddhism, while you’re living the busiest life. Normally people think, “To meditate, you have to sit on a cushion, cross your legs, not speak and close the eyes.” This is not the only way to meditate.

If you can meditate on emptiness in the ways I’ve just described, whatever you do—eating, walking, sitting, sleeping, working—doesn’t become a cause of samsara. Instead, it becomes a remedy to samsara, enabling you to eliminate ignorance, the root of samsara. So there is no doubt that is becomes a remedy to anger, attachment and all the rest of the delusions. As realization of emptiness eliminates the root, the ignorance holding things to be truly existent, it stops the arising of all delusions. Loving kindness is the opposite to anger, but only to anger. Here, emptiness covers everything. It stops all the delusions; it is the remedy to all delusions.

So, it is good to try these meditations. This is how we should try to meditate on emptiness in our life. We have to put effort into this; we have to try. Then everything we do—eating, walking, sitting, sleeping, working, dancing—will become a remedy to samsara. Even dancing, if you’re doing it with this awareness, will become a remedy to samsara. Everything will become an antidote to ignorance; everything will destroy the root of suffering, ignorance. It will then become a cause to achieve liberation, nirvana, the sorrowless state. Of course, it is the wisdom realizing emptiness that directly ceases the delusions, the gross delusions and also the subtle defilements, while bodhicitta indirectly helps to cease them. By ceasing the subtle defilements, you then achieve full enlightenment.

When you go from your room to the market or to the stupa, practice this awareness continuously. You go to the market, you buy things, you come back: you can do a session in that way. You can do a session sitting or you can do a session walking or doing things. You can do this when you go sightseeing. In your room, before you go sightseeing (here I’m talking about looking at ordinary scenery not holy places), you think to practice lamrim, such as awareness of emptiness. For you, the sightseeing then becomes a session of meditation. Whether you’re at the ocean or in the mountains, whether you’re going or coming back, you’re continuously in meditation. It’s very, very meaningful. You made your life most meaningful. Since all your sightseeing was an antidote to samsara, it didn’t become the cause of samsara. It became a cause to achieve liberation and, if it was done with bodhicitta, it became a cause to achieve enlightenment.

When you encounter relationship problems and other problems in your life, if you practice renunciation or bodhicitta or emptiness, it is really fascinating. You see that the actual reality is something completely opposite to what you have been believing. It’s fantastic. The other life that people in the world normally lead then seems very childish. What kings or presidents or bankers are involved with and believe is all childish. You see that it’s nonsense.