- Some (mostly secular) thoughts about Emptiness
- The Open Door to Emptiness: A Discussion of Madhyamika Logic by Khenchen Thrangu
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Buddhas say emptiness Is relinquishing opinions Believers in emptiness Are incurable. However, he also says that emptiness itself is a dangerous concept, and one that may as easily be grasped and held too tightly as we ignorantly hold our selves and all phenomena. A badly understood emptiness he likens to a snake, which, poorly handled, will harm. Emptiness is not something to be grasped and nor does it entail non-existence. Phenomena, like selves, exist, but not in the manner in which we ignorantly assume. They exist in dependence on causes and conditions, on the relationship between parts and wholes and on designations we confer on them by usage and language.
They are dependently originated and therefore empty of inherent singular existence. Form is emptiness, emptiness is form. Finally, these teachings on emptiness turn back on themselves, pointing to the emptiness of emptiness.
Emptiness is the relinquishing of opinions, not the replacement of one opinion with another. Some later commentators found this to be too cerebral and possibly too difficult, and potentially nihilistic. Buddhist texts include arguments about polemics that may be likened to Christian disputes as to how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, and this is not the place to go into the minutiae of various views. In general they tend to be more mystical, more influenced by practice rather than polemic. Rather than emptiness of self, or emptiness of all phenomena, here the emptiness and non-duality is that of the relationship between consciousness and object, knower and known.
In such teachings, it is often difficult to discriminate between the terms mind, emptiness and Buddha Nature. Thus some schools of Buddhism, particularly the Gelugpa school of Tibet, whose most celebrated teacher is the Dalai Lama, consider the Second Turning of the Wheel to be the definitive teaching, whilst other schools both of Tibetan and Far Eastern Buddhism, consider the third turning to be ultimate. What is important, as with all Buddhist teachings, is the intention, which is to demonstrate the complementarity of emptiness and existence, evading the grasping of certainty and self and embracing contingency.
Only Taoism is as concerned with emptiness as Buddhist thought, though I think one could say that it is both a more poetical and more foundational approach and one which has influenced all strands of Far Eastern Buddhism. This is outside the scope of this article but I would like to draw attention to a wonderful distinction made by a French Sinologist Francois Jullien who draws attention to a fundamental distinction between Chinese and Western thought; a distinction that underpins its approach to philosophy, painting and writing, and one that I think is relevant to discussion of emptiness in the context of contemporary life.
Some (mostly secular) thoughts about Emptiness
The Greek choice of perception led to the priority of a conception of reality as an object of knowledge. The Chinese choice, based on an experiential knowledge of breathing in and breathing out, led to the principle of a regulating alternation of emptiness and fullness from which the process of the world flows. Most fascinatingly, Jullien suggests that whilst Western philosophy has always followed the way of clarity, the Chinese have always chosen to think the foundational as indifferentiation. Yet emptiness is not missing from Greek thought.
Before the Western choice of philosophies of perception and clarity over those of breath and indistinction, ideas of emptiness lead from Buddhism directly to the Greeks. Echoes of emptiness appear in Heraclitus, in Stoicism, Epicureanism and especially in Pyrrhonian Scepticism. Philosophy was, for the Greeks as for the followers of the Buddha, a way of life, a way to eudaimonia or flourishing. This tradition however became largely ignored in the West with the rise of Christianity with its certainty and one God, which was much more in line with those philosophies of perception, presence and essence.
With the rise of Christianity, philosophy and practice became divided and, in the terminology of French philosopher Pierre Hadot, philosophy ceased to be a way of life, becoming philosophical discourse and the project of the academies. During the many centuries of Christian hegemony in the West mention of emptiness was confined to individuals, mostly mystical and often considered heretical Christians, such as Duns Scotus, Meister Ekhart and St.
The Open Door to Emptiness: A Discussion of Madhyamika Logic by Khenchen Thrangu
John of the Cross. Later, echoes of emptiness occur in the work of Romantic writers with ideas of the Sublime. It is not until the modern era, with a general breaking down of certainties and foundations and a subsequent awareness of contingency, that emptiness widely spreads back into discourse, both as lack and as potential. In all the disciplines of intellectual life modern and postmodern times have seen challenges to previous certainties and foundations.
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I believe that the West has traditionally lacked a logic of complementarity, a path between is and is not , that is implicit in the teachings of emptiness. As previously held foundations and grounds have been challenged by contemporary science, philosophy and art practice, a new perspective is called for. When traditional certainties are severely challenged, without such a logic, the loss of certainty and the experience of contingency lead to nihilism—the non-existence of lack, and the loss of meaning. However, a philosophy of emptiness, as explored above, teaches us something different.
It is ridiculous to be overly concerned with what is going to happen in the future, since your projections about it are merely a product of your hallucinating mind. Unfortunately, however, it is a common pastime to make concrete plans for the future. Worrying about the future is simply a waste of time and energy. There are many people who do not believe in enlightenment because they have never met or seen an enlightened being. They worry about what will happen in a future they cannot see, yet they do not accept enlightenment on the grounds that they cannot perceive it.
From the karmic viewpoint we should be concerned about the future, but our present concern is wrongly associated. A positive, wholesome attitude today bodes well for tomorrow.
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If the mind-stream is clean and clear today, then it is certain to be clean and clear tomorrow. So we do have the ability to predict the future: by using our own wisdom. We can see that living and dying happily or miserably depends on maintaining a positive or negative attitude from now on. It is needless to run to our spiritual teachers to ask them what is going to happen.
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We have the choice between dying the miserable death of a cow or experiencing the blissful death of a meditator. It depends on our karma. If the causes and conditions—milk, heat and so on—come together in the evening, the result will be a bowlful of yogurt the next morning. It is silly to ask exalted beings and clairvoyants if there is going to be world-wide disaster during the next few years. Disasters are happening all the time. By understanding karma we can see that as this solar system is the product of delusion, it is naturally besieged by wars and catastrophes.
Therefore it is a waste of energy to fret and worry about it. What we should worry about is keeping ourselves as peaceful, positive and aware as possible. This is all we can do. Let us now turn to the other essential aspect of the Dharma, that of analyzing the ego. The ego is the mind that misunderstands the nature of the I, the self. We generally feel that the I exists somewhere vaguely within the body but our ordinary superficial mind never attempts to pinpoint it precisely.
To gain a correct picture of reality, it is necessary to investigate deeply and try to find out exactly where this I resides. Otherwise we shall continue to be deluded, fooled by a view that, although superficial in some ways, still clings to a deep and concrete sense of self. When we make a thorough search for our self, looking throughout our entire body and nervous system, we can never find it. Sometimes we may think we have located it, but upon closer examination we can see that we have been deceived.
Although there is a specific technique for trying to locate the I, each one of us must approach our investigation in terms of the highly individual and instinctive way we habitually refer to ourselves. Some people have a vague sense that the I is in their chest; others feel it is in their head or stomach. When someone is troubled and holds his head between his hands, or slaps his forehead and clutches at his heart, this indicates where he most strongly feels his I at that moment.
The fact that we each have our own set of symptoms shows that the intuitive feeling of I is merely an interpretation of the ego. If the I were something substantial, there would be much more agreement as to what and where it is. The self imagined by the ego has a mysterious, inaccessible nature.