Those who speak, do not know.

May 28, 2019 § Leave a comment

It may be said that recognizing emptiness is the key to Buddhist enlightenment. Yet what can be said about emptiness that doesn’t turn it into an object of thought that negates its very nature as emptiness? Lao Tsu recognized this when he wrote, “Those who know, do not speak. Those who speak, do not know.” Yet the late Dainin Katagiri Roshi said, “You have to say something. If you don’t speak, nobody will understand.”

In my view, saying something is useful when you don’t attempt to define emptiness but, rather, just point to it like a finger points to the moon. In any discussion the aim is for fear and intellectual resistance to drop away, thus making emptiness attractive or, to put it another way, making it our friend.

The Dalai Lama said that emptiness is, “the true nature of things and events.” Reading this for the first time I recalled a philosophy class in which it was said that we can never know if our senses are giving us an accurate representation of the outside world. We can’t know for sure, in other words, what a thing really is. Although I did not know it at the time, this was my first introduction to emptiness.

You may have heard this idea expressed as a question on whether the color you see, for instance, the color blue, is the same color blue I see. Quantum mechanics gives us its own answer to that question. It states that the light you see coming from an object is composed of different photons than the light I see coming from the same object. Hence, we are each seeing a different blue.

Quantum mechanics further states that without an observer the light exists only as probability waves. As probability waves, the photons that make up light exist only as a probability of being found somewhere in the universe. To be clear, this does not mean that the photons exist as real things that we just happen to find at some point in space. It means that the photons don’t exist at all until they are observed! Probability waves, it would seem, are the quantum physicist’s way of saying emptiness.

Kosho Uchiyama used the example of two people looking at a teacup to express the above idea. According to Uchiyama, each person sees a teacup that exists for him or her alone, in that neither person can see the teacup through the eyes of the other. Because their experiences are not the same, what they call a teacup is only a mutually agreed upon concept and not the thing-in-itself that philosophers speak of as the true contents of the universe.

Considering all this we might conclude that the true nature of things can never be known. But that implies the only way to know a thing is via the senses or through concepts. Buddhism says there is another way of knowing. One that lies asleep or dormant in most people but when roused does allow the direct realization of emptiness.

This third way of knowing has sometimes been called the Third Eye. In spite of its occult implications what the Third Eye refers to is a way of knowing that is neither perception nor cognition. Of course, one cannot conceive of such a way of knowing for the simple reason that one cannot use concepts on that which by its very nature is not a concept. Yet most everyone who meditates does so with the aim of conceptualizing emptiness. They see emptiness as something to be experienced, usually in the future. They see it as a subtle object that must be grasped to be understood. But emptiness can never be known this way. Concepts must be put aside, and one must just sit with no expectation of anything happening, at all.

The simple truth is that there is nothing that the perceiving or conceptualizing mind can do to realize emptiness. Emptiness is not a thing that can be acted upon. It is emptiness. So, when you sit in meditation and find yourself trying to figure it out or trying to find it, just laugh a little. And then continue sitting. That is how you make emptiness your friend.


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