The most fundamental truth in all of Buddhism is that of the emptiness of all things. Enlightenment is the realization of this truth. Oh, but if only the depths of this reality were as easy to understand as to define!
If the truth of emptiness (sunyata) were as easy to grasp as that of, say, 2+2=4, we wouldn’t need to speak in terms of enlightenment, or awakening (bodhi). It would be obvious to all but the least educated amongst us. But since the deepest understanding of emptiness is more akin to an understanding of Einstein’s theory of general relativity than simple arithmetic, we give it a special name. Just as we have a special name, of a sort, for those who understand relativity. Namely, genius!
Indeed, some can speak intelligently about certain aspects of general relativity. Far fewer, though – even after a century of commentary, experimentation, study, and reflection – have grasped its intricacies. So groundbreakingly monumental was Einstein’s theory that when Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington was asked, shortly after its publication, whether it was true that only three people actually understood it, he is said to have quipped: “Who's the third?” Emptiness, however, at least in all of its profundity, is even more esoteric than the theory of general relativity. So much so that if another human being were to realize it as deeply as the historical Buddha purportedly did (or has), then we would consider him or her to be a buddha as well – an awakened being. Such deep realization is referred to as anuttara-samyaksambodhi, perfect universal enlightenment – something not realized by anyone else in the 2,500 years or so since the time of the historical Buddha (Schuhmacher & Woerner, 1994).
And therein lies one of the foundation stones of the Buddhist religion. Because the Buddha’s realization of the truth of emptiness is believed to be so pure, perfect, unsurpassed and unsurpassable, he is revered as a god-like being in at least a figurative sense by many Buddhist practitioners; and he is thought of quite literally as a god by many others. How then are we to discern between one who can speak at least somewhat intelligently about emptiness, and one whose realization is as described at the end of the Heart Sutra:
Gate gate paragate parsamgate bodhi svaha!
Or in other words:
Gone, Gone, Gone beyond, Gone altogether beyond.
O what an awakening. All Hail! (Conze, 1954)
Now, in order to make any further progress at all with this post, I must attempt to speak at least somewhat intelligently about emptiness (sunyata). Emptiness, as Buddhists use the term, refers to the lack of inherent self-hood of everything. Everything is comprised of other things. Nothing can be found to exist in an unconditioned way. Nothing can be found which will not one day cease to exist after transitioning to something else. Of course, this is a concept that is easy enough to grasp by anyone with an understanding of the workings of the natural world – from manure transitioning into vegetables to the energy/matter equivalence of Einstein’s most famous equation, E=mc2. Form is emptiness and emptiness is form. This is the lesson of the Heart Sutra.
The matter becomes difficult when we begin speaking of the fact that we, too, are empty. Our self-hood is a construction. No, we are not an illusion. It is just that we continue to overlay the seamless nature of the emptiness of reality with conceptualization upon conceptualization that only serve the reification of form. We are conditioned to think in terms of self and other, subject and object. This is the attachment to self that Buddhism warns can only lead to the perpetuation of our suffering.
But how can we not think in terms of self and other, subject and object. Such thinking is so ingrained in our psyche, and perhaps even in the neurological structure of our brain itself. Like some Kantian a priori, it is as if this very human existence requires us to think of the world in precisely this way.
Which is why the Buddha’s enlightenment is thought of as being such a superhuman feat. Perhaps we can speak intelligently to at least some extent about the nature of emptiness. Perhaps we can even have a so-called “enlightenment experience” on occasion in which we actually “see” emptiness with our very own “eyes”. Yes, some of these experiences are powerful enough that those who have them subsequently alter their lives in an attempt to incorporate this newly glimpsed reality into their day to day existence. Nonetheless, such visions and experiences are confined to an ordinary space and time. Inevitably, whatever karma still remains ends up pulling us back into thinking of the world in subject/object terms, and speaking of it in subject/object terms. The enlightenment of the Buddha, on the other hand, was/is perfect, penetrating, and permanent.
When we speak of emptiness with at least some semblance of intelligence, we are quite often stuck in a situation where we are a subject, this constructed self, using words to speak of some object, the idea of emptiness, to other subjective listeners. We can seem to make some progress this way, and – to the extent that we believe in the truth of emptiness, and in the ability of our understanding of this truth to alleviate the suffering of ourselves and others – we must at least try. But the perfect, pure, unsurpassed and unsurpassable understanding of the Buddha is an experiential one. What is it like to experience a world in which the boundaries between subject and object fade away into veritable seamlessness – for good? What is the sound of one hand clapping? What is nothingness? What is your original face, the one you had before your mother and father were born?
Which brings me to the photo accompanying this post. Have you ever found yourself gazing out across a cornfield while travelling down the highway at a fairly high rate of speed? The angle at which you look relative to the rows in which the corn is planted makes it appear as though the field is just a vast expanse of stalks and leaves and tassels. But then you happen to look at an angle that coincides with the rows of corn, and suddenly a different order altogether becomes apparent. Enlightenment experiences are kind of like this phenomenon. Our ordinary ways of thinking and being impose a certain appearance of order on the world, or lack thereof as the case may be. But then, out of the blue, something happens that allows us to see the world in a different way – from the perspective of emptiness. Our usual conceptualizations and interpretations regarding what we are seeing, and who is doing the seeing, fall away, and “we” are afforded a glimpse of an entirely new way of looking at the world. Ah, but then our karma reels us back in, and we begin seeing the world once again as we’ve always seen it before.
This is where Zen meditation comes in. It is in meditation that we practice navigating this world of seamlessness. But to say that meditation inevitably leads to this thing called enlightenment is to reduce that which is very mysterious and ineffable to a mere recipe. Robert Aitken Roshi reportedly said words to the effect: “Enlightenment is an accident. Practice [meditation] makes us accident prone.”
Wishing you at least a glimpse of emptiness on this day and all others!
By the way, all terms used here that are not in ordinary English usage are Sanskrit in origin.
Conze, E. (1954). Buddhist texts through the ages (ed. Conze, E.). Harper Torchbooks, The Cloister Library.
Schuhmacher, S., Woerner, G. (1994). The encyclopedia of Eastern philosophy and religion. Shambhala Publications, Inc.
Copyright 2018 by Mark Robert Frank