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What is the "meditation on emptiness" in MN 121?

What does "emptiness" refer to in this sutta?

Also, what does "oneness dependent on the perception of ..." mean in this sutta?

“Indeed, Ānanda, you properly heard, learned, attended, and remembered that. Now, as before, I usually practice the meditation on emptiness.

Consider this stilt longhouse of Migāra’s mother. It’s empty of elephants, cows, horses, and mares; of gold and money; and of gatherings of men and women. There is only this that is not emptiness, namely, the oneness dependent on the mendicant Saṅgha. In the same way, a mendicant—ignoring the perception of the village and the perception of people—focuses on the oneness dependent on the perception of wilderness. Their mind becomes eager, confident, settled, and decided in that perception of wilderness. They understand: ‘Here there is no stress due to the perception of village or the perception of people. There is only this modicum of stress, namely the oneness dependent on the perception of wilderness.’ They understand: ‘This field of perception is empty of the perception of the village. It is empty of the perception of people. There is only this that is not emptiness, namely the oneness dependent on the perception of wilderness.’ And so they regard it as empty of what is not there, but as to what remains they understand that it is present. That’s how emptiness is born in them—genuine, undistorted, and pure.

......

Whatever ascetics and brahmins enter and remain in the pure, ultimate, supreme emptiness—whether in the past, future, or present—all of them enter and remain in this same pure, ultimate, supreme emptiness. So, Ānanda, you should train like this: ‘We will enter and remain in the pure, ultimate, supreme emptiness.’ That’s how you should train.”

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The sutta itself explains it very clearly. Meditation on Emptiness is progressive cessation of all imputation. In other words it is abandonment of focusing on signs and translating the signs to their associated meanings. In modern language it can be called cessation of semiosis.

The sutta explains this process step by step. First the meditator abandons ("amanasikara", i.e. stops paying attention) the coarse signs such as anything that's happening around, and focuses on the background aka the counterpart sign (the place they are at). Then they (I'm using the gender-neutral pronoun "they" instead of "he") split this object of focus, again, into foreground (the place) and the background or the counterpart (the empty space itself). Then they focus on this background, and notice, again, its own background or counterpart - this time it's the conscious experience itself acting as the background for the perception of space. They keep repeating this iterative process. Every time they find the counterpart sign and make it the sole object of focus ("ekatta") until they can see its own background or counterpart. The next step is finding the counterpart sign (the background) for the consciousness or awareness. It happens to be the Nothingness. They focus on this new object, trying to find the counterpart of the perception of Nothingness. They find it, the very subtle background against which perceiving Nothing is juxtaposed, called Neither Perception Nor Nonperception. Abandoning even this sign they reach the Emptiness, the Signless Concentration.

This Signless Concentration is not The Liberation, but it is the last step before the Final Realization. The Final Realization is the first hand direct insight into the fact that our entire notion of perfect mindstate, perfect meditation, perfect liberation is just another collection of concepts (signs) evaluated against some counterparts or reference points. Letting go of all reference points is attainment of Nirvana and remainderless cessation of craving and grasping, and therefore complete cessation of suffering.

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What is the "meditation on emptiness" in MN 121?

The process of gradually flushing-out of various subjects from gross to subtle as detailed in paragraphs 4 - 12 of MN 121

What does "emptiness" refer to in this sutta?

Per Ven. Bodhi's note: SunnataVihara, the fruition attainment of voidness/sunnataphala samapatti, fruition attainment of arahantship that is entered by focusing upon the void aspect of Nibbana.

Also, what does "oneness dependent on the perception of ..." mean in this sutta?

Ven. Thanissaro's more straightforward rendering: "attends to the singleness based on the <objects...>", which Ven. Bodhi cited Comy's explanation:

MA: He attends to the perception of forest dependent on the single forest itself, thinking: “This is a forest, this a tree, this a mountain, this a grove.” In the next sentence I read with BBS and SBJ adhimuccati, as against PTS vimuccati.

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  • What is the void/ emptiness aspect of Nibbana? Is it anatta? – ruben2020 May 31 at 4:38
  • as mentioned, not only anatta, but all subjects from gross to subtle as detailed in paragraphs 4 - 12 of MN 121. – santa100 May 31 at 18:23
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This is how I practice at home: - It is empty of people. (I am the only person in the house) - There are some noises coming from birds, children playing outside the house and cars except for that it is empty of noises. - There is no TV or radio so it is empty of visual and noise disturbance - The only disturbance is coming from my internal mental dialogue. (Vitakka and Vicara) but they are wholesome, (first Jhana)

That is all I can go at this moment. When Vitakka and Vicara stops I will be in second Jhana. and so on you can go up to the cessation of perception and feeling. It is a method of moving from gross to subtle experience. When you emerge from the cessation of perception and feeling you will be an Arahant according to sutta.

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In MN121, the word ekatta ("oneness") occurs 21 times. For example:

MN121:4.9: araññasaññaṃ paṭicca ekattan’ti.

MN121:4.9: There is only this that is not emptiness, namely the oneness dependent on the perception of wilderness.’

MN121 teaches the relinquishing of attachment to the "oneness" of all perceptions. It therefore is a powerful eraser for identity view. MN121 is an advanced sutta best practiced after established practice in ethics, immersion and wisdom. In particular, one must understand the prerequisites to practice the later verses effectively. For example, notice the subtle distinction between nothingness and emptiness:

MN121:8.7: There is only this that is not emptiness, namely the oneness dependent on the perception of the dimension of nothingness.’

In other words, to practice emptiness requires an understanding of the dimension of nothingness. To practice emptiness requires the realization of the emptiness of identity view.

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Afaik the classical theravada interpretation is that it is a cessation of perception & feeling attainment.

"When a monk has emerged from the cessation of perception & feeling, three contacts make contact: contact with emptiness, contact with the signless, & contact with the undirected."[3]https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn41/sn41.006.than.html Notes to this; Emptiness, the signless, & the undirected are names for a state of concentration that lies on the threshold of Unbinding. They differ only in how they are approached. According to the commentary, they color one's first apprehension of Unbinding: a meditator who has been focusing on the theme of inconstancy will first apprehend Unbinding as signless; one who has been focusing on the theme of stress will first apprehend it as undirected; one who has been focusing on the theme of not-self will first apprehend it as emptiness.

There is one other interpretation based on Sutta, is as i see it less likely & more of a stretch, based on this;

"Insofar as it is empty of a self or of anything pertaining to a self: Thus it is said, Ananda, that the world is empty. And what is empty of a self or of anything pertaining to a self? The eye is empty of a self or of anything pertaining to a self. Forms... Eye-consciousness... Eye-contact is empty of a self or of anything pertaining to a self. "The ear is empty... "The nose is empty... "The tongue is empty... "The body is empty... "The intellect is empty of a self or of anything pertaining to a self. Ideas... Intellect-consciousness... Intellect-contact is empty of a self or of anything pertaining to a self. Thus it is said that the world is empty." https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn35/sn35.085.than.html

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"Emptiness" refers to the formless stages of concentration, arupajhanas.

The meaning of

oneness dependent on the perception of wilderness

is built on the previous metaphor:

the perception of the village and the perception of people

which refers to a laymans ayatanas in a hustle and bustle world (the village), which still manifests in the rupa jhanas.

The wilderness is a metaphor for what is beyond/outside the rupajhanas: the arupajhanas or emptiness.

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