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Lions Roar : May 2006
SHAMBHALA SUN MAY 2006 56 pens is just what happens. My body, my thoughts, my emotions, my perceptions, desires, hopes, actions, words—this is the stuff that makes up my life and it is never desperate because I feel its cloud-like nature. That cloud is all I am: it is my freedom to soar, my connection to all. I can float in it, and watch it form and re- form in the endless sky. This doesn’t mean I am disconnected from life, living in a Buddhist nirvana of disassociation. Quite the contrary, I know there is no way not to be connected, no person or place that is beyond my concern. When I practice meditation I rest in emptiness: my breath goes in and out, a breath I share with all who have lived and will live, the great rhythm that began this world of physical reality and will never cease, even when the Earth is gone. It’s nice, in the predawn hours, to sit sharing that widely, knowing that this zero-point underlies all my walking and talking and eating and thinking—all activity—all the day through; in fact, it is it. They say that wisdom (the faculty that cognizes emptiness) and compassion are like the wings of a great bird. Holding both in balance against the wafting winds allows you to float, enjoying the day. Really, though, the two wings are one wing. Where you can appreciate the flavor of emptiness on the tongue you know immediately (without mediation) that love is the only way, and that everything is love and nothing but love. What a pleasant thing to hold in mind! All problems, all joys, all living, and all dying—it’s love. Traditionally, emptiness refers to the fact that phenonema have no “intrinsic existence.” This means not that phenomena don’t exist, but that they don’t exist as we think they do, as free- standing, independent, solidly real entities. This is as true of us as it is of the world around us: everything is contingent, not solid, ceasing the moment it arises, moment after moment. Everything is like space, real in its own way, and absolutely necessary, but not something you could put your finger on. We, of course, don’t know this. We are, according to the empti- ness pundits of Buddhism, deeply ignorant of the one thing we should not be ignorant of: the real nature of ourselves and the world we live in. “Ignorance,” unfortunately, doesn’t mean we don’t know. It would be better if we didn’t know. Ignorance means we know something very firmly, but it is the wrong thing: we know that things are solid and independent and intrinsically existent. But they actually are not. So ignorance is not not-knowing; igno- rance is a form of knowing, but it is a mis-knowing. And spiritual practice is the process of coming to see our mis-knowledge and letting it go: to begin to experience, accept, and live the truth about how we and the world actually are. When we begin to understand and to live in this way, there is a great decrease in the fear and dread, so common in human experience, caused by the huge gap between our expectations and the way things actually are. With an appreciation of the empty nature of things, there are no more foiled expectations. There is a lot more joy, peace, and love. The Buddhist literature on emptiness, the Prajnaparamita, is vast. It includes many sutras that run to many thousands of pages. On top of that, the commentarial literature on the sutras is also vast and intricate, as are the scholastic treatises on the subject. So many words to discuss the voidness of all phenom- ena—and the fact that words do not actually refer to things the way we think they do! Why so much talk about all this? For most of us, who are simply trying to live our lives with less suffering, all this complicated philosophical discourse is really beside the point. The Buddha said, in so many words, I am not a philoso- pher; I am a doctor, and the purpose of my teaching is not to explain the nature of reality but simply to offer a path that will lead to suffering’s end. Why then did the later Buddhists feel the necessity of producing such vast quantities of metaphysics? Well, it turns out that it is naive to think that we can treat the human illness without having an accurate view of how things really are. Whether we are aware of it or not, we are all philoso- phers; we are all living our lives based on philosophical assump- tions, however unexamined or even unconscious they may be, and this unconscious mis-knowledge is the root cause of our an- guish. This mis-knowledge is not mere doctrinal incorrectness; it really matters to our lives. In Buddhism, suffering means suffering of the mind, suffer- ing that comes from the way we take things. Physical suffering is not preventable: if there is illness or injury there will be pain, and even the Buddha suffered pain. But pain is not suffering. Mostly what we call suffering is suffering of the mind. Even most of our seemingly physical suffering is mind-caused. It is emo- tional suffering, suffering due to our complaining and our dis- appointment and feeling of being cheated and ruined because we are experiencing pain. This suffering is worse than the physi- cal sensation of pain, though we mistakenly think it necessarily goes along with the sensation of pain. Suffering is afflictive emo- tion—anger, fear, regret, greed, violence, and so on. When we exercise these emotions, no matter how justified they may feel, we cause suffering in ourselves, and that suffering has a way of spreading out all around us. But what’s the root of these afflictive emotions? How do they arise in the first place? They arise out of clinging—clinging to the self and to our opinions and to all that is external to us that we identify with. We take all of this as intrinsically existing, and so are naturally—spontaneously and convincingly—upset when any of it is threatened. But the truth is that nothing can be threatened, because it doesn’t exist in the way we think it does. Free of intrinsic existence, everything is free of all threat. When we really know this, through and through, down to the bottom of our souls, then the afflictive emotions don’t arise. Instead there is peace and there is affection, even in tough situations. There is no sense of fearing or hating or desir- ing what is intrinsically nonexistent, empty. That things are empty doesn’t mean, as I have said, that they are unreal or that they don’t exist. Here I think we can trust our common sense: we know that things are, we know that some- thing is going on. We go to the movies, we read or hear stories of