Another take on emptiness
A central concept in early Buddhism is dependent origination - the idea that everything we experience arises based on causes and conditions. In some places in the early teachings, dependent origination is spelt out more fully in terms of twelve 'links', each of which provides a supporting condition for the next; the second link is sankhara, 'fabrication', which is said to lead to consciousness itself.
But what does it mean for consciousness to be dependent on fabrication?
A modern take on fabrication and sensory experience
Take a moment to look around you. Without having to make any effort at all, you can see what's around you - if you're indoors, you can see walls, floor, ceiling, screen, furniture and so forth; if you're outside, you can see sky, ground, maybe trees, buildings, roads. It seems to be totally obvious that our eyesight gives us direct access to the real world 'out there', while our thoughts live inside our heads as a private experience, probably happening somewhere in our brains.
But is this really the case? Are the eyes really like little windows, pointing out at the external world? If they are, who or what is looking out of those windows? Is there a little person behind our eyeballs seeing what's going on - and, if so, does that little person also have eyes, and if so who's looking out of those? This gets weird pretty fast.
The modern scientific worldview has given us a more detailed picture of what happens when we see something. Light bounces off objects in the world, and that reflected light enters our eyeballs, is focused by the tiny lens in the eye, and hits the retina on the back of the eyeball. That stimulates activity in the optic nerve, which is then transmitted as a signal into the brain, leading to activity in the visual cortex. As a result of this brain activity, we see the world.
The important part is that last, rather hand-wavy, step - as a result of this brain activity, we see the world. The point here is that our experience is the result of brain activity, as opposed to being somehow a 'direct' or 'pure' perception of what's 'really out there'. In fact, it's relatively easy to convince ourselves that this is the case. Colour-blind people see a slightly different 'outside world' to the one most people do. (You can probably distinguish between certain shades of green and blue that look the same to me - your world literally has more colours in it than mine.) We also know that range of possible frequencies of light is much wider than the human visual range, and that there are animals capable of perceiving light (and hence 'colours', since the subjective experience of colour corresponds to the objective measurement of the frequency of light) that is 'invisible' to us.
But wait, there's more! It isn't simply that the brain is doing some work to reproduce an image of the world around us. It's also interpreting the information that's coming in - it's making sense of what we're seeing, constructing (or fabricating) a representation which means something to us.
Consider the following classic optical illusion. Is the picture on the right two faces, or a vase?
(Image by John Smithson, 2007, at English Wikipedia. Media licence: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs, otherwise I'd have cropped out the left-hand image...)
Notice that you can persuade your perception to flip back and forth between the two - in other words, you can 'see' the image either as faces or as a vase. If we simply saw objective reality exactly as it is, we wouldn't see either a vase or faces - it's just a white shape surrounded by a black shape. Instead, however, your brain is doing something much more interesting - it's trying to make sense of what it's seeing, matching those shapes to patterns that it already understands and has a name for. The tricky bit is that the image in this case is ambiguous - it matches two different patterns, faces and vase, and so the brain isn't entirely sure how to represent what it's seeing. Hence, with just a tiny bit of effort, we can flip back and forth from one interpretation to the other.
So take a moment to reflect on this. Everything you see is not simply 'what's out there', but it's actually the result of a complex process of data-gathering and interpretation, all of which is happening rapidly and unconsciously. Your conscious experience is the product of that whole process - usually, the details of the process itself are completely hidden from your view, and it's only when we encounter something like an optical illusion that we get a glimpse behind the curtain.
And, of course, this applies to the whole of sensory experience, not just sight. Everything that we see, hear and feel, both internally and externally, is like this. Everything is the product of mental activity - everything is fabricated.
A brief aside on emptiness, and the metaphysical implications of recognising the fabricated nature of experience
It's perhaps worth noting, especially if this way of talking about experience works for you, that this also gives us a modern-language way to understand the later Buddhist concept of 'emptiness'. When you see something described as 'empty', you can understand that as 'mental representation', or even 'product of brain activity'. Absolutely 100% of everything we experience is 'empty', precisely because our experience is the product of brain activity - everything, bar nothing, is part of that mental representation. There is nothing outside of that, because that is our experience.
