April 30, 2019 § 1 Comment
Having read Thich Nhat Hanh’s new translation of The Heart Sūtra. ( https://plumvillage.org/news/thich-nhat-hanh-new-heart-sutra-translation/ ) it occurred to me that it may be useful to put a different take on the Buddhist teaching of emptiness. Not for the purpose of rewriting Buddhist teachings but to see if viewing emptiness in a new light may not remove some of the obstacles to its understanding. So, without further ado, let’s look at emptiness as openness.
The Heart Sutra is all about realizing emptiness. Emptiness of form. Emptiness of the body, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, consciousness, etc. When you realize this emptiness, you realize that all phenomena “are not separate self entities.”
This is not a nihilistic assertion. The existence of phenomena is not being denied here. Just its existence as separate self-entities. It is the same view given in the Buddhist teaching of dependent origination, which states that all phenomena arise in dependence upon all other phenomena. Both are affirmations of the oneness of all things, which can happen only if all things are open systems.
In scientific terms, a system is considered open when mass or energy can flow between it and its environment. Rather than go all scientific, let’s consider this on a simpler level. Imagine a corral in a field. For this corral to be considered an open system it would have to have a gate which opens to the surrounding field for things to pass in and out. If the corral had no gate it would be a closed system (and somewhat useless, too).
In this analogy the corral may represent any open system you wish; concepts, the building blocks of the universe, your own self, etc. When it comes to concepts, The Heart Sutra refers to them in terms of paired concepts of,
no Birth no Death,
no Being no Non-being,
no Defilement no Purity,
no Increasing no Decreasing.
In our analogy paired concepts, like birth and death, may be seen as two corrals that share a common side that has a gate that allows passage between the two corrals. The meaning intended here is that birth cannot be properly conceptualized without its opposite, i.e., death. Birth implies death and death implies birth. Neither are “separate self entities” because of the gate that connects the two. In effect, because of the gate there really is only one corral whose true nature is not birth and death, but “no Birth no Death.”
The Heart Sutra refers to birth and death as “no Birth no Death” because the boundary between the two is not rigidly defined. At any time, the gate that connects the two can swing open. The further the gate opens, the more birth and death dissolve into each other. When the gate is fully open, birth and death lose all boundaries that define them as separate concepts. You can no longer call them birth or death, or even birth and death. The best you can say is “no Birth no Death.”
Although this ‘no this, no that’ approach is a more accurate way to describe the true nature of phenomena, if we are not careful it can easily become a subtle concept, or separate self-entity, in its own right. To counteract this, the two (yet one) corrals of birth and death must be seen as having other gates that open to complementary concepts such as beginning and ending, start and finish, being and non-being, etc. When something is born, for example, something must come into being. So, birth and death are connected to other concepts that are connected to other concepts such that the boundaries between all concepts become blurred.
If we carry this to its logical conclusion, we find that every concept is a gateway to every other concept. In terms of our analogy, we are no longer looking at corrals with definitive sides but corrals whose sides are all gates that open up to other corrals whose sides are also gates. If we were to stand on a hill overlooking all this, we’d see a collection of gates in an otherwise empty field. With this insight all boundaries fall away. Everything is open.
Without boundaries to define a thing you may say that it is empty or you may say that is it open. It’s really a matter of personal predilection how you describe it. In The Heart Sutra, however, Avalokiteshvara would say “no Emptiness no Openness.”
Moving away from concepts and turning our attention to the fundamental building blocks of the universe, we see that that there can be no separate fundamental particle that exists separate from all else. If there were such a closed system, then it would never be able to interact with the world around it.
In order to interact with something, a system must be open. It must have places (i.e., gates) where there are no boundaries between it and other systems. It is through this boundless openness that all interactions, all phenomena and all of life become possible.
