THE USES OF EMPTINESS
‘The bad news is we are falling, falling, falling … The good news is there’s no ground.’ (1)
I’m in a process of re-invention. This involves a major overhaul of spiritual outlook. I’m grateful to be aided in this by Thich Nhat Hanh’s 2014 revision of the Heart Sutra and commentary (2), just recently published. It gives me pictures of where I’ve been and where I am now: a sort of before and after.
Here is the ‘before’. “At the time of the Buddha, the idea of a divine self was a belief common to most of the traditions of Indian practice. People believed that underneath all the changes that we observe in ourselves, there is something that doesn’t change, a kind of immortal soul, or essence, called atman or ‘self’. People believed that after the physical body disintegrated, the soul would continue in another physical body, and that it would go through many cycles of death and rebirth in order to learn the lesson it needed to learn. The aim of spiritual practice was to reunite the small self, atman, with the great self, the absolute sublime self, which they called Brahman.”
A view of this kind underpins Aldous Huxley’s understanding of a perennial wisdom (3) and is now central to New Age spirituality. Some versions include reincarnation or forms of personal afterlife. Others don’t. I have been intermittently attracted to those that don’t, or don’t necessarily. I have never followed Advaita Vedanta, the specific path described above, but I have been involved in Tantra, and with Western equivalents through Jung, Gnosticism, Kabbalah, the Celtic Twilight Theosophy of OBOD (4), and the modernized presentation of Douglas Harding’s Headless Way (5). But I have never been truly comfortable with any form of theism, however esoteric or non-dual. Over the last several months I have decisively changed my stance.
My ‘after’ is also described in Thich Nhat Hahn’s new commentary. “When the Buddha began to teach, he challenged this belief. He taught that there is nothing we can call a self. This was the beginning of a revolution. He showed us that a phenomenon is just a manifestation of various causes and conditions. Nowhere in that phenomenon is there anything permanent and unchanging – whether you call it atman or Brahman, whether you call it the individual self or the universal self, you cannot find anything there. His teaching was aimed at undermining both the idea of an individual self and that of a universal self.”
This view of emptiness is further clarified for me by another modern translator’s commentary on a first century Buddhist text, from which the Heart Sutra draws inspiration. “Nagarjuna, like Western sceptics … says [that], what counts as real depends precisely on our conventions.” (6) We naively treat things as distinct, separate and substantial. Both the Buddha and Nagarjuna saw this as a root delusion lying at the basis of human suffering. “For Nagarjuna this point is connected deeply and directly with the emptiness behind phenomena”.
“To say that trees, for example, are ‘empty’ prompts the question: ‘empty of what?’ And the answer is empty of inherent existence, or of self-nature, or in more Western terms of essence”. Their existence as separate, unitary beings, depends on perception and naming. Hence the emptiness of a tree: “The boundaries of the tree, both spatial and temporal (consider the junctures between root and soil, or leaf and air; between live and dead wood; between seed, shoot and tree); its identity over time (each year it sheds leaves and grows new ones; some limbs break; new limbs grow); its existence as a unitary object, as opposed to a collection of cells; etc., are all conventional. Removing its properties leaves no core bearer behind. Searching for a tree that is independent and which is the bearer of its parts, we come up empty”.
In his own analysis, Thich Nhat Hanh continues: “There are still many people who are drawn into thinking that emptiness is the ground of being, the ontological ground of everything. But emptiness, when understood rightly, is the absence of any ontological ground. To turn emptiness into an ontological essence, to call it the ground of all that is, is not correct. Emptiness is not an eternal, unchanging ontological ground. We must not be caught by the notion of emptiness as an eternal thing. It is not any kind of absolute or ultimate reality. That is why it can be empty. Our notion of emptiness should be removed. It is empty”. This stops turning emptiness into Emptiness, and standing as a ghostly Brahman or mysterious Void. The point is necessary because this has indeed happened within the Buddhist tradition – leading to widely held doctrines of world negation.
For Thich Nhat Hanh, “the insight of interbeing is about that nothing can exist by itself alone, that each thing exists only in relation to everything else. The insight of impermanence is that nothing is static, nothing stays the same. Interbeing means the absence of a separate self. Looking from the perspective of space we call emptiness ‘interbeing’; looking from the perspective of time we call it ‘impermanence’. All phenomena bear the mark of being inherently empty of a separate existence, both in time and space.
This is a blessing. It is our opportunity to exist and thrive. Thich Nhat Hanh says: “to be empty means to be alive, to breathe in and breathe out. Emptiness is impermanence; it is change. We should not be afraid of emptiness, impermanence or change. We should celebrate them. When you have a kernel of corn and entrust it to the soil, you hope that it will become a tall corn plant. If there is no impermanence, the kernel of corn will remain a kernel of corn forever and you will never have an ear of corn to eat. Impermanence is crucial to the life of everything”.
A commentator on another Buddhist classic (7) talks about the implications of emptiness for how we experience the world: “the transformation of consciousness is a constant flow. If you look at experience there are not fixed elements or even moments; there is simply a process, a transformation. The first thing these verses give us is a sense of wonder about what we are experiencing right now, a sense that our most basic understanding of where and what we are in the world is not quite right, that we are instead involved in a mysterious, flowing unfolding. … The Buddha called himself tathagata or ‘that which is thus coming and going’. He described himself as merely a flowing occurrence, and the outward form that took was constant, calm, compassionate availability to people who came to him for help. This is a way of being these verses offer to you.”
(1)? Chogyam Trungpa or Pema Chodron
(2) Thich Nhat Hanh The Other Shore: a New Translation of the Heart Sutra with Commentaries Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 2017
(3)Aldous Huxley The Perennial Philosophy: an Interpretation of the Great Mystics, East and West New York: HarperCollins, 2004 (Perennial Classics Edition)
(6) Nagarjuna The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way: Nagarjuna’s Mulamadhyamakakarika New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995
(7) Ben Connelly Inside Vasubandhu’s Yogacara: a practitioner’s guide Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2016