Emptiness

The Sanskrit word “sunyata” is translated into English as “emptiness.” That must be one of most poorly translated words ever. “Interconnectedness” would have been a much better translation.

Warning: One reader of this site declared the following to be a “social and political rant.” Perhaps it is. However, it ends with a link to a scholarly article on emptiness that I have read many times. That article, and many other scholarly articles on the topic of emptiness, is somewhat hard to follow. My intention here is not to deliver a social and political rant but to shed some light on the concept of emptiness in a practical way, without too much abstract thought. So maybe that makes it a rant.

Ann Landers, a syndicated “advice columnist” who was famous back in the 20th century, once got a letter from a wife who made some complaint about her husband and when she published the letter, hundreds of husbands wrote in to defend themselves. Ann said: “When you throw a rock into a pack of dogs, the one that yelps is the one that was hit.”

So the fellow who complained about the following comments was the one who was hit.

People who do not feel interconnected with all life are the ones who cause the most misery in the human dharma realm.

They are the people who own guns to protect themselves in a world they perceive as dangerous.

How many times do we have to read about kids blowing themselves or their sibling away because Mommy and Daddy left a loaded gun in the house (or the car!) before we can get some decent gun control laws?

They hunt and kill wild animals and call it sport.

And the dead animal is a “trophy.”

They raise and slaughter farm animals in horrific slaughter houses. The raising of the animal wastes the vegetarian food that poor people need and the consumption of the slaughtered animal leads to heart disease and some cancers.

They take fish from the water under the theory that their god put those creatures on earth so that people could eat them.

They support pre-emptive war because they are certain their country is performing a noble liberation for which the attacked nation should be most grateful. One guy explained to me that it is OK for a democracy to invade a dictatorship but not the other way around. It didn’t concern him that a military invasion kills lots of people.

When they grow weary of their war they announce that they have done enough good for the attacked country and it is time for the attacked to start helping themselves.

They do not acknowledge that their noble invasion was a war crime and that their on-going occupation is another war crime.

They refer to themselves as the salt of the earth and they put Jesus stickers on their cars.

They fear immigration and they fear foreigners. They dislike gays because gays, like foreigners and immigrants, are “other.” Nor are they fond of people of other races.

They have a strong sense of the reality of their god, and they believe that He (the pronoun they use) is not fond of gays, foreigners, and immigrants, either.

They are against abortion because they believe in the sanctity of life but they support the death penalty and animal slaughter. They cannot see the contradiction inherent in their anti-abortion, anti-vegetarian, pro-gun, pro-war, pro-death penalty and pro-god views.

They believe that the right to life begins at conception and ends at birth.

Those who hold one of these views hold all of them. Intolerance, spiritual arrogance, and lack of connection with all living beings come in the same package.

When his gun was taken from him, Homer Simpson complained: “But I felt so powerful when I had a gun. I felt like God must feel when He has a gun.”

All of us know people like Homer. They are superficially nice, friendly people on the surface and are usually cordial to foreigners, immigrants and gays when they deal with them face to face. But they vote for mean-minded, satanic people who start wars and murder millions. They listen to and cheer the hate-mongers on the radio, TV, and the Internet.

They adorn their gas-guzzling vehicles with Support Our Troops stickers and they go to church every Sunday. And to the chicken dinners afterwards.

They wear “Friends of Animals” T-shirts while dining in steakhouses.

They cheer and applaud when a wounded turtle or dolphin is rescued, treated, and returned to the wild.

Yet they don’t give a tiddly damn about the nine billion animals needlessly slaughtered for food every year in the U.S. alone.

They don’t care that 30,000 people starve to death every day while the food that could have fed them is fed to cattle and hogs bound for the slaughterhouse. Tell them: “The rich man’s cattle eat the poor man’s food” and they say: “So?”

Those who are appalled by the invasion of foreign countries, who don’t want a gun in their house, who don’t believe in killing people for killing people, who respect animals and plant life, and who hold other such views based on wisdom and compassion are dismissed by the fearful and mean-minded as being hopelessly naïve at best and un-American at worse. Anne Coulter calls such people “traitors.”

As one awakens to the spiritual truth of emptiness, one’s desire to go to war, to buy guns, to applaud executions of criminals, to discriminate against gays and immigrants, to slaughter animals for food, to sell harmful products, and to cling to the idea of an independent self that requires protection from a hostile world just fades away.

The fearful and the mean are victims of the psychological terrorism that has been unleashed upon them by satanic politicians and organized religion. They fear that they will go to hell and burn forever if they don’t do what their god tells them to do. And their god is a mean, nasty god who gets so mad sometimes that smoke pours from his ears and he orders the wholesale slaughter of human beings who don’t believe in him.

He even orders the killing of homosexuals and men who do not wear beards! And thus we learn that the Old Testament was written by the heterosexual men of those days, not by some god.

Their world is the world of ignorance, delusion. The Buddha’s world is the world of emptiness.

Mind, like the electromagnetic spectrum, has no limits. We are aware of a small slice of mind.

