Shunyata, usually translated as "emptiness," is a Buddhist term that people often struggle with. I was fascinated to discover that it has always been difficult for people to understand, and that it was intended to be that way from the beginning. The basic formula that all dharmas are marked by emptiness points right at existence, at experience, and past it at the same time, a brilliant feat. The Perfection of Wisdom in 8000 Lines is a Mahayana Sutra; an ultimate text on this teaching, along with the Diamond and Heart Sutras. Stories about how and why an insight occurred are particularly useful in opening doors for others, and I hope they may be useful here. This post does not have catchy title. I have come up with my own descriptive titles for it, and I hope the readers will forgive me for that.
Lately I’ve been spending a lot of time trying to better understand depression, its causes, and how it can best be alleviated. It’s not that I’m depressed–in fact I’m happy to report that I’m rarely blue since I started a regular meditation practice some years ago. But due to current circumstances I’m in a position where it makes sense to take a deeper look at this incredibly powerful mind state because it has an incredibly strong hold over several important people in my life. While goggling “Recurrent Major Depression;” a diagnosis that a close friend of mine recently received, I stumbled upon the DSM IV criteria for this condition as well as another that often goes along with it “Borderline Personality Disorder.”
One of the symptoms listed under the “Cognitive” category caught my eye immediately “Chronic Emptiness.” It’s fitting that a word like “emptiness” is devoid of any one inherent meaning. Of course the emptiness being described in the DSM IV is the “I feel like nothing matters…life has no meaning…I don’t want to do anything…everything is too hard…” sort of emptiness. Then there’s the Buddhist version of emptiness, which isn’t quite as easy and straightforward to define. Emptiness as described in Buddhism is often mistaken for nihilism which couldn’t be further from the truth. Usually, it’s best to refer to it in its original Sanskrit form “Sunyata” but for the purposes of this article I’m going to use the standard “emptiness.”
From a Buddhist perspective, having an experiential and intellectual understanding of emptiness is answer to relieving our constant dissatisfaction with the way things are, and the distorted way we go about experiencing ourselves, other people, and the world around us. I wish psychiatrists and psychologists would start to promote chronic emptiness as a remedy for emotional distress rather than just a symptom, and we could all benefit from cultivating a borderline personality instead of our customary solid one.
If we all truly experienced chronic emptiness we wouldn’t feel the need to crap all over our daily experience with the habitual narrowness that results from our fixed thinking. There would be no solid “I” that would have to be at odds with “you” and “them” and “the world outside” of Myself. By experiencing chronic emptiness, we could gain more insight into the nature of our minds and realize that all of our emotional states are temporary and fluid and based on a constantly evolving set of circumstances and conditions. By stressing the inherent interconnectedness of all things we can gain an insight into our emotional maladies and eventually have more openness and space in which they can run there course without having to take us over and paralyze us with fear and anxiety.
There are some severe forms of depression that absolutely need medication in order to be dealt with appropriately: meditation and understanding emptiness aren’t one-size-fits all answer to every issue in every instance. But we can meditate on emptiness and eventually realize how amazingly liberating it is once we get a glimpse of what it truly means.
I have forced myself to contradict myself in order to avoid conforming to my own taste. Don’t think you understand It. On the other hand, don’t think you don’t understand It. It? What is It, a pronoun capitalized this way? What is It, pronounced with the kind of emphasis that communicates great significance? Alternatively, it is called the Great Matter, Enlightenment, Emptiness, Suchness. These are ways we refer to different aspects of It. When I write these words, what do you think to yourself? You probably think to yourself either that you don’t understand these things, “Wow, I wish I understood those things, maybe I will someday.” Or, perhaps, “I will probably never understand,” or when you hear these words you have a sense that you do understand these things, at least to some degree; the words conjure up for you a memory of an experience, a mind-state, an insight, or you think of images or sensations that you find comforting or inspiring. It is difficult to say which of these – a sense that we don’t understand, or a sense that we do understand – is more detrimental to spiritual practice.
Buddhist understanding – prajna paramita, the perfection of wisdom – is completely different from ordinary understanding. It is so different that even though it is here under our noses all the time, we miss It. Even though this Understanding is free and available, we revere Shakyamuni Buddha as a once-in-a-universe amazing person because he came to It without even having a teacher who pointed it out to him. This is the central teaching of Buddhism – that there is a kind of wisdom, a kind of insight, “which removes all suffering, and is true, not false.” The Buddha studied suffering – old age, disease, death, loss, dissatisfactions – and asked whether there was any way out of it. He was not the first to ask this question by any means. Almost every religion and social movement has tried to offer people a remedy, a way out, at least a mitigation of this human experience of suffering.
What the Buddha realized was, in a sense, its all how you relate to it. It’s all how you see it and understand your place in it. However, this is not about adopting some arbitrary positive outlook! Well, you could look at things that way and suffer, but if you adopt this philosophy or view things don’t look so bad…This is about seeing the true nature of reality. What is it that we see? A textbook answer would be something like, “we see that we, and all beings and things, are empty of inherent, enduring self-nature.” But this description is so inadequate to convey what we end up understanding. We could also say “we see that things-just-as-they-are, without the filter of our self-concern, are precious.” Or we could say “we see that there is only this moment, and this moment is free from suffering.”
