Saturday, April 26, 2014

Emptiness: A Word Doodle

Emptiness is something I have experienced all my life though I only attributed the word to the experience after my initial exposure to Buddhism in college.  Emptiness, as I mean it here, is a particularly Buddhist project and it is the single most important aspect of Buddhism infused into my personal spirituality.

Appreciating and incorporating Emptiness is tricky because it is so easily misunderstood.  My own understanding of it has shifted and evolved through the years.  The connotation of the word "empty" is more negative than positive in our western way of appreciation.  For that reason it is best to begin with what emptiness is not before proceeding to what it is and how it can positively affect the Lifeworld.

Emptiness is not nothingness.  That Emptiness is a fundamental part of human Being does not mean things are illusions or pointless or even less inspiring.  Zen master Shunryu Suzuki clarifies: "I do not mean voidness. There is something, but that something is something which is always prepared for taking some particular form."  The way human beings experience things is essentially empty.  This true insight is incredibly sobering but it need not be bleak.  An article by Buddhist writer and teacher Louis Richmond explains: "The Heart Sutra says, 'all phenomena in their own-being are empty.' It doesn't say 'all phenomena are empty.' This distinction is vital."  With this I completely agree. Life can be a rich experience fully incorporating Emptiness, if human beings understand and accept the fundamental empty nature of tangible things.

Dainin Katagiri explains the positive practical side of this basic human possibility: "Emptiness is that which enables us to open our eyes to see directly what being is.  If after careful consideration we decide to do something that we believe is the best way, from the beginning to the end we should do our best. We must respect our capability, our knowledge, without comparing ourselves to others, and then use our knowledge and capability and think about how to act.  Very naturally a result will occur.  We should take responsibility for the results of what we have done, but the final goal is that we shouldn't be obsessed with the result, whether good or evil or neutral.  This is called emptiness.  This is the most important meaning of emptiness." (page 49)

There are no essences, that is, no thing of essential nature. Quantum physics has no inward molecular limit.  If you break down any thing into its components, into why you desire it or why you are repelled by it or why you try to possess it or why you want to dominate or submit to whatever it might be, human, animal, intellectual, chemical, biological, emotional, you will find no thing at its core.  The core of every thing is, indeed, empty, even if the thing itself has validity and force in the world.

Mircea Eliade contextualizes it this way: "Everything is 'empty,' without any 'nature of its own'; yet it must not be inferred from this that there is an 'absolute essence' to which sunyata (or nirvana) refers.  When it is said the 'emptiness,' sunyata, is inexpressible, inconceivable, and indescribable, there is no implication that there is in existence a 'transcendent reality' characterized by these attributes. Ultimate truth does not unveil an 'absolute' of the Vedanta type; it is the mode of existence discovered by the adept when he obtains complete indifference toward 'things' and their cessation.  The 'realization,' by thought, of universal emptiness is, in fact, equivalent to deliverance." (page 225)

Far from being a nihilistic way of looking at human experience, Emptiness is, in fact, a key to liberation.  Because things are empty there is no need to grasp, to cling, to want. Because things are empty you can remain present from thing to thing, you do not have to be affected by any thing, yet you are free to explore any thing, to appreciate it, take joy or sadness in it, without lingering upon joy or sadness.  There is no "handle" in any joy or sadness (or any other human experience) for you to carry it along with you.  In this sense you discover the boundless nature of human experience and human freedom because things are empty.

As with most of my word doodle posts, I think the best way to look at this project is to remain in the mundane, everyday realm.  There is a residue of Emptiness in our mundane life that is fairly evident.

Let's take boredom.  Of course you can be bored because you have nothing appealing to do, no inspiring course of action, no challenge of any kind. That is a common boredom, boredom in inactivity. But you can also be bored in activity. Many people find the routine of life boring.  Their job is boring. Their entertainment becomes boring.  The person they are with becomes boring. This form of boredom is the surest proof of Emptiness that I know.  Why should repeat exposure to activities and persons that we once found so appealing and inspiring suddenly become routine and without force in our lives?

It is because we have uncovered their essential nature.  They are empty.  We always find inspiration initially without seeing the Emptiness already present in the inspiration and when this Emptiness becomes more recognizable with continuous exposure through time we experience boredom because we grasp the inspiration as if it were not empty.  How much wiser it is to appreciate the original experience of inspiration or contentment or whatever with persons and things and sensations and yet know it is empty to begin with.  Then boredom can be seen to be a wasteful experience, a truly pointless experience, something we have invented that is actually harmful to our intimate lives.

Boredom, the desire of something new, improved, more intense, the drive to retool, redesign, upgrade are all fundamentally motivated by humanity's tendency to feel euphoric, better than ever, amazed.  And yet, without exception, every moment of amazement and euphoria eventually leads to human beings seeking a new threshold of amazement, a greater inspiration, otherwise we come to feel as if we are in a rut, out of sorts, apathetic, etc. The desire for excitement always seeks to grasp it, to hold it, to fashion it according to the needs and expectations of the individual.

