The Emptiness of Everything — watching the workings of our mind, and noticing how we try to invent meanings, and how doing this gets us into trouble, is the point of the Heart Sutra
Last week I did a riff on death and “gone.” And I mentioned that the line I quoted was from the Heart Sutra, a key Buddhist text.
Much like many things Buddhist, the concepts are tricky and counter-intuitive.
Rather than get into a line-by-line analysis, let me instead toss out some more global interpretations. This curious things in this Sutra have to do with emptiness, dependent origin, and that bodhi, or enlightenment, has to do with being present, rather than “understanding.”
We’ve had quite the few weeks worldwide, what with terrorism, Brexit, the killing of two men by police, and the killing of 5 police officers by an assassin with an automatic rifle.
I really worked at writing that sentence, by the way, as a “reporting,” rather than adding in personal judgements.
My first go at it, I wrote, “… by a nut-bar with an automatic rifle.” The nut-bar part is the imposition of me on the situation. Which is what the Heart Sutra addresses.
Because we are so proud of our reasoning abilities, we take it as gospel that we can understand, or make sense out of, that which is before us.
“If only we could figure out (fill in the blank.)” “If only you would see it my way…”
It’s not like this is the first time through this topic for us, but here goes. The concept of emptiness might just be the Buddha’s greatest insight… if there was such a thing as greatest, and if my opinion has anything to do with anything. And that’s the point.
When we look at the first line of the Heart Sutra, and read, as it is usually translated, “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form,” it’s easy to go “huh?”
The first time I came across this, way back in a religion class at Elmhurst College, circa 1968, I know I was puzzled. And being who I appeared to be back then, (as far as anyone is anything…) being a white, 17-year-old liberal Christian, my “belief” was, “Yikes! Those Buddhists were kinda dumb. No wonder their religion isn’t as good as my religion.”
Emptiness goes with dependent origin
The idea being presented is that nothing has a pure essence. Nothing has a meaning. One way of saying that is,
“Everything is related to something else, so therefore one cannot attribute a fixed meaning to anything.”
So, emptiness means that things do not have fixed, clear, precise “meanings.”
Illustrations abound. Take size. You look at a van, and say “big car!” But compared to what? A Prius? A Hummer? Clearly, the size is relative to something else. This is the dependent origin part. The van’s size, for example is not a fixed quantity; it’s not “big, small,” etc. As we can say is, “That van certainly is!” Or, “That specific van is bigger than a Prius and smaller than a Hummer.”
The Buddha’s great insight about all of this was developed as he studied the workings of his mind. Let me describe this again.
We come into the world as tabula rasa (blank slates.) Over the years, we are taught… well… everything. And we are initially taught to label.
Which is handy. Knowing which mushroom to eat is a good thing. Knowing my name is Wayne is a good thing, especially when being called for dinner. Knowing that I am an individual and not an undifferentiated mass is helpful.
And labelling–being able to place our van in between a Prius and a Hummer as regards size–is necessary to do science, for example. So the issue is not “labelling” per se.
The problem comes when we add judgements to labels.
- All (fill in the blank FITB) are bad.
- People with (FITB) can’t be trusted.
- Women who (FITB) are heartless.
Now, these stereotypes (which are often accurate in general, but useless specifically) are taught to us. We don’t develop them naturally. Depending upon how were were brought up, we either hold them gently, or rigidly.
Example: Costa Ricans (in general, see above) tend to hold dim views of Nicaraguans. They’re not blatantly racist, but many have negative judgements. Also, Nicaragua is not viewed well by many from the US of A. While considered one of the safest countries in Central America, many warn that the country is overrun with ladrons (thieves.)
I just presented a global stereotype about an entire country, or class of people.
It may or may not be true, but it is prevalent. However…
We just spent our second week in Nicaragua, and I can say, (from personal experience,) that every Nicaraguan we met was kind, interesting… and we didn’t get robbed even once. 😉
So, I can hold the stereotype in my head, and we can use it to make a decision to take a cab after dark, without tarring even one Nicaraguan with the stereotype.
Because stereotypes aren’t true. They’re just mental constructs.
The Buddha wanted us to watch ourselves as we create such games in our head. He wanted us to notice our labels, and then how we rush to judge (to ascribe meaning,) and especially our rush to demonize. He wanted us to understand that not one thing, including us, can be permanently defined and therefore nothing can be considered to be a fixed entity.
This is difficult, because one of the greatest stereotypes of all is that we can actually figure things out. That our brains are so powerful, and our instincts so acute, that we know the truth of things.
We don’t. Because without a huge effort, we are mostly the sum of our prejudices.
The game starts when we decide that something “isn’t right.” Rather than stop right there and begin to rigorously examine our belief (“Why am I choosing to upset myself over this?”) we move to “wrong,” and then look for someone to blame.
Or, if we have “low self-esteem,” we go to “Why do I always attract losers?”
Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.
