Emptiness - Selections
If everything is empty, then what ceases in Nirvana and is born in rebirth? Guy Armstrong tackles this question and more in this richly informed, practical guide to emptiness for the meditator.
The World Is Empty of Self All yogas have only one aim: to save you from the calamity of separate existence. —Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj WE LIVE IN AN AGE when concern for the self has risen to unprecedented levels. Families and communities are disintegrating, and with them go our nearest opportunities for generosity and service. The social contract to care for one another is under attack. The planet’s environmental health is in crisis, while many remain oblivious or indifferent. Materialism is widely honored and rampant. Compromise is becoming a distant memory. In our culture now it sometimes seems that all that matters is me: my wants, pleasures, needs, opinions, and rights. Excessive self-concern is, of course, not a new phenomenon. It has always been a destructive aspect of human nature. But social structures that once limited its expression are now breaking down, and we are left more and more to face the naked manifestation of this force. There was once a time when no one would have dared to say, “Greed is good,” but now this expression is seen as little more than the frank admission of a common ethic. Buddhism views excessive self-centeredness as the primary source of suffering, causing us to act in ways that harm ourselves and others, from infidelity and dishonesty to murder, terrorism, and war. The habit of self-concern creates pain in our closest relationships, gives rise to greed and hatred, and torments our hearts on a daily basis. There is no way to a true and lasting happiness without seeing into and eventually overcoming this force. Fortunately Buddhism doesn’t stop with the diagnosis. It offers a radical therapy for overcoming self-centeredness by questioning the very idea of a self. Throughout his teaching career, the Buddha returned to this point again and again. He said that in our obsession with self, we are like a barking dog tied to a post, running endlessly and fruitlessly around a single point,2 yet we fundamentally misunderstand what it is. “In whatever way they conceive of self,” he said, “the fact is ever other than that.” THE LANGUAGE OF SELF AND NOT-SELF As we’ve seen, the self is designated by words like I, me, and mine. This sense of self, or “I,” seems unmistakably real, yet when we look for it directly, it is elusive. William James said, “When I search for my self, all I can find is a funny feeling at the back of my throat.” The Dalai Lama said that when something seems clear to us but we can’t find it, that is a sure sign of delusion. The self is not real in the ways we take it to be. The Buddha was asked by his cousin and longtime attendant, Ānanda, “Venerable sir, it is said, ‘Empty is the world, empty is the world.’ In what way is it said, ‘Empty is the world’?” The Buddha replied, “It is, Ānanda, because it is empty of self and of what belongs to self that it is said, ‘Empty is the world.’”4 The world is empty of self. Sometimes this is explained as the Buddhist teaching of no-self. Yet it seems inarguable that someone has written these words and someone else is reading them! What is the meaning of the puzzling assertion of no-self? This is the question I’ll try to answer in part 1 of this book. To the extent that we can intuit the absence of a self, as opposed to merely believing in it as a doctrine, we will understand a key aspect of emptiness. The two understandings—(1) the absence of self and (2) emptiness—are mostly used synonymously in this part of the book. The Conventions of “I” and “Mine” As we explore the assertion that the world is empty of self, we need to distinguish between our everyday use of the words I and mine and the reality these words point to. The Buddha did not tell us never to say these words in any type of conversation. He said that a wise person can use these terms without being confused by them.5 Our speech would sound absurd if we did not use the words I or mine out of a fear of being “dharmically incorrect.” We’d have to resort to cumbersome expressions like “the speaker” or “the one standing here.” It’s fine to say “I” and “mine,” “you” and “yours,” as long you understand that these terms are merely conventions of our social contract that identify where an activity is taking place or where ownership is assigned. With these useful conventions, you end up in your home and I end up in mine, after driving our respective cars. Life would be too chaotic without these conventions and the language we use to communicate about them. Similarly, there is a conventional manner in which we can talk about an individual having a unique way of being that we might call an identity. We all have characteristics of height, weight, age, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, and personality that allow us to describe ourselves in meaningful and authentic ways. The teaching on the absence of self does not take away or disregard these useful forms of description. But it does point to the need not to stop at the conventional description and take it as an ultimate truth—because doing that will lead to suffering. The problem arises when we take conventional language to mean more than it can. By repeating “I” and “mine,” and describing ourselves as being a certain way, we’ve come to believe that something real is being pointed to that isn’t actually there. Buddhist practice helps us free ourselves from this delusion and see things as they actually are. In the process we find a more expansive and generous way to relate with the world. No-Self versus Not-Self There is a debate in the Western Buddhist world on how to translate this key teaching on the absence of self. Some teachers call it “no-self ” and others call it “not-self.” The Pali term is anattā and could be translated either way: attā means “self ” and the prefix an- is a negation. Those who translate it as “no-self ” say this is a pithy expression that directly points to the insight that the world is empty of self, that no self can found anywhere. Those who call it “not-self ” are fond of saying (and as far as I know, this is true) that there is no passage in the Pali Canon in which the Buddha categorically states, “There is no self.” They quote a particular discourse in which the Buddha is asked by a wanderer from another sect whether there is a self or not, and he refuses to answer. The reason he later gives for his silence is tied to a subtle philosophical principle in vogue in his day.6 I think these points are interesting but not terribly significant. Philosophically, saying “the world is empty of self ” is a clear statement of absence, and so I believe the translation “no-self ” is a valid interpretation. However, the most compelling argument for using “not-self,” I find, is that it shifts the discussion from a philosophical position (“There is no self ”) to a point-by-point investigation of one’s direct experience (“The body is not the self ”). A philosophical position can be taken as something we ought to believe, and if we don’t we’re not good Buddhists. Buddhism is not particularly concerned with beliefs, because beliefs don’t liberate us. The Buddha was interested in having us develop understanding to lead us out of suffering. When we consider statements such as “The body is not self ” or “Anger is not self,” we have specific objects to contrast with what we take a true self to be. That is why I find the “not-self ” language more inviting and provocative, and I will use this translation most of the time in this book. Our misunderstandings around the nature of the self are reflected in and also conditioned by the way we use language. In this section we’ll look at some of the ways we use the words I and my in English that don’t make logical sense. We’ll also explore what is considered real in Buddhism so that we have a reliable foundation for investigation, and we’ll see how the sense of self gets constructed again and again out of these foundational building blocks. We will see why the Buddha said that we don’t need to see these basic realities as self and what our experience might be if we stop doing that. When we know for ourselves the emptiness of self that the Buddha pointed to, we will be in accord with the old Sri Lankan monk who said, with great amusement, “No self, no problem!”