Consumer culture is driven by this fundamental fact. Advertising helps fuel consumer demand for newness, ever-unfolding goods and services of novelty and attraction. Marketing uncovers new sources of desire and directs prospective customers toward specific newness and surprise. Both marketing and advertising, without realizing it specifically, leverage the fundamental empty nature of things to create demand for new goods and services.  Just as Jean-Paul Sartre proclaimed that human beings bring nothingness into the world (page 59), so too does the twin Being of marketing and advertising maximize Emptiness in order the create demand for new goods and services.  Most of American society is based upon this fundamental karmic reality. Fashion, gadgets, and sports are among many market spaces where consumerism generates money by promoting newness as the cure for empty needs and desires.

The motion picture industry is another mundane example. Let's look at special effects.  When the original King Kong movie (1933) came out, movie goers were wowed by what now seems completely mundane and dull to us.  The special effects of 2001 and Star Wars blew our minds but are not so incredible today.  The Matrix raised a new threshold that thrilled us.  Now we expect it as standard.  Avatar took special effects to a new level.  But even now we seek more, more, more, because the experience of special effects in films is empty.  Kong Kong looks shallow and stupid today. It is empty.  It always was.  Emptiness is evidenced by our inability to remain inspired by memories of past experience or to discover it within the present moment.  Our fullness was (and is) temporary. Inevitably we wonder why we ever were that excited about any thing and seek new fullness.

Sure the special effects of the 1933 King Kong are rudimentary, but they were not originally seen that way. Similarly, the Merry-Go-Round is not exactly a thrill ride these days, though it was exciting when it was first introduced. Today's amusement parks have to go high tech, 360 degree turns, faster, faster, massive fireworks, just to draw a crowd. Modern consumer amusement is symptomatic of Emptiness. That does not mean it is not truly thrilling and fun. It just what?  What's the big deal about thrilling and fun? It will fade with time so why grasp it so passionately?   I should take pleasure in each moment (a ride, cotton candy, throwing darts at balloons to win a prize, whatever) as it happens. Just enjoy it without grasping.

There is nothing significant to any of this to begin with.  Sure there is a definable karmic effect.  But by grasping the novelty of it, by holding on to the euphoria itself and by assigning our inner joy to a person, place, or any thing, we are committing a fundamental mistake.  Things can be wonderful but when we cling to them their wonder will fade, we lose the appreciation of context and we experience the actual natural state of things, which we wish to flee from into a new, likewise ultimately inadequate wonder when in fact all of it is empty.  The irony is that only by understanding Emptiness can we attempt to avoid the urge to grasp, to repeat, to possess the moment.  Then we are able to see the moment for what it truly is and find contentment.

Having said all this, I do not subscribe to how far Buddhism takes Emptiness.  Buddhist teachers seem to want to make Being subservient to Emptiness as is evidenced by the Dainin Katagiri quote above.  I do not understand this leap of faith. Just as with Karma I do not see the need to believe in reincarnation, so too I do not see the need to turn Emptiness into a religious tenet as Buddhism does.  Emptiness is a human experience.  That things are actually empty is beyond our ability to connect with in our spectrum of experience.  It assumes human beings can plug into the mainline of experimental reality and I am personally skeptical of this.  The human brain can invent all kinds of "realities" in all kinds of experiential techniques from meditation and prayer to psychotropics and sex.  Even in meditation a person cannot escape their humanity, their limitations.  The highfalutin talk of touching the boundless nature of reality is unnecessary in my opinion to understanding and applying Emptiness to our intimate lives.

The other side of the coin is so what if everything is empty? That does not have to be such a big deal anyway, except that it can be helpful.  Emptiness is not independent of (nor more fundamental than) Being and is, in fact, one unique expression of Being (Eliade calls it a "mode of existence" in the quote above).  I think it is more accurate to view Emptiness as another base ingredient of the Lifeworld, in addition to language and culture and other things.   When the Lifeworld experiences Flow, for example, that is not empty - it is another mode of existence.  Emptiness is different from (but related to) Flow in that Flow can be practiced and nurtured in life.  Emptiness cannot be experienced in this way.  You must discover Emptiness as a priori and incorporate it into your Lifeworld but there are no techniques for "developing" Emptiness, only methods for becoming more aware of its Being.

Emptiness is there whether you experience it or not, Flow is a proactive, intentional project, in some ways equal to Emptiness.  The natural wisdom that comes from seeing Emptiness in your life is proof of its possible benefit to human experience only if we learn to stop grasping things, because the passage of time is like gigantic ocean breakers pounding tall, angular cliffs of stone. Things erode and the Emptiness of them becomes more apparent.  The cliffs are nevertheless there and that is wonderful to behold.

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