There is a deep-seated fear of this openness because it leaves us with the feeling that there is no ground to stand on. That nature is unpredictable and uncontrollable. This creates a great deal of insecurity that motivates our grasping and clingy behaviour. To make ourselves feel more secure, we cling to the notion that there are boundaries that keep us safe. We imagine that the sides of our corrals are not gates but solid walls that keep whatever lies in the field out. The Heart Sutra reminds us, however, that these are empty. That the side of every corral is a gate that, once you stop holding them shut, will open to the ever-expanding field of Life about you that is your life.
Practicing this Insight brings you to the open field where you see no more obstacles in your mind, and because there are no more obstacles, you can overcome all fear, destroy all wrong perceptions and realize Perfect Nirvana.
The mantra of this Insight is “Gate, Gate, Paragate, Parasamgate, Bodhi Svaha!” Translated it means, “Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone completely beyond, awake, so be it.” We may also think of it as gone through the open gate. Through all gates leaving us, “Open, open, open beyond, open completely beyond, awake, so be it.”
February 15, 2018 § 2 Comments
In his essay, “The Tenzo Kyokun and Shikantaza,” Zen Master Kosho Uchiyama wrote, “…the world I experience is one I alone can experience, and not anyone else can experience it along with me. To express this as precisely as possible, as I am born, I simultaneously give birth to the world I experience; I live out my life along with that world, and at my death the world I experience also dies.”
Kosho Uchiyama’s words may be considered in relation to quantum mechanics. It says subatomic particles exist in an infinite number of states until they are observed, upon which they collapse into one state. For example, light (i.e., photons) coming from distant suns exist everywhere in the universe as probability waves until it is observed, at which time it becomes localized and become known as stars.
Before Kosho Uchiyama was born, what was to become his experience existed in this infinite number, or formless, states. His birth simultaneously gave birth to the world he experienced and when he died that world also died. Everyone’s experience is like this, coming about as a result of an interaction of the observer and the formless universe of infinite states. This is not merely a psychological experience but an actual giving of form to a universe that would otherwise remain merely as a probability.
It is important to understand that the observer being referred to is not the ego. It is the “I” as the simple bare point of awareness around which the ego is constructed. Where this “I” is before birth and where it goes at death is not the subject of this post. And in a way that is not a real question anyways. What matters most is that the “I” in each of us only collapses particular parts of the infinite number of states the universe can take. Even when standing side-by-side looking at stars, each of us collapses different photons coming from those stars. Only you can know the parts you collapse, just as only I can know the parts I collapse. This means that each of us is experiencing a different or alternate version of the same reality or universe.
The role of the observer, as this is called, is a touchy subject in quantum mechanics. Many do not like to admit that the observer plays any role in the formation of the universe. To get around this, they proposed that it only appears that a collapse into one state has occurred as a result of an observation. In this view every state collapses but does so in alternate universes where we cannot see it. In other words, creation does not simply consist of one universe but a multiple number of universes or multiverse.
Technically the existence of multiple universes is a hypothetical outcome of the theoretical model that arises out of quantum mechanics. As far as hypothetical outcomes of theoretical models go, this one is pretty dicey because there is no way to prove it. But it occurs to me that we do not need to negate the role of consciousness to have multiple universes. We already know that each of us is experiencing an alternate version of reality. Each version fits the description of an alternate universe in that each is a different collapse of the infinite number of probable collapses. So may we not say that each of us are living in our own parallel, yet alternate, universes created by the interaction of bare points of awareness with probability waves?
Each of us lives in an alternate universe or version of reality that comes into existence as we are born and ends as we die. Master Hung-chih (1091–1157) expressed this as,
There is neither mind nor world to rely on
Yet do the two interact, mutually.
Kosho Uchiyama expressed it by saying, “the world forms the contents of my self.” He went on to say, “When we do zazen, we personally experience this clearly; we become nothing other than ourselves.” Zen Master Dogen expressed it as the self being ‘verified by all things’. And when he said, “All things coming and carrying out practice-enlightenment through the self is realization.”
