Report: notes on Dance of Emptiness Talk 1

Notes on ‘The Hero’s Journey’ – first dhamma talk in the 2011 Dhamma Talk Series: The Dance of Emptiness.

Talks kindly hosted by the Dance Centre, School of Performing Arts, Sukhumvit 24, Bangkok.

Below are notes, quotes, links – in case anyone who listened to the talk would like to follow up on any of the topics. It is not a transcript of the whole talk. The video will become available one day, when we get the hang of video editing software….

Click here for background information on this Talks Series

Topic of this talk:

The Hero’s Journey (or the Noble Search)

It all starts with a feeling of ‘not-quite-rightness’. That despite enough food, shelter, medicine … there is something more to search for. Every religion has had its mystics, those who took to forests, caves and deserts to seek for something ‘other’, something more than the mundane. Did they find something real? Buddhism is essentially a mystic tradition – the meditator engages a training of the mind and steps foot on the Hero’s Journey. How does it start; how does it end? By emptying out the mundane

The audiences for these dhamma talks come from all walks. Some know a lot about Buddhism, and want specifics, and deeper teachings. Some are totally new to Buddhism. Some have an interest in yoga or martial arts. Others just want to find out a little about the Buddhism that is the basis of so much Thai culture. Some want something easy and entertaining, where others want hard core Buddhism. So the talks aim to be light, easy to follow, but much more specific and methodical than other speakers provide on occasional visits to Bangkok.

The theme of this year’s Dhamma Talk Series is ‘Emptiness‘, or Sunyata.

Every year we have a theme that runs through the talks with the aim at examining this theme in the light of the various teachings in Buddhism. This particular theme seemed relevant as we are in the Dance Centre, which is a school of performing arts. The owners here teach Qi Kong, Aikedo, as well as Dance. There are many kinds of ‘performing art’, such as dance, acting, high level sports and martial arts. In many of them we hear about a ‘zone’ in which the art form becomes purified. Mentation ceases and the performer experiences a suspension of self and a oneness with the activity.

There is a meditation method called ‘Emptiness’. Is this the same ‘zone’? How does meditation bring about wisdom and enlightenment where the performing arts do not?

Interesting questions …. and the door is open for opinions.

In all of the above activities, to be truly great you have to ba able to ’empty out’. The conscious mind has to cease its mentation, while the unconscious takes over the action. This requires however, a long learning process. You have to practise long and hard to be able to really let go and be in the moment while undertaking an action.

Perhaps it is like the Acting a Better Way with Actors Globally (ABWAG) say :  the way to act is to learn all of the principles of acting, then forget that you know them

The ‘zone’ is there when the conscious mind is not involved. You are conscious, but the conscious part of the mind is still.

One example is a tennis player who cannot see the ball served to them until it has almost arrived – the player will move to receive before the conscious mind has had chance to see the ball. This is the point of immediacy, or emptiness. A runner will also start running before they hear the starting gun consciously (so the psychology books say).

Boxing is similar. There are few ways to swing at your opponent, and a few more ways to dodge/defend. The boxer will do ‘reps’, or repetitions of each of the basic movements over and over until the body has learned them. In a fight the boxer has no time to think about what is happening each time the opponent moves. The body remembers and reacts before the conscious mind gets in the way.

Buddhism is not dissimilar. We learn thousands of teachings. But at the end of the day it is only so much mentation. You have to know it, practise it, and then give it up if you want to reach the point of immediacy. This is the difference between scholars (exoteric teachings) who learn all there is to know, and usually argue about it with others. And the mystic side of religion where the yogi seeks to experience something directly (esoteric).

The Ariya Path

The Buddha taught us to become aware of the background feeling of ‘not-quite-rightness’, of disquiet, or ‘suffering’ as it is translated. He said that most people won’t care about this, and that few people would be interested in the path of enlightenment to discover the Enlightenment that he had found.

The quote we have, which is as close to the original words of the Buddha as is possible to get, are:

This Dhamma I have attained to is profound, hard to see, and hard to understand, peaceful and sublime, unattainable by mere reasoning, subtle, to be experienced by the wise.

But this generation delights in worldliness, takes delight and rejoices in worldly things.

And it is hard to see this truth – namely the stilling of all mind states (sankhara), relinquishing of attachments, destruction of craving, dispassion, cessation, nibbāna.

If I were to teach Dhamma, others would not understand me, and that would be wearying and troublesome.

Enough with teaching the Dhamma

That even I found hard to reach

For it will never be perceived

By those who live in lust and hate

…. This abstruse Dhamma, which goes against the worldly stream, is subtle, deep, and difficult to see.

