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Some remarks on the Shorter Discourse on Emptiness

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#1

In recent days I have been lucky enough to make some significant progress in my translation work, as the suttas have not posed any major difficulties. It looks like that run is at an end, as today I am translating MN 121, the Cūḷasuññata Sutta, or Shorter Discourse on Emptiness. This poses a number of interesting issues in translation, which I will discuss here.

Following my usual practice, I will give some examples of previous translations, and try to show why I have reservations about them. I like to take this chance to remind us all that this is not out of a desire to criticize, but simply to establish what the problem is. In particular, I usually quote Ven Bodhi’s translation, not because they are specially deserving of criticism, but because they are clearly the best available, yet even they contain many things about which one might have genuine reservations.

MN 121 begins with Ānanda remarking on the Buddha’s meditation on emptiness, which is followed by an extensive description of this meditation. This consists of a very pragmatic approach, envisaging what is present and what is absent, starting with obvious physical things like elephants and horses, and gradually moving to the “emptiness” of more and more subtle dimensions of reality. Anyway, if you’re not familiar with it, I would suggest reading it first. Unfortunately we do not yet have a translation on SC, however several translations may be found at Obo.

The key, I think, to this text is a series of statements that contrast the emptiness of what is not there with the “oneness’ of what is there. Let’s look at a typical example, with Ven Bodhi’s translation.

bhikkhu amanasikaritvā gāmasaññaṃ, amanasikaritvā manussasaññaṃ, araññasaññaṃ paṭicca manasi karoti ekattaṃ.
a bhikkhu—not attending to the perception of village, not attending to the perception of people—attends to the singleness dependent on the perception of forest.

Now, the first part of this sentence is clear enough, but what is meant by “attends to the singleness dependent on the perception of forest”? A quick glance reveals that this phrase is handled very differently by different translators.

  • Horner: attends to solitude grounded on the perception of forest.
  • Chalmers: envisages solitude through the idea of a forest.
  • Ñāṇamoḷi: gives attention to the single state (of non-voidness) dependent on (the presence of) perception of forest

The word ekatta is sometimes used in the sense of “solitariness”, and it is understandable how the earlier translators might have adopted this. However given that the sutta continues to states of deep meditation, clearly this is not adequate. A more relevant use of ekatta is in the case of “unified perception” which is characteristic of certain forms of deities, and of course, reminiscent of samādhi.

Ekatta is used throughout the text as a distinct philosophical term in opposition to suññatā. This is a major philosophical statement, and one that should be clearly manifest in any translation. Emptiness, of course, came to be known as one of the signature philosophies of Buddhism, and much of it has its roots in this text.

It is, like so many things in the EBTs, in direct contrast with the Upanishadic doctrine. The Upanishads constantly move towards a non-dual doctrine, affirming the oneness of things as expressions of the world-soul of Brahmā. The point of this sutta is to show that any such oneness, no matter how peaceful, always contains some degree of suffering because of the oneness itself. I don’t mean to imply that the contrast with the oneness of the Upanishads is the only context where the notion of emptiness is relevant, merely that it is foremost here.

I would thus propose that throughout ekatta be translated by “oneness”, in order to bring out this philosophical contrast with emptiness. For the current passage we might have:

a mendicant—ignoring the perception of the village and the perception of humans—focuses on the oneness dependent on the perception of wilderness.

A little further down, we have for example:

They understand: ‘There is only this that is not emptiness, namely the oneness dependent on the perception of wilderness.’ And so they regard it as empty of what is not there, but as to what remains they understand that it is present.

This brings us to another very striking idiom, one that so far as I am aware, has escaped comment. Ven Bodhi’s translation again:

Evampissa esā, ānanda, yathābhuccā avipallatthā parisuddhā suññatāvakkanti bhavati.
Thus, Ānanda, this is his genuine, undistorted, pure descent into voidness.

The subject of the sentence is suññatāvakkanti, literally:

so there is for him this genuine, undistorted, pure avakkanti of emptiness.

Now, the etymology of avakkanti is ava = “down”, kanti = “go”, hence “descent”. But it’s rarely if ever used in such a literal way. Various forms of the word mean to “leave”, “arrive at” and so on.

But this form is only used one context, that of rebirth. It specifically means the “conception” in the sense of rebirth, as applied to either the embryo, to nāmarūpa, or to the five aggregates, etc. I’m not suggesting that it has the same sense here; but the verbal echo is quite noticeable.

I propose we translate:

That’s how there is this genuine, undistorted, pure birth of emptiness in them.

Or more idiomatically:

That’s how emptiness is born in them—genuine, undistorted, and pure.

