Report: notes on Dance of Emptiness Talk 3

Notes on ‘All You Can Know’ – third 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:

All You Can Know (or How Not to Polish a Brick)

We understand things through our constructs; internal models that guide our decisions. Adopting new and different models then, you can change your behavior, change your experience of being yourself in the world. Buddhism has a series of useful models. They are not ‘Truth’, but a way to interpret, to channel the energy of the mind. One teaching covers ‘Everything You Can Know’, and the emptiness of it. Stark and simple, it is a process of perception that leads to stabilization of the mind.


This year’s topic is Emptiness – 8 dhamma talks about nothing!

‘Emptiness’ is usually thought of as being a topic in Mahayana Buddhism only. Often Mahayana incorrectly teaches that there is no Emptiness in the Theravada (original Buddhism), or that at the very least, the Theravadins don’t understand the issue. The quintessential teaching “Form is Emptiness, Emptiness is Form” comes from Mahayana, though as with nearly all the Mahayana teachings, the origins are there in the Pali (Theravada) suttas.

Emptiness, aka Sunyata, is in fact taught in various places in the Theravada, in a couple of different formats. But this series of talks is trying to show that all genuine Buddhist teachings, and many other spiritual traditions also, are designed as tools to help you ’empty out’, rather than philosophical teachings about an abstruse concept of emptiness.

In short, you should ’empty out, not figure out’.


Through this series we are repeating the theme that the first thing that has to go is your concepts. Your intelligence and wisdom, your discernment, you have to keep. But to find a new way of being you have to throw out the old first. Like changing your tea for coffee – you have to throw the tea out first. If you just pour the coffee on top all you get is a mess. This is a famous Zen metaphor of the ’empty cup’.

In our case it means that if you add more concepts you just end up with more stuff to think about and more ideas to defend. Adding concepts to your already full cup of concepts. Meditation is going in the opposite direction – to something immediate, irrefutable, direct experience.

Put another way, like the eye can only sees forms and cannot see itself, so the mind only sees the world; it does not apprehend itself.

“The true Dhamma is the mind. The mind of each and everyone of us is the highest Dhamma, which is already there in our minds. Apart from this there is no other Dhamma principal. Abandon your thoughts and explanations all together. Then the mind in the mind will be pure, which is the primordial nature already there in all of us.”

Though sounding very Mahayana, this is in fact a quote from the late Thai Master Luang Phor Dun.

For info and teachings of L.P. Dun click here. 

Polishing a Brick

The great master Mat-su, as a youth, was a fanatic about sitting in meditation for many hours at a time. One day, his patriarch’s disciple Huai-jang asked him what on earth he hoped to attain by this compulsive cross-legged sitting.

“Buddhahood” said Mat-su.

Thereupon Huai-jang said down, took a brick, and started to polish it assiduously. Mat-su looked at him, perplexed, and asked what he was doing.

“Oh,” said Huai-jang, “I am making a mirror out of my brick.”

“You can polish it till doomsday,” scoffed Mat-su, “you’ll never make a mirror out of a brick!”

“Aha,” smiled Huai-jang. “Maybe you are beginning to understand that you can sit until doomsday, it won’t make you into a Buddha.”


A theoretical model is not something real – it is a handle to understand something – to explain and predict.

If you sit by the sea shore with a notebook for long enough and jot the times of the tides, after a while you can make a prediction of where the tide level will be on a given date. You have a prediction, but not an explanation. If you factor in the knowledge of gravitation and the moon, you have a fill working model.

Think of the population of Thailand. You can talk about it in various ways.

School/working/retired – what percentage of the population falls into each of these groups? That would be one way to describe the population of Thailand, and from that you can make certain predictions. Older populations need different kinds of health care and insurance. They have different activities – fewer fun fairs and more museums. These percentages affect government taxation plans.

Male/female – the figures for this are also useful in predicting spending patterns (eg for advertisers) or planning how many bathrooms to build at a stadium.

Ethnic Thai/Chinese/Western/Indian – the ethnic make up is also useful for certain people. Disease geneticists design treatment or research for particular genetic makeups, for example.

