Photo by Andrew Sterling on Unsplash

by Sarah McFarland

Sravasti Abbey Friends Education (SAFE) is a facilitated online study program that guides students through exploring Buddha’s teachings step by step. Sarah McFarland, a long time Dharma student, shares her experiences and insights on completing SAFE Course 9, which includes an introduction to the perfection of wisdom and teaches analytical meditations to understand emptiness.

Less traveled

When I found Buddhism, the road less traveled was not free of potholes, wash outs, and detours. At times it took me years to get back on the main road again—distracted by wondrous experiences that came too early in my journey to deal with well and ripening karma I could not understand.

To make matters worse, my crazy monkey mind has been slow to settle and understand the teachings. Sometimes I wonder how I was able to stick with it at all. I see myself flying through the air holding onto a vine, crashing into a tree trunk like Wile E. Coyote in the Road Runner cartoons.

This scenario applied to all the Buddhist topics I encountered in the past twenty plus years. But here I will keep to my study and experiences of wisdom/emptiness.

I need to let you know up front that I know that I don’t know, and I apologize for any lack of proper vocabulary and lack of correct understanding when using it.

There is one more factor that I want to mention, and that is my mental health. I am finally able to stay in my insecure, anxious mind without hyping into a disconnected, dissociated mind like I used to do. That mind was not connected or grounded to much of anything. I don’t condemn myself, for in those days the intensity of my pain was so great that it was necessary to check out in order to survive.

What is emptiness?

As a newbie, I was attending a Buddhist center in Missoula, Montana. I remember asking what emptiness was since it seemed to be very important. No one knew. One person said it meant not to exist inherently but didn’t know what the words meant. OK, later.

Later, the group moved to a private home, where I was immediately attracted to a Manjushri thangka (painting). It took a while to learn his name, so I just called him the orange Buddha. Manjushri, I later learned, is the Buddha of Wisdom.

Venerable Thubten Jigme connects with Dharma friend Sarah at the recent Sharing the Dharma Day.


Later still. I was traveling from Missoula to Yellowstone to take a biology class in Lamar Valley. Driving down the highway, I was meditating on the different parts of my car while Manjushri danced in my head, cutting the cobwebs away from my mind with his sword.

After several hours of this, it was as if the car fell through the asphalt into another universe. I felt so good, free and open (until a few seconds later.) I looked about me, noticing trees, grass, mountains, etc. They were just there; I knew what they were, but there was no attachment or aversion to any of it.

Suddenly, I was overcome with a fear that snapped my mind back to its usual state. The “I” had taken control again. Much later I talked to Venerable Chodron about the experience. She didn’t really explain what it was, so thereafter I just referred to it as “just an experience.”

However, before this SAFE class, I had hung onto the experience for years trying to recapture it and tormenting myself for an explanation. Much time was wasted, and potential practice lost.

I have had similar experiences, not as intense or lasting as long. One such occurrence happened when Professor Guy Newland was coming to the Abbey to teach a second part to his previous visit, when he taught on emptiness. Wanting to catch up before the teaching, I binge-watched all the YouTube videos of his previous teachings, which resulted in another “experience.”

A woman smiles at the camera

How SAFE has helped

Due to my belief that I was incapable of meditating in a logical, prescribed manner, I have avoided analytical meditation, sticking to sadhanas (deity practices)  that would provide the opportunity to use my imagination.

Now, because of this class and your help, I can apply analytical meditation to the topic of emptiness. Meditating this way is not as dramatic, but with slow and small insights and Venerable Chodron’s teachings, I am on my way to reaching my goal.

Learning how to use analytical meditation to determine the nonexistence of an inherently existing “I” has empowered me to have the ability to pursue the topic of emptiness on my own.

I don’t have to wait for some trigger to have an “experience.”

Using the four-point analysis also enhances my understanding of how to gain a looser and less solid mind, instead of waiting to be zapped without  knowing the why and what of the experience. I can see how the designation of “my” or “mine” serves to shape my view of the world and others, and how that grasping of “me” and “mine” creates suffering.

Finally, I am developing an understanding of how emptiness and dependent arising are helping me to see myself in a more realistic manner.

In the SAFE program, students rely on written texts, video teachings, and an online forum in twelve-week sessions. SAFE delves into the topics that range from an introduction to the Buddhist worldview, through karma, refuge, the four truths, bodhicitta, and the six perfections, including wisdom. Each topic is taught in a twelve-week session. At this time, SAFE offers eleven courses. More are planned.

See the Distance Learning page to explore the SAFE program.