I’d like to share a perspective on useful emptiness. To get there though, first a comment about judgement, and a sutra or two, and my favorite Chinese Patriarch.
A few years back I posted a thought to a popular social media site that said: “What if enlightenment was as simple as becoming non-judgmental”. That comment was met by some skepticism but it was just a reflection of what I was thinking at that moment, not a thesis I was trying to establish. I really didn’t give it much more thought. I was not seeking to convince anyone of anything and I wasn’t seeking enlightenment.
Time and practice continued. One of the things that comes up a lot in a study of Buddhism is the important of the Heart Sutra. I would see comments like Karl Brunnholzl’s “The Heart Sutra Will Change You Forever” and that, per Shambala press, “the Heart Sutra stands akin in importance to the “Lord’s Prayer” for Christians” as well as “the Heart Sutra is considered …to contain the essence of instructions for the practice of an experience of reality permeated by wisdom and compassion”. So, seemed important. I started to study it.
Reading the Heart Sutra alone didn’t help. Although the sutra itself is only a page long, it is a lot to try to wrap your head around. I read a book about it. I started to look at alternative definitions – some by friends in the Buddhist community, some by renowned teachers like Thich Naht Han. I talked to dharma friends and watched the Dali Lama on YouTube. I didn’t get it. It didn’t click.
If you are not familiar with the Heart Sutra, it includes text like “Form does not differ from emptiness; emptiness does not differ from form. Form itself is emptiness, emptiness is form; sensation, perceptions, formations, and consciousness are also like this”. So it isn’t just a bit of text that I could just read and say “oh, sure, that makes sense” and move on.
Part of the problem is that it – like anything else in Buddhism – isn’t intended to be learned, but to be experienced. The writings on the Heart Sutra were the fingers that point at the moon. I got stuck looking at the fingers and eventually, after feeling like it was simply beyond me, gave up.
I switched to a study of the Platform Sutra. This I greatly enjoyed. The Platform Sutra revolves around lessons and the dharma as explained by someone who started out as a poor illiterate peasant boy and became the great Sixth Patriarch of Ch’an, His Holiness Hui Neng.
On an aside, it was really important to me to find out that not all Buddhist figures are ultra-intelligent people who memorize books and can name the ‘8 of this’ and ’16 that’ and ’32 these’. I struggle with retaining information and book learning due to some poor choices made in my youth and rely greatly on having information available to me via electronics.
Early in the Platform Sutra, it says “One day, after he delivered firewood to a shop, he overheard a man reciting the following line from the “Diamond Sutra” – “Depending upon no-thing, you must find your own mind.” Instantly, Hui Neng became Enlightened. The verse stated: “All Bodhisattvas (Compassionate Ones) should develop a pure mind which clings to no-thing whatsoever; and so he should establish it”. These were cool concepts and ideas to read even when they didn’t fully make sense to me at that time. Another concept that struck me deeply was when Hui Neng said “all dharmas are empty”. I didn’t understand what that meant but here, unlike the heart sutra, I didn’t feel a need to understand it. Instead, that line, “all dharmas are empty”, sat in my mind and my heart, just kind of resting. At peace.
Until, at some point months later, I attended a sangha that did things differently that I had seen them done before. What it was that was different isn’t important – if you hang around Buddhism any amount of time, you’ll see different influences in different traditions. The important part for me is that when I encountered something “different”, instead of following that with a value judgment regarding the way things were done, the idea and the words that “All Dharmas are empty” floated up to my consciousness. And the rest of the sangha was both easy and pleasant. I was released from ‘That’s not the way we do it’ or ‘real Buddhist do it this way’ or ‘I don’t like it when they do it that way’. This ease, this peace that came from the idea of emptiness, lead me to once more return to the Heart Sutra.
“Form does not differ from emptiness; emptiness does not differ from form. Form itself is emptiness, emptiness is form”. What is the Heart sutra saying here? The Dalai Lama teaches that “existence can only be understood in terms of dependent origination.” Dependent origination is a teaching that no being or thing exists independently of other beings or things. Or put another way, Red Pine writes that because all phenomena exist interdependently with other phenomena, all distinctions we make are arbitrary.
All distinctions we make are arbitrary. We use distinctions to create judgements, never realizing that they are based on nothing more than our perception. Since our perception is only specific to us, it is flawed in a way, as we create our own perceptions based on what we experience through form, sound, smell, taste and touch. We can try to see things from another person’s perspective. Some of us are very good at empathizing -and make no mistake- that has great value. But when you get cut off in traffic, you take not only present actual information such as, is it a truck or a car? A fancy expensive car or an older one with some wear and tear? Did it have NY license plates or was it Kentucky? We take that information, add it to our views of NY drivers or people who drive oversized trucks, and all of our past experience of driving and being cut off in traffic, and then add it to our state of mind and a number of other things. And we mumble to ourselves ‘asshat’ and think we know the truth of that person. When we realize that our entire perception of the event is based on a story of what actually happened – instead of what actually happened – we can smile to ourselves and think ‘empty’. Empty of intrinsic value. Empty of truth.
Once I realize this, once I really get it, then what is left of judgment? Since I know that my story about ‘those NY drivers who can’t be bothered to check their side view mirrors cause they are always in a rush, only care about themselves and are probably laughing at me because they think Ohio people are bumpkins and …and …and…’ is at best incomplete, why tell the story at all?
When someone angrily denounces a policy I agree with or rejoices in something that I dislike, instead of me trying to figure out what is wrong with that person, instead I realize my view and opinion are empty. I don’t have to attach to an idea of agree or disagree, revel in or dislike. It is enough that I am me, and you are you. From this position, I am open to hearing the person and can seek common ground if need be – or maybe the skillful thing is to be ok with being different.
When I realize that I don’t know the story – that Dependent origination tells me that things arrive in the context of other thing – this allows me to find compassion. Instead of me brushing someone off for not believing in something that is so obvious to me, I realize we believe what we do because of the conditions around us. Some of us can find freedom after being raised in a toxic and unskillful environment; others might need to be heard and listened to and loving kindness to find a new path. And always we realize we too are empty – what makes us so sure we are smart and wise in all things? Maybe we are – but never just accept it. Always wonder, question, poke, keep your eyes open and looking.
I will leave you with this quote by Dogen
“To study the Buddha Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things. When actualized by myriad things, your body and mind as well as the bodies and minds of others drop away. No trace of enlightenment remains, and this no-trace continues endlessly.”