The weird world of emptiness teachings, and why you should care
There's a discourse in early Buddhism, Samyutta Nikaya 12.15 (the discourse to Kaccanagotta), which sketches out a view that would ultimately become central to later Buddhism - the mysteriously named 'emptiness'. Let's see what the Buddha had to say about it.
The Venerable Kaccanagotta approached the Blessed One, paid homage to him, sat down to one side, and said to him: “Venerable sir, it is said, ‘right view, right view.’ In what way, venerable sir, is there right view?”
"This world, Kaccana, for the most part depends upon a duality—upon the notion of existence ('it is') and the notion of nonexistence ('it is not'). But for one who sees the origin of the world as it really is with correct wisdom, there is no notion of nonexistence in regard to the world. And for one who sees the cessation of the world as it really is with correct wisdom, there is no notion of existence in regard to the world."
"'All exists': Kaccana, this is one extreme. ‘All does not exist’: this is the second extreme. Without veering towards either of these extremes, the Tathagata teaches the Dhamma by the middle."
What the heck is 'the Dhamma by the middle'?
We're used to thinking of things in terms of duality. A statement like '2 + 2 = 4' can be true or false - it's one or the other. My car is either blue or it isn't. (Actually, I don't have a car. But if I did, it would either be blue or it wouldn't.) Our legal system is built around this idea: was a crime committed or not? Evidence is presented, a jury comes to a decision, and the judge delivers a verdict.
And so, in the same way, we tend to think that something exists or it doesn't. The Empire State Building exists; unicorns don't. (Sorry, unicorn-lovers.) This seems so completely obvious, so self-evident, so immediately verifiable by basic reality testing, that it might seem ridiculous even to question it. And yet that's exactly what the Buddha is doing here - he's suggesting that there's some alternative, some 'middle way', between existence and non-existence. But what could it be?
The traditional explanation of emptiness - the curiously named middle way between existence and non-existence - involves a chariot. Maybe I could update it by using a Ford Focus, but instead it's quicker to show you a short clip from Only Fools and Horses: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BUl6PooveJE&ab_channel=WoodyKane.
Trigger has had the same broom for 20 years. But he's replaced the broom head, and the broom handle... and those are the two parts which make up a broom. So is it the same broom, as Trigger asserts - he's got a picture and everything - or is it a different broom?
In the same way, the classical analysis looks at a chariot in terms of its parts. There are wheels, an axle, various other bits. If you change one bit, is it the same chariot, or a different one? If you break one of the windows of your Ford Focus, is it still a Ford Focus, or is it something else? When you clip your toenails, are you severing a vital part of yourself?
On the other hand, is the chariot just the parts? If you took all the parts and piled them up, would you still have an actual chariot, or would you just have the parts of a chariot? We tend to see objects in terms of their function, so if Trigger's broom handle and broom head were, for the moment, detached from each other, would Trigger still have a broom? Certainly something would have to be done before he could sweep with it.
It seems clear to us that there is such a thing as a chariot, or a broom, or a Ford Focus. But when we look for the essence of the thing - the vital bit that makes the difference between 'collection of parts' and 'thing' - it's not quite so clear.
In fact, one very interesting meditation practice we can do is to examine an object in exactly this way. Analyse it in terms of parts, then ask if the 'thing' is in the parts, or not in the parts. If it's in the parts, then what happens when one part is taken away, or replaced by another part? And why isn't the pile of parts the same as the 'thing' - after all, you've got all the parts, they're just in a pile. On the other hand, if the thing isn't in the parts, then what is it? If the thing were separate from the parts, then if you took all the parts away, you should still have the thing. Trigger's broom should still be Trigger's broom without a handle or a head - and I don't think even Trigger would buy that one.
Ultimately, this analysis concludes (spoiler alert) that there is no 'essence' to be found. That's where the term 'emptiness' comes from - that the 'things' we experience in the world are, on closer examination, 'empty' of a fundamental existence. Everything we look at dissolves into unfindability through a careful enough analysis, so we can't really say 'this exists' in the definite way that it seemed like we could. On the other hand, we can still sweep the road with a broom and ride around in a Ford Focus, so we also can't really say 'this does not exist'. Instead, we end up somewhere in between the two - the middle way between the extremes.
Isn't all this just intellectualising? Who cares about brooms and chariots?
It's a fair question - in the later Buddhist tradition, a huge amount of effort went into 'Buddhist philosophy', and there's a great deal of quite academic writing about emptiness teachings, so it's easy to get lost in theoretical speculation.
However, the empty nature of our experience is something that can also be seen directly, and seeing it makes such a difference to our lives that I feel compelled to write this article about it, despite the obscurity of the subject matter.
There's a story from the very beginning of the Zen tradition about an encounter between Bodhidharma, the (possibly legendary) founder of Zen, and his first successor, Huike (Eka in Japanese). It goes something like this:
Huike came to see Bodhidharma, and said 'My mind is troubled. How can I pacify it?'
Bodhidharma replied, 'Bring me your mind, and I will pacify it.'
Huike came back a while later, and said 'I have searched for my mind, but I cannot find it.'
Bodhidharma said, 'There, I have pacified your mind for you.'
Sometimes I like to think that Huike then slapped Bodhidharma for being a smartass. But this isn't just a play on words - it's a (typically oblique) Zen way of pointing to emptiness. Huike was unable to find his mind because his mind, like everything else, is empty; and Bodhidharma's reply points to the freedom that comes from letting go of the duality between existence and non-existence. No mind, no problem - and yet, just like Trigger's broom, you can still think with it.