The situation (the form) is just what is in front of us. Even though it’s hard to accept, the situation is empty of meaning. The meaning is provided by us, and us alone. Even in a crowd or mob, there is no consensus, other than the decision to remain and participate. Each person in a crowd is there for their own, unique reasons.
If we were to allow ourselves to remember this insight, we would never be in conflict over meaning.
We would see that every situation is unique, and how I respond is all I have control over. I can’t control others. Ever.
Now, some find this a pessimistic view–an existential, meaningless universe view. It isn’t; because no matter what, I can choose my next move.
But I can never understand. I can get a handle on the process I go through to decide, but I’ll never really understand why I chose as I did. And as to understanding others…
A Few Stories
1) I once worked with a guy just after his brother committed suicide. He started therapy with, “I have to understand why he did it.” I spent 10 minutes explaining the impossibility of that task.
First, as the brother was dead, all we could do is guess at his motives. And since he wasn’t there, our guesses would have everything to do with me and with my client–and nothing to do with the brother.
Next, we’d have to be able to enter the brother’s mind to understand; in a sense, we’d have to have lived his life, in order to even begin to understand. And of course that’s impossible.
Last, even if the brother could somehow describe his thinking, all he would be telling is the story he was telling in that moment. Not why he did it back then–why, later on, he thought he did it.
2) A friend wrote that she wanted her ex to “do what’s best for our daughters.” I challenged her on this, as it’s the same thing. How would she know what is best for her daughters? By what they tell her? If so, do they ever change their minds? (Hint: of course they do, as do we all. We make decision based upon what we want in the moment, and have no clue if what we want is “best” in the long run. We only understand “best” retroactively.)
What she actually means by her sentence is: “I want my ex to do what I’ve decided is best for our daughters.” Or, precisely, “I want my ex to do what I want him to do, when I want him to do it, and to agree that it’s actually in the best interest of our daughters.”
I challenged her on her thinking. Remarkably 😉 she never responded.
Her daughters, her self, her ex, all are empty. There is no “best.” There is only, “The story I am telling myself.” The only way to determine “best” would be if we could see into the future, and we can’t.
We don’t want to believe this. We want to think that the way we see and then interpret things is “true, right, and best.” We pretend that we can know all of this because we have seen through to the essence of the subject or object. But… but… the object or subject is empty of meaning.
3) Our lovely niece is getting married in September, and Darbella and I have been asked to MC. We got a preliminary schedule of events. She wrote to ask for suggestions, stating “I don’t have a clue about receptions.”
I noticed that the first dance and the cake cutting were scheduled right after the entrance of the wedding party. Taking the clueless part as a guide, I wrote and suggested that the cutting belonged around dessert time, and the first dance immediately preceded… well… dancing.
I got back a, “Well, that’s how it’s being done these days” response.
My back went up a tad. I started thinking, “I spent 10 years photographing weddings, and 20 years conducting them! I know how this should go!”
I almost e‑mailed her, but then had a breath. I noticed how I was reacting to being challenged, an old pattern for me. Noticed how I was trying to lump her behaviour into a “niece stereotype.”
Instead of reacting, I got curious. I Googled it. Sure enough, some weddings follow this procedure; they figure the b & g are walking in to cheers (really??) and might as go dance (more cheers, apparently) and then whack the cake.
Other wedding schedules have it as I remember.
Now, what’s “right?”
Wedding receptions are empty of meaning, and therefore empty of “correct, or right.” They are whatever they are.
In any event, since the reception (and our niece) is empty of “right and wrong,” and it is her day, sure, let’s do it the way she wants. Even if it makes no sense to me. How could it? I’m not her.
But remember, I almost got pissed off about it!
This is not to say that I was or am wrong to have thoughts about the things I confront. It’s to say that my thoughts are just thoughts. I want to remember to ask myself: are my thoughts conducive to my goals?
If I seek peace, calmness, and presence, well… having judgements all over the place, and acting on them, might not be helpful. Instead, I might become more awake just watching myself have the judgements, and then have a laugh when I try to go further and start to make others “evil” for having judgements that do not match my own.
Because whatever we are judging has no true reality or meaning about it. My judgement is just that: mine.
My situation is just that: mine.
I actually have no problem with people who have strong opinions. I relish a good debate. The only time I get into trouble is when I start judging the other person to be “wrong… then malicious… then evil.”
Thus, as we watch the world seemingly fall apart (a story or judgement on my part) I can hate… despise… the things I see happening, and vow never to engage thusly. (Of course, I won’t know what I’ll actually do until I am in that situation…) But to self-righteously hold myself up as better than “those people” is to perpetuate the game that caused the conflict in the first place.
I don’t need to endlessly declare myself to be “right” or “better.” I can choose to stay present, and act in accordance with my beliefs.
Examine your beliefs and certainties, and see if you can hold them a bit lighter. Think about how you “be” in the world, and work toward consistency.
And remember, it’s all just what it is. Empty, and yet, somehow, right there, looking back at you.
It is you. All of it.