Chulasunyata Sutta, a Small Discussion about Emptiness, Majjhima Nikaya 121

Introduction

The conversation about emptiness begins with Ananada’s question about whether he correctly remembered the words of the Buddha, who said, “I often reside in emptiness”. That question along with the subsequent answer of the Buddha describing what is an undistorted, pure, reside in emptiness, puts emphasis on the differing opinions among hermits regarding the topic.

The Buddha confirmed that Ananada correctly remembered those words, and brought as an example the secluded place where Buddha, Ananada, and other hermits belonging to the Sangha lived at that time. In that place, there were no elephants, chariots, or other people, the place was empty from them, only filled by the Sangha hermits. Such notion of reside in emptiness, is affirmed in the sutta as correct – it is the perception of the absence of that which is not there, and the perception of the presence of that which is there.

The topic of proper reside in emptiness, has become one of the main topics for more than two thousands years of controversy between various schools of Buddhism.

Buddha’s story about correct reside in emptiness

Buddha, step by step, instructed Ananda on how to reside in emptiness.

Meditators at first, having ceased paying attention to the noise and activity encountered in densely populated places, pay attention only to those perceptions, which are present in a secluded place, such as a forest. At the same time, meditators observe that in their consciousness there is no attention to distant or nearby noise and activity, while there is attention towards solitude and towards the few perceptions associated with that solitude.

Further, not paying attention to either noise or solitude, and only paying attention to the perception of the qualities of the earth, meditators become confident, persistent, and calm. Their mind becomes homogeneous, like bull skin stretched out in all directions and free from folds. At the same time, those meditators are aware that in their consciousness there is no attention towards noise, activity, or solitude, while there is attention to the qualities of the earth.

Further, not paying attention either to noise, solitude, or the qualities of the earth or any supporting ground, meditators pay attention only to infinite space, realizing the lack of diversity and the oneness of all phenomena.

Further, continuing towards attaining a proper reside in emptiness, meditators cease paying attention to oneness, and pay attention only to infinite consciousness.

Further, meditators don’t pay attention to noise, solitude, qualities of the earth, space, or infinite consciousness, but pay attention to the knowledge of the absence of everything. In that state, they know that their perception is empty from “the phenomena towards which attention is not directed”, but not empty from “the knowledge of the absence of everything”.

Further, having also ceased paying attention to “the knowledge of the absence of everything”, meditators pay attention only to the subtlest state of “neither the perception of phenomena, nor the suppression of attention towards phenomena”. Those meditators only perceive that such a state, the subtlest state, is present.

Further, meditators cease paying attention to both previous perceptions and the subtlest state, and pay attention only towards “concentration on the unmanifested”. (attention towards the unmanifested is visualization of gods, with and without form, as well as two higher knowledges – knowledge of past births, and direct knowledge of the result of any action). At the same time, meditators reside in emptiness, where there is no attention to either the subtlest state, to the absence of everything, to the infinite quality of consciousness, nor to solitude, or noise. That reside in emptiness, is not empty only from “concentration on the unmanifested” and the volitional effort that accompanies that concentration.

Knowing that anything originating by volitional effort ends with volitional effort, meditators perceive the impermanence and conditionality of all phenomena towards which attention can be given, and their consciousness becomes freed from the stain of passion towards everything.

They are freed from craving for existence, freed from delusion, complacency, and anger. A mind pure from stains is capable of perceiving any activity of the senses with equal regard, including the perception of the noise and activity from which meditators learn to seclude at the very beginning of exercise.

Such is the highest and pure, undistorted entry into emptiness and reside in emptiness, attained by meditators of the past, present, and which meditators of the future will attain.

Conclusion:

Instead of opinionating about emptiness, meditators are invited to reside in emptiness, where there are no qualities that lead the mind to a state of suffering: the stains of passion, attraction to existence, and delusion along with complacency. When the mind is free from those stains, awareness of sense activity does not evoke hostility towards the world, nor is the mind captured by the world’s pleasures.

A mind free of stains resides in pure and undistorted perception of emptiness, regardless towards what it pays attention to.

Short retelling and analysis of the sutta: Vladimir Pyatsky and Smadar Pyatsky

Translated by Roni Sherman