‘Therefore, Shariputra, in emptiness there is no form, no feelings, no perceptions, no mental formations, and no consciousness. There is no eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue, no body and no mind.’ – The Blessed Mother, the Heart of the Perfection of Wisdom

Buddhist Monks in Ladakh

Mahayana Buddhism in Ladakh

Ladakh is a strange, unique region with alien landscapes and rich, ancient culture. Our tailor-made travel in this Himalayan height offers a variety of transformational experiences to give an authentic insight into Ladakhi life. In the spirit of Natural Mystic’s travel philosophy, we’re going to give an introduction to Buddhism in Ladakh and one of Lakakh’s most profound and strange ideas.

Ladakh is predominantly Buddhist, and they follow a Tibetan form of Buddhism, recognising the Dalai Lama as their spiritual leader. Indeed, Ladakh’s culture has much in common with their Tibetan neighbours and it is even sometimes called ‘Little Tibet’. Ladakh has been predominately Buddhist since 200 CE, when Indian Buddhism first arrived, and Ladakh later transitioned to Tibetan Buddhism. As such, the Mahayana Buddhist tradition plays a central role in Ladakhi Buddhism. In this blog, we’re going to giving a brief overview of one of the central ideas of Mahayana Buddhism: the concept of emptiness. This is to give some insight into the complex and rich philosophy and thought of Ladakh, an understanding of the Buddhism which is so central to the life of Ladakh.

Ladakh Village in Himalayas

The Heart Sutra

We’re largely going to base this blog on the commentary on the Heart Sutra (or Heart of the Perfection of Wisdom) provided by His Holiness the Dalai Lama in his book “Essence of the Heart Sutra”. The Dalai Lama has often visited Ladakh, and in 2017 he gave a speech at the Buddhist university, the Central Institute of Buddhist Studies, in Leh, Ladakh to inaugurate a seminar on “Buddhism in Ladakh”. In this speech, he “he expressed satisfaction and approval of the religious harmony and sense of community that prevails in Ladakh, and urged those present to take care of it” but also stressed the importance, for Buddhists, of deeply studying Buddhist texts and ideas.

Mahayana translates roughly as the “Great Vehicle” and is a central Buddhist tradition in Ladakh. Mahayana texts form the core of the “second turning of the wheel of Dharma” and the Mahayana teachings are rooted in the sermons that Buddha gave primarily at Vulture Peak, which is located in the state of Bihar, India. While the teachings of the first turning of the wheel of Dharma focus on suffering and its cessation, the teachings of the second turning focus on emptiness. In Mahayana Buddhism, the practitioner seeks enlightenment for the sake of liberating all sentient beings from suffering. The practitioner thus takes on the bodhisattva’s path to Buddhahood, such that they are gripped by a powerful compassion that aspires to liberate all sentient beings.

Ladakh Buddhist Monks

The Heart Sutra is a central text in Mahayana Buddhism. As such, it is central to Ladakhi Buddhism and known by heart to many Ladakhi people. It is the ‘Heart of the Perfection of Wisdom’, that is, it is at the heart of the Prajnaparamita, the Perfection of Wisdom Literature (the texts of which are found in many Ladakh households). The sutra is also called, in Tibetan, ‘Bhagavati’, which has the connotation of “mother”. In this way, the Sutra is likened to a mother who gives birth to the aryas, or noble beings.

Emptiness in Ladakh Buddhism

The Heart Sutra is concerned with emptiness. This means its subject is the third seal of the four Buddhist Dharma seals: ‘All phenomena are empty and devoid of intrinsic existence’ – the idea that all things and events lack intrinsic reality.

Emptiness is a very complex Buddhist concept and is not ‘nothingness’. The scholar and Ladakh expert Helena Norberg-Hodge quotes a leading Ladakhi scholar, Tashi Rabgyas, as describing emptiness in the following way:

“Take any object, like a tree. When you think of a tree, you tend to think of it as a distinct, clearly defined object, and on a certain level it is. But on a more important level, the tree has no independent existence; rather, it dissolves into a web of relationships. The rain that falls on its leaves, the wind that causes it to sway, the soil that supports it – all form a part of the tree. Ultimately, if you think about it, everything in the universe helps make the tree what it is. It cannot be isolated; its nature changes from moment to moment – it is never the same. This is what we mean when we say things are “empty,” that they have no independent existence.”

River and Mountain in Ladakh

The Dalai Lama points out that, in the Heart Sutra, emptiness is described as having eight characteristics, also known as ‘the eight aspects of the profound’, which negate the conventional characteristics of phenomena. The Heart Sutra says:

“[A]ll phenomena are emptiness; they are without defining characteristics; they are not born, they do not cease; they are not defiled, they are not undefiled; they are not deficient, they are not complete.”

