What Is Buddhist Emptiness? What Is Human Happiness?

January 1, 2014


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“Without past, present, future; empty awake mind.”
The crux of the matter.

The Buddhist View teaches of the “Two Truths”: ultimate (paramartha satya) and relative (samvriti satya). Ultimate truth may be broadly construed as emptiness (shunyata); relative truth as the physical and mental form that arises from this emptiness ground. Shakyamuni Buddha told in his Heart Sutra:  “Form is emptiness; emptiness is form”.  These two faces of reality are a prior unity; two conceptual paradigms, “not one, not two, but nondual”.  We live in these two worlds—objective and subjective—at once!  Nagarjuna teaches that “There is not the slightest difference between samsara and nirvana”.  Quantum pioneer Werner Heisenberg tells us that “subject and object are only one”.  Perhaps our human condition is to find a middle way between objective existence and subjective non-existence; between relative “scientific” Materialism, and an infinite nihilistic Idealism. Indeed, the 21st century Noetic Revolution that is now upon us suggests such a middle way between objective Science, and the perfectly subjective whole that is its nondual Spirit ground (Boaz, Being Here, 2013).

In the Mahayana Buddhist View of Prasangika Madhyamaka—the Middle Way Consequence School of Nagarjuna (2nd century), Chandrakirti (8th century) and Tsongkhapa (14th century)—the very foundation of Dzogchen—even the Ultimate Truth that is fundamental great emptiness (mahashunyata, dharmakaya) is not a frozen absolute.  In other words, emptiness is not a metaphysical logocentric idol or “false absolute” existing unconditioned and independently as an unknowable “other” dualistic transcendent creator God, metaphysical essence, or some vast substrate, entity, being or thing.  Buddhist emptiness is not a transcendent, deeper absolute reality strata of the arising and appearing of relative-conventional physical and mental form.  The forms of emptiness are not concept/theory independent, existing in a separate “real world out there” (RWOT).   Rather, this anti-essentialist view holds that the appearing physical and mental objects of reality—both objective and subjective—to be concept/theory-dependent, with no independently existent reality posited at all (Bohr, Quine, the new Hawking, Rorty, Chalmers).

So emptiness is a non-essentialist relativized absolute, abiding interdependently, as “dependent arising” or “interbeing,” a timeless spacious infinitely vast causal nexus of arising interconnected causes and conditions.  Plenty of parking space here.  This Buddhist View is then, non-essentialist.  The good news?  Our appearing realities are not illusory. There “exists” a really real, nominal, relative-conventional reality.  But there is no permanent, substantial, essentially existent reality at all. Our arising realities are merely the relative-conventional dependent arising of spacetime mental and physical forms to a sentient perceiving consciousness.  The reality status of emptiness itself?  Emptiness too is “empty of any shred of intrinsic existence” (Nagarjuna).  H.H.The Dalai Lama terms this beautiful reality paradox the “emptiness of emptiness.”

“It is important for us to avoid the misapprehension that emptiness is an absolute reality from which the illusory world emerges… it’s not some kind of [entity] out there somewhere… emptiness must be understood as ‘empty of intrinsic or independent existence’…form’s ultimate nature… (It) does not imply non-existence of phenomena but the emptiness of phenomena…its ultimate mode of being…the basis that allows form [to] arise as emptiness.”          —H. H. The Dalai Lama, Buddhadharma Quarterly, Fall, 2002

How then does emptiness exist?  Emptiness is established not absolutely, but by our relative, conventional conceptual minds.  Emptiness does not exist ultimately.  Again, it exists merely conventionally, as the reified, conceptually imputed dependent, or interdependent arising of form.  Emptiness is not some deeper logocentric reality.  Thus it is not subject to criticism from Postmodern deconstructionists (Derrida), nor from Premodern theists, West or East.

Madhyamaka emptiness then, is merely the ultimate nature of everyday conventional, inter-subjective reality of relative space-time thoughts and things interdependently arising (vasana/quantum qubits) from their ultimate primordial consciousness ground—by whatever name—and appearing to sentient/human consciousness.  It is this relative, impermanent human consciousness that is the spacetime instantiation of the ultimate, vast, timeless primordial consciousness ground of everything.  “Do you understand the two minds, the mind that is related to something, and the mind that includes everything?” (Suzuki Roshi).  There is here an apparent distance or separation.  There is no ultimate distance or separation.  The primary Dzogchen semde tantra, Kunjed Gyalpo, reveals this ground to be our “supreme identity”.  Who am I?  That I Am!

