Understanding Emptiness to Become Free – Shabdrung Rinpoche’s Course on The Introduction to the Middle Way
Sometimes, while studying the middle way that leads to the understanding of emptiness, we can feel a bit lost. Everything gets called into question, and we can feel like the teaching deconstructs our beliefs without proposing any alternative. But don’t forget that the purpose of the systematic questioning applied in the middle way is to clarify our understanding and nurture our confidence based on logic and reasoning.
We have now been studying Chandrakirti’s texte Introduction to the Middle Way with Shabdrung Rinpoche for four years. This text lays the foundation for emptiness by questioning our preconceptions and our beliefs. The idea of these many reflections is to dissipate our mistaken ideas of reality and to question our ignorance and the misunderstandings that it generates. Sometimes, we are not even aware that we have mistaken concepts and an incomplete way of looking at reality. This is what the text brings to light. However, if we jump into this text too quickly, if we do not take the time necessary for understanding, a gap can appear between our way of seeing and what the teaching shows us. For this reason, the Buddha also gave teachings on relative reality.
As ultimate reality can seem inaccessible to us, the Buddha taught methods for gradual progress. Combining the two approaches yields what we call the twofold accumulation: merit and wisdom. It concerns a progressive path that allows us to bring together the conditions for understanding the reality of phenomena and to accumulate the merit necessary to progressively nurture discernment.
When we broach the topic of emptiness, fear can arise—the fear of losing everything, including ourselves. But emptiness is the most beautiful thing we can discover. Often, we think of it as a kind of nothingness, due to grasping, which makes us believe in things as truly existing. Because we identify with ourselves and with phenomena, we are afraid of losing the things we are attached to. This grasping is the greatest obstacle to understanding. If we understand the meaning of emptiness, then there is no need to fear anything, for we directly perceive that there is nothing to lose. Understanding emptiness is ultimate freedom.
When we speak of emptiness, it refers to the true nature of phenomena; it is not something newly created by the buddhas. Emptiness is not the destruction of what came before it, but phenomena’s mode of being since beginningless time. This is what ignorance prevents us from seeing and what—due to our tendencies—is difficult to understand.
This is another reason why the Buddha gave progressive teachings and distinguished ultimate truth from relative truth.
Our life is a paradox: although we love liberty, we hold tight to our way of perceiving things. And yet, this is what prevents us from being free and open. The very meaning of the teachings on emptiness is to realize true liberty and full openness. Grasping onto something and being free are opposites. Therefore, all that we become attached to prevents us from being free. Chandrakirti’s teaching—transmitted by Shabdrung Rinpoche—aims to help us dissipate our grasping and free us from our attachments. Through the process of study, reflection, and meditation, we become more flexible. It is a process of familiarization that takes place naturally when we bring together favorable conditions. Once again, the key is not willpower but patience in progressive development.
[This chronicle was written based on the instructions of Shabdrung Rinpoche during the course.]
Puntso, Head of Dhagpo’s Program
The 4th Dongsung Shabdrung Rinpoche, renowned for his vast knowledge, is recognized as an emanation of Sangye Yeshe (832 – 902 CE), one of Padmasambhava’s 25 closest disciples.
Although belonging to the Sakya lineage, he has received the most important transmissions and complete empowerments from masters of the different schools, including Thaye Dorje, His Holiness the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa. He is presently the main instructor at Dhongtsang Monastery in Tibet.