Bliss and Emptiness

by Peter Morrell

The twin aspects of tantra are bliss and emptiness. Not emptiness alone or bliss alone, but both combined in a single entwined experience. Why is this? The fundamental experience of Buddha’s enlightenment lies at the very heart of tantra. This is because that experience contained essentially two elements. The first was a sustained vision of the world as a dynamic state of flux, of continuous and unrelenting creation and destruction. That is the basis of emptiness. That nothing is permanent and thus everything is permeated by an underlying condition of impermanence and instability.

That condition means that nothing exists of its own accord but only in codependence upon all other things. Thus reality is contingent, a product, rather than a cause of itself.

This instability applies not only vividly, to the outer physical world, but also to the internal world of thoughts and feelings. Thus the outer world is crumbling and collapsing before our gaze, and so too is the psychology of man. The vision of ourselves is almost as unstable and impermanent as that of the outer world. This could create a terrifying vision of identitylessness and collapse of ego and self, which would be interepreted as very frightening. When viewed in that way it is disturbing to think that our thoughts and feelings from day to day are immensely fickle and transitory.Yet we cling to the idea of permanence, a permanence within ourselves and a permanence without. There is no such permanence and it is deeply hurtful to us to know this. We resist the idea at every turn and will not confront the idea of our personal extinction. Thus the problem Buddha revealed was not so much impermamence per se, but our deep clinging to the notion of permanence.

On its own and viewed in isolation, that emptiness would in most people signify a form of terror and nihilism. That is almost the view of the Zen school, which stresses emptiness above all else. The other component of the enlightenment experience is bliss. The Buddha experienced a continuous state of bliss, which was both physical and mental, and also non-fading, ie. indestructible. This combination of bliss and emptiness was fundamentally the experience of the enlightenment event. This event persisted for the rest of his life until his parinirvana.

There are many types of bliss, all of which have one thing in common: they are transient or impermanent. These include the blisses of looking at beautiful objects, hearing beautiful sounds, sensating pleasant fragrances and tastes, touches, et, including the blisses of foods, of physical sensation, of orgasm, etc. Yet they are all transitory ie. they fade. But the bliss which Buddha experienced upon Enlightenment was non-fading. You could say that as a result of Enlightnement, he was plagued by continuous, intense and non-fading bliss.

The first ‘turning of the wheel of dharma’ established all the Hinayana teachings, the 8-fold path and the ethical basis of Buddhism. plus a small indication of the nature of impermanence. The second turning of the wheel of dharma the Prajnaparamita Sutras or perfection of wisdom sutras, from Vulture Peak, forms the basis of all the Mahayana teachings and presents a far more profound and complete view of impermanence and emptiness. This formed the basis for Nagarjuna’s profound scriptures and the Zen school. The third turning of the wheel was as Vajradhara from which stem all the tantras of the secret mantra vehicle.

Bliss and emptiness are cultivated in tantra quite deliberately. That forms the basis of tantra and everything in it can be referred to one or the other as its basis. There are two other important ways in which bliss and emptiness are central to the enlightenment experience and thus to the tantric path. Because the view of combined emptiness and bliss is the vision of a Buddha, so constructing that from nothing as a path is bound to lead one closer and closer to the view itself and thus to enlightenment. In this sense the tantric path is seen very much as a dress-rehearsal for Buddhahood itself: by combining emptiness and bliss we cultivate a direct route to enlightenment. A second reason is that the view of emptiness and bliss translates into a view of the world as precious mandala and all beings as our precious mothers. Bliss is also a steady form of consciousness as well as being very strong. Thus it can be used to deepen calm-abiding meditation and that can then be used to gain a steadier and deeper insight into impermanence and emptiness. It is said in the tantras that Buddhahood is achieved when wisdom and method, or the profound and the manifest come together. That is the same as saying emptiness and bliss entwined.

In tantra the contemplation of the empty form of a deity can be described very accurately as a composite of bliss and emptiness and thus approximates very closely indeed to the nature of a Buddha. It serves several useful purposes — like it generates bliss; it is by nature impermanent and empty; it generates great Merit; it benefits all beings; it is a pure form; it is uncontaminated by ordinariness; it is free from desire, hatred and ignorance and thus of all defilements; it is essentially a part of a pure realm. It is also an example of the way that mindstream is regarded virtually as a permanent entity residing beyond the impermanence of samsara. Anything which is vividly constructed in the mind produces deep karmic seeds and is passed forward and retained life upon life. Thus generating a deity establishes very deep, very powerful and very beneficial seeds in the mindsteam.

The path of trantra relies to a very large extent upon cultivating bliss within one’s ordinary waking life, on a moment-by-moment basis. This is an aspect of self-generation or deity yoga. It also relies upon a very profound and sustained cultivation of the view of emptiness of all phenomena. One can start by merely self-observation at what is pleasurable and which leads to bliss. Adjustment and control of this can then be achieved quite quickly.

Cultivation of the emptiness of external and internal phenomena, generates bliss anyway, but also leads to the collapse or crumbling of our domination by the senses and therefore to a greater belief in the power of self-generated imagery as an alternative reality which is perfectly valid in its own right. It greatly increases disbelief in the power of external reality and thus correspondingly reduces its grip over us. Thus pursuit of bliss based upon emptiness and emptiness based upon bliss and meditation on both lead most certainly to a self-generated ‘Buddha- base’. Upon this base is also constructed the main practice of all tantric yogas: deity yoga ie. generation of oneself as a deity (= a Buddha) and the outer world as mandala, buildings as mandala palaces, and all other beings as deities, speech as mantra, writings as dharma, etc. Sustained cultivation of this precious view negates/suspends the ordinary vision of the world and offers continuous protection from contamination by ordinary reality. Protection from contamination with the impure non- bliss of samsara. Thus the path of tantra leads directly to the ‘secret lair’ of the experience of enlightenment itself, like a secret inner staircase which leads directly to a Buddha’s view. Tantric practice thus leads straight into the cultivation of a Buddha’s mind — a selfless mind of bliss and emptiness.

Bliss without emptiness would be little more than indulgent sensuality; emptiness without bliss would come very close to terrifying nihilism. Buddhism needs both, arguably, because though emptiness is the correct view, it is hard without compassion and pleasure/joy to construct any kind of appealing path with it. Some softer dimension is also needed. Both together form a perfect combination but also accurately reflect the nature of the mind of enlightenment of a Buddha. The bliss which is cultivated in tantric practice is a pure form of bliss that relies upon a pure form rather than upon the impure forms of the senses.

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