Emptiness Part II – Mountains, Rivers, and Wheat

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The classic metaphor to describe emptiness is two sheaves of wheat leaning against each other. This structure is not an ‘effect’ of one or the other sheaf of wheat, but arises from their interaction.

In my last blog I wrote about some other ways to understand emptiness on an intellectual, ontological level. I think this is useful, at the very least to satisfy left-brained people like me who can’t get over their need to understand things intellectually before really diving into the practice (even if it’s not necessary to do so). However I do think such understanding can indeed be a useful base for insight practices, and Nagarjuna (see my the previous blog) certainly spent a great many pages on how emptiness applies to real world objects – not just minds – as well.

However it is true that the real rubber of emptiness hits the road when it is used in practice to directly examine our epistemology. As a reminder, ontology examines what is objectively real out in the world, where epistemology examines how it is that we can validly know things about the real world. Some interesting fact about the structure of microbes would be an ontological statement, whereas saying that we know the structure of microbes because we can directly observe it with good microscopes would be a more epistemological one.

The bottom line of the ontology of emptiness is that there are no separate things – only process. I spent a long time on this in the previous blog. The epistemology of emptiness, then, asks us to examine how our minds seem to perceive separate things in this flux. 

To put it in other words, our perceptions are just like the two sheaves of wheat leaning against each other; one sheaf is the outside world impinging on our senses, yes, but the other sheaf is the inside: our mind. Perceptions arise dependent on both. If the outside world is different, our perception will be different, and if our mind is different, the perception will also be different. 

First of all, if we can be aware of the part our mind plays in constructing perceptions, those perceptions no longer seem quite so ‘real’ – they are seen as a construction that is dependent on what our minds are bringing to the table from their side. They thus lose a great deal of power over us. Secondly, we can train the mind over time such that our perceptions are habitually constructed with less grasping, self-clinging, and thus suffering, in the first place.

There is an old Zen saying:

Before I studied Zen, mountains were mountains and rivers were rivers.
After a little training, mountains were not mountains and rivers were not rivers.
Now again, after realisation, mountains are mountains, and rivers are rivers.

This could be interpreted through the lens of this two-sheaves of wheat model of perceptions. At first, before training, we only see the outside world, and we believe that our perceptions of it are perfectly veridical (mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers). If we feel bad, it is because something bad is happening to us. We are only seeing the outside sheaf – this is a kind of eternalism, or in other words a belief in the realness of the world as we experience it.

Then, after we begin training, we examine closely how the mind constructs our experience, moment to moment, and find that all perceptions are constructed by the mind – everything is miraculously appearing out of this mind-stuff, empty of form. If we stop paying attention to things, or stop looking at them in the particular way that gave rise to the associated perception, those perceptions just dissolve away! This can lead to a kind of nihilism – believing that nothing is real at all – everything only a kind of mirage (mountains are not mountains and rivers are not rivers).

However, at the end, we come to be aware of perceptions arising from the inside and the outside together; not things in themselves, but not non-existent either; just a stream in an ever-moving and interconnected process.

There are some spectacular things we can start to notice about the part played by the mind in constructing experience, and I hope to write some more about the practices involved and the sort of things available to notice soon*.


Author: RationalShinkai

Ollie lives in England. He likes meditation, peanut butter, and Oxford commas.