So there is nothing out there, or in here, that is more cool, or more real, or more blissful than our here now experience, “just as it is”.  No need to change anything (wu-wei).  No need to not change anything.  “So leave it alone and let it be as it is” (Shakamuni Buddha).  From such a mind arises radical, spontaneous action.  Not for the habitual, Modern materialist mind.

Buddhist emptiness should not be construed as nihilistic nothingness or non-existence.  Astonishingly, this strange negation that is emptiness is full of the light/energy/motion that gives rise to everything in the exoteric material cosmos; not to mention the nondual “innermost esoteric” body/mind/spirit kosmos, including us.  Striking a balance between negating too much of this arising relative reality, and negating too little of it; now that is the rub.  This is the Buddhist Middle Way practice (but not the goal), whether secular or non-secular.  “Make the goal the path”.

The forms of emptiness

There is then, a seminal relationship of the Buddha’s Dependent Arising (pratitya samutpada/tendrel) of relative forms, and their ultimate emptiness matrix base or ground.  Again, from his Heart Sutra: “Form is none other than emptiness, emptiness is none other than form.” “Dependent arising is emptiness” (Lama Rinpoche).

Shakyamuni Buddha, indeed countless Buddhas and mahasiddhas of the timeless “three times”—past, present, future—have taught three aspects of this interdependent unity of form and emptiness: 1) causal, all phenomena and processes depend upon prior causes and condi-tions; 2) mereological, wholes are dependent on their parts, and parts are dependent on their wholes; 3) conceptual imputation and reification, all arising phenomena and processes are real only by relative-conventional conceptual attribution and designation by a human consciousness, with no inherently, essentially real or absolute existence.  All of our realities, including us are (gasp!) impermanent!  (Bad for the economy.)   “No phenomenon exists with an independent or intrinsic identity” (H.H. The Dalai Lama, The Universe in a Single Atom, 2005, p. 64).

Hence, all arising physical and mental forms are merely the products of our social inter-objective and cultural inter-subjective deep background linguistic, semiotic “web of belief” (Quine).  So much for an objective, separate material/physical reality.  Quantum physics says so, after all.  This is all respectable Postmodern high culture dogma, to be sure.  But the cognitive dissonance inherent in such an anti-realist, anti-materialist ontologically relative view is a very sticky wicket for liberal democratic Modernity with its utterly ironic and destructive materialist industrial capitalist consumerist mass mind desire (M. Gandhi, J.S. Mill).  Better not to mention it at upscale cocktail parties, or to your doctor.

Just so, with this ontologically relative, anti-essentialist view, Postmodernists Bohr, Quine, Kuhn, the Neo-Pragmatists (Rorty) and the contemporary pan-psychic Neodualists (Chalmers) would agree  (Boaz, “The Problem and the Opportunity of Consciousness,” 2013).

So, all phenomena arise in dependence upon prior causes and conditions; phenomena arise in mutual interdependence of parts and wholes within the vast unbounded whole (mahabindu); phenomena are absent any separate, essential intrinsic existence.   Why?  Again, because they exist only in dependence upon all prior related causes and conditions.  And this absence of inherent self-existence is emptiness.  All emptiness is emptiness of something.  No emptiness, no form.  No form, no emptiness.   It’s emptiness all the way up; it’s emptiness all the way down.

Well, if phenomena do not exist ultimately or absolutely, how do they exist?   Remembering the Two Truths, appearing reality, as we have seen, does exist nominally, relative-conventionally.   Objective reality is not illusory as Eastern and Western transcendental philosophical Idealism would have it.  So we still have to show up for work.   All phenomena are dependently and conceptually designated; they exist only by way of conventionally reified conceptual and linguistic attribution, imputation and designation.  So we had better pay attention to, and be mindful of, our presently activated mind-states; and even our not so present unconscious cognitive states.  Why?   In the words of the Buddha, “What you are is what you have been; what you will be is what you do now.”  And our “bad karma” habitual negative mind states?   Buddhism has powerful instant antidotes, if we will but learn, and apply them.