This discourse is certainly a challenge for my goal of producing an idiomatic English version. I find myself typing a phrase like this:

the oneness dependent on the perception of the dimension of neither perception nor non-perception.

And I realize, well, that’s just the way it is!


#2

I may not be alone in struggling with concepts of emptiness, and the use of that word in this context, above. My thought on reading this interesting essay today is that this translation may be an opportunity to put to rest, finally, the latent confusion that readers (thickheaded as myself) have with the word “empty” as it is used in Buddhist context.

If the idea is that, contrary to the Brahamnic efforts to tie experience and perception to the nondual union with Brahma, reality and experience is dependently originated, is there some way to weave the phrase “dependently originated” into the translation, and leave out the word "empty " as a standalone word? I appreciate that with the effort at making these new translations as user friendly and comfortable as possible, it may not be possible to find words that capture the original text well. It’s just that this “emptiness” stuff always leaves me emptyheaded, sometimes.

In other words, could the phrase be "that’s how dependent origination is born in them-genuine, undistorted, and pure. " At least new readers to this Sutta could then only have to struggle with what DO is, and not get tangled up with “emptiness” to boot. Or is “emptiness” concerned with something other than causality, such as simply composition, that things/perceptions are aggregates of component parts?

If my remarks seem empty of sense, I’ll drink more coffee, and go back to arguing with trolls on the other posts…


#3

Off topic but sounds similar to the Christian concept of “one body (with may parts) in Christ”.

I like it. Unified perception of/with the forest (silence).

I recall ‘Bhaddekaratta’ (MN 131) once translated as “single night”. Is this related to ‘ekatta’?

[quote=“sujato, post:1, topic:5144”]
The point of this sutta is to show that any such oneness, no matter how peaceful, always contains some degree of suffering because of the oneness itself.[/quote]

I am not sure here. MN 140 states, for example, the immaterial jhanas are not nibbana because they are conditioned. To me, the suffering might be related to the object of oneness (eg. the forest) rather than the oneness itself, which is why the oneness (singleness of mind) with 7 supporting path factors in MN 117 would not be suffering.

I like the motive of making the contrast with a “oneness” that is mere samadhi (in contrast to the wisdom of emptiness).

Is this your intention?

By ‘oneness’, are you inferring samadhi without wisdom? if so, I am possibly warming to the idea.

My 1st inclination was naively: “a mendicant—ignoring the perception of the village and the perception of humans— dependent on the perception of wilderness, makes the mind unified.”

However, maybe a ‘samadhi-oneness’ can be emphasised. Since the sutta never refers to a “oneness dependent upon sunnata”, the contrast is possibly quite valid & certainly skilful means/explanatory device.

Regards :anjal:


#4

Ekatta

@sujato: The point of this sutta is to show that any such oneness, no matter how peaceful, always contains some degree of suffering because of the oneness itself.

Do you really think that the suffering is in the oneness; or is suffering, in the fact that there is no self, or what pertains to a self in the world? - namely no continuity (like death puts an end to continuity); therefore no possible bliss.

Also, it seems that suffering in this particular sutta (MN 121) is defined as the daratha (anxiety, distress - sorrow - trouble, [Sk.daratha, der. fr. dara]), that is encountered all along the different steps of this training towards fulfilled emptiness- that is to say the fact that there is still something present. The fact that emptiness is not wholly carried through. The fact that in our instance, there is still the non-voidness of the forest (once gotten rid of the oneness dependent on the perception of the community of monks (village & people) - and that there is also, nothing else around).

Note:
The suffering (daratha) is both somatic and mental.

Bodily and mental troubles increase. (Bodhi)
kāyikāpi darathā pahīyanti, cetasikāpi darathā pahīyanti.
(MN149)

In RV. 1.053.04-7.005.03 and AV(Ś). 20.21.4, dara has the meaning of scattering.

Could that probably mean: suffering as in having a scattered (disjointed) both body and mind - although in a oneness state - because of that e’er modicum of non-emptiness along the process of training.?


araññasaññaṃ paṭicca manasi karoti ekattaṃ
attends to the singleness dependent on the perception of forest.

Again, using the literal meaning of manasikaroti, viz. “striving after with the mind, (from the origin - to do it “appropriately”)” - as well as the meaning of ekatta (eka±tta or tā), viz one+state; we could have the following interpretation:
"Strives (with the mind/mano,) after the perception of the forest, (implying: from the origin of this sole perception of the forest) - that is to say void of anything else; (of any other origin) - and makes of this perception of the forest, a “one state” (as in: one attribute - namely a somewhat exclusive nimitta).