What we experience is not the world, but our mind's representation of it - and it's hackable
Before we go any further, there's one more important point that needs to be established: the representational nature of our subjective experience. This is a subtle point, because our experience doesn't seem 'representational' at all - it seems direct, as if our eyes are windows looking out on the world. We see the same things other people see - chairs, tables, brooms, Ford Foci - so it's obvious that we're looking at a real world that really exists. What could be more obvious?
But, actually, the eyes are not windows - and even if they were, what could be looking out of those windows? A little person sitting behind the eyeballs? If so, what is that little person using to see - is there an even littler person behind the eyeballs of the little person, and so on all the way down?
This human organism that we are has various sense organs - eyes, ears, nose, mouth, body, and Buddhists tend to include the thinking mind as the sixth sense, so that all the bases are covered - and those sense organs are receiving a constant stream of data. Light enters the eye, hits the retina, and stimulates electrical activity in the optic nerve, which goes up into the brain, along with signals from the other sense organs. These combine in the brain and - handwave handwave, magic happens - as a result we have a conscious experience. But the conscious experience is not simply the 'raw' data from the senses - it's integrated, interpreted and given meaning by the brain. When I look in front of me, I don't just see a mass of coloured shapes and then have to figure out what they are - I see a computer, a clock, a little jade statue of Budai that I bought in China. In other words, I see a representation of what is 'out there' - a representation that is put together from not just the sense data but also my memories, language, emotional state and all kinds of other stuff, which combines to present this whole scene to me.
This is a bit mind-bending, so spend some time convincing yourself of this if it sounds a bit fishy. It's important for what comes next.
Because what comes next is the recognition that, if what we experience is a representation as opposed to concrete, objective fact, and a big part of that representation comes from our interpretation of what's going on, then if we can change our interpretation - our view - then we literally change our experience. And since what we call 'reality' is actually our experience of reality, then by changing our view we change reality itself - at least subjectively.
Carrying a heavy bag all day is tiring
Some years ago, my partner and I went on holiday to Rome. It was really hot - absurdly hot, unnecessarily hot - and so it was an absolute requirement to carry a lot of drinking water with us, because we were spending pretty much all day every day on foot exploring the city. So each day I would load up a rucksack with four two-litre bottles of water, and even though we were drinking it we were also buying more water whenever we passed a shop selling it. That rucksack was heavy. I mean, wow. It was so heavy that when I took it off at the end of the day, I literally felt like I was floating around the hotel room for the next few minutes, because I'd let go of so much weight.
It's the same way with our minds. The more we're doing with our minds - and, in particular, the more that's going on in our representation - the 'heavier' our minds will tend to be. If we can shift our perception to a 'lighter' experience, we'll tend to feel more relaxed, peaceful and at ease, because we're not having to work so hard just to be alive any more.
There are all kinds of ways of tweaking our perceptions to move towards states of less 'fabrication', to use the technical term. A particularly good book on this subject is Seeing That Frees by the late Rob Burbea, which I highly recommend if this stuff interests you. In the last part of this article, we'll look at one way to move toward a reduction in fabrication with an emptiness practice.
Seeing the 'thinglessness' of things in direct experience
A friend recently said to me, 'We say "the lightning flashes", but the flashing is the lightning.'
What happens in our direct experience? Where does the sense of 'chariotness' come from?
On the desk in front of me is a teacup. When I see it, I see a certain visual appearance - a certain shape, a certain colour, the particular way it reflects the light. I can look at it from different angles, and see it in different ways. If I pick up the teacup, it feels a certain way in my hand; there's a texture, a weight. If I put it back down, it makes a particular kind of sound when it contacts the table. And, of course, if I put tea in it, I can drink the tea without it slopping all over the table.
So we have a collection of different types of sensory experience: some sights, some sounds, some feelings. These experiences are clearly all related to each other in some way, and so it's really convenient to put them all in a big box and stick a label on the box that says 'teacup'. Then, when I want to talk to someone about this and have them understand me, if we both use the word 'teacup' to refer to roughly the same set of experiences, we can communicate successfully.
So far, so good - but then, as with so many other things in our experience - things get switched around. Rather than continuing to relate to 'teacup' simply as a convenient shorthand, we instead get so used to the label that we start to focus more on the label than the experiences the label describes. And, eventually, we start to think that the 'teacup' was there first - in other words, there's a really existing teacup, and as a result of that we see the visual appearance of the real teacup, we feel the texture of the real teacup and so on. The label becomes the reality, and the actual experience is relegated to second place.
Unfortunately, at this point we're making more work for ourselves. Our sensory experience plus the simple concept of 'teacup' already contains all the information we need to get by in the world. The extra mental effort that goes into creating a sense of an 'inherently real thing' - a solid teacup, in a world of solid objects - is actually wasted effort. At least the bottles of water in my rucksack were useful - this is more like carrying around a bunch of rocks. We don't need them, and it's pretty tiring. Wouldn't it be better to put them down?
So how do we do this?
It's actually not so complicated, although that doesn't mean it's easy - we've spent a lifetime training ourselves to see the world in terms of inherently existing things, so merely reading an article about it is unlikely to do the job. We need to investigate this, and see for ourselves. First, we need to confirm that it's actually true - explore our immediate experience, realise that all we ever experience of 'things' is the sensory impressions and thoughts about them, never the 'thing' itself. Unfortunately, even this confirmation probably isn't enough to shift the underlying view right away - we need to keep looking, keep coming back to our direct experience again and again, until finally something shifts. Eventually, the world of 'things' vanishes without a trace, and your experience will become simpler, more direct, and much, much lighter.
And then you, too, will see that there really is no spoon.