A talk given by Shih-fu on May 28, 1980 during retreat.

(Editor’s note :With the exception of the first two sentences, the expression ‘Emptiness’ or ‘Void’ as used in this article does not correspond exactly to the usual Buddhist technical term – ‘Sunyata’. Sunyata, the goal of Buddhist practice, corresponds to the realization of ‘no-self’, which would be the next step beyond the five levels of emptiness described in this talk. The word ‘Emptiness’ or ‘Void’ as used here has more the meaning of dropping off, putting down, forgetting.)


Emptiness starts from existence. The reason why it is difficult for so many people to get into the practice is because they can’t find their way from existence to emptiness.

Now when we first entered the center fo rthe retreat, I told you to wrap up all your regular thoughts and habits-everything connected to the outside world-in a bundle and leave it outside the door. This amounts to ‘voiding’ our regular preoccupations. Now I will talk about a deeper level of emptiness, or voiding. On the first day I mentioned that this center was a very noisy environment for practice (cars, radios, kids, etc.,) and asked if the noises outside would bother you. Most people said ‘No’. Later on in the retreat, one student said that since she couldn’t stop thinking about them. For instance, if I told everyone to relax, she would just sit there playing it over in her head- “relax, relax, relax.” If I told everyone to be a corpse, she would think “I am dead, I am dead, etc.,” She said “I can put down all other things, but I can’t empty out what Shih-Fu taught.” So I told her you have to put that down too. What I said is already past and you don’t have to keep thinking about it. Similarly, I have told you to bow to your cushion before you sit and vow that you will sit very well. But after you sit down you should forget all about it. One other student found that while he was sitting he still kept on wishing or hoping to meditate well. So the second level is to void out anything that comes up within our minds during the retreat, as well as the outer environment.

If you want to progress to a further stage of voiding, the next thing that is difficult to put down, or forget, is the method itself. What do I mean by this? It’s like putting on a pair of glasses. The normal thing is just to forget you are wearing them, and just see through them. If you’re always conscious of the glasses that will be troublesome to you. Another example is wearing a new pair of shoes and being very aware of them hurting your feet, or feeling unnatural. If you were to just forget about them, you could just make use of them and walk fast and well. Its the same with driving a car or riding a horse. You have to forget the car and just drive, forget the horse in order to ride it well. I think that probably everyone here is having this problem of not being able to forget about the method, which is a real burden on you.

When you forget the method, you are just in the act of using it. Then you can go one step further and forget yourself also. It’s like a guy getting so engrossed in watching a pretty girl walk down the street, eyeing her from every angle, that he forgets where he is going and falls right into a body of water. As soon as you forget yourself, you forget any kind of standpoint you have, or bodily feeling – all comfort or discomfort disappears. If you were only to forget the method, but not yourself, your body would feel very comfortable. At the point where you forget yourself, even the feeling of comfort and discomfort is also gone and yet everything around you still exists. You are very clearly aware of the environment, although you have forgotten yourself.

Finally even the environment is forgotten. You don’t hear what is heard nor see what is seen. At this point the person has entered samadhi.

As to these five levels of emptiness, most of you can void out part of the things I mentioned, but you haven’t yet been able to forget the method, not to mention yourself or the environment. These are big passes that are tough for most people to get through. If you forget the method, you lose all awareness of time and sit very well. If you forget yourself, you may go through a major personality change. If you reach the level of also forgetting the environment, then you reach the state of samadhi. At this stage, your character will definitely undergo a big change and I will be ready to give you a method to help you enter the stage of ‘No Self’.

To sum up, the five levels are : 1) To empty your mind of thoughts connected with your daily life before you came on the retreat. 2) To put down thoughts of things outside the mind and body that concern things which happen during the retreat. 3) Void out the method. 4) Forget the self. 5) Forget the outer environment. Everyone should ask themselves what level they are at.

Speaking from my own experience, each time I sit down to meditate, I go through the same five levels of emptiness. One by one I forget each previous level until I reach the fifth level. It used to happen in the past that I would go through this process very slowly. But as time went on, and nowadays, as soon as I sit down I just pass very quickly and smoothly from one to two to three to four to five. I hope that in the future each one of you will be able to do the same thing. This is very similar to what is written in the sutras about Sakyamuni Buddha, who would enter into what is called the ‘levels of dhyana.’ He would have to enter into the first level of dhyana before he could go on to the second, the third, and so on. The analogy is not an exact parallel though. What I am talking about here are the levels from the ordinary state of mind to samadhi, or what would be the first level of dhyana. But the kind of process you go through is still the same.

So with this information, you can be very clear about how to approach the practice. As you are working hard, you will be able to see these things very clearly in your own practice. As you forget or drop off one level and enter into another you already know what the next thing you have to do is. Like the rungs of a ladder, the steps are well marked out. With continued practice, you can eventually climb up very quickly.

ON by Master Sheng Yen

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