Emptiness and the self

“All the suffering of this world is the result of clinging to the self” (Shantideva).  Emptiness means empty of attributes, including the self or ego-I, the absence or nonexistence of an intrinsically existing self-nature.  Buddhist middle way Prasangika Madhymaka teaches of the “two selflessnesses,” the selflessness of the person, and the selflessness of phenomena perceived by such persons. The stabilized mind realizing emptiness—the union of shamatha/mindfulness practice (settling the wild horse of the mind into its natural original state), and vipashyanā (penetrating insight meditation)—is the recognition, then realization of the utter absence of self-nature in all arising phenomena, both “self” and “other.”  Therefore, on this Buddhist account, we have the liberating realization of a nondual “wisdom of emptiness” that is the prior unity of generally confused relative-conventional mind with our bright “clear light mind” that is none other than its basal ultimate emptiness ground or source.

The two wisdoms of happiness

Now this Middle Way Madhyamaka emptiness is none other than the Buddha nature of the Buddhist Yogachara School.   According to His Holiness the Dalai Lama, there is no essential difference between these “two wisdoms,” that is to say, between luminous emptiness (shunyata) and our indwelling buddha nature (tathagatagarbha).  “Realizing emptiness we realize our intrinsic buddha nature. Realizing our buddha nature we realize emptiness”.   From these two wisdoms spontaneously arise kind, compassionate life-world conduct.  This then is the union of Buddhist wisdom and compassion, and from this wisdom of kindness (bodhichitta) activity emerges actual human happiness.  “Love is the only cause of happiness” (Garchen Triptrul Rinpoche).  Love is Buddhist ethics writ large.  This “loving kindness” (maitri), and compassion (karuna) that spontaneously arise from meditative equipoise (upeksha) is the heart essence of Buddhist moral psychology and conduct.

Thus it is, the great foundational teaching of emptiness: no-self (anatman), impermenance (anitya) and interdependent arising (pratitya samutpada)—all of this difference—is an ontic prior unity.  This unity is recognized, then realized—step-by-step—through these two wisdoms, emptiness and our inherent, “primordially present” heart seed of buddha nature.  Such realization is our liberating freedom, the happiness that cannot be lost (mahasuka/paramananda/beatitudo).  Such freedom is the result of “mind training” or discipline (yoga/religio) in action (karma), wisdom (jnana), and devotion (bhakti).  Yes, it takes a little practice.

Now What?

The Buddhist View teaches that the emotional ignorance (avidya/marigpa/ajnana) that is Attraction (desire, greed, pride) and Aversion (fear/anger, aggression) is the non-recognition and failure of realization of this triune compassionate wisdom: selflessness, impermanence, and dependent arising.  This non-recognition of the compassionate bodhichitta (awakened heart-mind) is the root cause of human suffering, alienation and human evil.  “If we do not understand that this internal enemy of non-recognition of bodhichitta is the cause of all our suffering, our external enemies will be never-ending” (Lama Rinpoche).

This adventitious ignorance that is suffering then, is an internal conceptual (vikalpa) superimposition or projection (vikshepa) onto our everyday, direct, pristine perceptual experience which is “intrinsically pure” and free, prior to the superimposition of negative and positive concept and belief. “It is perfect as it is”.  Perhaps then we should not believe everything we think, nor defend everything we believe.  Thus do we “miss the mark” (hamartia/sin) of the timeless nondual primordial perfection of the indwelling, “always already” present presence (vidya/rigpa, atman, epinoia, christos, shekhina) of impermanent, selfless, empty, interdependently outshining (abhasa) reality being itself (cittadhatu).  Astoundingly, the arising of the negative afflictive emotions is a cognitive aperture where the light of our primordial awareness wisdom enters in.  Yea, it is the very door through which we may enter into it, and come home.  How do we do this?

On the Buddhist View, the possibility and potential of happiness and release from the ignorance that is suffering is, of course, the practice of the Buddha’s Eightfold Path to both relative and ultimate human happiness.  As H.H. Holiness The Dalai Lama said, “Just open the door.”  (Boaz, “Principia Dharmata: The Buddhist View,” in The Noetic Revolution: Toward an Integral Science of Matter, Mind and Spirit, Draft, 2011), p34 ff.)
David Paul Boaz, posted 7.10.13