If you can conceive of it, it's empty whether or not it actually exists.

The following is new chapter for the 2nd edition of my Dependent Origination and Emptiness book - whenever that happens. It might be necessary to have read that book in its current edition to fully follow what appears below, as this will be a later chapter in the book.

4 Levels of Experiencing Emptiness

from Snp 5.15 from SN 35.85 from DhP 279 Putting the quotes above together we arrives at "All phenomena are empty." Sense organs, materiality, sounds, smells, tastes, textures, mind objects (concepts, thoughts, emotions, memories, intentions, etc., even consciousness), as well as Nibbana, all are empty because they are empty of self and of what belongs to self. We also can see from SN 35.85 that emptiness is an experience - it is very important to keep in mind that the Buddha was not doing metaphysics; he was a phenomenologist, telling us to analyze the phenomena we experience and our responses to those experiences.

In a sense, the experience of emptiness is binary - either something is experienced as empty/without-self or it is experienced with some concept of non-emptiness. But thinking of emptiness as binary misses the fact that things can be regarded such that one is experiencing varying degrees of emptiness. The duality persists until Level 3 (see below), at which point there is a discontinuous change to a non-dual experience. Everything before that - Levels 0, 1, and 2 - is at best a warm-up exercise, a duality-based emptiness experience.

In MN 121, the Buddha describes his "genuine, undistorted, pure entry into emptiness, supreme and unsurpassed." But along the way, from village life, to the monastery, to the forest, to meditation in the immaterial states, there is experiential movement from abundant non-emptiness, to less and less non-emptiness, to finally the "signless concentration of mind" where all that is left is activity of the 6 senses, which is the entry to supreme and unsurpassed emptiness.

Now "signless concentration of mind" is "animittaṃ cetosamādhiṃ":

So a mind that is not conceptualizing signs and is indistractable. Now the "signs" of an object are what we use to conceptualize what the object actually is. So I understand the signless concentration of mind to be a mind that is not conceptualizing its sensory input - it is not distracted by creating any signs for what it is experiencing, i.e. it is not conceptualizing.

This is also what the practice instructions to Bāhiya in Ud 1.10 are pointing towards: "In seeing will be merely seeing; in hearing will be merely hearing; in sensing will be merely sensing; in cognizing will be merely cognizing."

Note also that sañña (conceptualizing, perception) is not mentioned in SN 35.85 - it is only included (and unmentioned) as part of mind-objects.

Given all the above, we can talk about various levels of experience of non-emptiness and emptiness. Perhaps the following tables will be helpful in thinking about non-emptiness and emptiness. These "Levels" should not be thought of as 4 discrete points, rather as helpful locations on a spectrum:

DO = Dependent Origination, particularly the general principle of this-that conditionality
SODAPI = Streams Of Dependently Arising Processes Interacting
Sañña = Pali for conceptualization, perception, naming, identifying, discernment, recognition
Level 0 My SelfYes - sense of my self is operating
Other SelvesYes - solidity of individual objects is present
EmptyNo - Quite full
DOYes - can be understood and conceptualized on this level
SODAPIYes - This is the level it must be initially understood on
SaññaYes - fully operational
Non-DualityNo - subject & object fully online
This is normal, everyday consciousness - the conventional perspective

Level 1 My SelfNo - my sense of self is not being constructed at this time
Other SelvesYes - solidity of other objects is present
EmptyLess full; usual sense of my self is absent
DOYes - can be understood and conceptualized on this level
SODAPIYes - but it's not viewed from a 1st person perspective
SaññaYes - operational
Non-DualityNo - objects fully online, but no subject awareness
This is being engrossed in a non-self referential task
(e.g. reading a book, watching a movie, in the flow).
My sense of self is not being constructed at this time, yet is not noticed as absent.

Level 2 My SelfNo - my sense of self is not being constructed at this time
Other SelvesYes - but fewer "solid" objects present
EmptyYes - to a certain degree; this is "abiding in emptiness"
DONot likely
SODAPINot likely
SaññaYes - operational
Non-DualityNo - limited objects online, but no subject awareness
Still being aware of what is going on, but also aware of the absence of a sense of my self.

Level 3 My SelfNo - my self is not being constructed at this time
Other SelvesNo - other selves are not being constructed at this time
EmptyYes - this is the supreme and unsurpassed emptiness (see MN 121)
Non-DualityYes - no subjects, no objects, just the happening of the senses
This is being aware of experience prior to sañña (conceptualization).
This is experiencing atammayatā - non-concocting; non-fashioning; "not made of that."
The Buddha describes it in the verses at the end of DN 11 as
"Consciousness that is signless, limitless, all-illuminating."

This is the world in all its raw, naked glory without conceptualizations coloring the experience.
Nāgārjuna describes it in MMK 18 as

    It is all at peace,
    Not fabricateable by mental fabrication,
This is the ultimate perspective.

Please remember: experiencing this requires small moments, many times.

As I said above, these "Levels" should not be thought of as 4 discrete points, rather as a spectrum running between Level 0 and Level 3. Levels 1 & 2 are not so much levels as intermediate reference points on this spectrum.

Also one can move between levels and not be really cognizant of the move or be stable in any exact point. For example, when reading an interesting book, one does not think, "I'm reading this book;" thus Level 1. Then the phone rings and "It's me;" back to Level 0 without any recognition of changing levels. Or one is hanging out at Level 2 but with unstable glimpses of Level 3 before falling back into Level 2.

The 4 Levels outlined above are meant to give a better understanding of various degrees of emptiness that can be experienced, and maybe even give hints of deeper levels that one has yet to experience - eventually culminating in the supreme and unsurpassed emptiness of Level 3.

And please do not conflate these 4 levels with the 4 levels of awakening described in the suttas. These are experiences, that when deeply understood, can provide insights tending towards awakening. Tho I do suspect that Level 3 - full emptiness, full non-Sañña - is part of what is happening during a Path Moment - and it's just more profound at each level of awakening.

The above is a (hopefully helpful) model or map. "Because humans live in a complex physical and social world, we have very sophisticated mental models of the world. But as incredible as those maps of the world are, they are still abstract, simplified representations of a much more complicated reality. And they really have to be — a map that is as complicated as the thing it is mapping wouldn’t be very useful because it would contain more information than we could process. Scientists and artificial intelligence researchers are very aware of this point. They often remark that 'the map is not the territory,' and there is a common saying that 'all models are wrong, but some are useful.'" This quote is from a very interesting article A neuroscientist explains the problem of ignorance and how we can fight it. What it implies is that much of our activity on the spiritual path is about updating our model of reality. This is why Right View includes "not holding to fixed views" - in other words keeping an open mind and updating our models as new insights are experienced. What I have created above is a map/model of "levels" of emptiness experience. And like all models, it's wrong - it's definitely incomplete - but hopefully it's useful.

If you can conceive of it, it's empty whether or not it actually exists.
If you can conceive of it, it's empty whether or not you experience that emptiness.

A Neuroscientist Explains the Problem of Ignorance and How We Can Fight It by Bobby Azarian
The Nothingness Beyond God by Kitaro Nishida
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