Sunnata--- Touching the Void
The most important and significant teaching of Buddha in his 45 years of ministry is Sunnata---Voidness. It is the main crux of his entire philosophy. It is this crucial teaching of sunnata and anatta that is so vital to the opening of the yogin’s eyes to the perception of the Absolute.
Buddha taught that “Sunnata is Nibbana and Nibbana is Sunnata.” Sunnata is a mind that is void of craving and grasping of “I” and “mine.” When there is no craving or grasping, the mind is void. So in a day, the ordinary lay person can have many moments free of craving and grasping of “I” and “mine.” That also means that the layperson can also be in sunnata for many moments in a day, during which he is also in nibbana. But these moments pass so quickly that the mind does not realize them.
Let us go a little deeper into the subject. The doctrine of anatta means that there is no soul or a permanent, abiding essence in an individual. Putting it another way, the individual is void of a Self or soul. This is sunnata of the individual. It also means every human being has no Self or soul. This voidness must also apply to every sentient being (animal, insects, bacteria and viruses) vegetable and mineral. This voidness of material things is also applicable to immaterial things. So the individual can only know sunnata when he is aware of sunnata in his mind that is truly void. That means the sunnata of his mind recognizes the anatta of the individual. This is not merely knowing that sunnata is voidness as a piece of knowledge. One must clearly see or be aware of the manifestation of voidness in the mind. The voidness must manifest in his awareness. Even though it is not the supreme sunnata, be aware of these brief manifestations in these precious moments. These are the transient tastes of bliss. These are the moments when dukkha (suffering) are absent.
One can now see the two kinds of sunnata. The first type is that the character or nature of all things is voidness or sunnata. All things include everything physical and mental (material and immaterial). It also includes nibbana. That means every speck of dust up to the universe itself has no essential essence or Self. All mental and emotional components of an individual are also void of Self. Similarly, all spiritual realms including nibbana are also void of Self.
The second application of Sunnata is the quality of the mind when it is not grasping or clinging to anything. This is when the mind is ‘not taking things to be self’ and ‘not taking things as belonging to self.’ When this is the case, the mind is in its natural state, which is sunnata. Note here that the mind does not attain voidness neither does the mind come to know voidness. The mind is voidness. To complement the picture are these two couplets of Buddha’s:
Nibbana is the supreme voidness
Nibbana is the supreme happiness.
In practice, void is the total quenching of ego and egoism. There is no experience of “I” and “mine” in this equation.
The middle way is the Noble Eightfold Path of the Four Noble Truths. That means the practice of morality with meditation backed by the wisdom of determination and correct view. The meditation advocated here is that of immanence, whilst other mystics may use the method of transcendence. Immanence here means looking inwards in one’s meditation. After accomplishing one-pointed concentration, one should switch to Vipassana in order to achieve emptiness of thoughts. This is only the beginning. When this stage of no thoughts is stable, then move over to Shikantaza. All these meditation techniques are described in detail in this website.
Having arrived at the first stages of emptiness, one should now concentrate on going deeper and deeper into this column of emptiness. This deepening of emptiness in immanence is most difficult to achieve. Throughout this deepening process, awareness must be maintained. Although one is not totally one-pointed, no distraction is allowed. The concentration of emptiness must be steadfast. That means all external and environmental circumstances must remain conducive to this practice of deepening into emptiness. The goal is Voidness—Sunnata. Nothing is more important in one’s life. It is a life and death situation, and yet there should not be the slightest inkling of stress or urgency. In order to reach the final goal of “supreme unsurpassable voidness”, the mind must be free and signless. That is there has to be not the slightest flickering of thoughts throughout this process of descent into voidness. Before the final stage, this emptiness may regress back to the previous superficial states, in which multiple, irregular eruptions of thoughts still occur. That means the process is still not stable, and this slippage has to be resisted. However, having tried so many thousands of times one may with luck and good kamma finally arrive one day at that state of signless radiant mind in which there is no inkling of “I” or “mine.” This state can only be achieved when the subconscious has totally destroyed greed, hatred and delusion. This means the five fetters of the non-returner have been eradicated (see article on Theravada, the Oldest form of Buddhism.)
In this descent into the different stages of voidness, one path may start with a great expanse of nature, like the forest, sea or sky. There should not be any sentient beings present in these scenarios. This is not a universal or inevitable scenario. Then the next deeper layer may be seen as only earth or sea (this is a natural mode of descent into the depths). This layer may or may not occur: it is not a natural follow through from the above. However, the next deeper layer is more constant: infinite space. But space is still a form and not quite void. So one would probe deeper until one arrives at infinite consciousness. That means withdrawing of the mind inward from the exterior space. Then this infinite consciousness has to be further refined into infinite nothingness because consciousness is still a little misty. As one goes down, there is more clarity. Nothingness is clearer than consciousness. Thence we arrive at the penultimate stage of neither-experience-nor-nonexperience. Here one feels as if one is in nether land. One feels as if one is neither dead nor alive. There is still awareness but no recognition of where one is. One is merely floating without physical feelings or emotions. It is betwixt this world and the next. There is also not a care in the world. It is a good feeling of statelessness. Finally with Grace one may fall into the supreme unsurpassable voidness. This moment is beyond our control. It cannot be scheduled even with extreme hard work. It just comes. Supreme unsurpassable voidness is there all the time. It is our heritage. It can only be perceived when the last wisp of obscuration is destroyed, but it is also in the hands of Grace.
This is like touching sunnata with our bare hands. This contact with sunnata can only happen when one has totally quenched all mental contacts with the material and immaterial elements of the universe. This is the great achievement of many years or life times of practice of the Noble Eightfold Path. The practice is the seeing of voidness of self (anatta) and the voidness of all material and immaterial things in the world (sunnata). The yogin now realizes that he is home and never truly left it.