Another reference to Ekatta is:

I see, Nāgita, a forest-dwelling bhikkhu sitting and dozing in the forest. It then occurs to me: ‘Now this venerable one will dispel this sleepiness and fatigue and attend only to the perception of forest, [a state of] oneness.’ For this reason I am pleased with this bhikkhu’s dwelling in the forest.
idha panāhaṃ, nāgita, bhikkhuṃ passāmi āraññikaṃ araññe pacalāyamānaṃ nisinnaṃ. tassa mayhaṃ, nāgita, evaṃ hoti — ‘idāni ayamāyasmā imaṃ niddākilamathaṃ paṭivinodetvā araññasaññaṃyeva manasi karissati ekattan’ti. tenāhaṃ, nāgita, tassa bhikkhuno attamano homi araññavihārena.
AN 6.42 (idem AN 8.86)


Emptiness takes a lots of meaning in the EBTs.
Emptiness of Satta (SN 12.37, SN 35.238). Or the recurring “empty of self and what pertains to a self”, that has to do with the non-continuity of phenomenas (SN 35.85). Or again the very important MN 151 (SA 236). This sutta (MN 121); Etc.


Avakkanti

Avakkanti >> avakkamati [ava + kamati fr.kram]: to approach.to enter,go into or near to,to fall into,appear in.
Underlying meaning:

  • √ क्रम् kram: to cause to step (ŚBr.)
  • अव ava off , away , down (RV.)

The avakkanti “process” is best described in SN 12.39 (establishing of consciousness - see here for a comprehensive view of this notion):

This “descent” of nāmarūpa is a true “stepping away”, from the Nāmarūpa nidāna, into Saḷāyatana and Satta.

Note: I have already explained in [another post](https://discourse.suttacentral.net/t/what-is-the-meaning-of-nama-in-nama-rupa/4600/3) that the components of nāmarūpa change, as they "step away". This is why there is a divergence in SN & SA; but not an incompability. I summarize this below: SN 12. 2 states that name is feeling (vedanā), perception (saññā), volition (cetanā), contact (phassa), and attention/mentally-produced (manasikāra). While, SA 298, states that name/nāma (名) is the four non-material aggregates (四無色陰); namely feeling (受陰), perception (想陰), synergetic activities (行陰), and consciousness (識陰) aggregates. The Arthaviniścaya sutra (Arv 5) gives also the same as the latter; with the synergetic activities as saṁskāra.

Please see this visual aid

The “stepping away” from nāmarūpa nidāna to saḷāyatana/satta is the shift of asmi (being). Yet this asmi is “said of” nāmarūpa nidāna and just present in saḷāyatana/satta. Which has the “I” say fallaciously: “iminā evaṃsmīti hoti” (lit. being becomes just so, because of this). Not applying the “neither/nor” of SN 22.85.

The “descent” in the pericope:

Evampissa esā, ānanda, yathābhuccā avipallatthā parisuddhā suññatāvakkanti bhavati.
Thus, Ānanda, this is his genuine, underanged, pure descent into voidness.
Thus, Ānanda, this descent into voidness is according to that which really is, undistorted and purified.

is the “stepping away” from one state to another. From the oneness dependent on the perception of the community of monks, to the oneness dependent on the perception of the forest; in that instance.

Note: the descent to emptiness must be understood as a process, whose end (ultimate goal) is emptiness.
The (seven) intermediate steps
(1) The oneness dependent on the perception of the community of monks;
(2) The oneness dependent on the perception of the forest;
(3) The oneness dependent on the perception of earth;
(4) The oneness dependent on the perception of the base of infinite space;
(5) The oneness dependent on the perception of the base of infinite consciousness;
(6) The oneness dependent on the perception of the base of nothingness; and
(7) The oneness dependent on the perception of the base of neither-perception-nor-non-perception.
are not really emptiness in themselves. For there is always the daratha (distress) of the non-voidness of the Ekatta - of the forest in our instance.


#5

It is more meaningful than singleness, in this sutta.

Anything that ‘exists’ (if only as mere experience) is transient. Therefore it is unsatisfactory. Or the bliss of onness is an agitation. Or it is understood that the onness has been fabricated and we are projecting meaning to that phenomenon that it doesn’t have.

If we say emptiness is ‘born’ it feels as if we are giving emptiness an ‘existence’ and reifying it somewhat. The emptiness spoken of here is ‘just emptiness’. Nothing complex- hence it is genuine, undistorted and pure - devoid of complex conceptual projections on to it.