The pursuit of this, in the Ariyapariyasana Sutta, is called the Ariyan (Noble) Path, and the opposite is the Anariya (worldly) path. Click here if you are up for seeing the whole original sutta.

The Anariya Path: the search for wife, children, goats, sheep, fowl, pigs, elephants, cattle, horses, mares, gold and silver.

The Ariya Path: “the unborn, unaging, supreme security from bondage” or “the State of sublime bliss” or my own favourite: “the shore that has no shore beyond it”.

The God Complex

Most people are not interested in this kind of search. You have a nice comfortable set of constructs, or filters of expectation through which you see the world and act. Basically, you think you know all you need.

‘Constructs’ is the term which the fabulous psychologist George Kelly used when he outlined Personal Construct Theory. Excellent Summary of Kelly and his theory here.

Giving up these constructs, your world view, is necessary if you want to get back to the raw immediacy of emptiness. And it is a challenge!

Incidentally, religion is usually an elaborate set of constructs that make people feel safe. It gives them a way to interpret the world. And usually people are happy with that, without wanting to develop the empty immediacy. They think they know it all now.

Archie Cochrane used the term ‘God Complex’ for this state of thinking you know the answers. In fact you just have a working set of ideas, not knowledge. He was a medical doctor who challenged doctors to put aside their presumptions and use randomized clinical trials properly.

There is an interesting TED talk which introduces Cochrane and the God Complex :

One note on gaining knowledge – it gives you a kind of rush. Just like sex, food, exercise – you generate a kind of stress, and then relieve it. Here is one report on research into this – looking at the pleasure principle of knowledge.

The Prison Key

All the Buddhsit teachings are there to aid in emptying out. They are not supposed to be worshipped as truth. Like being in a prison. If you are given the key, but hang it on the wall and worship it – it is not of any use. Similarly, any spiritual teaching is only effective if you actually use it to change.


This is a common Buddhist teaching – these three are the ‘Roots of Unwholesome Behaviour’: Lobha (greed) Dosa (hate) Moha (delusion).

There are three items for a good reason. Lobha is putting your attention on things that you like. Dosa is putting your mind on things that you dislike. Moha is putting your mind on things that you feel neutral about. All three are a kind of stimulation, a focus for attention.

Lobha – greed. Not all desire is bad. You desire all kinds of good things. But ‘wanting’ is the feeling of ‘not having’. If you examine it carefully, you see that desire is a kind of shaking, stirring and motivation in the mind.

Dosa – hate. Not all disliking is bad. You put your attention on things you dislike to solve problems. But again, it is a disturbance of the mind, and directs attention outward.

Moha – delusion. Also a kind of stimulation, but not based on strong liking or disliking. You should note that all three are considered pleasant when you are engaged in them. Examples of moha are chit chat, internet, newspapers, or the best of all –
TV. These are fairly inane, harmless activities.

All three of these will direct your mind away from itself, to get caught up in, and lost in the ‘world’ – the Anariya path.  Mindfulness will take you in the opposite direction altogether. With mindfulness you take your mind back to its own nature.

There is a whole set of teachings about these three, which is for another day, and another talk.

Here though, you will notice that putting your attention on what you like, dislike or are neutral towards covers everything. There is nothing left. The teaching takes you towards emptiness. If you don’t engage in any of these three absorptions, you stop still. Empty.


So, if a man sits on the top of a 100 foot pole how does he proceed.

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One Response to Report: notes on Dance of Emptiness Talk 1

  1. Cittasamvaro says:

    The joke that no one understood, is described below by Joe (the only one who got the joke)

    The Jewish joke you told was one I originally heard as a Sufi joke about Nasruddin.  These jokes make the rounds.  I’m afraid you mistold it, though it has different versions and different interpretations.  Here’s how it usually goes:

    The Jewish man (or Nasruddin) is leaving the island with the three buildings he constructed.  For The second building, he says, “That’s the temple I go to now.”  For the third, he says, “That’s the temple I used to go to. I wouldn’t set foot in it now.”

    The Explanation:  Jewish people in any temple always argue about things, and inevitably there is a split or a schism in which one of more of the members say,” I’m/We’re leaving to join another temple, or start a new one, and will never come here again.”  The joke is that, even alone on an island, Nasruddin/Jewish man leaves his own temple in anger, vowing never to return.  It’s not that he “needs an enemy,” but that he can’t even get along with himself.  Not an unusual problem, is  it?

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