Saturday, October 29, 2011

Emptiness Really Does Exist (Part 1 of 2)


I've been thinking about emptiness. No, that doesn't mean I've been thinking about nothing. Emptiness is a word that has a very specific meaning in Buddhism. I had always supposed that it means something like "nothing exists", or "absence of spiritual meaning". It turns out that I was pretty clueless.

From Wikipedia:
In Buddhism, emptiness is a characteristic of phenomena, arising from the Buddha's observation that nothing possesses an essential, enduring identity, by virtue of dependent origination. Thus to say an object is "empty" is synonymous with saying that thing is dependently originated.

This is an example of those Buddhist writings that quickly wander off into the "land of makes no sense". That statement is a lot of big words put into a complex, hard-to-read paragraph. When you read something like this, your mind starts to wander and gets lost. Let's break it down to make it easier to understand. Note: This is not an exact quote. I took out the references to the original Pali words. It's hard enough to read is it is.

The phrase, "emptiness is a characteristic of phenomena", means that everything that exists, including our thoughts, has characteristics that can be used to describe it. Emptiness is one of those characteristics.

The phrase, "arising from the Buddha's observation", means that Siddhārtha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism, was a pretty smart guy who had lots of time to observe and think how the universe actually works. His teachings make up what we call Buddhism.

The phrase, "nothing possesses an essential, enduring identity, by virtue of dependent origination", is the most important part of this paragraph. It is the foundation of Buddhism. Whenever we sense (see, hear, touch, taste, smell, or think about) anything, we assign a meaning to that sense contact. That meaning is different for every person. Nothing has any meaning by itself.

For example, suppose I observe a pen. Most of us associate the sight of a pen with the idea of writing. But is it correct to say that a pen has some inherent meaning so that everyone that sees it assigns the same meaning? Of course not. What about a pre-literate society where the people have no idea what writing is, let alone what a pen is? Judging just by appearances, a pen may be designed to clean the wax out of my ears. It's obvious that a pen doesn't have any inherent meaning. We have experience with pens as a writing instrument, so that we can assign that meaning to it.

We can extend this idea to everything that we sense. Let's look at the idea of "heroin". For most of us, heroin has meaning as a drug that destroys lives. Heroin is "bad". What about the person that enjoys using heroin to get high? In that person's world view, heroin is "good". I'm not saying you should go out and shoot up and get high. I'm saying that you cannot assign meaning to things because "nothing has an essential, enduring identity, by virtue of dependent origination".

The phrase, "Thus to say an object is "empty" is synonymous with saying that thing is dependently originated", means that everything in the universe only has meaning that we assign to it and that meaning depends on who does the assigning. This does not mean that our sense contacts are not real, or immaterial.

For every sense contact, we have a story (or stories) in our memory banks that we use to explain what it means. This story is probably a memory of previous experiences with that sense contact or something very similar.

Let's look at an easy example. In one of our dharma classes, Carl had us walk outside, barefoot, in damp grass. Several people expressed dismay at the thought of doing that. The point of the exercise is that the feeling of wet grass on our feet is just a sense contact. We all have a story about what it means and we assign a value to that story. After the experience, we all realized that the sense contact is just a story.

Stories are not real. They are a construct of our mind. Stress appears in our lives when we try to see life as something other than what it really is. We need these stories to understand what is happening. We need these stories to communicate with other people. However, our stress begins when we start to believe the stories.

Next time, I will add to this by discussing how to apply this in your life.