The Buddha talks of a step-wise reduction of environmental objects leading to the perception of emptiness (i.e. noting the absence of…). I have an image of a flight of steps leading down to a pond with dark water where one could dissolve in. I prefer descent in keeping with reduction of phenomena (‘cessation,cessation’) being more blissful than birth (‘origination, origination’) which leads to complication/suffering. I’m of course just expressing the spirit of the dhamma here and not the ‘correct’ word in this context.

With metta

Mat


#6

@Mat says:
I prefer descent in keeping with reduction of phenomena (‘cessation,cessation’) being more blissful than birth (‘origination, origination’) which leads to complication/suffering.

Then, you equate cessation to emptiness, which it is not.
Emptiness is not cessation. Emptiness is voidness of something.
Your perception of the community of monks (of the village & people), does not have to “cease,” for you to get into the (still painful/daratha) perception of the forest.
What you have to do is to manasikarize from the forest. Your nimitta (attribute) - the state of oneness, ekatta - must be the forest and nothing else.

The only voidness you “acquired” is the voidness of the community of monks (of the village & people), in this instance. Remains all the rest!


#7

Yes, I agree some word such as “oneness” has to be used. Perhaps also “unitary nature”, “unity”, “common nature” or something else in that ballpark.

The point seem to be that at each stage of the process of gradual reduction in the objects of perceptual awareness, one is to attend to all to the objects of perception under the aspect of what they have in common, and also take note of what is then absent from that field of awareness in regard to that same common nature. So for example, when one is at the stage of contemplating mountains, ravines and river valleys, one is not to regard them as entities falling under those distinguishing concepts, but instead as all modes of earth. At the same time one is to understand that human beings and forests are absent from one’s field of awareness.

This is an extremely puzzling and provocative sutta. Although it seems very important, and also seems to be one of the few suttas that incorporates the detailed teaching of a specific meditation technique, the technique described doesn’t seem to be one that any contemporary meditation teachers use (at least the ones that I am aware of). The teaching in the sutta seems only distantly related to the later Mahayana teachings on suññatā, with their reificaton of emptiness as some kind of underlying and all-encompassing metaphysical principle. And even fitting the jhana mediation teachings of the commentaries into the framework involves a lot of figurative stretching. It is also interesting that while the later stages of the process take one though the arupa attainments, the earlier stages don’t seem to correspond in any obvious way to the stages of the four (rupa) jhanas - not without metaphorical reinterpretation in any case.

It is also striking, to me at least, that in this practice the Buddha says that at each stage, when contemplating the objects of one’s perception under some common nature or aspect, one should also think about, or in some way reflect on or be cognizant of, the potential objects of perception that one is no longer perceiving - that is, the objects of which one’s perceptual awareness is now empty. This is surprising. Ordinarily, one might think that if one is attempting to absorb oneself in the perception of unbounded space, for example, one definitely does want to be thinking such things as, “Hey, I just noticed that I am not perceiving any material forms. My perception is empty of material form!” - because that might trigger you to start perceiving forms again. But here the Buddha seems to emphasize getting into a state in which one is not perceiving things of various kinds, but one nevertheless is clearly aware of the exactly what it is one is not perceiving.

I wonder if this sutta preserves earlier teachings, teachings the Buddha picked up in his travels and incorporated into his own teachings, about techniques for attaining the arupa states, techniques that do not involve going through the four jhanas first. There seems to be a note of surprise in Ananda’s inquiry, as if he is saying, “How is it that I never heard about this stuff before!”

Also, this sutta raises one of those great perennial old questions: Did the Buddha meditate with his eyes open?


#8

The forest is being used as a metaphor for focusing the mind on one mental object. The mind is focused and still, but on one mental object of meditation. Not an empty mind.

Or is it pointing out the non-emptiness of what is there in the mind? The one pointed mind fixed on one thing but not empty.

There is only this modicum of disturbance: the singleness based on the perception of wilderness (forest).

So Ñāṇamoḷi captures it:

(the mind) gives attention to the single state (of non-voidness) dependent on (the presence of) perception of forest

The forest is being used as a metaphor for a mental mind object, that is the object of meditation totally focused but not empty.

Hope that is not too mad
:anjal: :heart:


#9

I don’t think so! But the use of the word “dependent” in this sutta is quite striking. It’s not unique, but it is a little unusual, and I wonder if this is what prompted the connection between emptiness and dependent origination. Apparently this term is not found in the Chinese parallel, but is in the Tibetan.

For me, the main insight I had when reading the Pali was the clear contrast between ekatta and suññatā, and implications of this as relating to the Upanishadic doctrine. While I don’t have any problem applying the idea of emptiness to dependent origination, I don’t think that was the main point.

No, apart from just having the word “one”.