Each of these is a different way to describe the population of Thailand, and various predictions can be made depending on the figures. Each is a model of Thailand. No model is more correct than another.

Similarly all the teachings in Buddhism are only models. They are not TRUTH (whatever that is). Even the Four Noble Truths – the central teaching of Buddhism, are not Ultimate Truths (paramatta sacca), they are just ‘Noble’ – because they can be used in the pursuit of enlightenment.

There are thousands of models – Freud’s model of consciousness – the conscious, the pre-conscious and the unconscious for instance. This model does not mean that these three are actually existing as separate and definite things. It is a way to describe and predict. Another model mentioned in this talk was Noam Chomsky’s Language Acquisition Device.

In Buddhism, all the teachings are models to describe YOURSELF. What is is like to be alive? These are models to get a handle on that question.

In week one we looked at the Greed/Hate/Delusion model – that is behaviour based on liking, disliking or neutral feeling. That is everything. It sums up pretty much everything that you can do.

Then we looked at the three kinds of Dukkha suffering of pain, of impermanence, and of mind states. That also takes you to emptiness – as there is nowhere left you can place the attention that is not perpetuating these three. Emptiness is the only remaining option.


The model most commonly used in Buddhism is the 5 Khandhas, or Aggregates. This model, and the six sense model comprise most of the meditation instructions the Buddha ever gave.

If you look at an object in your room, examine how the mind apprehends it. What is present in a moment of apprehending something? Notice how the mind quickly loses the distinction of the object and starts to look for other perceptions.

Or think of an idea. ‘Democracy’. How does that sit in the mind? How does the mind feel when you try to maintain that perception? Can you maintain any perception for long?

By way of example, look at this picture. 

The five are:


Form – hot, cold, hard, soft, salty, red, loud, etc. Anything that you can see, taste, feel, hear, smell has some kind of form to it – the properties that it has independently. What you think about those properties, is another matter.

Mentally, you also need form. Even for something totally abstract like ‘democracy’ or ‘growing’ you need the word to set the perception in motion. Even then, it will fade rapidly. The word is the ‘form’ in this case. There is no mental action without some kind of form. Interestingly the mind has 5 possible foundations of form – seeing, smelling, tasting, hearing and feeling (of the body). These are mental representations of the external senses.

In the above case, you will see a ‘camera’ first, but then the wayward perception has to start picking other aspects, like the make, the colour, the metal, the lighting etc.. in each of these cases you have switched the rupa to a new form.


Perception. Historicity. This is the association you have with an object – what it is used for, what it means, what it is connected with. Pavlov’s dogs were the best example. He found that ringing a bell just before meals, after a while, made the dogs dribble. The bell had become associated with the food.

“Perceptions,” said the Buddha, “are a result of habit”

In the case of the camera – you know what it is, what it is used for, and probably how it compares to your own camera. This is the perception. Note that it is connected to the actual form you are experiencing, but it not totally dependent on it. The perception of the dogs changed after conditioning, even though the form (bell sound) remained the same.


Feeling or feeling-tone. That is you like, dislike or feel neutral towards something. The liking aspect can change, and is not totally dependent on the form – such as the first bar of chocolate is great, but the 10th bar makes you feel sick to look at it.

Sometimes in Buddhism there are 3 kinds of feeling – liking/disliking/neutral. Other times there are 5 kinds – liking/disliking/neutral of the body, and pleasure/suffering of the mind (somanassa and domanassa). At other times there are six kinds of feeling – one for each sense. One time the Buddha’s disciples came to an argument whether there are 5 kinds or 3 kinds – to which he answered sometimes he talks of 3 and sometimes he talks of 5. They are only models!

Curiously, evolutionary theory says that liking/disliking is a shortcut to decision making. You don’t have time to figure everything out, so you rely on this instead. Do you do that with people? Do you not rely on rationality, but on whether you like or dislike someone.

With the camera – did you feel attraction?

