Just as there is a controversy in some schools of Buddhism over whether the Buddha actually taught about GOD or not, there is also a similar controversy over just what the Buddha meant in his teachings on "Non-Self" and "Emptiness". In fact, it might be helpful to note here that the terms "Emptiness" and "Non-Self" can have a range of meanings in Buddhism. For our present purposes we are going to focus on the Tathagatagarbha teachings within Mahayana Buddhism.
According to the Mahayana Parinirvana Sutra, during the Buddha's last day on earth, he taught that each of us has two "selves" within us: a permanent Higher Self, which is our true spiritual self; and a temporary, illusory, lower self, which causes all of our suffering in life by trying to get us to have selfish desires and attachments.
Our Higher Self has two aspects to it. The first part is what in the Pali Canon the Buddha calls "the Luminous Mind". It's that part of our self that exists as the conscious divine energy fields that permeate our physical body. It's that part of us that finds peace, contentment and happiness in feeling, thinking, speaking, acting and living in the highest, kindest, most compassionate, selfless and inspired ways. But there's still an even higher part of our Higher Selves, which dwells above and beyond our physical body in a purely transcendent, spiritual realm. The Buddha referred to this higher, eternal, more transcendent aspect of our Higher Self, as the "Tathagatagarbha". The Buddha explained that these two aspects of our Higher Self, the "Luminous Mind" and the "Tathagatagarbha", are intimately related to each other and together comprise our "True Self", which is "one" with the eternal Infinite Buddha Nature. It is these two aspects of our eternal Higher Self, which inspire us to be naturally kind, compassionate, selfless, giving, inspired and lofty.
But, there is also another "self" that lives within us. It is not really "us", but instead is a temporary, ever changing bundle of selfish emotions, habits, perceptions and cognitions that the Buddha called "skandhas". In modern terms we might call this lower self our "ego", or perhaps the lower, selfish, "fear-based" aspects of our personality. It is that part of "us" that is self-centered, self-important, egotistical, selfish, deceitful, prideful, manipulative, domineering, lazy, hard-hearted, and on occasion, if it doesn't get it’s way, it can be quite mean, angry, combative and vindictive. In one way or another, it always tries to get us to take the lower, fear-based selfish path in life. But it is crucial to remember that this "lower self" isn't really "us", and it has no permanent existence. It is just a temporary mass of skandhas, which temporarily manifests as a "shadow self" that has no real permanent existence, even though it can temporarily trick us into acting in all kinds of fear-based selfish, self-destructive ways which causes it to temporarily become more powerful and controlling. Since it has no permanent reality, (and thus can be considered in one sense to be "unreal"), and since it is not our True self, the Buddha referred to this temporary, lower, shadow self as "non-Self" or "no-Self" or "not-Self".
So how do we escape from the suffering and self-destructive effects of the our shadowy temporary "non-Self" and awaken into the happy, enlightened consciousness of the two aspects of our True Self - the Luminous Mind and the even higher Tathagatagarbha? Usually it is a gradual, almost imperceptible unconscious process that occurs ever so slowly over hundreds of lifetimes. But, fortunately, once we become aware of the higher teachings, such as those given by the Buddha or the Ascended Master Saint Germain, it is possible to finish the process in one lifetime - if we're super sincere. So what do we need to do? The Buddha taught that we need to gradually "empty" ourselves of the shadowy non-Self's presence within us by following the Noble Eightfold Path. And even though this is a much "faster" process then the unconscious one, it's still gradual enough that it generally takes one's entire lifetime. No one does it overnight. Never the less, if we sincerely follow this path steadfastly over the course of our lifetime, we will continue to "empty" ourselves of it's negative, selfish, self-destructive influences and presence until eventually it finally ceases to exist. The Buddha referred to this accomplishment as reaching a state of "emptiness", because, we have now emptied ourselves of our shadowy lower self or "non-Self". (This is similar to Sathya Sai Baba's allegory of unweaving the cloth of selfish desires by removing one strand at a time until it ceases to exist.)
From thenceforth we will live only within the fullness of our compassionate, kind, inspiring Luminous Mind, which of course in turn is continually blessed and inspired by our Higher Self: our Tathagatagarbha; which in turn is continually blessed and inspired by the Universal Infinite Buddha Nature. Thus, we will have reached Nirvana, because we will have "extinguished" all selfish desires and cravings, as well as all attachments and "clingings". And from now on, we will naturally be awakening more and more fully into the state of "enlightenment" or "self-realization", until we finally and permanently graduate from the physical realm. And this occurs when, at the end of our last embodiment, as we leave our physical body behind at the time of death and merge into our permanent Higher Self, the transcendent Tathagatagarbha, and thus become a Celestial Bodhisattva, and eventually a Celestial Buddha.
Since this concept of "Emptiness" and "Non-Self" was so was important, it became known as the Buddha's "Teaching on Emptiness and Non-Self". The Buddha stressed that it is only by attaining complete "emptiness", that we can experience life in the highest, purest, most enlightened way. Of course what he was referring to when he talked about "emptiness" was emptying ourselves of the shadowy, temporary selfish, egotistical, lower "non-self", so that we could experience the blessings of our Higher Self - our True Self. It makes sense that if we emptied ourselves of the lower consciousness that was blocking our awareness of our higher Buddha Nature, that we would awaken into a more enlightened state of consciousness. So, in one sense, we needed to attain "emptiness" in order to experience the "fullness" of our Higher Self.
For the Budda's teachings on the Higher Self please click here: The Buddha's Teachings on GOD & the Higher Self. And for a more universal explanation of the spiritual purpose behind having a Higher & Lower Self, please click here: Higher Self - Soul.
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