We see in these statements that zazen is an awakening to the reality of dependent origination, the Buddhist principle that states all dharmas (i.e., objects, including the self) arise in interdependence with all other dharmas. In zazen we experience this as body and mind dropping away, leaving the bare point of awareness and the world indistinguishable. Awakening to this reality, to the inseparable nature of the other and I, is Realization.
Attending to the present moment
The universe unfolds naturally.
Breathing in and out
Buddha nature is actualized.
January 30, 2018 § 2 Comments
A while back I read of a physicist who said the fundamental “stuff” of the universe isn’t matter or energy, but information. I had to smile at that remark for to me it showed the physicist’s ignorance of his own philosophy of science that states science can make no claim to the fundamental stuff of the universe. It can only study the way this stuff (in philosophy called the thing-in-itself) acts in relationship to other stuff. That relationship is expressed as information, so in saying that information is the stuff of the universe the physicist was engaging in the logical fallacy known as a circular argument.
Quantum mechanics is more aligned to the philosophy of science. This branch of physics says that it really doesn’t matter what quantum mechanics is about because there is no actual world of electrons, photons, quarks, etc. There is only a description of the world that uses these terms and it works in describing what is observed.
The traditional line of scientific inquiry is to study ‘things’ as if they existed independently of the observer. In most situations this approach works quite well until, that is, you start to study the quantum world of the very small. It is here, where the traditional ideas of causality, time and space breakdown, that the observer or consciousness plays a noticeable role.
It is by way of experimental observation that the quantum world is known. Prior to observation the quantum world exists (for mathematical purposes) only as a probability wave. Once an observation is made this world ‘collapses’ into something that can be described in quantum terms. Much to the discomfort of many scientists, in the world of quantum mechanics observation means conscious observation. This means that consciousness and the quantum world are inseparable.
Rephrasing the above we may say that, in general, science is interested in the relationship of two or more things. Where the quantum world is concerned, science must include the role of consciousness for its study to be inclusive. If we pare this down even further, we may say that science studies the interaction of the thing-in-itself and consciousness.
The important part of this simplification is that the known part is the interaction, not the thing-in-itself or the observer. These two can never be known in their entirety as a quantifiable figure or as an object of thought. The Buddhist expresses this unknowability by saying, “you can’t bite your own teeth and can’t taste your own tongue.” And in the Bible in Exodus 33:20, it is expressed by God telling Moses, “You cannot see my face, for no one can see me and live.”
Those of you who have read this far may be thinking that it’s taking me a long time to bring this horse to the water trough. I felt this preamble necessary to clearly explain the Mahayana philosopher Nagarjuna’s (c. 150 – c. 250 CE) statement on running and the runner. A statement he used to illustrate that there is no persistent self.
Nagarjuna said, “there is no runner beside the action of running and that outside of running there is no runner.” A scientist might say the same thing if he remembers that his area of study is the interaction of things, and not the thing-in-itself.
It may be easier to see this if we think in quantum terms. We may only say something about a sub-atomic particle when it is observed, otherwise it has no actual form that we may talk about. If we observe it as moving from point a to point b, and then substitute the word moving with running, we may say that the particle is a runner. Once our observation stops, however, both the runner and the running cease to be. The particle goes back to just being a probability, meaning that it did not persist in time.
Just as the scientist would say that there is no such thing as a persistent sub-atomic particle, so the Buddhist says there is no persistent self. Neither, however, are being nihilistic. They are merely saying that we can say nothing about the fundamental stuff of the universe or consciousness. In practice, we can only see their interaction.
Before the horse finishes drinking I’d like to apply this to the Zen practice of shikantaza or ‘just sitting’. Most people don’t know what to make of this practice. Their rational minds tell them that there must be something more to it than just sitting. Yet from the perspective of this post, that’s all it is. It’s just sitting between the unquantifiable object and the unquantifiable subject.
