Tornado Warnings, Shinyata and the Blue Heron


“It feels real to me Julie.”

“I know. But it’s not. If it were real it would be true for everyone all the time,” I said.

“I do get a peek at what’s on the other side,” he reminded himself.

“What’s there?,” I asked.

“Love, . . . Is that real?”

“As real as you and I sitting here.”

                                    ­­–A conversation with a client, he was referring to the obstructions of fear and depression that surround him.

One of my intentions for attending the teachings this month at Deer Park was to expose myself to the wisdom of emptiness, shinyata so that I may get a glimpse of it. Looking at shinyata from many angles, and hearing the arguments and commentary about it could result in one becoming aware of it. Attending the teachings I hoped to come away with a few insights and skills so I would experience the world in a less exaggerated way, as understanding the wisdom of emptiness can do.

Being that Geshe Sopa’s class is more of an intellectual journey and not so experiential, I explored practices on my own that would introduce me to the wisdom of emptiness. I relied on the Dalai Lama’s book, How To See Yourself As You Really Are. This book is full of actual practices.

The Dalai Lama writes that the only way to gain a clear perspective is internally – by training the mind to see correctly. In a nutshell this is what the wisdom of emptiness is about – helping a confused mind, such as mine, that tends toward exaggerating the good and bad of what I see, to see reality. To be able to at least have a glimpse of reality so that when I find myself caught up in any of my habitual ways of being in the world (or seeing the world), I may apply this glimpse and experience some freedom. Such wisdom is understood as the treatment, the antidote for all the flavors of suffering, because all of our suffering arises from self-absorption. (Even in the Toltec practices, freedom from self-absorption is the key to lasting peace and happiness). Self-absorption tends to exaggerate our circumstances.

All month I am hearing arguments through deduction and analytical inquiry how, “nothing exists inherently” (independently); everything arises dependent on other factors. For me the wisdom of shinyata shows me the depth of our interconnectedness and how nothing stands alone. Everything arises dependently on conditions and causes; therefore nothing is independent, on its own. This makes such circumstances as depression or even loss less solid. Many spiritual traditions point to the reality of this interdependence. They exclaim that the separation we feel within ourselves and from each other is not reality but a delusion. In Buddhism we understand delusions as our ego throwing interference (obstructions) to our experiencing reality. It’s our beliefs, assumptions, projections, agreements and attachments that we see and experience (more often than not), not reality.

“Dependent-arising refers to the fact that all impermanent phenomena­–whether physical, mental, or otherwise–come into existence dependent upon certain causes and conditions. Whatever arises dependent upon certain causes and conditions is not operating exclusively under its own power.”  Dalai Lama, How to See Yourself As You Really Are

So how does a glimpse into emptiness help us? 

Since things are not as they often (or ever) appear, why get all caught up in exaggerated assumptions about events and people? Why be fooled always by appearances when nothing is as it seems to our untrained mind? Things tend to appear solid and dramatic. Like when we see someone, we tend to have all sorts of assumptions and beliefs about this person. Perhaps we have a history with them that is unpleasant. Instead of seeing reality (or their true nature), we see our projections, we see what we believe is there. We see the past. We are fooled by appearances. Learning to meditate on the wisdom of emptiness and practice the examination of emptiness helps us see more and more that nothing is as solid or dramatic as we typically perceive. Therefore to see more clearly means to understand that everything we see, experience and think depends on a variety of causes and conditions. Therefore when we encounter someone or are caught up in a difficult situation we can’t possibly know all the conditions and causes that lead up this situation.

To help with this, search for something you like and appreciate – your house or an object of art or something in nature. Notice how it seems to stand on its’ own. Then journal or contemplate all that made this object possible. What goes into making this object real? Can it exist without these other conditions or characteristics?

But what is real then? Both Geshe Sopa and the Dalai Lama show how the wisdom of emptiness does not mean to take on “false views” that would be nihilistic (nothing is real therefore nothing really matters), or exaggerated (taking everything personally) . . .   

Tornado Warnings

Just the other day there were tornado warnings and a path of two separate tornados were possibly making there way to our valley. We stood on our deck as the rumbling and stirring of the storms brewed around us. As I looked out I saw a Blue Heron land in the center of our pond, apparently undisturbed by the threats. She did not move but grazed for food, remaining in the center. We of course prepared for a tornado. This was the right thing for us to do. Tornados are dangerous and destructive, and real. But still the wisdom of emptiness points to even tornados and how they are absent of inherent existence, they could not exist on their own. This “not existing on their own,” is a simple understanding of emptiness. Shinyata doesn’t mean not real. On a conventional, relative level tornados are real, you and I and the Blue Heron are “real.” We are full of life. But there is no need to take the tornado (or someone insulting you for that matter) personally, because nothing is personal. We don’t have to add assumptions to the experience or make it bigger than it is by personalizing everything. We don’t need to get angry at the weather! This understanding of emptiness is also within the Toltec tradition. One of the Four Toltec Agreements is: “Don’t take things personally,” which is a way of pointing to shinyata. Another agreement is to “Not make assumptions.” How can we take something personally or make assumptions when the causes and conditions are so complex and unknown to us? When nothing is as it appears? How can we take it so personally when it is not ever just about us? Geshe Sopa once mentioned how shinyata can be symbolized as a reed – green and alive and real on the outside, but empty on the inside (empty of inherent existence). I like this image because we may appear different from one another and from other living things, but not internally, we are connected through the wisdom of shinyata. We are all filled with space and Buddha nature. It’s almost as if space itself is our universal connected tissue.

It seems I could write on and on about my glimpses in to emptiness. Incongruously, the topic of emptiness takes up thousands of sutras, and texts! So it is best I stop here and suggest you read the book by His Holiness the Dalai Lama if getting a glimpse into emptiness interests you too.

As it turns out the tornados passed to the north and south of the valley, leaving us with a beautiful lightening show and a double rainbow. The Blue Heron never moved from her spot in the center of the pond. I have a sense that she was demonstrating to me another glimpse of shinyata.

 Dalai Lama

Faith, not belief is the way to approach the mystery of being. Belief is the effort to eliminate the mystery by interpreting experience to accord with what is already conditioned in us.” Ken McLeod, Wake Up To Your Life: Discovering the Buddhist Path of Attention.


I am roused from my sleep

And nothing is familiar,

I open my eyes, and look out,

What I see with these eyes

Cracks me open from within

For all that I thought to be true

Was but a mirage.    Julie, 2009





The Four Agreements of the Toltec by don migel ruiz:


Be impeccable with your word

Don’t make assumptions

Don’t take anything personally

Do Your Best

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