Tuesday, May 29, 2012

What Really Matters

Practicing with Emptiness

Once we pass the point of being novices in our practice, we see that emptiness is at the core of the dharma. For many students, the word itself is problematic. It is only later in their practice that they realize the reason they struggle with the word is that it too is empty. For now, let’s not make the word an obstacle to understanding this critically important Mahayana teaching.

Let’s start by looking at what emptiness means. Emptiness means that the things around us (animal, vegetable and mineral; people, places and events; thoughts, ideas and concepts) don’t have any set definition or value, don’t have any inherent meaning in and off themselves. Whatever meaning they do have is because we have assigned it to them.

We know this, at least on the most basic level, because we know that we can change the meaning of something: sometimes it is good to sleep in late, other times not (sleeping is empty); sometimes I think I look great, other times not (my appearance is empty). In fact, because things are empty we can change the story, the description we have of that thing. Empty means anyone can assign whatever definition or meaning or value they want to what’s happening. And that means we can learn to rewrite our stories in ways that reduce and end our pain and suffering.

What about stories that everyone agrees on, aren’t they true? In the 6th century BC the Greeks determined that the world was round and measured the circumference of the earth pretty accurately, yet Europeans as a whole continued to believe that the world was flat until the 17th century. The Alexandrians had measured the circumference of the earth with remarkable accuracy in the 1st century BC, yet with the burning the great library and the beginning of the Christian era, the world became flat, flat, flat, again. Even if everyone seems to agree on a single story, that doesn’t make it true or permanent; it is still empty. It is still just a story. However, “accurate” understandings of the everyday world from stories are important and useful, as we’ll see.

Emptiness is empty of story, empty of inherent and always-the-same meaning and value. It does not suggest that the object doesn’t exist. My car isn’t a good car or a bad car, it just depends on how I view it. When it is running well, it’s a good car; when it breaks down, it’s a bad car. The knowledge that on an ultimate, empty level, it’s not even “a car” until I call it that, doesn’t mean, however, that it doesn’t exist. Of course it exists. “Car,” though is just a label, a story.

So being “empty” isn’t a denial that things exist. Rather it is an understanding that we superimpose upon ourselves–and on things around us–a false existence, a self-existence or essential reality that actually does not exist at all–a story about who we are and about the definitions, meaning of values of the things around us.

What is emptiness? Emptiness is the way things really are, in an absolute sense. It is the way things exist as opposed to the conventional way they appear. We naturally believe that the things we see around us, such as tables, chairs and houses are truly existent, because we believe that they exist in exactly the way that they appear.

However, the way things appear to our senses is deceptive and completely contradictory to the way in which they ultimately exist. Things appear to exist from their own side, without depending upon our mind. This computer, for example, seems to have its own independent, objective existence. It seems to be “outside” whereas our mind seems to be “inside.” We feel that the computer can exist without our mind; we do not feel that our mind is in any way involved in bringing the book into existence.

Although things that appear directly to our senses to be truly existent, in reality all phenomena lack, or are empty of, true existence. This computer, our body, our friends, and the entire universe are in reality just appearances to mind, like things seen in a dream.

On another level, though, we know that things are empty because we know that everything is impermanent, and being impermanent, everything is therefore interconnected. [How we know this will be the topic of a future blog.]

So why do we care? For two crucial reasons: Until we understand that there are two truths, a conventional truth, which is our understanding of things from our everyday perspective, our story-telling, and that there is also an ultimate truth, that things really don’t exist on their own as we seem to perceive them, that things really aren’t separate and solid as our senses imply, that in fact everything is ultimately interrelated and interconnected, we cannot (1) develop a moral code that allows us to distinguish between right and wrong, and (2) we cannot meaningfully learn to reduce and finally end our suffering. [Look for a further explanation of this in a future blog.]

