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September 8, 2014 full moon

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Some (mostly secular) thoughts about Emptiness

By Gay Watson

This article emerges from a paper presented at last year’s conference at BCBS on Secular Buddhism, which in turn arose from a period spent writing a book on A Philosophy of Emptiness. This entailed a largely non-Buddhist and widespread consideration of concepts of emptiness from Taoism and Buddhism, through Greek thought, Christian mystics and Romantics to the contemporary world of science, philosophy and art practice. Here I will concentrate on ideas of emptiness in Buddhist teachings and their relevance and interest to present times and contexts.i

Emptiness in Early Buddhism

Interestingly the actual terms emptiness or empty are rarely to be found in the suttas and the teachings of Early Buddhism where the emphasis is strongly on anattā or not-self. The three critical marks of existence are presented as impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and emptiness of self. Many numerical models such as the five aggregates and the various links of dependent origination describe the compounded and constructed nature of the self. All of these models are attempts to desolidify our sense of self–to turn us towards an understanding of it as verb rather than noun–as process rather than product. They do not challenge our sense of continuity and subjectivity but do challenge the belief that the self is singular, unchanging and independent rather than constructed, changeable and relational. The sense of self that is to be negated and emptied out is an illusion. It is the imposition of identity with attributes of independence and permanence on the foundation of the transactional or processual self that is dependently originated from the interaction of causes and conditions.

For of all the things that evoke desire, aversion and ignorance, the self is the most central and the most pernicious. From the Buddhist perspective ignorance arises when our process of selfing, a self that is continuous in the process of becoming, is grasped and identified with as an isolated permanent entity. From identification with a solid sense of self we create a world from that centre. From this ignorant cognitive misperception of self we add the emotional reinforcements of desire and hatred. What fortifies this self-image is desired, what threatens is evaded and above all, we mostly remain in a dense ignorance of what we are doing and how we are doing it. I think, by paying close attention to our own experience, it is pretty easy to see how this works–how we are attracted to what solidifies our sense of self and identity and how we push away and defend ourselves from anything that threatens. Another Buddhist teaching shows how this process of solidifying the self acts in three main ways both emotionally and intellectually: through craving expressed in the linguistic form “This is mine”; through conceit demonstrated by “This I am”; and cognitively through holding onto false views of self expressed as “this is myself.” In the Mulapariyāya Sutta (first sutta of Majjhima Nikāya) the Buddha goes through the ways that the ordinary man contemplates the four elements, fire, water, earth and air and the stages of meditation. Contemplating each, the ignorant person imposes him or herself onto each, considering it “mine.” In contrast, awakened beings see each element directly, free from the need to impose themselves or their sense of possession on them. This says the Buddha is due to the destruction of desire, hatred and ignorance. Liberation.

In another sutta in which the actual word empty is used, the concept of emptiness of self and of world are noted and conjoined. Ananda asks the Buddha “Venerable sir, it is said, “Empty is the world, empty is the world.” In what way is it said empty is the world.” And he receives this reply: “It is, Ananda, because it is empty of self and of what belongs to self that it is said, “Empty is the world.”ii

There are also two suttas in the Pali canon that, unusually for Early Buddhist texts, use the word emptiness in their titles: the longer and shorter Discourses on Emptiness. The word is used in a somewhat different sense from that of later Mahayana teachings. Here it is specifically related to meditation: emptiness is not related to a philosophical idea so much as a practice, to an undisturbed physical space in which attention can be nurtured. However it does emphasise the double aspect of emptiness. Within formal stages of meditation the monk is said to regard each stage as “void of what is not there, but with regard to what remains, he understands that which is present as “this is present.” This is said to be “genuine,” undistorted pure descent into voidness.” What remains are the six sense fields of a living body. Such an admonition, to see what is not there and also what remains, is one that we should carefully consider when discussing emptiness.

There is another source of consideration of emptiness in the four eight-verse poems from the Atthakavagga (The Book of Eights) of the Sutta Nipata, a text that Stephen Batchelor has called “the ur-text on emptiness.” Here we are told that nowhere does an awakened one hold contrived views of is and is not. Such a person sees all views as empty of ultimacy. Batchelor describes such a one as a “priest without borders.”

"Rothko No 14" by Notnarayan - Own work. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
“Rothko No 14″ by Notnarayan – Own work. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

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August 10, 2014
Neuro-Bhavana: The Mindful Cultivation of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom
A video series with Rick Hanson

July 12, 2014
The Evolving Sangha
Talking with Jay Michaelson

June 13, 2014
Awareness of Thinking: Recollective Awareness Practice
Talking with Jason Siff

May 14, 2014
Jhāna Practice and True Happiness
Talking with Shaila Catherine

April 15, 2014
Natural Buddhism
By Gil Fronsdal

March 16, 2014
How is the Medium Changing the Message?
By Ken McLeod

February 14, 2014
Buddhist Roots & Ethics
Talking with Lynn Monteiro & Frank Musten

January 15, 2014
Silent Illumination
By Guo Gu

December 17, 2013
New Horizons: Talking with Andrew Olendzki

November 17, 2013
Not Knowing, Bearing Witness, & Compassionate Action
Robert Chodo Campbell and Koshin Paley Ellison

October 18, 2013
Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening
a conversation with Joseph Goldstein

September 19, 2013
MIT Meets the Monastery
a conversation with Rajesh Kashturirangan

August 20, 2013
Secular Buddhism: New vision or yet another of the myths it claims to cure?
By Akincano Weber

July 22, 2013
The Essence of Dhamma
By Ajaan Thanissaro

June 23, 2013
Seeing the Āsavas
By Gloria Taraniya Ambrosia

May 25, 2013
Meeting your thoughts at a resting place
By Jason Siff

April 25, 2013
New rivers, new rafts
By Chris Talbott

March 27, 2013
Wheels of Fire: The Buddha’s Radical Teaching on Process
By Kate Lila Wheeler

February 25, 2013
True & False: Dharma After the Western Enlightenment
Talking with Rita Gross

January 26, 2013
Honoring a Life & Legacy in the Dhamma
Talking with Mirka Knaster about Munindra

See Archive page for some older editions.