A student’s question: What is the meaning of Emanation.

A Student writes:

I am studying the Trusting the Heart of Buddhism course and the words “emanation” and “emanating” keep coming up. I thought I knew what that was: flowing or coming out of – but it doesn’t work for all of what I am reading. Then I googled “Emanation for Buddhists” and it said it was related to reincarnation. Could you please explain what “emanation” means the way it is used in the THB course?

Lama Shenpen:

It is indeed strange to describe truth or reality as emanation but it starts to become clearer if you link it to the DHB principles (Discovering the Heart of Buddhism, the foundation course in Lama Shenpen’s Living the Awakened Heart Training of which THB is part of).

I think we can somehow intuit how when we speak and act from the heart our words and actions emanate from our heart. Our nature is that of Openness Clarity and Sensitivity and everything we experience emanates from that – and it is experienced as if it were a whole world or mandala emanating from a central principle. As we focus on a mandala or world it opens up and it’s as if we create and enter it at the same time – the world is emanating from its central principle, and we are emanating from our heart essence.

None of this can be grasped and made into a theory.  As soon as we make it into a theory we are thinking in a too analytical way so we end up with more and more questions and confusion.

The only way to really understand mandala principle and emanation (the same thing really) is to understand Emptiness experientially.   Understanding emptiness means understanding what grasping or prapancha (1) means – or rather it means understanding experientially what nishprapancha (2) means.

This is what has to be pointed out by the Guru – and this pointing out process usually takes place bit by bit. What is pointed out never changes – it is the indestructible heart essence – but our prapancha drop bit by bit as we practice and open up to the nature of reality.

Emanation is taking place at all levels of reality. Fundamentally it is the way we emanate from the Primordial Ground and dissolve back into it at death, when falling into deep sleep and so on.  Moment by moment we are emanating and dissolving back into the Primordial Ground.  Emanation is another way of saying our experience is self-liberating and never bound.

These are deep Mahamudra and Dzogchen teachings but we can perhaps get a glimpse of their meaning right from the start.  This might perhaps allay our doubts that our Dharma practice is taking us anywhere we want to go! It doesn’t go into a dead end where we just have to believe things because someone says so.

We can already understand something about mandala principle and emanation, we can already relate to our experience in those terms at least to some degree – and through our continued Dharma practice we come to understand what it all really means.

I hope this helps.

Lama Shenpen Hookham

(1) Prapancha – Skt. refers both to mind’s action of creating and then grasping at concepts as well as the things (concepts) grasped at (including fundamental concepts that underpin our view of reality such as time, space, size, distance, self, other etc.), Synonymous with  “conceptual mind” in certain contexts.

(2) Nishprapancha – Skt. “non-grasping”, “non-prapanching”, “non-conceptual”; however, none of these translations convey the depth of the original term, referring to a profound state of seeing reality as it actually is, without any conceptual overlay i.e. “veil”; deepest simplicity completely in touch with reality; in some contexts synonymous with Awakening.