One possible objection (which was recently raised by the popular Zen teacher Brad Warner on his YouTube video channel) is that I'm explaining things in terms of brain, eyeballs, optic nerves and so on - but, actually, all of those things arise within experience as well. It turns out that we actually have no real evidence that anything exists objectively at all. All we know of the world is what we experience, and we can't actually step outside of that experience to view it 'objectively'. We can't even fully trust what other people tell us, because - once again - we only know those people through our experience. So if you want to be hardcore about it - and traditional Buddhism has often taken a strong stance on this - even my brain-based explanation assumes way too much, and all we can really say is that whether or not there's anything beyond this experience is totally unknowable.
Personally, I tend to think there probably is a world out there. It makes sense to me, and it also provides some motivation for acting ethically, which is important to me. If it's 'all in my mind', who cares whether I'm kind or cruel, generous or stingy, compassionate or hateful? For me, it's much more meaningful to act as though the outside world really does exist, whilst at the same time recognising that what I experience of it can never be anything more (or less) than a mental representation.
OK, but who cares?
The single biggest challenge with emptiness is that, even after wrapping your head around the basic concepts, it still isn't obvious why you should care. OK, so we experience a mental representation instead of an objective world - but so what? Why does it matter?
Because it changes everything.
If our experience were simply a direct encounter with objective fact, we'd be stuck with it - because that's just how it is. But when we see our experience as the product of mental activity - as fabrication - it opens the door to perceiving things differently. (In fact, you've already seen an example of this, with the vase/faces - by flipping back and forth from one view to the other, you are fabricating your experience differently.) And this raises an interesting prospect - how can we fabricate differently, in such a way that our experience of the world is improved? In fact, you can look at the world's great spiritual traditions as each promoting a particular kind of fabrication: if you come to see the world in these terms, fabricating the world in this way, you will experience the benefits associated with that view. (Usually, this is dressed up as 'we will tell you The Truth', of course.)
At the most basic level, the more 'real' we experience something to be, the more difficult it is to do anything about it - because that's just how it is. If a strong negative emotion comes up - a feeling of hopelessness, let's say - and it's experienced as completely real, it will tend to have a strong 'sticky' quality that makes it very hard to escape. Of course it's hopeless, that's just how it is. There's no point trying to talk myself out of it, that's just how things are. But if we can see it as fabricated, it ceases to be an immutable fact, and becomes simply part of the brain's representation of a situation - most likely there are some important circumstances going on right now which really need some attention, and as a result of that the brain is generating this strong emotion to convey information to the organism as a whole. As we make the shift from 'this is how I am, that's just how it is' to 'this is something which I am experiencing', it turns out that we experience an almost immediate reduction in suffering. By noticing the fabricated nature of the emotion, it loses some of its power over us - without suppressing the emotion, denying its presence, or losing access to the information contained within it.
So let's run through a series of what might be called 'vantage points' - different ways of relating to (and fabricating) our experience, the drawbacks of those vantage points, and how we can see their fabricated nature in order to move beyond them.
One pretty common vantage point is to be totally identified with thought. We are our thoughts; if we have a good thought, we're a good person, and if we have a bad thought, uh oh. Furthermore, thinking is how we engage with the world - 'think about the breath' and 'pay attention to the breath' are synonymous for us. A drawback of this vantage point is that we often struggle to control our thoughts, and they cause us a lot of pain.
In order to move beyond this, we might take up a mindfulness practice, where we focus our attention on the breath, and notice our thoughts coming and going in the background. Over time we realise that a thought is a discrete event which arises and passes away, in much the same way that sounds and body sensations come and go. We see that we are not our thoughts; that thoughts are simply another part of what we experience. Another approach - characteristic of the Dzogchen tradition - is to look for the gap between thoughts, and when you find yourself there, notice what that experience is like. When you aren't thinking anything, what happens? Who and what are you in that moment, without thought to tell you who you are?