Intellectual understanding of these descriptions or faithful belief in these descriptions, do not convey the release from suffering that the Buddha found. They must be personally and directly experienced for that to occur and once they are personally and directly experienced we are forever changed, but no experience in the past conveys lasting release from suffering either. Perhaps when you hear It – the Great Matter, Prajna Paramita (Transcendental Wisdom), Enlightenment, Emptiness, Suchness – you recall the spacious, unself-conscious feeling you experience in the wilderness. That’s not It. Perhaps you think of the “zone” you get into while doing a body practice or artistic activity. That’s not It. Perhaps you think of how vast space is, or how we are made up mostly of space, between our tiny atomic particles. That’s not It. Perhaps you think of how everything changes, so you can’t really draw a boundary around who you are. That’s not It. Perhaps you think of how it is impossible to trace all the causes and conditions and beings that brought you the meal you eat, and how dependent you are on all these different aspects of the universe. That’s not It.
Now, it would be good for all of us, myself included, if I left you with that message and shut up. But in the West, especially in Soto Zen, they explain things. It is the gentle way. It is so easy to be satisfied with just an intellectual understanding. It is so easy to fool ourselves that ours is not just an intellectual understanding – after all, if it is associated with emotions, it’s not just intellectual, right? It is so easy to allow what was once a real experience to devolve into a mere memory, a mere view. Most of us walk around with a largely intellectual understanding of It. As Dogen would say, we are “playing in the entrance way.” This is why Zen Masters through the ages have pulled out all the stops and done all kinds of strange things to try and wake their students up from their dreams. They yanked their students’ noses, offered riddles, put slippers on their heads. What is that about? Some kind of ridiculous code? A contest to see who was least inhibited? No. It says Right Here, Right Now, Do You See? In a sense it doesn’t matter what is said or done to express it; if both people can experience It, the arrows have met in mid-air. This is extremely important. There is no god in Buddhism that is going to condemn us or even be disappointed in us because we just play in the entrance way. But what a shame.
But thinking you do not understand is just as bad. When I think like that, I am here, and understanding is over there – in that [other person’s] head, or in the past, or in the future. This can be one of the most painful beliefs. It can also be one of the biggest obstacles. We are intimate with It every moment of every day. It is never anywhere else. We experience the perfection of wisdom when we stop looking anywhere else. When the Zen Master comes and challenges us, we answer her in kind. Perhaps we say, “Yes! Buddha caught the pillow!” Perhaps we throw the pillow back. Perhaps we laugh. But the challenge does not send us off in our minds to abstractions or memories, concepts, images, metaphors or teachings. We know the Buddha is nowhere else, and have dropped the self-concern that wonders how “I” relate to Buddha.
Being at home with oneself like that is an immense relief from suffering. We must struggle to understand, unfortunately there are no shortcuts. But what we do in that struggle is exhaust all of our dreams until finally there is no place left to go. Then we see It is something we have understood all along. We just didn’t know what kind of understanding to look for. And a final note – having answered the Zen master’s challenge one day does not mean we will be able to do so the next. This is not an understanding that is of any use to us in the past.
To understand what is meant by “Buddha Nature,” we can look at the story of the three turnings of the wheel of Dharma taught by Shakyamuni Buddha. The first turning of the Dharma wheel is the four noble truths: that discontent arises from grasping the ever-changing phenomena of body and mind as “me,” and that freedom from this discontent is revealed through the path of not grasping anything as truly me. The four noble truths is a kind of deconstruction method. However, in this first turning, all the different elements that we can deconstruct this person into really do exist. Earth, wind, fire and water, for example: those kind of physical elements, when you break them down into their smallest bits, are indestructible elemental energies or physical matter, atoms. Early Buddhists, who were first turning exponents, had this kind of theory—that the world is made up of atoms—several centuries B.C., long before modern scientists discovered atoms. We don’t really exist as independent “persons”; we are a conglomeration of all this stuff that we think is a real “me,” but if we look closely, we only find atoms. This turning of the Dharma wheel was only the first.
The second turning of the Dharma wheel was fearlessly proclaimed in the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras, in which the deconstruction project goes even further. Here, not only is there no real “me,” but there are also no four noble truths, and, sorry to say, there are not even any atoms. There aren’t any particles or elements of mind, not even eyes, ears, nose, tongue or body, or colors, sounds, smells, tastes, touch, or objects of mind; all the things that were such wonderful elements to deconstruct the person into in the first turning can no longer be grasped as existent, because to do so would get in the way of our complete freedom. Sometimes this second turning is said to be the relinquishment, or letting go, of all fixed reference points. Anything can be a reference point: atoms, earth, fire, wind, all the different mental elements of mind; in the end there’s nothing that can be found in an essentially existent state. All that appears is merely a construction of mind; mental imputations build on previous mental imputations, and in the end nothing whatsoever can actually be found. Ultimately, when we actually try to find an atom or anything else, we can see something there, we can feel and taste lots of things, but at the very essence of it, we can’t find anything truly existing.