Our eyes can see just the visible light part of the spectrum; a part so small it is negligible in comparison with the entire spectrum. Our unenlightened minds have the same relation to enlightened minds.

At one end of the mind spectrum lies the deluded, fearful, isolated, I-am-an-independent-self-trapped-in-a-doomed-body-and-therefore-I-need-a-saviour-and-in-the-meantime-I-need-to-protect-myself mind.

At the other end of the spectrum is the mind that has awakened into no-mind, awakened to emptiness, the enlightened, fearless, kind, there-is-no-independent-self-that-has-a-beginning-and-an-ending mind of emptiness.

All of us have minds somewhere in that infinite spectrum. And there is no beginning or end at either end.

The core concept of Buddhism is emptiness of self which simply means that no individual is an independent being. All things exist only in dependence on all other things. Even the word “exist” is not the best choice of words; perhaps we should say that all things appear to exist in dependence upon all other things that appear to exist.

We can measure our distance from enlightenment by the strength of our opinions. Dropping one’s opinions can happen in a heartbeat; that’s because Buddhahood is inherent in all of us. We have no long path to travel, no belief system to adopt. We just cease to hold opinions and that’s It.

We sit quietly in meditation and argue with no one.

When the Buddha was asked: “What is your philosophy?” he replied: “I argue with no one.”

In the Diamond Sutra, the Buddha observed that in all the eons of time, no independent being has ever been born into existence, and no independent being has ever departed from existence. No one has ever been born and no one has ever died. That sure goes against what we call common sense, doesn’t it?

But when we break through the Zen barrier, we discover that the Buddha got it right.

The Unconditioned State of Absolute Reality is free of ego-delusion. And the Unconditioned State of Absolute Reality doesn’t really have a name. It doesn’t even have features or characteristics.

Many religions teach that eventually we will live forever, either in heaven or hell. That’s not Buddhism.

Others teach annihilation of the self. That’s not Buddhism either.

The “we” or “I” simply isn’t there; there is nothing to undergo annihilation or to exist in some eternal torment or bliss. We don’t begin at birth and we don’t end at death. Awareness/the void/emptiness is all there is. It is unborn and therefore there is nothing to destruct. But it isn’t an independent self. It cannot come and go.

When we hear a bird singing in a tree, there is no bird independent of everything else and there is no tree independent of everything else. And there is no independent “me” that hears the song. Hearing Awareness hears the song, and it is not an entity with a beginning and an end.

We are not the thinker behind our thoughts; there is no thinker behind any thought. There are merely thoughts which when conditions are right can cluster together to form an apparent being.

Just as clouds form in the sky when conditions are right, and dissipate when the conditions are not right, so do apparent beings form when conditions are right and dissipate when conditions are not right.

No cloud has a self and we know it. That’s why we don’t celebrate the formation of a cloud and we don’t mourn its dissipation.

One of the greatest Ch’an (Zen) masters of all time chose his name to be Hsu Yun. That’s Chinese for Empty Cloud. What name could say more?

There is no self to have a life and a death. We are arrogant if we believe otherwise.

When we realize for the first time, in meditation, that we are empty and have nothing to lose, we relax for the first time.

All dualistic concepts require an independent, deluded self, a self that sees itself set in opposition to everything outside itself. An independent self can exist only in delusion.

The concept of no-self cannot be comprehended by thinking about it. Math problems can be solved by thought, but thought cannot reach no-self.

Master Hsuan Hua says if you want to be a dog, think like a dog. If you want to be a Buddha, think like a Buddha. How can we think like a Buddha? When no amount of thinking can lead to no-self?

All we can do is to practice Zen. Buddhahood appears when conditions are right. We can’t make it happen, but we can practice Zen so that it can happen. We practice Zen to create the conditions that allow awakening to occur.

Awakening seldom occurs during mundane activities such as tailgate parties before football games; such pleasure-seeking, self-centered moments are not conducive to deep insights concerning the Unconditioned State of Ultimate Reality, or whatever name we pin on suchness.

Most people don’t practice Zen because all they know about it is that it’s zany (thank you very little Jon Stewart) and has something to do with Buddhism and Buddhism teaches people to be nice so Buddhism is cool and Zen must be cool also.

Practicing Zen every day all day long is not easy. Zen masters advise us, however, that it is our sense of self that tells us: “This is hard.” So they say to take everything light-heartedly. A great Japanese Zen Master once humorously observed: “Suicide is the result of taking yourself too seriously.”

He could just as easily have said: “All unhappiness is the result of taking oneself too seriously.”

The converse is true as well. All happiness is the result of taking one’s self too seriously as well.

Emptiness of self is the key to true liberation.

The Buddha referred to the wrong view of self as sakkaya ditthi. See the blog on this site for more about sakkaya ditthi, the first of the Ten Fetters.

Emptiness is the ultimate truth. Not only is there no self, there is no thing. We can read and study emptiness for a long time. But we eventually experience it and understand it for the first time when our meditation reaches the jhanas. That requires following the steps listed in Beginning and Intermediate Zen.

How To Practice Zen