Emptiness is the path to enlightenment.
Or, at least, that’s the goal. Walking into the Kadampa Buddhist Center on Capitol Hill last night, I realized how foreign the concept of peace was to me—that tricky little necessity in the world of meditation. Elusive, transient, sneaky peace. I wanted it so badly.
Surrounded by terrifying newness, I took off my shoes and meandered through the converted house. People milled about here and there, talking in low voices while sipping from paper cups filled with water. I glanced at the shelves of books lining one of the walls in the “living room.” One of the tomes proferred deliverance from entrapment. Another extolled the virtues of light found in darkness. Is it bad that every title spoke to me?
On the other side of the house, in an elongated room that must have once been an elaborate dining room, a handful of middle-aged somethings sat in silence. At the end of the room, Buddha statues lined a protracted mantelpiece, ornately dressed and gilded with gold jewelry. There was an elevated platform slightly below them, while folding chairs spread out to fill the rest of the room. An air conditioner, slung low in an offset window, churned with tremendous effort; a few fans pulsed above.
I quietly ushered into the room with a handful of others. On each chair was placed a traditional Kadampa Buddhist prayer—an all-encompassing yearning for peace and joy. It was so similar to the Christian prayers I knew, I might have substituted “Jesus” and “God” for Buddha without much effort. I did, in fact, praying both versions to myself to feel the difference. There was none.
The minutes ticked by in silence, and I tried to ready myself for the task of meditation. I’ve never been good at it, perhaps because I always see it as a task. My mind buzzes incessantly, my food taps, my thoughts gauge the value of this, the meaning of that. The clichés mount: Did I leave the gas on? Did I lock the door? Did I double-book Thursday night?
All at once, as though some pervasive knowing existed except in me, the room stood, hands clasped in a prayerful fold. The Venerable Gen Kelsang Losel, wrapped in a contortion of burgundy and gold, walked up to the podium and seated herself cross-legged. She smiled, giggling as we found our seats again.
“Hello,” she timidly admitted, as though apologizing for walking in on our silence. “I see several new faces here; welcome.” I smiled back at her, but I’m sure she didn’t see me. The pony-tailed man in black tights blocked her view. He giggled, too.
“This week we begin a lesson on emptiness, which we must understand if we are to eliminate our suffering and pain.” The logic leaped over my Western mind, but I wasn’t there to question. “We must know it if we are to truly know ourselves. But before we begin to explore emptiness, we must first ready our minds and our bodies.”
The cue for meditation. Hands flatly on my rotund thighs, feet flush against the floor in holey white socks, I sat back in my uncomfortable chair and thought how nice it would be to have a cushion. In the background, the hum of the AC agitated my peaceful slip into a clear mind.
My eyes finally shut, releasing the flood gates for sundry dreams and visions that jumped from nothingness. I chased a dragon past 7-11 even though I longed for a Slurpie; I wiggled in my bed below a waterfall, dry as a bone; I rushed at a gate with a sword, eager to hack at inanimate wood. “Focus on your breathing, and clear your mind,” I heard weakly from the front of the room. Not likely.
A few minutes later (and far from clarity), she culled us out of semi-sleep to prepare ourselves for the lesson. I was still chasing dragons past 7-11, or whatever it was, angry at myself for not really being ready for any approach on emptiness. I wasn’t much ready for anything except a nap.
Nonetheless, I held my posture as she began serenading us in a sweet, richly accented British tone: “In our daily lives, we build attachments,” she explained. “Either the attachment is good, or it is bad. We find something attractive or unattractive; we think something tasty or plain; we hear beautiful music or we hear noise.”
“The point?” I found myself thinking. My patience needed renovation.
Back and forth she went from reiterations of attachments to readings from one of the thick tomes I found earlier. Until, finally, she came to it: “Emptiness is recognizing the persistence of the mind and the evanescence of the body. If we shackle ourselves to perception, we make judgments on perception, not on the thing itself. All things contain emptiness, and when we recognize that emptiness, we are free from judgments and pressure. We are, indeed, free from suffering.”
I blinked, jogging my mind as it slid back into a half-sleep. Her words suddenly resonated, gonging like a temple bell: Emptiness equals liberation.
My clamoring, rushing, panting mind stopped. Just stopped. And listened—for a brief moment.
“But what do I do when I’m empty?” I thought, finally unsatisfied with the revelation.
“How to really understand emptiness, that’s for the next class,” she giggled.
Back at home, I rummaged through my fridge for something to eat. It was close to 9 o’clock and I hadn’t eaten since lunch—a willing sacrifice for a 7 o’clock meditation class that might enlighten me. Nothing but bread stared back, so I cut a few slices and popped them in the toaster. Usually I’ll sing when I’m cooking, or I’ll have the TV on, or music going. Not last night. I was content to think, mulling over the significance of emptiness. Had I known it already, somehow? Was it taught to me another way? Was it really such a new idea?
The toast popped up with a squeal from my $5.99 toaster as I retrieved a stick of butter from the fridge. Carefully spreading it across the febrile toast, I smiled. “You’re full of emptiness, you know that?”
But I don’t think the toast was paying any attention.