If we look at the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni Buddha, when he reached the point of teaching the theory of selflessness or anatma, he was very, very sensitive. When asked if ‘self’ exists, there were many occasions when he did not reply yes or no but just stayed in silence. I am not saying these things just from a Mahayana Buddhist point of view. If you read the Theravadin Pali texts, you will come across a section where there are eighteen questions which the Buddha never gave any answers to and these are all connected with the topic of self, such as if the sense of self continues after death or whether self exists at all. He considered the best way to answer such questions and concluded it was very risky teaching this topic to anybody.
If a person is not really ready to listen, saying ‘self’ doesn’t exist will cause strong distress, or it might cause great damage to their self-confidence. These ideas are so subtle that the person listening might easily decide that the Buddha was teaching that there is no self and that nothing exists. That is very, very dangerous.
The teaching on emptiness is the only teaching which can really deal with the root of samsara. There is no other method to destroy the cause of cyclic existence. In a desert, a one-litre bottle of water is your survival. Lose that and you are dead. The teaching on emptiness is that bottle of water. Of course the teachings on compassion and bodhicitta are very, very powerful but emptiness is the only teaching which can really deal with our fundamental ignorance. If we get it wrong then there is no other solution.
Teaching emptiness, therefore, is dangerous. If you want to discuss emptiness with someone, the first thing to decide is whether that person is ready or not. If they are not, it might cause many difficulties and great misunderstanding. The second thing to decide is whether you yourself are ready or not to teach. We have to be so careful.
In the sixth chapter of Chandrakirti’s Commentary on Nagarjuna’s ‘Fundamental Wisdom’ there are six lines that describe the person who is ready for a teaching on emptiness. That indicates how important it is to really find the right moment and the right person to teach this topic. The wrong shade of meaning and the student might feel it is nihilism, which will leave very bad imprints on their mind streams.
Even when bodhisattvas entering into the Path of Accumulation start to realise emptiness, there is often great, great fear. When they start to realise emptiness they are terrified that they themselves are somehow being extinguished and if they become non-existent their main aim to benefit sentient beings is being lost. So great caution is needed with the teaching of emptiness.
I have posted this because of its profound importance. I would say, in addition to it causing damage to self-confidence, it also encourages recklessness, because if it leads to the idea that 'nothing really exists' or 'everything is illusory' then this entails that the path really doesn't matter, either, because the idea of 'path' and 'goal' are also illusory. I think there are many who call themselves Buddhist who fall into this trap.