Thinking continues during shikantaza but you don’t try to stop it. Instead, awareness just returns again and again to the present moment and the act of sitting. As the thoughts that temporarily flash through the mind become less of a distraction you’ll discover another layer of thinking. These are the deeper concepts that have been directing your thinking, dictating what you think about yourself and the world. Once again, there is no attempt to change these thoughts. The practice is to ‘just sit’.
During the process of just sitting you’ll notice a more persistent concept called the “I” which takes on the roll of ‘the sitter’. Nagarjuna’s words should guide you here. “There is no runner beside the action of running,” means there is no sitter beside the action of sitting. “And that outside of running there is no runner” means, outside of action there is no self. In other words, the “I” that you think is sitting is just another thought distracting you from the act of ‘just sitting’. And like all other thoughts and concepts it may be dropped.
Shikantaza is the actualization of your true nature realized as the action of sitting with body and mind fallen away. Here, body and mind are defined as the concepts assigned to the fundamental stuff of the universe (the body) and to consciousness (the mind). When they fall away you realize Emptiness and that its true manifestation is action or Life. To repeat Nagarjuna, “there is only the act of running.”
December 19, 2017 § Leave a comment
“We are always looking outside of what is and looking to make something more than it is…” — Roko Sherry Chayat.
The other night as I watched a special featuring Neil Young, in the top left of the TV screen there appeared a circle of light that I didn’t immediately recognize. In the split second it took to realize that I didn’t know what it was, my brain immediately processed it as the brim of one of the artist’s hats hanging on a metal rack. My mind, as Roko Sherry Chayat intimated, looked beyond the immediate perception and found a concept that would make sense of it. The circle of light was a hat.
The human brain does not simply take the stuff of the senses and recreate it as it is ‘out there.’ Sensory data is processed along side a long list of concepts to see which one makes the most sense of the data in the overall context of the moment. Then it reconstructs the data into what we call experience. The above image catches the mind in this process. Presented with two equal interpretations, the mind switches back and forth between the image of a wine glass and the profiles of two human faces.
An advantage to using concepts is that the mind doesn’t need to keep figuring out what its seeing each time the data changes a little. Once the shifting trapezoidal form in your room is identified as a bed, it becomes a fixed rectangular box. Then, from any angle and any distance viewed, it stays a bed. The same is true of all other experience. Even though the basic sensory stuff is constantly changing, we experience objects as relatively fixed in time and space. Seldom do we notice that our environment is constantly changing, or even consider that space and time are also concepts that we use to organize our experience into a comprehensible form.
Filippo Brunelleschi’s (1377 –1446) invention of linear perspective in art is an example of how the mind invents space. Before Brunelleschi, artists tended to paint flat two-dimensional shapes. His invention of linear perspective gave depth to paintings. Streets and building faded into an imaginary vanishing point. People and things meant to appear in the distance of a canvas, were now correctly proportioned to what was at the front.
Today we might think that people always experienced the world with linear perspective, but is that so? Is it possible that before Brunellechi people didn’t see the world with linear perspective? And if that is so, is it possible that concepts specific to one culture enable its people to experience the world in ways others cannot. And possibly to do things in ways others cannot imagine?
I sometimes wonder if ancient cultures weren’t able to move 30-ton blocks of stone without the giant cranes we’d use today, simply because they conceived of the problem differently. And if the Indigenous belief in dimensions of existence that overlap our own, aren’t what’s responsible for their sightings of lake serpents with horse-shaped heads, ape-like men called Sasquatch and Sky people whose lights they’ve seen in the sky both historically and today.
Modern science, of course, would debunk such things by citing their own conceptual scheme of things. But, as we have seen, concepts change. Even today, some scientific minds are willing to consider (without evidence) the possibility of multiple universes that exist along side our own. And anyone who’s familiar with the quantum world knows that a lot of strange things go on there.
Concepts determine experience. We need only turn off the lights to see that this is so. At night my eyes might only register fuzzy grey lines but overtop of this lies a concept that give these lines the form I call ‘the gate at the top of the stairs.’ And the darkness on either side of me has superimposed over it the concept of the hall I’m standing in. Though my physical eyes can see nothing clearly, my mind’s eye see’s every object in the room as a familiar concept.