A key point here is that we're not talking about getting rid of thoughts forever. We step outside of thought in order to see that we are not our thoughts; but if we can recognise the emptiness of our thoughts, it's no problem to have them come up. Personally, I quite like my thoughts - at least some of them - and I wouldn't want them to go away permanently (although you can find people who do promote the total extinction of thought as a spiritual practice). The shift I'm talking about is to relate to our thoughts differently - as fabrications, just something else coming and going in the field of experience, not us at all.
If we can dis-identify from our thoughts, we might move to a vantage point where we are identified with our 'self' in some way - I am my personality, for example. Thoughts may come and go, but behind it all I'm this kind of person - I do these kinds of things, I can't do those kinds of things. While this is definitely a subjective improvement over identification with thoughts, it also has some drawbacks - it tends to be self-limiting (there are things I can't do, so there's no point trying) and can bring up a lot of stress (what happens if I fail at something I should be able to do?).
To move beyond this, we can continue with our mindfulness practice, and notice that it isn't just thoughts that come and go; actually everything that we identify as ourselves comes and goes. Body sensations, emotions, thoughts, inclinations, even consciousness itself are all subject to arising and passing. A classic meditative experience at this point is what's usually called the 'Witness' - a sense that who we really are is a disembodied point of observation, the 'one who knows'. We are not the experienced, but we are the experiencer.
(Again, the point here is not to eradicate the self for all time, and wander round vacantly, unable to remember our own name. The point is to see that the self, too, is a fabrication, as opposed to something ultimately real.)
Within this Witness vantage point, however, we often find ourselves continuing to buy into subtler fabrications, such as time and space. These, too, can be seen to be empty, and with that seeing comes an even deeper freedom from suffering. As meditation practice deepens, we may come to realise that our sense of time passing is a construction, based on comparing present-moment experience with recent and more distant memories, or even that the idea of 'the present moment' is a kind of fabrication which relies on a 'past' and 'future' to be coherent; instead, we find ourselves inhabiting a timeless 'Now'. Similarly, we notice that our sense of being located in a three-dimensional space (perhaps inside a room with the rest of the world outside) is a fabrication which can drop away, leaving us with just a sense of all-inclusive 'Here'. As the sense of location and motion due to time and space fall away, we can touch into experiences of profound stillness, a stillness which appears to be behind, around and even within everything we experience.
And even within this more rarefied vantage point, we may still find ourselves holding on to some of the deepest, most fundamental fabrications: the sense of duality, division or separation between 'this' and 'that'; a continuing sense of subtle identity (that 'I am this timeless boundless space of awareness'); that Awareness is a thing, separate from that which is perceived; or that awareness has a central point from which it emanates. We can move beyond this vantage point through exploring precisely those remaining features in our experience which appear to be so basic, so inarguably real, that it seems inconceivable that they could be challenged at all, let alone seen through - and yet they can.
The deepest of all vantage points is to truly see that everything is fabricated. Many spiritual traditions have practices which are intended to bring about very deep experiences - of 'pure awareness', of 'cessation' - which can show us the fabricated nature of our experience first-hand. The drawback of this approach is that people can become attached to the experiences, and spend their days practising cessation of consciousness 'because that's Nibbana', while on the relative level their lives are a mess. Emphasising particular experiences can also set up a lot of craving for people who haven't had the experience - and, ultimately, the experiences themselves are not actually necessary, even if they can be helpful. What's most important is the understanding - the realisation that everything is fabricated.
We'll talk more about how to work practically with fabrication in next week's article. For now, though, a fun exercise is to work through the vantage points described above and see which ones you can adopt. Some may be relatively obvious, some may sound totally delusional and impossible, and maybe there's a middle ground where you can kinda see what I'm talking about. That middle ground is the 'edge' of your practice, and that's where you want to be spending most of your time - exploring, investigating, looking to see if it's really as 'real' as it appears, or whether this, too, could be fabricated.
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!