EMPTINESS AND EXISTENCE
One's perception of emptiness and existence reveals how deeply one has practiced. It is important to understand this question so as to avoid getting stuck at one level and to be able to make further progress.
When our mind is not concentrated, that is, before we start to practice, or even when we have worked hard but have not yet begun to benefit from the practice, our perception is such that things do exist. In this scattered state of mind, the concept of "self" is deeply embedded in everything that we consider as belonging to "me" : "my" clothes, "my" hands, "my" friends, "my" property, and so on.
When one has been practicing hard, one may reach a very concentrated state where there are only two or three thoughts left. In this simplified condition of mind, because they are few wandering thoughts, the pressure exerted by concepts of "this is mine" decrease accordingly. At this point one will feel that the world and everything in it can be thrown away, does not exist, or is irrelevant. One's feeling at that time is : "I have thrown away all thoughts and I am enjoying the bliss of liberation. Because nothing exists, I am very carefree and light." But since this thought is present, although one's perception is that of emptiness, one's actual state is still that of existence. The need is still felt to dwell in the condition of liberation and happiness.
When one reaches the stage of having only one thought left, or "one mind", one may feel coextensive with the universe, that one's own ability and energy is unlimited. One also feels great sympathy and compassion for all sentient beings and that one has the right to direct their lives. At this point one is at the stage of "double" affirmation, or a deeper level of existence. Although the state of one mind is characterized by a expanded sense of self, this sense is not "selfish" but rather a sense of energy and responsibility. The degree of mental power depends on the strength of one's previous practice. One who is not backed up by a strong practice can still reach one mind but will not have as great a sense of energy and responsibility -- will not likely give rise to the feeling of being a god or a world savior. Therefore great religious leaders are a rare occurrence in human history.
A person who has arrived at the stage of no thought, or "no mind", is said to be in the state of "double" negation in that one takes emptiness itself as empty. If a person is attached to emptiness (as in stage two), it is called "stubborn" emptiness or "illusory" emptiness. But at the stage of no mind one actually recognizes even this emptiness is empty. Since one has emptied out emptiness, then one is genuinely solid, or existing, but it is an existence of non-attachment. One will definitely not feel that this world is meaningless, nor, if asked "How is your practice doing?" will one give a reply like "Oh, It doesn't really matter if I practice or not."
Existence is usually related to feelings and emotions. If emptiness is also based on feelings and emotions, then it is not true emptiness. It is only when, not bound by feelings and emotional attachments, one genuinely experiences things as existing just as they are, that it is at the same time genuine existence and also genuine emptiness. For practitioners, only this can be considered the first level of entering the door of Ch'an.
Q: Can progress in practice be described as a series of negating one's previous stage of attainment and affirming something new?
A: In actual fact the previous stage and what you are affirming now are not two different things. We say that vexations are just Bodhi. So "negation" is not equivalent to saying that you have to detest or get rid of vexations before you give rise to Wisdom. Nor can you achieve Nirvana by negating samsara. They are one thing. It is only that in the process of the practice one's perception of it varies.
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