Before explaining a simple way to practice with emptiness to reduce our suffering, even when we are experiencing “big dukkha,” even with events as intense as the death of a child or a terminal cancer diagnosis, I would like to offer Guy Newland’s analogy from Introduction to Emptiness. If this blog has at all wetted your appetite for more about emptiness, go to Newland’s book. He writes:

I concocted for my students the analogy of two radio stations. Channel A is "all things considered radio." This is our regular, conventional channel, and on it we get all kinds of information about the diversity and complexity of the world. Perhaps today they are airing a fierce debate: the proponents of red cars are angry, in a raging controversy with the proponents of blue cars. Normally we listen only to this station, so we take it all at face value and without deeper scrutiny. We are unaware that there is or could be any other channel. But in fact there is a second station, broadcast on channel B, the ultimate perspective. Channel B's programming is "all emptiness, all the time radio." Every phenomenon is presented only from the point of view of its ultimate nature. But when we tune into this channel, all of the detailed information from the other channel is unavailable. From the perspective of ultimate reality, red cars and blue cars are equally and exclusively empty [they are not even “cars.”].

Channel B, emptiness radio, adds new information and a deeper perspective on what is being discussed on the conventional channel. It shows that the things discussed on channel A definitely do not exist in the way that they are ordinarily presented [as solid, separate, and having an essential nature].

When we come back to channel A after tuning in to B, we now understand just how it is that channel A is merely conventional; it is not the only or final perspective. But this new information does not, of course, prove that red cars are in all ways identical to blue cars. [Nor does channel B tell us of the nonexistence of an essentially existent car, that there are no cars]. We still have to make distinctions and make choices about what, if anything, to drive. Channel B alone does not allow us to make practical distinctions, so we still need the information from channel A.

Each gives correct information about its domain.

Conventional realities are not wiped out by…emptiness. The problem of knowing which car to drive is the general problem of how to choose between possible courses of action. It is the question of how empty persons can make distinctions between right and wrong. [The great 14th century Tibetan lama] Tsong-kha-pa shows that answering this question requires distinguishing between two types of knowledge about persons, as well as cars and other things.

Practicing with Emptiness

Most of us live rather exclusively listening to channel A. We see the world as seemingly permanent and separate. When my eyes make contact with the plant in my office, I say to myself, “I see the plant.” Pure channel A–me here, plant there, separate and each solid and existent on its own. When I don’t get what I want, when things don’t go my way, I get mad. Again, pure channel A.

This leads us to unending and unendable dukkha, to problems with everything. As Newland points out, when we listen to channel A we become unaware of channel B. To move significantly along the path toward peacefulness, we must develop an awareness of channel B running in the background, behind the information from channel A that we need to live everyday lives, make distinctions (we need to be able to distinguish between a son and a husband, for example), and we need these distinctions to be of value and benefit to our families, friends, communities, and so on.

And therein lies the practice. Instead of locking into and listening exclusively to channel A, which even when “accurate” is black-and-white, rigid and problematic, say to yourself–whenever you notice there is dukkha, whenever you notice that you are getting upset or angry: “Where is channel B here?”

Whether it is big dukkha: the death of a child or parent, a terminal illness, the loss of a job or house, or little dukkha, noticing a ding on the car door, the moment your body sends you a signal that dukkha is arising (and it is often easier to notice it in the body than the mind), just ask yourself, “Where’s Channel B here?” and you regain your footing on the Middle Path and the dukkha dissolves.

In these examples, the wisdom of emptiness on channel B lets us see beyond our sense of loss to a greater understanding that aging and death are part of every process. This lessons our attachment to “my” loss and allows for grieving rather than self-indulgence. With a terminal illness, channel B redirects our attention from wanting things to be otherwise to being present and doing what is most beneficial, allowing us to see clearly and feel peaceful as we pick wellness strategies. Similarly, a ding, channel B tells us, is simply a chip in the paint on a piece of plastic–I can get it fixed, or not, as is appropriate, without making it personal, without attaching and suffering.

“Where’s channel B here?” That’s the practice. Having the wisdom to keep an awareness of channel B while going about our lives in a channel A world.

If you would like more information about practicing with emptiness, please email.