These are the aspects of emptiness. Firstly, “They are without defining characteristics”: on the level of conventional truth, objects, for instance an apple, have characteristics which define what they are, for instance, the apple is red, round, hard. But at the level of ultimate truth, of ultimate reality, objects not to have defining characteristics, they do not have intrinsic properties that distinguish them from other objects.

“They are not born, they do not cease” on the conventional, relative level, things do arise and cease to exist, but these are not found at the ultimate level. The Dalai Lama writes that, from the perspective of a person immersed in the direct realization of emptiness, even impermanence is not found.

“They are not defiled, they are not undefiled; they are not deficient, they are not complete”. The second seal of Buddhism says that “All contaminated phenomena are unsatisfactory”; however, the Heart Sutra states that in-themselves, phenomena are neither deficient nor complete, neither defiled nor undefiled. As empty, these categories do not apply to them.

Buddhist Monks in Ladakh

The radical view of the Heart Sutra is further presented in the following passage:

“Therefore, Shariputra, in emptiness there is no form, no feelings, no perceptions, no mental formations, and no consciousness. There is no eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue, no body, and no mind. There is no form, no sound, no smell, no taste, no texture, and no mental objects … There is no ignorance, there is no extinction of ignorance, and so on up to aging and no death and no extinction of aging and death. Likewise, there is no suffering, origin, cessation or path; there is no wisdom, no attainment, and even no non-attainment.”

This passage radically dissolves the dualities that are central at the level of conventional truth. It might seem that in Buddhism the contrast between nirvana and samsara (cyclical existence) is crucial, but here it is said that both are empty, and nirvana is not other than samsara. Likewise at the level of conventional truth, there is ignorance and wisdom, but here it is said at the level of ultimate truth there is neither ignorance nor wisdom. And so there is no path from ignorance to wisdom, no attainment of enlightenment: one might have thought the Buddhist disciple was on the path from ignorance to wisdom, from suffering to nirvana, but here it is said there is no such path, no change, no progress. Indeed, the First Noble Truth of Buddhism is that all cyclical existence is suffering, but here it is said that there is, ultimately, no suffering, and so no freedom from suffering. The dualisms, central to everyday existence, and to parts of Buddhist theory, are completely dissolved into emptiness.

The middle way of Ladakh Buddhism

However, the Dalai Lama stresses that this view is not a sort of nihilism that says nothing exists – that phenomena are empty does not mean they do not exist. Emptiness is not nothingness. When phenomena are called empty, this is not a statement about whether they exist, but how they exist. Emptiness is a way of being. Rather than phenomena having intrinsic existence, being independent and substantial, as people falsely believe, they are in fact devoid of intrinsic existence. They do not stand by themselves, but are thoroughly dependent. Moreover, the emptiness of a phenomenon is not distinct from the phenomenon itself – objects are not distinct from the way they exist. An object is its emptiness. When an object ceases to exist, so does its emptiness. Emptiness is not some sort of God like background or ground of reality – some greater being that exists beyond objects. It is not a mysterious substratum of reality. Rather, emptiness exists only in phenomena.

Ladakh Man

These anti-nihilistic and anti-absolutist theses are stressed in the line “Form is emptiness; emptiness is form; emptiness is not other than form, form is too not other than emptiness.” The Dalai Lama writes that the first statement, “form is emptiness”, counters the innate tendency towards absolutism, the belief in an absolute reality, by negating the intrinsic existence of phenomena, stating the form is empty. But the second statement counters any nihilistic readings of this: form is not reduced to emptiness. There are indeed empty phenomena, which arise from the complex interplay of causes and conditions. These phenomena are totally dependent on causes and conditions, but they nevertheless exist. The third statement “emptiness is not other than form” present the union of appearance and emptiness: there is no duality between the world as it appears and the ultimate reality. It is not the case that there is the world as it appears to us on the one hand, and then world as it actually is (i.e. empty) on the other. Rather, appearance and emptiness are united, identical. At the limit, there is no distinction between ultimate and conventional truth. Finally, “form is too not other than emptiness” again points out that form and emptiness are united, and that they are not at all contradictory. Together, these four statements present the transcendence of the world beyond all conceptual elaborations.

Himalayan Landscape

Luxury travel in the Himalayas: explore Ladakh Buddhism first-hand

To see how this radical, complex Buddhist philosophy exists in practice, we strongly recommend visiting Ladakh! By visiting this special region, you’ll get a unique insight into the culture and belief system, which no amount of abstract theory can give you. All Natural Mystic luxury tours to the Himalayas follow our sustainable travel policy, so that you can experience Ladakh without harming it.

Of course, according the Mahayana tradition, the key to the Buddhist path is too truly understand emptiness and see the world as empty, which is said to take enormous effort, practice and meditation. In particular, to gain this level of insight, Buddhists stress one must be led by a true and accomplished teacher. The teachings of the Heart Sutra are presented concisely in the mantra of the perfection of wisdom:

Tadyatha gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha!

Go, go, go beyond, go totally beyond, be rooted in the ground of enlightenment.