Life might be a lot easier if only descriptive concepts like the halls and the gate shaped our experience. But as Chayat said, the mind always wants to make something more. And in the course of adding to things, it creates the concept of a self or an “I” that is having all this experience. And from this come other concepts like the other, separation and dualism that in turn produce suffering as we begin to feel alone, incomplete and vulnerable.
Fortunately, as the Buddha said, there is a way to end suffering. It begins with the recognition that the self is just a concept and concepts are only ideas about Reality. They are not Reality, Itself.
We have lived in a conceptual world for so long that we have forgotten our true nature. To rediscover it, we must release our tight grip on concepts so that we may instead hold them but lightly. That is why Buddhism advocates non-thinking. Non-thinking isn’t the same as not thinking, which is a suppression of thought. Non-thinking is sitting in clear awareness, not filtered or colored by concepts that linger in the background, even the concept of self. Then, we live each day without expectation, desire, clinging or fear. All of which are, in the end, nothing but concepts, themselves.
March 25, 2016 § 1 Comment
I wish to briefly touch upon my assertion that thought does not represent anything real.
Certainly no one should think this remark applies to simple statements like, “The sky is blue,” or “It is spring.” Such descriptions are quite proper. Nor should one think it applies to abstract thought as expressed in fields of logic, science or mathematics where thought is rigorous and precise. The remark applies to false thoughts the ordinary mind has when it attributes qualities to things that they do not properly have, qualities that ultimately result in unnecessary suffering.
We may call the world experienced via the senses primary. When we give this world qualities that it doesn’t actually possess we superimpose an imaginary secondary world upon it.
If we suffer abuse, that is a fact of the primary world. If we then conclude that the abuse arose because we are bad or unworthy, we begin to create a false world. The trauma of the abuse may lead us to further superimpose a vision on the real world that it is unsafe and lead us to conclude that we must protect ourselves at all times. This engenders life strategies to which we cling out of the belief they will keep us safe. These strategies, however, only add to our suffering as they isolate us from others and our self.
We do not have to suffer trauma or abuse to create a secondary world. Any time we attribute qualities to the world that it does not have we create a false world. In fact, the greater mass of humanity lives in a shared secondary universe that is entirely false and causes much of humanities suffering.
The very assumptions we make about our selves and the world go to create the false universe that we all share. Assumptions like, “I am this body,” or “ Things exist outside me.” These lead to beliefs and actions that the universe must be controlled and dominated lest it overwhelm and destroy us.
It is this false, secondary world that is destroyed when our true nature is realized and that is why mystics and seers say; “Everything’s different, yet nothing has changed!”
So the statement that “thought does not represent anything real” refers to the ones that create and sustain the invidious secondary universe that we all live in, and the personal one we have created for our self, alone.
Much of our thinking is of this secondary type and if we could quit it now we would know a freedom long since forgotten. But over the years it has become second nature. So rather than spend time trying to figure out which thought is true and which is not, approach all as if they are false, especially those around your core issues and habits. Do not waste time trying to figure out which part of your dream is real when the solution is to just wake up.
August 27, 2015 § 3 Comments
“A Japanese warrior was captured by his enemies and thrown into prison. That night he was unable to sleep because he feared the next day would bring interrogation, torture and execution. Then he recalled the words of his Zen master, “Tomorrow is not real. It is an illusion. The only reality is now.”
Heeding these words, the warrior became peaceful and fell asleep.”
Of course, the warrior represents you, captured and imprisoned by your own thoughts. When you get up in the morning you wonder what the day will hold. When you go to bed at night you wonder what tomorrow will bring. At times you cannot sleep for worry, and you know that telling yourself that tomorrow isn’t real will not help.
