Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life: Understanding Emptiness Through Analogies

Preparation 4:  Understanding key analogies for realizing emptiness.

By way of further introduction, I think it might be helpful to discuss some of the main analogies Geshe-la uses to illustrate the meaning of emptiness. The most frequently used analogies are dreams, illusions, holograms, waves on the ocean, and the blue of the sky. I will now discuss each in turn.

Phenomena are like dreams:  One of the most effective analogies for illustrating the meaning of emptiness is all phenomena are like dreams. It is easy to understand how dreams are merely projections of our mind. If we dream of an elephant, we do not then go looking in our room for the elephant after we wake up. The appearances of our dream simply disappear when we wake up, and we understand that they never truly existed. They were simply projections of our mind. The only difference between last night’s dream and today’s waking world is the mind perceiving the appearances. Our dream mind is a subtle mind and our waking mind is a gross mind but the appearances in dreams, and the appearances in our waking state, are both equally mere projections of our mind.  The appearances themselves are exactly equal in nature. They have no existence other than projection of mind. If we go looking for something that is more than just mere projection of mind we find nothing. Even modern quantum physics confirms the truth of Buddha’s teachings 2,500 years ago. Quantum physics says objects come into existence when they are observed. The object itself is a projection of our mind, just like a dream.

Illusions:  Phenomena are also likened to illusions. An illusion is something that appears in one way but actually exists in another. The classic example is an illusory tiger manifested by an ancient magician. To the people in the audience, they see a living tiger; but for the magician, he understands it is an illusion. In the same way, all phenomena appear in one way but actually exist in another. They appear to be truly existent or existent from the side of the object, when in fact neither of these things is true. Perhaps a more modern example is taking psychedelic drugs. When people take LSD for example, all sorts of hallucinations appear vividly to their mind, but none of these things actually exist. Or another modern example would be someone with schizophrenia. People, places, and things appear clearly to their mind but they do not in fact exist.

Holograms:  Holograms are things that can appear in different ways depending upon how you look at them. For example, at Disneyland on the ride Pirates of the Caribbean, there is a room you pass through which has a bunch of faces. At the first angle they appear to be friendly, normal people; but when you move a little bit farther along, they then appear to be Pirates. So what is actually there? A kind person or a pirate? The truth is neither is actually there – from one perspective it is a kind person and from another perspective it is a pirate. The same is true for all phenomena. Different people looking at the same person, for example, can see a friend, an enemy, or a stranger. Their mother would look at the same person and see their child. A boss might see an employee, a child might see a parent, a con man might see a potential victim, and so forth. So who is actually there? Nobody. The person is neither child nor parent nor friend nor enemy nor any of these things.  Who and what they are depends upon the perspective with which we look at them. If the person was truly existent, then they would appear the same to everybody. The fact that they do not, shows that they do not truly exist.

Waves on the ocean:  One of my favorite analogies for emptiness is waves on the ocean. Each phenomenon is like a wave on the ocean of our mind. We can nominally differentiate one wave from another, but all of the waves are equally the ocean. You cannot ever separate the wave from the ocean, nor one wave from another – they rise and fall in dependence upon one another.  In the same way, all phenomena are like waves on the ocean of emptiness. We can nominally differentiate one phenomenon from another, but all phenomena are equally empty. They are all equally emptiness appearing in different forms. Or more specifically, when we look at phenomena, what we are seeing is emptiness appearing in different ways. Just as when we look at waves, we are seeing the ocean appearing in different aspects.  The prasangika view of emptiness says all things are manifestations of their emptiness, like waves are manifestations of the ocean. The tantra prasangika view goes one step further and says that all phenomena are by nature our mind of great bliss and our mind of great bliss is the nature of emptiness.

Blue of the sky:  In Mirror of Dharma, Geshe-la spends a great deal of time explaining the union of appearance and emptiness. The union of appearance and emptiness is Buddha’s final view. The analogy he gives for illustrating the relationship between appearance and emptiness is the blue of the sky. when we look at the sky, it appears blue. What we are looking at and seeing is the sky, and it appears blue. We certainly cannot separate the blue from the sky, but we also do not say we are looking at blue, we say we are looking at the sky. In exactly the same way, a Buddha looks at and sees emptiness everywhere appearing in myriad different ways. Their mind is never separated from the wisdom realizing the emptiness of all phenomena, but they nonetheless are able to see this emptiness appearing in all of its different manifestations. When I look at my shrine, for example, I see emptiness appearing as my shrine. As Geshe-la says in Mirror of Dharma, when we see our body, in truth we see only the emptiness of our body because the real nature of our body is its emptiness. He goes on to say, we realize the non-dual appearance and empty as an endless space of emptiness. In Essence of Vajrayana, Geshe-la explains that Heruka has serene eyes symbolizing that his mind never leaves emptiness, yet he remains omniscient knowing directly and simultaneously all phenomena.

4 thoughts on “Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life: Understanding Emptiness Through Analogies

  1. Is dependant arising a quality of samsara, Dharma and nirvana and therefore empty as well?

    Thanks for considering my question.


    • All things are dependent arisings, including nirvana, pure lands, enlightenment, etc. There are many different levels of dependent relationship, such as dependent upon causes and conditions, dependent upon parts, dependent upon imputation by mind, etc. Even emptiness is empty. We don’t speak of emptiness in the abstract, it is always emptiness of something – such as emptiness of our body, emptiness of our car, etc. Shantideva and Chandrakirti praise realizing dependent relationship as the supreme method for understanding emptiness. Inherent existence would be something that exists independently of everything else. Seeing how all things are dependent arisings negates that.

  2. Hi Kadampa dad,

    Thank you for this article. Really nice to have all the analogies in one place!

    I noticed a few typos but all have been corrected except for the one below. Just thought I’d let you know.



    The fact that they do not, shows but they do not truly exist.

    • Thanks! Sometimes I use the voice recognition thing to write the articles and, like auto correct, it sometimes gives some interesting results. I don’t always catch them! 😉

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