October 26, 2014 § 2 Comments
His Holiness the Dalai Lama was in town this past week. As my last few posts addressed emptiness when viewed with fear and avoidance, I thought I’d try to tell you what he had to say about it.
From the perspective of Tibetan Buddhism, a proper understanding of emptiness must include an understanding of concepts, self-existence and dependent origination. Once understood, this knowledge can then be applied to the Buddhist notion of no self. Of course, all of this would fill many posts so I shall try to be as brief as possible.
Simply put, something has self-existence when it exists on its own or independently of anything else. For example, most would say the moon exists whether we look at it or not, so the general belief held by humanity is that the moon is self-existent. A Buddhist would tell you, however, that an analysis of this belief would lead to a different conclusion.
Through analytic meditation the Buddhist would examine his or her experience of the moon to see that it is collection of concepts, or ideas about something, and not an actual thing in itself. Different concepts of the moon include those held of it before the advent of the telescope, the moon before humanity set foot on it and the moon as seen in it’s various phases. Considering the different ways of conceiving of the moon, “Which one, is any,” the Buddhist would ask, “is the actual moon?”
It is important to note that the Buddhist is not saying the experience doesn’t exist. The experience of the moon is a real experience but one that is organized by the conceptual mind. The conceptual mind takes a collection of experiences and organizes them together under one name. That ‘somewhat’ that appears in the sky at various times during the month in various shapes or phases, that telescopes tell us has craters and our astronauts say is made of dust and rock, are all organized under the general concept that we know as the moon.
In addition to creating concepts out of a collection of experiences, the human mind assigns these concepts a sense of reality that lends the appearance of self-existence. This assigned self-existence is a matter of convenience that gives the world a sense of stability.
Consider, for example, how efficient it is to name a file and place it in a folder of similar items stored in your computer. Having done so, you know where it is or “exists”. All you have to do to find it is to look in that file. But suppose you didn’t name your files or make any folders. As more and more items are entered into your computer, finding them becomes more and more difficult. And if you couldn’t find any particular file, you’d begin to doubt its existence. In a similar way, the human mind assigns names and words to your experiences and files them accordingly, giving them the appearance of self-existence. But whether any thing does exist independently of the mind is a matter of philosophical debate, not proven fact!
This leads us to the Buddhist notion of dependent origination.
Dependent origination is said by the Buddha to be a very deep subject so I will try to cover it here only in relation to what the Dalai Lama said about emptiness.
An example given by the Buddha was that of a flame in an oil lamp. When the oil and wick are present, the flame burns. If either is absent, the flame is not there. This is a simple example of the principle of dependent origination. In it, the flames existence is dependent upon the wick and the oil. The experience of the flame is real but in itself the flame has no self-existence.
In his talk last Thursday the Dalai Lama briefly applied the Buddha’s reasoning to himself. If we were to look for His Holiness we would not find a self-existence that we could call him. We could find an arm or face, thoughts or feelings, but eventually we would have to conclude that the Dalai Lama, himself, was like a flame in an oil lamp whose origin was dependent upon other things that, in and of themselves, too, ultimately had no self-existence. Yet, said the Dalai Lama, when he pinches himself, he experiences pain. So what is that which experiences this pain? What is this no self?
Without answering that question the Dalai Lama went on to state that through the process of analytical meditation one can see how all things are dependent upon everything else, such that no thing can be said to arise independently or have self-existence. And that if we introduce here the Buddhist notion of emptiness, we can see that emptiness does not mean nothingness but merely the lack of self-existence. There is form, but it is empty of self-existence.
There is experience. There is the conceptual organization of experience. Yet none of this, including the self, exists independent of anything else or with permanent form. Understanding this, the Dalai Lama went on to say, we can see what is meant when it is said that form is emptiness and emptiness is form.
*** Please note that the Dalai Lama’s visit to Vancouver was in association with the Tibetan Cultural Society of BC and organized in part to help the Society raise funds to sponsor the resettlement of Tibetans to Canada. Click on the Society’s name to open a new window that links to their site if you are interested in this cause.
October 17, 2014 § 2 Comments
We all have core beliefs about who and what we are that we hold to be true but which ultimately have only relative value, at best. These are what we call our identity in that we identify them as “me” or my “self”. The true nature of self, however, is empty or emptiness.
At a deep level we are never separated from our true nature, even though most have forgotten this truth. This means that at some level we know there is something wrong with identifying our self as some content of consciousness rather than as consciousness, itself. When, therefore, our beliefs are exposed to criticism or in some way threatened, we are apt to feel defenseless for we know the criticism is true and that we are not what we pretend to be.
To say that at some deep level we know our self to be empty does not mean we recognize we are this no self. From our present point of view emptiness is a negation of self with the meaning of personal death. The instinct of the ordinary man or woman then is to avoid emptiness as a means of ensuring one’s personal survival.
To avoid emptiness we fill it with things to create an identity. Like one floating in a vast sea who grabs onto some nearby flotsam, we select an object of desire and grasp at it saying, “This is me!” Believing this to be our salvation, is it any wonder that the thought of letting go creates fear and dis-ease that is then seen as a warning that emptiness is near?
In “The Places That Scare You,” Pema Chödrön writes that what we most want to avoid is crucial to awakening. “These juicy emotional spots are where a warrior gains wisdom and compassion. Of course, we’ll want to get out of those spots far more often than we’ll want to stay.” (p. 34)
If we accept that behind our core fears lies emptiness then we better understand why Chödrön says these “juicy emotional spots” are crucial to awakening, as what we awaken to is our true nature as emptiness.
When near my emotional hot spot I must admit it appears but briefly, like a flash of lightning in the night sky. There is a tremendous energy in that flash that is quickly followed by my old habitual ways of dealing with it that can best be described as avoidance or denial.
Needless to say, in my earlier years the emotions feed by this energy were often overwhelming. This discomfort automatically triggered the awareness to turn away and toward old, well-established patterns that initially were alluring and brought comfort.
It is through meditation and mindfulness practice that I am beginning to slow this automatic response so I can stay with the discomfort. Much as time slows down at speeds close to light, my practice is allowing me to get longer glimpses of the central tender spot within. In doing so I catch myself before I turn away, holding my fear filled images in the awareness to see that they are not real. This process gives me a better understanding of why meditation is a matter of staying alert to watch thoughts arise and fall, while not becoming attached or averse to them.
It is at that moment where the awareness has become conditioned to withdraw from unease that the opportunity for awakening lies. At that moment we have the chance to break from our traditional identity to see the self as emptiness. Yet because this moment is also is laden with fear, aversion and denial it is best approached with patience and self-compassion. Without it, we risk developing new ways of closing this open space that is the true Self.