Buddhists know that once worry appears that there is no use trying to suppress or deny it. Trying will only drain your strength, which even then will give you no rest. So they tell you that you do not have to struggle with tomorrow. You do not have to prevent anxious thoughts from arising or prevent thoughts of anger or jealousy once they have arisen. You do not have to prevent, stop or change any of these. You need only realize that they have no real existence.
Thoughts arise in dependent origination or dependent arising, as the Buddhist would say. That means what you are thinking is dependent upon a host of other things, all of which is dependent upon every other thing. As everything depends upon everything else, nothing has self-existence or exists of and by it self. The essence of all you see, hear, feel and think is emptiness. This means that none of your thoughts point to anything real. They are all appearance-emptiness.
To the ordinary mind emptiness is seen as nothingness. Seeing thoughts arise in this nothingness leads the mind to conclude that thoughts, and the objects they point to, must be real. Having reached this conclusion the mind moves to attach itself to what it desires. Toward what it does not like it moves with aversion and denial. All this is done in the context of avoiding falling into nothingness.
Seen in this context it is understandable why you would not want to abandon your thoughts. Doing so leaves you with nothing and that is equatable to death.
The Japanese warrior of our story found himself in just this predicament. All that he had was taken from him. He’d been separated from his colleagues, lost his freedom and had no means to defend himself. He had no armor, no sword or hope. He had, in other words, come face to face with nothingness.
It was then that he recalled his master’s words and, heeding them, the nothingness dissolved into luminous emptiness. And, as the story goes,”the warrior became peaceful and fell asleep.”
August 6, 2015 § 2 Comments
A couple of years ago I had the bathroom redone. Part of the refit included a plastic liner placed around the walls of the bathtub that had an “L” shaped section for soap. As I looked at this the other day I was struck by how elegantly this shape demonstrated the Buddha’s words spoken to his disciple, Shariputra,
Form does not differ from emptiness,
Emptiness does not differ from form.
When I looked at the soap tray before I saw only the L-shape. But then it occurred to me that this form was not all that was there. Inseparable from it was the emptiness where the soap went. The L-shaped piece was giving the emptiness a form. Like the Yin Yang symbol that has two curved sections, one black, the other white, this “L” form was caressing and molding the emptiness into something I could use. It was as the Buddha said as he continued to instruct Shariputra,
Form itself is emptiness,
Emptiness itself is form.
Looking next at a chair I saw how it shaped the empty space of the room into an area in which I could sit. (Reminiscent of how a star curves the space about it, as described by Einstein.) Without the chair the empty space could not be used. And without the emptiness there would be no place to put the chair. The form and the emptiness were again seen to be inseparable.
I then applied this to the house. Where there was once just an empty lot the builders had placed a form turning the space into one where I could live and carry out my daily activities. I was, in fact, living in empty space as much as a house. This brought to mind Lao Tsu’s words,
Cut doors and windows for a room;
It is the holes that make it useful.
Therefore profit comes from what is there,
Usefulness from what is not there.
Tao Te Ching. Chapter Eleven.
It is this same chapter in which Lao Tsu writes,
Shape clay into a vessel;
It is the space within that makes it useful.
which inspired the title of this post, a Buddhist proverb that reads, “The value of a cup is in its emptiness.”
It is now even more apparent to me that “form is emptiness and emptiness is form” but not in some way remote except to the enlightened few. The unity of form and emptiness is something that is evident and before me right now in my everyday experience.
Someone took clay to make a teacup and in so doing gave empty space a form I could use to drink tea. Someone else shaped wood that turned empty space into a place where I could live and sit. There is no way to separate these forms from the emptiness or the emptiness from these forms.
Buddha went on to tell Shariputra that this is the same for feelings, cognition and the sense of self. Where these are, emptiness is also, co-existing and inseparable. The thoughts and ideas that appear before us are forms that are giving shape to emptiness on a moment-to-moment basis.
Realizing this I asked myself, “If I can see the emptiness of the L-shaped soap tray, why do I not also see the emptiness of thought? Why do I not recognize the no self of the self?”