The Danger of Treating your Buddha Nature as Emptiness and Non-self – The Mahaparinirvana Sutra

Emptiness is often reified and put up on a pedastal in Buddhist circles, “You’ve got to achieve emptiness and the state of no self”.  Emptiness and not self are useful tools to help you let go of things – but you’ve got to know what these things should be applied to and what they shouldn’t be applied to.  They shouldn’t be just mindlessly applied as a blanket coverage for everything.  They are not a panacea for everything but rather useful tools to apply to the right things for a specific result – you need to have the wisdom to know when to use them and when not to use them.

A good tradesperson knows that the best tool can not do all jobs – they need to have the knowledge and skill to utilize which tool is best for this job and what tool is best for that job and when to chop and change tools for a more effective result.  You’ve got to use your own wisdom and judgement and use skill-in means.

With regards to emptiness and non self, for example, it’s useful to empty your mind of clutter (because this way, it will clear the mind to be able to see and assess things better), but don’t empty your mind of awareness. 

Why not?

Because if you empty your mind of awareness your mind will be clouded and dull – and you won’t have the presence of mind to realize what’s going on.  As Ajahn Chah used to say – in your meditation, you let go of whatever arises – but don’t let go of the awareness.

The same with the tool of anatta – not self/non self – a nice tool to let go of external, unimportant things.  These things are not me, not mine, not really who I am, not my self.  They are just externals, unimportant – so I let them go.

But anatta/nonself shouldn’t be blanket applied to everything either.

In the Buddha’s final discourse, the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, the Buddha warns people against cultivating the idea of absolute emptiness and the idea of an absolute nonself – in particular, you should NOT apply emptiness and nonself to your Buddha Nature:

“As for the Truth of the Cessation of Suffering (i.e., the 4th Noble Truth):

If one cultivates emptiness, everything will be eliminated, and one will destroy [i.e. in one’s perceptions] the Buddha-dhatu.

If one calls the cultivation of Emptiness the Truth of Cessation, then do not the heterodox with their irrational [Emptiness] also attain the Truth of Cessation through their cultivation of Emptiness?

You should know that everybody has the constantly present Tathagata-dhatu:

  • When you eradicate the fetters, the klesas [negative traits] will be eliminated forever and
  • The constantly present Tathagatadhatu will  be manifested….

Moreover, when you cultivate the Tathagata-dhatu and treat it as Emptiness and non-Self, you should know that you will be like a moth falling into a flame.

What I term the “Truth of Cessation” IS the Tathagata-dhatu – the Reality of the Tathagata, the elimination of all the innumerable klesas.

Why is that? Because of the Tathagata-dhatu; those who know that will know the Truth of Cessation on a level with the Tathagata. Anything other than this is not called Cessation.”

Faxian Version of the Mahaparinirvana Sutra

So here, the Buddha is saying that if you just mindlessly apply emptiness and nonself to the Buddha Nature (because you mistakenly believe that emptiness and nonself should be applied to absolutely everything), then you cut yourself off from the most valuable jewel in your own household.  Emptiness and nonself are tools used to get rid of unimportant things – not to throw out important things as well!

If you do treat your own Buddha Nature of empty and non self – then the imagery here is like a moth into a flame – like killing yourself, like kamikaze – like destroying the most precious thing that you have and worked hard to achieve.

  • Emptiness and nonself are supposed to empty your afflictions
  • But what remains is unafflicted – your Buddha Nature

Like getting rid of the clouds so that the sun can shine unimpeded. 

If you get rid of the Budddha Nature too as not your self – it’s like also getting rid of the sun – the result is everything is dark with no life giving qualities. 

Your Buddha Nature is full of wisdom – but if you treat it as empty of wisdom too, you will end up being dark and ignorant and deluded with no wisdom left.

So be careful what you apply emptiness and nonself to – don’t apply these 2 things to your Buddha Nature.


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