The second turning of the Dharma wheel traditionally involves concentrated analysis and logical reasoning to convince our very confident mind that actually nothing can really be found; this is the amazing but challenging project of Nagarjuna. Such reasoning takes a lot of effort, applied again and again, to really undermine our beliefs, because we go about our day quite confidently thinking that things can be found. We believe that the road we walk on is really made up of little asphalt molecules, but the second turning is about breaking down that confidence so that actually the road that seems to be supporting us can’t be found, and even the asphalt molecules can’t be found. That might sound kind of disturbing; why would we want to undermine our confidence that we can walk on the road? It is somewhat painful to hold the unconscious belief that the road will support us, even though such pain is rarely noticed. But the point is that much greater forms of pain are based on exactly the same principle: that we believe what appears to us is truly existent and therefore we can’t help but grasp onto it or try to get away from it.
Finally, the third turning of the Dharma wheel is the way mind is originally free from all fixed reference points and at the same time is luminously clear and aware; this is also called Buddha Nature. Not only does Buddha Nature not require analytical reasoning to prove, but it can’t really be proved by analytical reasoning. We might think that’s a relief, since maybe then we can skip the difficult second turning work of studying Nagarjuna’s deconstructive logic and so on, and just enter the third turning of Buddha Nature, immanent and already complete. That may be possible, since anything is possible, especially from the point of view of the third turning. But generally it’s said that to approach the realization of this naturally present, already perfect Buddha Nature, it’s very helpful to first wholeheartedly engage in the step of deconstructing everything into vast unfindability, to relinquish all reference points. Otherwise we may not be able to appreciate the full extent of Buddha Nature, or even more problematic, we might consciously or unconsciously make Buddha Nature into a reference point and get at least a little hold on it and use that to maintain our sense of security that “at least there’s this!” If nothing else, we can at least have this thing called Buddha Nature. But Buddha Nature is not a thing, and especially not a thing we can have. When the ancient Zen teacher Zhaozhou was asked if a dog has Buddha Nature, he said, “no.”
Traditionally what we mean by “Buddha,” fully realized Buddha, is when Buddha Nature is fully revealed, free from all obscurations. It’s hard to say anything about what Buddha is without limiting it, but Buddha is free from this consciousness with which we’re aware of everything right now, this consciousness that’s seeing appearances of phenomena and aware of what’s happening as events outside of itself. This dualistic consciousness that appears to be split into subject and object cannot fully realize Buddha. So Buddha is already unimaginable, right? However, in the Zen tradition, it is said that this very mind is Buddha. This is not the dualistic mind as we know it, but the uncontrived true nature of mind, also called “ordinary mind.” This consciousness right now that appears as subject and object is actually completely empty of any fixed reference points. If we look for this mind itself, when we turn the light of awareness around to shine back on mind itself… Ah! It’s hard to find anything there.
So the fruition of the path in the third turning is not just nothingness, but a Buddha that is infinite compassion. It is the inconceivable inseparability of emptiness and compassionate awareness, complete openness to all. That is not mere negation—its infinite compassion with infinite skillful means to help beings in an infinite variety of ways, beings that are not objects outside of this awareness. Buddha, without moving a particle or going anywhere, without any effort or even intention, can immediately and completely liberate countless beings in infinite realms simultaneously. That’s not nothing! But it’s also not something; it’s completely inconceivable.
One great benefit of trusting in Buddha Nature is that it’s a cure for discouragement in our practice. Nagarjuna, who is mostly a second turning teacher, wrote a few short third turning treatises as well, and one says something like, “Since Buddha Nature is present, one can work hard and find pure gold hidden in rock. But if Buddha Nature is not here, even if one were to work hard, one would only get tired.” Buddha Nature is always here, but just obscured. Our normal dualistic thought is like clouds obscuring the vast clear sky of Buddha Nature, but occasionally there’s a little hole in the cloud, a glimpse of a small spot of clear sky. From that glimpse we can infer that there’s a huge unobstructed clear sky behind the clouds. From the point of view of the sky, the clouds don’t even obstruct it in any way; the sky has no problem with clouds floating through it.
Another benefit in trusting in Buddha Nature is that it can undermine our tendency to praise self and belittle others, since all beings, even cockroaches, are equally inseparable from Buddha Nature. It’s quite humbling actually. And of course Buddha Nature is not exclusive to Buddhism. You don’t have to be Buddhist to have it! Cockroaches aren’t Buddhist! Buddha Nature is not diminished at all when it manifests as a confused living being. It’s not improved in the slightest in its expression of an infinitely compassionate Buddha. Buddha Nature doesn’t ever change. A fully realized Buddha seems to be different from us sentient beings, but the Buddha Nature is identical. That’s one of the most miraculous qualities of this nature, that it never changes from beginning to end, and therefore it’s unconstructed, unconditioned, it’s not born, it doesn’t die, it’s not impermanent, it doesn’t come and go, but it’s not permanent either because it’s not some thing. It is simply the inconceivable inseparability of emptiness and compassionate awareness, shining forth right here and now.
Credits: Kokyo Henkel