“the untrained yogi knows no relief from pain other than sense pleasure”


These are the mind states, or moods. If you have won the lottery and someone calls you an idiot you don’t care. Your mind state is positive. The state of your mind is not dependent on the object. You can be bright, dull, sleepy, moral, shameful, excited, concentrated, scattered. You can have elasticity of mind, weildiness, rectitude, proficiency, uprightness, pliancy …. and any other state that conditions the mind. In Theravada Buddhism there are 50 of these conditions listed. In Sarvastivada Buddhism there are over 80.

Interestingly, the Buddha often described Enlightenment as the ‘stilling of all mind states’.

The word ‘Sankhara’ has the idea of bringing together, of building up of parts. It is something that is conditioned, and impermanent. Some of you might note the direct parallel with Christianity, where you have the created and the creator (uncreated). In Buddhism we have the conditioned, and the unconditioned. Sem sem.

‘Hard it is to see this goal, namely, the stilling of all mind states’


This is usually translated as consciousness. But it is not consciousness in the Western sense. Perhaps a better word is cognizance. It arises with the object, and ceases with the object. So right now you can think of your feet. You can feel them. Now look at the taste in your mouth. Now listen to a sound in the room. Then you had sensation consciousness, taste consciousness, and hearing consciousness in turn. In the Buddhist model (and it is only a model remember) the consciousness arises and ceases with the object. William James, the Grandfather of psychology noted the same thing – You cannot be conscious without being conscious OF SOMETHING.

Perhaps in Buddhism you can be conscious without an object – is this ‘mind-knowing-mind’?

When you looked at the camera, you had eye consciousness.

‘Like heat arises from the rubbing of two sticks, so when the sense organ and sense object meet, there consciousness arises’


Note that these 5 arise together. Looking at the camera you see the form (the basis of that moment of experience), and you knew what it was (perception). You liked or disliked it to some extent, and you had an underlying mind mood/state. There was consciousness involved, which gives the feeling of a ‘self’.

In that one moment of ‘camera picture seeing’ all five of the above were present. That is reality. Your mind jumps from one moment like this, to another. There is no self/non-self, there is no internal/external. There is only one moment of these five, followed by another moment based on something else.

If you are a meditator you can see this process. Look at the camera, and note how your mind keeps picking up a new object. A thought, and idea, an association etc… It can’t stop still. And there is nothing at all in each moment of experience that is outside of these five.

They are like the Beatles. 4 instruments and the voice. All play together in a flow we call ‘song’. But there actually is no ‘song’ that we can find when you look directly at what is happening. The five khandhas are that complicated, beautiful, beguiling song you call ME.

Elephant’s Footprint

Putting all this together. Here is an example of how it works, as taught by Sariputta (the Buddha’s main disciple):


In that moment there is Form, Feeling, Perception, Mind-state (aka fabrications), Consciousness – all arising and present together.

Now, “whoever sees dependent-arising sees the Dhamma”, and these five have arisen dependent on each other as a moment of ‘experience’.

If there is grasping after anything in that moment, there will be Dukkha (suffering). Abandoning desire and passion for these 5 is the cessation of Dukkha.

Seeing this much – much has been done by him.

The full sutta is here.


Note that ‘dependent co-arising’ is what people often call ‘interdependence’ or ‘interconnectedness’. The latter term is not a Buddhist teaching – it is a Gaia (Earth) principle teaching – that every system depends on the system as a whole. It’s a great idea, but nothing to do with Buddhism.

Also note that in one moment of experiencing, there are only the 5 khandhas, there is no mind/body Cartesian split. There is no internal/external. If the mind has grasped anything in these 5 it is considered to be external (internal might be mind-knowing-mind, but this is not stated in Buddhism).

Also note that in any moment of experiencing – everything in that experience will subside (and very rapidly). Watching this process directly, gives you a distance from it and a feeling for what is permanent – what does not arise and cease, or the Amata (deathless).

Once again, as the 5 khandhas sums up the whole of this experience of being alive, there is nowhere else left for the mind to go expect emptiness, and back to itself.

Whatever ‘experience’ you can have, is not the Amata (aka Enlightenment). Thus Huai Jang told Mat Su – you can never polish a brick into a mirror.

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