That would be over-interpreting the sutta. Anyway, there’s no such thing!

Yes, it is the presence of something, even a unified whole.

Indeed.

While that might apply to some Mahayana teachings, I don’t think that’s a fair characterization of the teachings of emptiness in general. I have heard plenty of Mahayana teachers describe emptiness in terms that are pretty much the same as what the Suttas say, i.e. that things are not-self, impermanent, conditioned, and so on.

The four elements commonly represent the four jhanas in the sequence on meditation, and here that is apparently reduced to just the earth element.


#10

In Venerable Anālayo’s “Compassion and Emptiness in Eearly Buddhist Meditation” he translates it (actually it’s parallel MA 190) like this:

Anyway, there seems to be a gradual movement towards a greater sense of emptiness by substituting coarser more diverse perceptions with subtler more uniformed ones. Letting go of something, noticing the absence of that something and finding the next something that’s still there.


#11

Indeed! I frankly cannot make sense of how to practice according to this sutta. :unamused:

I know it is not the focus of this forum but bhante @sujato, would you be able to provide us any hint would you take this sutta as basis for practice?

Let’s pick an average Joe who sits in meditation in an urban setting, let’s say a meditation room within a building. He sits down, he hears the buzz around, people walking, chatting on the corridor, cars and buses coming and going at distance. Can we use this sutta to practice in such setting? Can we put in practice the giving up of perception of people and the village by choosing instead to pay attention to the subtle tinnitus one finds himself/herself with once he sits quiet?

Then, what is this thing called perception of earth? Is it perception of solidity in one’s body? Is it perception of one’s body pulsation? Is it the perception of one’s body against the seat and hands against each other (or on one’s laps)?

I will stop here as I don’t think an average Joe has much chances to get to the next stages the sutta explain (all in all he is not a bhikkhu). :stuck_out_tongue_closed_eyes:


#12

#13

Sorry but still I can’t make sense of it. Maybe I am too stupid for this sutta. Should I imagine a perfectly plan (or sphere)? How does that fit in the eightfold path?


#14

Well, I wouldn’t focus on tinnitus, but otherwise, sure. It is actually a great way to start a meditation. Spend five or ten minutes just going through all the stresses and stuff that you’re freed of, just by sitting there!

It begins with this, yes, but the point of the sutta is to move to a oneness. So as a basic meditation subject, focus on the hard parts you can feel in your body, or, if you prefer, a visual aid like a disk of earth. The deeper you go into it, the more you’ll see the property of hardness as a distinct percept, until eventually the mind find oneness based on that.

But I have to say, while the Buddha so often taught a gradual training, this particular sutta goes from thinking, “hey, there’s no elephants here!” to the formless realms in a few lines. Basically, it’s the locus classicus for the phrase, “that escalated quickly”!


#15

In the suttas, Bhante? Or is that a later commentarial interpretation?

But in any case, in this sutta the sequence of objects of perception seems to be:

  1. Human being and villages
  2. Wilderness
  3. Earth
  4. Infinite Space
  5. Infinite Consciousness
  6. Nothingness
    7.Neither Perception nor Non-Perception

… and then finally one attains the signless concentration. #4 through #7 are familiar. But #1 through #3 seem unique to this account. They don’t seem to correspond to the four layers of absorption in the standard jhana list, but they also don’t seem to correspond to the elements, except for earth. It could be the first three items are some kind of figurative code for rapture, pleasure and pain, and equanimity. But why would the Buddha speak in code here, when he is perfectly wiling to be explicit about the four jhanas in other contexts?

In some way, the steps of gradual seclusion and concentration in this sutta seem to correspond to some kind of quest back through the hierarchy of creation, from last generated things through first generated things. Human beings and their villages are born out of the wilderness; the wilderness is born from the earth, the earth from space, etc.


#16

Yes, it’s quite a common idiom.

1 and 2 are a part of sila, i.e. physical seclusion. Earth, both through the description in the text, and because of how the elements are treated elsewhere, corresponds to meditation, from the initial grounding on a meditation subject up to the fourth jhana. I am not aware of anywhere else that has just the earth element in this context, normally it is the four elements.[quote=“DKervick, post:15, topic:5144”]
Human beings and their villages are born out of the wilderness; the wilderness is born from the earth, the earth from space, etc.
[/quote]

Interesting point, I agree.


#17

I see the point of using the word ‘oneness’ now. It took me 2 days :grinning:


#18

Well, it’s taken me twenty years!


#19

You might also be interested in Ajahn Brahm’s sutta class on MN 121, if I remember correctly he does go into the practice aspects there.


#20

Wonderful. Much appreciated! :anjal: