A nun in South Africa sent me a video recently, a quantum physics thing. You’ve probably seen videos like this by now on social media or elsewhere, or maybe you even study science?! It seems to me like some of modern science is catching up to Buddha’s wisdom. I have to say that because whenever I see anything or read anything about quantum physics—and I do find it fascinating, at least when it’s in plain English—I always think “That’s what Buddha said! Only, like, 2500 years ago!” However, perhaps more to the point, not only did he say it, but he also showed us how to actually gain personal experience of these mind-boggling facts and use them to our advantage to be rid of all our suffering and get happy.
So there’s around 7.7 billion human beings, or thereabout, on this planet … (didn’t we just get to 7 billion the other day?! I can’t keep up). In any event, there are a lot of us, not to mention all the animals and so forth … But … (and do pause to think about this for a moment) … if you removed from human beings alone all the empty space between our atoms, how much matter would be left?……
A sugar cube.
The entire human race would fit into a single sugar cube!
C’mon, that’s pretty impressive, don’t you think?! Fits nicely with one of the earliest examples I read about which is how, if you look at a wall, it appears very solid – ‘cos everything appears solid to us. This is the persistent illusion we have that there’s a real, physical, external, solid wall, which has nothing to do with our perceiving consciousness. But a solid wall is made of lots of atoms, and molecules, and quarks, and leptons, and the rest of it, and they’re all whizzing around really, really fast, and the space between two atoms—apparently, this is what I read—is the equivalent of the space between two planets. And there are also absurdly huge spaces between the subatomic particles. Turns out there is 99.999% more space than matter in a solid wall and in anything else that mistakenly seems solid.
I mean, that’s crazy, no, how it is nothing like it appears?!!!
So why, from a conventional or scientific point of view, do things appear so darned solid if they’re not, if they’re just space?! Because apparently these subatomic particles are moving so fast that they give the illusion of solidity. Maybe it is like quickly twirling a stick of incense in a dark room – it appears like a continuous ring of fire when it is just the point of the incense stick.
As the video says:
The hidden truth of reality is that this is a universe built on pure energy—pure consciousness … This consciousness has no physical boundaries. It is intimately connected everywhere.
This science confirms what Buddha has always been talking about, that everything depends 100% upon the mind and everything is interconnected – something he proved in many different ways.
Okay, let’s get back to the 7.7 billion of us who are now shrunk to the size of a sugar cube. That’s us, right, a sugar cube. So, where do all these apparently solid bodies that we see keep coming from!? Why are we seeing them everywhere? Where are they really? How come they keep getting in my way?!!
As Einstein is quoted:
Reality is an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.
Buddha also takes this a lot further because, for one thing, the molecules, the subatomic particles, and the space are also all mere illusion. They’re dreamlike, we can’t find them anywhere if we look for them, they don’t exist from their own side. They are mere appearance, mere name, like objects in a dream.
Buddha explained how everything is “empty like space,” and he did so thousands of years ago, long before the invention of particle accelerators and fancy microscopes. He went a lot further than modern science – proving that nothing exists from its own side, not that sugar cube, not even the consciousness perceiving it.
Things’ lack of existing from their own side, or objectively, is ultimate truth. It is reality. There are no ultimate or findable constituents of the universe, not even really dense sugar cubes. Everything is empty of inherent existence. We can’t find a single thing when we go looking for it. There is nothing there to grasp at.
Conventional reality is an illusion, and therefore, if you think about it, not really reality. Only ultimate truth, or emptiness, is reality because only emptiness exists in the way that it appears.
As this video shows, what we’re doing is projecting a world that’s not there; even on the level of conventional science we’re projecting a solid world. We don’t go around and see infinite space everywhere, do we? No, everything appears to be solid and chunky and real. And the problem is, we believe it. We’re actually projecting that solidity with our thoughts, with our consciousness, but we still manage to believe that it’s real.
Our whole lives are trapped within the imaginary confines of that hallucination. If we are so far off understanding and perceiving reality, we are suffering – how could it be otherwise?
And Buddha also had an enormous amount of insight into consciousness – what it is, how it creates our world, and how it is not just doing that in this one brief dreamlike life but in life after life. Everything is arising from the continuum of our consciousness moment by moment, as in a dream, in a never-ending story.
What are the implications?
However, Buddha didn’t explain these things simply so we could all go, “Whoaaaah!!!!”, followed by “What’s for supper?” This kind of information may not be impacting us at a deep level because we don’t really know what to do with it.
This video, at 5 minutes, is almost too long by today’s standards but still it goes by very fast. It may make some of us think “Wow!” But how long does this wonderment last if we don’t slow down to think about it and take the implications deep into our heart? And how can it help us? As the video says:
But despite this knowledge that has been written about in countless ancient mystical texts, and proven time and time again by modern science, we continue to behave as if it wasn’t true. We continue to use the old paradigm model of a physical universe when trying to change the world and fix its problems.
I was telling my childhood Guyanese friends about this video over a Chinese meal in Jamaica Queens, and their eyes did widen. Five minutes later, however, we were discussing Prince Harry and Meghan leaving the royal family, “You’re British! What do you think about THAT?!” Any potential implications from this mind-boggling insight into our existential predicament were already dismissed or forgotten in favor of useless opinions about the “real world”.
And I thought, “Well that had a lot of impact!” I didn’t blame us – it is Albert Einstein’s point, we are living a very persistent illusion. Most people never seem to leave it, even for a minute – it’s horrible, to be honest. And even those of us who do, thanks to the kindness of our wise teachers, are going to keep getting sucked back into this illusion until we can maintain a far deeper knowing in our heart.
The purpose of Buddhism is to gain a deep functional wisdom of all these truths, which sets us free — finally!!! — from the beginningless hallucinations of samsara. Plus it is so much easier to study Buddhism than to study quantum physics! Given this, I cannot resist exploring this video to see if we can start taking its revelations into our hearts and lives to really change stuff up. More coming soon …
Meantime, I would love to hear what you make of all this in the comments below!
Of course we homo sapiens are not inherently monkeys, much less evil monkeys; but there is some validity in saying we are hairless primates rather than some superior life form, and that as a species we have managed to couple our creative imaginations with increasing greed and selfishness to entrap, torture, and exterminate millions of fellow living beings (including previous varieties of human).
(I called this article “Evil monkeys” because it was quicker than “psychopathic narcissistic genocidal self-important monkeys”).
For me that narrative of evolutionary biology only tells part of a story, yet it has been helpful. I have been feeling keenly that despite my usual pride of being a human being as opposed to, say, a chimpanzee or a squirrel, there is really nothing exceptional about me (or other humans) — we are all part and parcel of samsara, trapped in flesh and blood just like all the other animals.
What is so different about me?! How can I expect a better outcome than anyone else around here? How can I expect that for any of the other hairless monkeys I know? That is scary, as there is visibly infinite suffering in our world; so it has been helping me to develop deeper renunciation and compassion.
Yet at the same time my mind need not be that of an animal for I now have a brief window of opportunity to use my mental power to overcome self-grasping — to see that none of this suffering is really happening, that it is like a dream or a mirage. As I heard Lenny Kravitz sing earlier:
Wake up world before it is too late.
(I’ll just remind us all while I’m here of the Buddhist understanding of our minds as formless continuums of awareness that have passed from body to body since beginningless time. Therefore, this body we have right now is just one of countless we have appropriated. Evolutionary biology doesn’t take that continuum of consciousness into account as far as I can tell so, like I say, it only tells part of a story.)
Evil monkeys or enlightened Buddhas – our choice
Buddha is deeply radical in saying that all the things we normally perceive do not exist, and proving it in multiple ways.
Dream things such as dream mountains and dream houses And the horses and elephants that are created by magicians Are all mere appearance to the mind – They do not actually exist. In the same way, all living beings from gods to hell beings And all phenomena that we normally see or perceive Are also mere appearances to the mind – They do not actually exist.” ~ Norsang Gyatso, quoted in TheOral Instructions of the Mahamudra
This truth can come to be experienced, giving us actual mental freedom and lasting bliss. Which is what we all want. And all the other teachings of Buddhism — such as renunciation and compassion and even faith — are designed not as something to believe in “out there,” but as mere devices to lead us to the truth of emptiness.
The exercise yard of a bigger prison
The author Harari theorizes that we only ever escape one imagined order by inventing another. He gives some good examples, and funnily enough I just stumbled upon one myself while reading The Week — capitalism will go away if we all believe in socialism instead:
For 40 years, the corporate world has reverently knelt before libertarian economist Milton Friedman and his famed doctrine: “There is one and only one social responsibility of business,” Friedman said, and that is to “engage in activities designed to increase its profits.”
However, at this point in history, for various reasons I won’t get into:
… capitalism is clearly headed for a reckoning …. Real-world experience has undermined free marketeers’ near-theological belief that the unfettered pursuit of self-interest invariably produces the best outcomes for society itself.
We might be headed for “pure and unadulterated socialism” instead.
Be that as it may, and whether you think that would be an improvement or not, Harari concludes that replacing one system with another cannot actually free us:
There is no way out of the imagined order. When we break down our prison walls and run towards freedom, we are in fact running into the more spacious exercise yard of a bigger prison.
Overall, I agree with him … BUT ONLY IF WE DON’T REALIZE EMPTINESS. This is the door through which we can finally escape the prison of samsara.
In the meantime we can still safely agree on some things
An understanding of emptiness allows for us to follow relative reality. We can all agree that this is a blog for example. We will never find it anywhere if we look for it, so it is not an objective or absolute truth; but it still functions as a blog. That is conventional reality.
I explained here about how things like forests come into being – once the forest exists, insofar as we all agree there is a forest, it functions and we can burn it down and make lots of money.
But although things appear and perform a function, they never exist from their own side. They don’t have to exist from their own side to appear and function – in fact, if they did exist from their own side they could neither appear nor function.
Within that, some relative reality works very well, not least because it brings us inner peace and takes us in the direction of the wisdom realizing the way things are. Geshe-la calls this “beneficial believing”.
For example, developing love and compassion is beneficial believing because it gets us closer and closer to being able to benefit ourselves and others. It is also an expression of our pure, non-deluded nature. Identifying ourselves and others as our pure Buddha nature as opposed to our delusions is also beneficial believing.
Karma functions too. Virtuous actions that derive from a relatively realistic view of things, such as compassion, patience, or love, lead to good results; and actions that derive from delusions — non-virtuous actions (such as gouging out pigs’ eyes so they can’t run away) — lead to bad results. It’s not surprising really that this is the case.
There is relative truth. We want to be happy and free from suffering and some truths and states of mind, including faith, lead us closer toward that. As Voltaire said:
There is no God, but don’t tell that to my servant, lest he murder me at night.
No narrative created by self-grasping can work that great, but some do work better than others. How? Because some bring about some temporary happiness and freedom for ourselves and others, such as those rooted in decency, empathy, kindness, and unselfishness. Others just entrap us more and more deeply in a vicious cycle of selfishness, fear, and pain.
So what can we do for our troubled planet?
We watch the news at record rates; everyone is interested in politics these days it seems. And the more we watch, the more we are in danger of buying into the various narratives we are being fed, and the more we become immersed in our own echo chambers, believing more and more what we’re told. It’s a bit dangerous, frankly. Another maybe slightly relevant quote:
It is impossible to raise an army solely by coercion. At least some of the commanders and soldiers must truly believe in something, be it God, honor, motherland, manhood, or money.
I reckon we could all do with less feverish yet passive following of CNN, Fox news, or Twitter feeds, and spending more time proactively and responsibly working on transforming our own minds and actions.
The point is, we don’t really have much time left, whichever way you cut it. A year goes fast, and how many of those do we have before we die? A month goes even faster and how many of those do we have left – several hundred at most? What we choose to do with this remaining time is incredibly important because who knows whether we’ll have the freedom to choose what to do with our thoughts in our next life. Just ask the veal calf or one of the trillion tortured chickens.
Freedom from illusion
I found this passage from Sapiens somewhat thought-provoking, what do you think of it?
How do you cause people to believe in an imagined order such as Christianity*, democracy, or capitalism? First, you never admit that the order is imagined. You always insist that the order sustaining society is an objective reality created by the great gods or by the laws of nature. People are unequal, not because Hammurabi said so, but because Enlil and Marduk decreed it. Free markets are the best economic system, not because Adam Smith said so, but because these are the immutable laws of nature.
But the point I suppose I am trying to make is that Buddha totally did admit that his teachings are imagined – because everything is. But there is incorrect and correct imagination, and Buddha’s clear and practical teachings are designed specifically to lead us to the realization that everything is imagined, and thus finally to freedom from the illusion.
*I don’t feel comfortable singling out any religion as not revealing the truth of emptiness – it seems very likely to me that enlightened beings (Skt. Buddhas) would do their best to appear and teach in all traditions to reveal this truth one way or another. I have read profound things in Christianity, for example; and I also remember Venerable Geshe-la saying how surprised he was to discover how rich was the English language and therefore how easy to translate profound concepts from Tibetan Buddhism — how it had the deep words “manifestation” and “emanation” for example, which come from the early Christian tradition. I think it is also helpful that we have the words “illusion” versus “reality,” for example, indicating that these ideas are not new. Emptiness doesn’t belong to Buddhism, obviously; it is the only truth for everyone. But Buddha did emphasize and explain it very clearly.
The graying of America
Talking of aging, dying, and getting a move on, I was just reading an article called “The graying of America”, which includes all the dismal statistics and prognoses you can imagine. But the article then suggested optimistically that we could “copy or learn” from other countries in their approach to the problem. That sounded good, for a moment, or at least better than nothing, as I read about hacks for incentivizing old people to keep exercising.
But the good ideas then abruptly dried up, because this is what came next: “Japanese companies such as Sony and Soft Bank are marketing a line of robot puppies and baby seals as a balm for elderly loneliness.”
Whaaa? That’s supposed to reassure me — that I can look forward to a robot baby seal for company?! Yes, apparently: “Just looking at it makes people smile.” Grimly, I would hope, unless they’ve totally lost their marbles. And that’s not all – at the Shintomi nursing home in Tokyo you can now join in a sing-along led by a 4-foot-tall android named Pepper.
Forget the chronic shortage of social security, pensions, and doctors, the decline in GDP, the resetting of crosswalk timers throughout the land, or the epidemic of loneliness as millions of people find themselves trapped in their once comfortable suburban houses unable to walk or drive to the shops. The idea of spending my golden years with a literally mindless robot seal who can neither give nor receive an iota of love, and apparently enjoying it, is what horrifies me the most.
And in my case we’re only really talking a matter of 10-20 years at this point: all the more reason to focus my efforts and for-now-functioning marbles on getting into my heart and out of samsara.
Here is a great poem a friend sent me the other day; she knew it’d be right up my street!:
How exhilarating it was to march along the great boulevards in the sun flash of trumpets and under all the waving flags—
the flag of ambition, the flag of love. So many of us streaming along— all of humanity, really— moving in perfect step, yet each lost in the room of a private dream.
How stimulating the scenery of the world, the rows of roadside trees, the huge curtain of the sky.
How endless it seemed until we veered off the broad turnpike into a pasture of high grass, headed toward the dizzying cliffs of mortality.
Generation after generation, we keep shouldering forward until we step off the lip into space.
And I should not have to remind you that little time is given here to rest on a wayside bench, to stop and bend to the wildflowers, or to study a bird on a branch—
not when the young are always shoving from behind, not when the old keep tugging us forward, pulling on our arms with all their feeble strength.
Wake up world
The other day I dreamed I was miles from where I needed to be and already late, but instead of getting a move on I was sluggishly trying to figure out something suitable to wear.
Whatever this random dream amongst millions of dreams may mean, far more important is what I noticed upon waking, which is how we just get caught up in our narratives.
Within those nightly parameters we feel we have to figure everything out, whereas all we really need to do to solve everything and get where we need to be is to wake up. Blessed relief. It is all well and good being nice to the people around us in our dream, and accepting their help and kindness and so on, and it makes the dream far more pleasant than fighting and arguing; but, either way, nothing is really going on, and we simply need to wake up. As it says in Request to the Lord of all Lineages:
All my appearances in my dreams teach me That all my appearances when awake do not exist; Thus for me all my dream appearances Are the supreme instructions of my Guru.
Rather than blindly following the crowd or people at work, like a sheep, we have to figure out what narrative or world view we are following and whether or not it is working for us; and use our considerable human ingenuity and will power to escape.
Percy and Jenny
Talking of sheep, I once lived in a huge Buddhist Centre called Madhyamaka Centre, at Kilnwick Percy Hall, way out in the Yorkshire countryside. Two sheep, only two, kept escaping from the neighboring field and hanging out in our rose gardens. We kept returning them, and they kept escaping, we never quite figured out how.
One Tuesday the farmer came to collect his flock for slaughter, and sure enough the two sheep once again sought refuge on our land. When the farmer realized they were missing and came to find them, our Admin Director Nick Gillespie decided on the spot to buy them off him instead.
Percy, the ringleader, was a surprisingly intelligent and personable sheep – one could imagine him reading The Times when no one was looking. Jenny was pretty dumb, but she adored Percy and followed him everywhere, and that was her saving grace. Within a few months, the beloved Percy died of yew poisoning and we all did a transference of consciousness for him. Due to his refusal to follow the other sheep, we like to think that he escaped not just a beastly death but more lives in the lower realms and/or samsara. Jenny escaped relatively due to her good idea to follow Percy – she lived to a ripe old age, along with a couple more lambs to keep her company. Hopefully she followed him to the Pure Land.
It takes a special sheep to be that persistent. It takes a special human to be that persistent too, but here we are, and we have to find freedom before the farmer gets here.
We are making all of this up as we go along. Always have been. Always will be.
That’s the thing I admire the most about Buddhism – it explains so clearly that the only truth is that nothing is really true. Nothing exists inherently. We are creating everything with our thoughts — there is nothing out there existing from its own side. Yet, at the same time, right here right now we have not just the potential but also the option to realize this—and, if we do that, we are finally free. It’s epic.
The phenomena that I normally see or perceive
Are deceptive – created by mistaken minds.
If I search for the reality of what I see,
There is nothing there that exists – I perceive only empty like space. ~ Request to the Lord of all Lineages
The things we normally see — inherently existent things or things outside the mind — do not exist at all. This applies not just to mental constructs such as shared myths, but to our biological reality such as our body or our physical reality such as radioactivity. If we go looking for anything with wisdom, as explained for example in this article about the emptiness of the body, we will find nothing. Emptiness, or ultimate truth, is the mere absence of the things we normally see. As Buddha pointed out in the shortest Perfection of Wisdom Sutra, called the Heart Sutra:
There is no form, no sound, no smell, no taste, not tactile object, no phenomenon.
Not only that, but there is no inherently existent suffering being, no samsara, no Buddhas, no liberation, no enlightenment.
There is no ignorance and no exhaustion of ignorance and so forth up to no ageing and death and no exhaustion of ageing and death. Likewise, there is no suffering, origin, cessation, or path; no exalted awareness, no attainment, and also no non-attainment. ~ Heart Sutra
That means, does it not, that there is even no Buddhism?!
Even emptiness doesn’t exist inherently, from its own side, outside of thought. There are no absolute truths — not even emptiness, not even awareness, not even Buddhas, not even the path to liberation itself.
Which doesn’t leave us with much of a leg to stand upon. But this turns out to be a very good thing, actually the most extraordinary thing, for, as I like to say:
Samsara sucks for everyone
But luckily samsara is not real.
The things we see do not exist, and yet things hang together due to collective agreement or convention. According to Buddhism, everything, whether a corporation or a chair, exists only as mere appearance, via convention or collective agreement.
So corporations and money etc can function because we collectively allow them too. And because of the huge power of human imagination, we have invented all sorts of useful and not so useful things that, for example, have allowed our societies to grow in size and complexity. As it says in the book Sapiens by the Israeli historian Yuval Harari that I mentioned in this last article:
Large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths.
The book gives some excellent examples of imaginary constructs – companies such as Peugeot, various world views over the millennia, the American declaration of independence, money, empires, even evolutionary biology itself. People invented all these systems and then got enough people to believe and participate in them for them to moreorless work.
When the agricultural Revolution opened opportunities for the creation of crowded cities and mighty empires, people invented stories about great gods, motherlands, and joint stock companies to provide the needed social links …. The human imagination was building astounding networks of mass cooperation.
Everything from myth to religion to nations to moral codes to money are inter-subjective realities according to Harari. They have force for as long as people believe them, and cease to exist the moment people no longer believe them. This explains how people could cooperate in groups larger than 150, giving them a military and security advantage, and encouraging specialization which eventually gave them a technological advantage.
The term Harari uses is “inter-subjective;” and he distinguishes between “objective” and “inter-subjective”:
The inter-subjective is something that exists within the communication network linking the subjective consciousness of many individuals … Inter-subjective phenomena are neither malevolent frauds nor insignificant charades. They exist in a different way from physical phenomena such as radioactivity, but their impact on the world may still be enormous. Many of history’s most important drivers are inter-subjective: law, money, gods, nations.
Harari has a brilliant mind; but I don’t think he goes quite far enough. So I would just like to add, kinda crucially, that Buddha said nothing is objective. I think of the term “inter-subjective reality” as a synonym for existing by agreement or existing by convention. And everything is therefore inter-subjective, existing by convention, including radioactivity! But I agree with Harari on how things you cannot see or sit on have nonetheless had enormous impact on the world.
As it says in Lord of all Lineages:
When I search with my wisdom eye,
All the things that I normally see disappear
And only their mere name remains.
These numerous human narratives, myths, legends, religions, and evolutionary and scientific theories all tell a story, but only ever part of a story, and not an entirely true story. And whether a narrative succeeds in getting us all cooperating and communicating depends entirely on how many people can be persuaded to believe it and thus buy into it.
With this mere name I simply accept everything for the purpose of communicating with others.
Homo sapiens have been hands down the cruelest of species, entrapping and torturing and murdering vast numbers not just of other species but our own. We have used our extraordinary imaginations over millennia to become the dominant species on this planet, getting to the top of the food chain despite our relatively puny bodies, using ever more creative ways to indulge our self-cherishing and profit-driven attachment, even making virtues of them along the way.
But what has been our undoing — for example our own species now being on the verge of extinction on this planet — can also be our saving. Our imagination can be used for evil, but it can also be used to transcend.
Conspiracy theories are not helpful
I was talking to a conspiracy theorist the other day – for sure, these days everyone seems to be a bit of a conspiracy theorist, even me. These stories of victimhood and blame can be convincing and there may be some relative truth to them sometimes. However, these narratives often involve so much mental elaboration in pursuit of the deep perpetrator of all that ails us – and if not careful, far from becoming more free, people fall deeper and deeper down the rabbit holes of hallucination, paranoia, and blame.
The only conspiracy a Buddhist really has to uncover and blame is that of our self-grasping, the one that underlies every other conspiracy there has ever been, that fabricates all deceptive appearances. If we had all the time in the world, maybe we could spend weeks and months contemplating other possible evil conspiracies as well. But we don’t have much time, so we need to focus. At least that is what I think, and probably some of you do too. Now we only need to persuade everyone else of that 😁
Until we rid our mind of self-grasping and other delusions, it remains impure. And it seems as if nothing we have created with our impure imaginations has ever had the power to make us happy, at least not for long – whether that be politics or technology or sports or even medicine. Something cannot be real happiness if its cause is not a real cause of happiness, can it? So because politics, science, medicine, and so on can also cause problems, they are not real causes of happiness, and therefore any happiness we derive from them is not real happiness.
Plus our grasping at all these things – including religions — as inherently existent (self-grasping ignorance) and as inherently existent sources of happiness (attachment) has led us to huge suffering. Real happiness comes only from real causes of happiness, inner peace and wisdom.
We have also been kept very busy at justifying our attachments. For example, as we domesticated more and more other species, it must have become convenient at some point to develop the belief that we were somehow of a different order of special (despite our tail bone) and that animals were put on earth just for our benefit. Of course, therefore, we can treat them however we want.
The domestication of animals was founded on a series of brutal practices that only became crueler with the passing of the centuries.
To this day that exceptionalist world view lingers such that we feel our cruel treatment of animals is justified – but what reasonable justification do we have for this behavior, really?
It’s reasonable to assume, for example, that bulls prefer to spend their days wandering over open prairies in the company of other bulls and cows rather than pulling carts and ploughshares under the yoke of a whip-wielding ape.
And where has this subjugation of animals led us? To the burning of the Amazon and our own potential mass suicide, for one thing.
Not just another invention
Instead of inventing just another imagined order for us to believe in as if it really existed from its own side, outside of our minds, Buddha basically — right out of the door — said that this IS all imagination; that we are making it all up. Everything is emptiness, ie, the mere lack of inherent existence.
The whole methodology of the Buddhist faith is then designed to get us to that understanding so that we can walk through the door of emptiness to lasting freedom.
Everything in Buddhism starts with that — or sometimes with the other side of the same coin which is that everything depends upon thought. That is Buddhism 101. You’ll hear something along those lines the moment you walk in the door of a Buddhist Center. Geshe Kelsang for example has said that he has put emptiness teachings in all of his books in the hope that people will therefore find them; and that the main reason for his appearing in this world is to reveal emptiness to us.
Countless enlightened beings have appeared to say these things in countless world systems, leading countless people like you and me through that door to join them. There may be more enlightened beings than samsaric beings by now, for all we know.
Although we need to strive to develop a new realization of emptiness, it is important to understand that emptiness itself is not a new development or creation. It is not a product of philosophical analysis or an invention of Buddha. Emptiness has been the actual nature of all phenomena from the very beginning. Our body, for example, has always been empty of inherent existence; there has never been a time when our body, or anything else, existed inherently. Although emptiness has always been the true nature of phenomena, we need to receive instructions to realize this; and for this reason Buddha taught the Perfection of Wisdom Sutra.
If you are interested in emptiness, and haven’t had a chance to read The New Heart of Wisdom yet, I strongly recommend it! I wouldn’t have a clue what I am talking about without reading that book for the first time decades ago, and many times since.
I do hope I’m not confusing anyone – please go now read The New Heart of Wisdom if I am! But I suppose what I am trying to chat about in this long article is how Buddha came along and blasted all imagined realities, including religions and other belief systems, out of the water by saying that nothing is actually out there, our minds are making the whole thing up – always have been and always will be. Some imagined realities work better than others — some lead us to hellish suffering and some to the bliss of enlightenment — but everything is equally unfindable and illusion-like. That is what we need to realize.
I am going to let Buddha have the last word. In the Heart Sutra, he says:
Therefore, Shariputra, because there is no attainment, Bodhisattvas rely upon and abide in the perfection of wisdom; their minds have no obstructions and no fear. Passing utterly beyond perversity, they attain the final nirvana.
Meditation is now marketed as an antidote to everything from anxiety and depression to poor sleep and workplace inefficiency.
These are tangible benefits into which it is worth investing time and energy.
But why stop there? This is only the tip of the iceberg.
While meditation can certainly help enormously with all these things, if we stop there we are starving ourselves of the really best parts of Buddhist technology: the attainment of liberation and enlightenment.
When we engage in simple breathing meditation, we find that we are more peaceful and relaxed. This indicates that our mind is naturally peaceful, and is an important start. However, this only scratches the surface of the power of meditation and our potential to help ourselves and others.
In general, in the West, there’s a tendency to market an extraordinarily transcendent process, meditation, only as a solution for stress. Meditating to bring out our innate compassion and deep insight can sometimes get lost in translation. But traditional Buddhist meditation has these two main objectives — to develop universal compassion and gain insight into the true nature of reality — and by practicing these we can use this life to attain incredible joy and freedom for both ourselves and others.
From engaging in meditation we can increasingly understand that we all have within us a vast potential for peace and happiness, even if it isn’t fully manifest as of yet. We are infinitely transformable, and potentially infinitely peaceful, wise, and loving.
Step into reality
Once we’ve fully realized this potential, we’ve attained enlightenment — the inner light of wisdom that is permanently free from all mistaken appearance and whose function is to bestow blessings and mental peace upon each and every living being every day.
And the thing about enlightenment? …
Enlightenment is reality.
Everything else is mistaken appearance — it is unreality. And buying into it is why we are suffering.
Using Buddha’s teachings, we can understand that we are engaged in a process of practical contemplation and meditation that is drawing us closer to reality. Revealing reality.
Sometimes we think about enlightenment in the sense of a higher state of mind, a transcendent consciousness. And from one point of view that’s true. But the problem with this type of articulation is that enlightenment can sound difficult. It sounds like a good idea in general, but probably not for me because it feels unattainable.
Instead, it’s much more helpful to understand that enlightenment is just reality. Enlightenment is the only mind that that is IN reality, that is experiencing reality, and that, finally, IS reality.
So what does it mean if we’re not enlightened? It means we’re not in reality, which means we’re in an hallucination of mistaken appearances.
And this hallucination — because it’s not in reality — is producing suffering simply automatically. So whatever suffering is appearing in our life is coming about because we’re not enlightened.
We can challenge our Western notions — just because it is common doesn’t mean that suffering is inevitable.
Reality cannot be destroyed
What or who is a Buddha? A person who has “awakened from the sleep of ignorance and seen things as they really are.”
We have the potential for no less than enlightenment. This is called our Buddha nature and every living being without exception has this extraordinary capacity to change, get rid of all their suffering, and cultivate all their good qualities to perfection.
The reason we have this indestructible potential is because it is not possible to destroy reality, only delusions.
This profound but simple wisdom — that enlightenment is reality — is weaved through all Venerable Geshe Kelsang’s books, both Sutra and Tantra. For example, in The New Eight Steps to Happiness, it says:
Because a Buddha’s mind is mixed with the ultimate nature of all phenomena and is free from the obstructions to omniscience, it pervades all phenomena …. From this we can understand that Buddhas are present everywhere and that there is no place where Buddha does not exist. Buddhas are like the sun and our ignorance is like the clouds that obscure the sun. When clouds disperse we see that in reality the sun has been shining all along; and, in a similar way, when we remove the clouds of ignorance from our mind we shall see that the Buddhas have always been present all around us.
To get a bit philosophical for a moment …
Emptiness is the real nature of all phenomena – always has been, always will be. But emptiness doesn’t exist from its own side, in isolation. It exists like everything else only through being known by mind. The mind that is permanently mixed with emptiness is the clear light of bliss. This is the very subtle mind that all of us have had since beginningless time, but purified of all obstructions.
So wherever emptiness is — ie, everywhere — there too is great bliss. Nice!
Definitive Heruka is Buddha’s mind of great bliss mixed with emptiness. Since the ultimate nature of all phenomena is emptiness, definitive Heruka pervades all phenomena. In Tibetan Heruka is sometimes called “kyab dag” Heruka. “Kyab” means “pervasive” and “dag” means “nature”, so “kyab dag” means that all phenomena are pervaded by Heruka’s nature…. If we have deep understanding of this there is great hope that we shall be able to perceive whatever appears to our mind as Heruka.
Omniscient wisdom is possible because it simply knows reality, the union of bliss and emptiness. We don’t need to think of bliss and emptiness as too high for us to know or experience because it is right here, just obscured. Practicing the stages of the path of Sutra and Tantra gradually reveals it.
Sometimes we see Buddhas or enlightened beings as separate from us, denizens of a distant world. But they are just enlightenment, or, strictly speaking, imputed on enlightenment.
In other words, Buddhas are people, like us, but they are entirely unlike us in that our self or I is imputed on a contaminated body and mind whereas a Buddha, such as Buddha Heruka, is a self or I imputed on the bliss and emptiness that is the real nature of all phenomena, and is therefore everywhere, including right here right now.
Another way of putting this is that someone who has realized bliss and emptiness directly, and imputed themselves on this reality, is called a Buddha.
And since our I or self is not at all fixed, once we get rid of our ignorance and mistaken appearances we can become the Buddha we’ve always been destined to become. We too can be everywhere, helping everyone.
As I sometimes like to put it, enlightenment is just a trick of the mind away.
Or as a friend of mine put it the other day, “All we need to do is stop tripping.”
One way to get started …
In Highest Yoga Tantra, the essence practice is dissolving our Spiritual Guide into our heart, mixing our own mind with his/her mind of bliss and emptiness, and imagining we arise as a Buddha ourselves within that space.
If you haven’t got empowerments yet, you could perhaps get started by dissolving your Spiritual Guide, Buddha Shakyamuni, through your crown and into your heart and letting your mind mix with his like water mixing with water, feeling happy. Then impute yourself on that peaceful pure mind. There is a bit more about self-generation as Buddha Shakyamuni in Joyful Path of Good Fortune.
Not an ordinary life
In some ways, we can think that everything is already enlightenment, everything is Buddha. Which is why in Tantra the main obstacles to liberation and enlightenment are called “ordinary appearances and conceptions”, ie, the mistaken appearances of things as not being Buddha-like, and the mind that assents to those appearances as the truth.
As it says in Modern Buddhism (available for free here):
Suppose there is a Heruka practitioner called John. Normally he sees himself as John, and his environment, enjoyments, body, and mind as John’s. These appearances are ordinary appearances. The mind that assents to these ordinary appearances by holding them to be true is ordinary conception. Ordinary conceptions are obstructions to liberation and ordinary appearances are obstructions to omniscience.
We see everything not only as impure and suffering, but as ordinary as opposed to enlightened; and those perceptions are in fact a mistake, grasping at which is perpetuating our samsara.
I, for example, am going around thinking, “I’m L. I have this boring old body and I have this neurotic personality and I live in this okay house in this problematic country surrounded by these other regular people, all of us doing all these regular activities.” It’s all just ordinary.
But this ordinariness is not really the truth, it is just ideas, mere imputations of an ordinary mentality. None of the things I normally see exists = reality. And, providing I have some understanding of what reality is, I could instead be thinking, “I am Buddha Vajrayogini. I have this incredible body of light and I have this winning personality and I live in this blissful Buddha Land surrounded by all these pure beings, helping everyone without exception!”
These are also just ideas, but they are far better ideas, and far closer to the truth. As we discover over time, as our wisdom of bliss and emptiness grows, our hallucinations die down, and eventually enlightenment becomes our own direct experience 24/7.
Once we have a feeling for how enlightenment just is reality, all Buddha’s teachings make a huge lot of sense. We have more of those light bulb moments. We can understand how right now we are not in reality. Which is why enlightenment is not an option, it’s the only place to be. And how through Buddhist meditation we can step into an enlightened perspective that has always been available to us, we just needed it to be pointed out (probably more than once!) That’s the real meaning of meeting a Spiritual Guide.
Therefore, enlightenment isn’t a philosophical talking point, or the goal of superhuman meditators, like climbing a distant mountain. If we are not in enlightenment, not in reality, we are necessarily trying to make unreality work. Everything is deceiving us more or less.
So when we go deeper in our meditations with the motivation to attain enlightenment, in addition to addressing our stress and other temporary problems we are also drawing every day closer to this blissful primordial reality. Two for the price of one!
To engage in Buddhist meditation is to understand that we all have within us this unlimited potential for the truth of bliss and emptiness, even if it isn’t fully manifest as of yet. So whenever we meditate, even if it is just a breathing meditation, we can try starting with this understanding and see what happens. (In this article on meditating backwards, I explain a bit about how I practically do this.) Even an intellectual understanding that enlightenment is reality is inspiring; and, if we can get a feeling for this in our heart, everything flows so much more effortlessly from there.
I find this immensely encouraging: we are not having to go anywhere strange and new, much less having to create something from scratch, or something that is not already in some sense there. What we are doing on the journey to enlightenment, the journey into the clear light of bliss at our heart, is gradually letting go of all mental elaborations so that we can at last directly enjoy what has always been.
And absolutely everything changes moment by moment. Nothing lasts even a moment. Check out these articles on subtle impermanence to find more.
And, even more profoundly, everything is empty of existing from its own side.
We are attracted to the five sense objects and, like a moth to a flame, we get burned again and again. We need to learn to enjoy lightly without getting absorbed into everything, taken over and burned.
We get so attached to shapes — bodies, houses, art, carpets, mugs, and any number of other shapes, such that we think we can’t even live without them. Sometimes it seems that we are more attached to the shape of things than anything else?! Maybe the color too. This might be because our visual awareness is so important to us. In the old days, some meditators would even pray to be born blind! However, there is an easier way, which is to remember emptiness. Hence me posting this video as a visual reminder.
We think these shapes are actually there, solid and real. But if we go looking for the object of our attachment, such as our lover’s body, we’ll never be able to find it, any more than we can point to a shape in those birds. There is only emptiness. Every shape is mere appearance or mere name — nothing behind that. So what exactly are we so attached to?
(We like the smell, taste, sound, and touch of physical things too, of course, and they are all just as unfindable.)
The problem is not with attractive appearances, but with the belief that they are outside of our mind and hence outside of our control. Hence attachment, or “uncontrolled desire”. So we seek to own (or be owned). We seek to control (or be controlled).
Ideally, in the world of moths, there’d be a flame education program… “Listen guys when you next see that bright shiny thing, fly around it and not right into it. Discover how to enjoy its warmth and beauty from a safe distance and you’ll be happier – trust me!” Similarly, we can learn how to enjoy the mere appearance or mere name of beautiful things, such as we enjoy these starlings, without getting sucked into something that is not actually there.
On the basis of contentment (or renunciation), compassion, and wisdom, we can find out how to channel the desire energy aroused by attractive things into open-ended non-dual blissful wisdom, rather than falling into the flames of attachment and craving and experiencing suffering.
It can be so very useful, indeed powerful; and we can gain some deep levels of concentration and mindfulness with it. While we remain in that state of peace, when thoughts arise we don’t feel the same need to dwell on them – we sense the space around them and the space within them.
We can let even disturbing thoughts come and we can let them go. We are free from the mental chain reactions induced by the habit of over-thinking. We are more present – not worrying about the future or dwelling on the past. We can stop identifying with our thoughts, as explained more in this article, understanding that:
However, within minutes our meditation will come to an end and we’ll have to get up and get on. And even though we’ve tasted that space — and in fact even if we have some insight that things are more virtual reality than they seem — daily appearances can be very overpowering very quickly. We get sucked in.
In which case our delusions might quite likely not just rear their heads again but take over — possibly within minutes! — and we’ll be obliged to go back to our normal, crazy way of reacting to things as if they are solid, real, and outside our mind.
So, we need to take our spiritual practice further and get rid of delusions altogether by applying the antidotes of Dharma (Buddha’s teachings) both in and out of meditation.
When we do that breathing meditation, the first step, we feel the pure, clear, spacious peace that we already have inside us once we allow our delusions and their objects to simply subside. We give ourselves a break, giving ourselves permission to let go, relax, and take refuge in the peace of our own minds. And this in itself is evidence that our actual problems are created by our mind, because, when we let go of the thoughts of attachment and other delusions, our mind is at peace. The problem is gone; it actually just goes away.
Within that understanding, we train in Dharma to change our way of thinking about or holding onto things. Our mind and its objects — or our thoughts and what’s appearing to those thoughts — are co-dependent (not in a bad way!) Because they co-arise and depend upon each other completely, then when our way of looking at other people and the world changes, those objects change too. Literally change.
I think we’ve all had this experience.
Moving on naturally
For example, if the person we are currently attached to has not replied to our 25 texts, we might feel desperate, holding them as neglectful and ourselves as unlovable. But instead of dropping this storyline, we’re like a dog with a bone. We try to wrestle with that person mentally, physically, verbally — whatever we think it will take to get them to change and start being nice to us again. We believe we need this to happen so that we can feel good about them again. AND good about ourselves.
To that end, we send a text, “Hey, do you like me?” We know it’s lame and will cause our self-respect to sink even further, but we can’t help it. We have to do something.
Seems like we’re always trying subtle and less subtle ways to get other people to cooperate, to get them to do what we want them to do. And it’s a bit of a battle, isn’t it? Because, funnily enough, they’ve got their own ideas and self-interest. And meanwhile we’re just exacerbating the problem because we are trying to solve it with the very same mind that is creating it.
But then one day, just naturally, even without deliberately changing our thoughts, we realize: “Actually I don’t care any more what this person thinks or does! Cool.” A cloud lifts. Our attachment has lessened. Maybe it’s even gone away. And at that point the problem’s gone, the battle is over. We have moved on, as they say.
We are now free to view that person and ourselves in a different way. We can establish a better kind of connection with them, maybe keeping the love part while ditching the attachment. This too can happen quite naturally — sometimes we discover we can feel quite warmly toward someone we were really upset about. Sometimes we can’t even remember what we were upset about, and it doesn’t matter anymore.
So, on Wednesday that person can seem like a major problem. And this is from their own side I might add – it is their bad behavior causing our pain and self-contempt. We wander around thinking, “It’s their fault I feel this way. It’s their fault, it’s their fault, they need to change.” That’s what we think, isn’t it, when we have attachment or aversion? It’s their fault. But then on Thursday we wake up and think, “Actually, I don’t have a problem with this person anymore.” We’ve let go, moved on. At which point the person appears very differently, do they not? And we are happy and confident in ourselves again – back to being cool and mysterious. (At which point they may start texting us again … just sayin’. Doesn’t matter either way though.)
That person hasn’t had to do a single thing from Wednesday to Thursday. They’re just going about their merry way, as usual, ignoring us or not, as usual. They haven’t done anything, but our thoughts have changed, and so suddenly they’ve changed and we ourselves have changed. When we think about them, it’s: “Oh they’re not so bad. I could be friendly with them again.” Maybe we can even think, “I really want them to be happy.” At which point they’re no longer a source of pain but a source of happiness for us.
The three spheres
And we are now identifying ourselves as, or imputing ourselves on, a loving, whole person, no longer a neurotic needy one. Again, these changes have not come from that person’s side, but because there’s a dependent relationship between our thoughts and their objects, including our self. Our mind and its objects arise together.
We have these kinds of experiences all the time, even without practicing Dharma. When our delusions naturally abate through time, the problem goes away and we’re free to have a totally different experience of that other person, relationship, and self. These are called “the three spheres”. They are all empty of existing from their own side.
Moving on more quickly
So, with Dharma, what we’re doing is understanding this connection between our thoughts and their objects and then changing our thoughts deliberately. This means we don’t have to wait for weeks, months, or years for our attachment to go away on its own, or for our aversion to subside, or for our disappointment or frustration or anxiety to fade. Through Dharma, we no longer have to wait for our thoughts to exhaust themselves. We can actually seize control over our own minds, rather than (as Buddha pointed out) having our minds control us, which is our current predicament. Our thoughts are no longer calling all the shots, because we are.
Through the meditations on renunciation, compassion, and wisdom we can learn to let go of our attachment, aversion, and other delusions, and in an instant be relating to ourselves and others in a happier way. And when we love other people — genuinely love them, not mixed with attachment or conditionality, just wanting them to be happy — then they present no problem for us. If they are an object of our attachment or aversion, they are a problem for us; but as soon as they become an object of our love, they’re no longer a problem for us. Quite the opposite, in fact. They become a source of joy, even if they’ve let us down. Does that make sense?
Love, compassion, and so on are our greatest wealth because they will always help us solve our problems and find happiness. And this is because our problems don’t exist outside the mind. Nothing exists outside our mind. Nothing is independent of our perceptions and thoughts.
If we understand that objects depend on the subjective mind, we can change the way objects appear to us by changing our own mind. Gradually we will gain the ability to control our mind and in this way solve all our problems.
Geshe Kelsang explains in his Mahamudra teachings how subject minds and object things arise simultaneously from the root mind like waves. Whatever we are experiencing or thinking about in any given moment, we cannot separate our thoughts out from their objects. Everything that appears to us entirely depends on the quality of our consciousness, or our thoughts. So, if we have a thought of irritation or anger, we have an object of irritation or anger. If we change that irritation into love, we have an object of love.
As we may know from Buddha’s wisdom teachings, everything is dreamlike. What appears to our mind depends entirely upon the mind itself. This is why Dharma works. Pure and simple – this is why it works. Change our mind, change our world. Literally. Not just tweak our world, not just make incremental changes, but change it. Transform it from the inside out.
If we gain some experience of this peace and transformation, we have something to give, do we not? If we understand how our own thoughts operate, we can understand the same for others; and, feeling this common experience, are now more able to be there for them. We can help others, eg, give them some badly-needed encouragement or advice, because we’ve done it ourselves. Dharma is a win win. We help ourselves, we help the people we love, we help everybody.
Over to you. Do you have any examples or anything else to add?
My parents asked me for working definitions of the following terms, “an introduction to Buddhism in the simplest terms possible for the uninformed, but possibly quite bright, newcomer or beginner.”
So I gave it a go, and they replied with some great suggestions for simplifying the language further. I also asked a good friend with much Buddhist knowledge, who helped edit Geshe Kelsang Gyatso’s books, to give his input. This is therefore a collaborative work in progress, and you are invited to participate as well.
Delusions are distorted thoughts or emotions that destroy our mental peace and make us act in inappropriate ways; and so they are the cause of our suffering. Examples are anger, attachment, arrogance, and ignorance. They are distorted because the way they perceive their object does not correspond to reality – for example attachment exaggerates the pleasurable aspects of its object, in effect projecting things that are not there, whereas anger and hatred exaggerate the unpleasant aspects. If we get rid of our misperceptions, we get rid of our delusions and experience lasting happiness.
What is attachment?
Attachment, or “uncontrolled desire”, is a state of mind that believes happiness inheres or can be found in things outside the mind. Attachment is the “sticky desire” that is our normal response to anything or anyone we feel is a cause of pleasure, comfort, or security for us, that wants to keep it close or wants more, or that feels a painful sense of loss when it goes. The truth is, happiness is a state of mind that depends upon mental peace, and so its real causes lie within the mind, not without.
Attachment exaggerates the power of its object to make us happy by focusing on its supposed good qualities while editing out all its faults, e.g., a pizza or a partner is perceived by attachment to be an inherent, or actual, source of pleasure when in fact they can be just as much a source of suffering.
Attachment is often confused with love but they are completely different. Love is other-centered and peaceful and focuses on the welfare of the other person, whereas attachment is self-centered and unpeaceful and wants the other person simply because we think they make us feel better.
What is self-cherishing?
Self-cherishing is a mind that wrongly believes we are more important than others, and that our happiness and freedom matter more. Self-grasping misconceives our I to be inherently existent, the only real me; and self-cherishing misconceives this I to be supremely important, the very center of our world. These two ego minds are the source of all samsaric problems.
What is Dharma?
Dharma refers to Buddhist teachings and especially the experiences we gain by putting these teachings into practice. It literally means “protection.” Since our suffering comes from our delusions, it is our inner experience of the opposite of these delusions that directly protects us from this suffering.
For example, the experience of pure love protects us from the suffering caused by our own anger and dislike, and the experience of emptiness protects us from the suffering caused by self-grasping ignorance.
What is samsara?
Samsara is the life experience of someone with a body and mind still polluted by delusions and the negative actions and their unpleasant consequences arising from these delusions. Sometimes known as “cyclic existence”, it is life characterized by repetitive suffering.
Samsara’s very nature is problematic. The mind is not physical and it continues after death, but, for as long as our mind is governed by delusions, what it experiences will be fundamentally unsatisfactory and generally painful.
But not all life is samsaric life – if we can free ourselves from delusions by realizing emptiness, we can end samsara and experience lasting peace and happiness.
What is karma?
“Karma” is the Sanskrit word for “action”, referring to mental actions, or intentions. Karma generally speaking is the mental, internal law of cause and effect, which is as infallible as the physical, external law of cause and effect, such as oak trees arising from acorns and chickens arising from eggs. Every time we intentionally do something, we create the cause for something to ripen for us in the future, sowing a karmic “seed” in the “soil” of our mental continuum. Mental intentions are those seeds; experiences are their effects. Positive actions sow the seeds for positive experiences; negative actions sow the seeds for suffering experiences. Seeds take time to ripen, but what we put into the world is what, sooner or later, we get out of it.
What is self-grasping?
Self-grasping ignorance is the underlying source of all other delusions. It is a wrong awareness that apprehends people and things as existing inherently or independently. For example, when we think of a person called Tom, there seems to be a completely real Tom out there who in no way depends upon our perceptual and conceptual apparatus for his existence.
What is inherent existence?
Inherent existence means independent existence. An object would be inherently existent if it didn’t depend on anything at all for its existence, such as its causes, its parts, or the mind perceiving it. No object exists like this, so no object is inherently existent. Some synonyms for inherent existence are existing from the side of the object, existing from its own side, existing in and of itself, independently existent, or objectively existent.
At the moment, we grasp at inherent existence; it is the object of self-grasping ignorance. The world seems to be made up of discrete, objective entities that do not depend upon an observer for their existence; but, in reality, all phenomena are inter-dependent, or “dependent relationships”, existing only in relationship with a multitude of causes, parts, contexts, imputations, and perceptions.
What is emptiness?
Emptiness is not nothingness but the lack of things existing inherently. Self-grasping ignorance misconceives things as having inherent or independent existence, and emptiness is the total absence of this mode of existence. Because everything depends entirely upon other things, everything is empty of inherent existence.
The things we normally see – inherently existent things — do not exist. Things do exist, but as mere appearances to mind, entirely dependent upon mind, and the nature of mind.
Realizing emptiness — lack of inherent existence — is the only way to destroy the object of self-grasping and free our mind permanently from all delusions.
What is Sangha?
Sangha refers to the spiritual community practicing Dharma. In general, our spiritual friends who give us spiritual advice, support, and inspiration are our Sangha; but more strictly a Sangha Jewel is someone who has realized emptiness directly, because only such a person sees things as they really are and can be relied upon completely.
What is a wishfulfillling jewel?
A wishfulfilling jewel is an ancient legendary jewel similar to Aladdin’s lamp that supposedly had the power to grant all worldly wishes. It is often used as an analogy for spiritual accomplishments such as full enlightenment, which not only fulfill all our worldly and temporary wishes, but also our everlasting, ultimate wishes.
Postscript ~ parents’ verdict:
“We regret that we still find several definitions too difficult and sometimes too wordy, as if you are both trying too hard to cover every aspect.”
So, as we are not there yet, I invite you all to give this a go as well! Please use the comments section below. My friend and I have found that attempting to sum up these profound subjects in a few sentences, if indeed such a thing is possible, has been a very useful exercise in checking our own understanding. As this list is very far from complete, please feel free to submit other Buddhist terms and working definitions too.
During an idyllic mountain retreat on the emptiness of the mind not long ago, we spent all weekend looking for our mind and failing to find it; and then I drove home. On the way I picked up a watery coffee in a garage, thought, “I guess I should just practice contentment with this horrible coffee”, but then a few miles down the road was magnetically drawn into a passing Starbucks against my will. This was in a distant mountain town called, rather charmingly, Loveland.
A first-world problem
As it happens, giving into my attachment like that might have been a mistake. I walked from the car to the coffee shop, ordered my flat white, oh yeah!, and then glanced down at my hands. They were holding a credit card, but that was all.
I looked at my empty hands and thought “Oh dear, help!” The barista looked at me staring strangely at my empty hands and thought “That is a mad woman.” She just saw empty hands. But I saw a very significant object, the lack of car keys.
A very meaningful absence
New terminology alert! Bear with me for a moment …
Emptiness is also known as a “non-affirming negative phenomenon”. It is the mere absence of inherent existence or, to put it another way, the mere absence of the things we normally see. It is “non-affirming” because it does not affirm any other phenomenon.
For example, if I tell you, “My cousin is not female”, that would be called an “affirming negative phenomenon” as the object you perceive is the lack of my cousin being female with the implied observation that my cousin is male. (It is called a “negative phenomenon” not because it is bad, by the way, but because you have to negate something else to get to it, namely a female cousin).
But if I say, “There is no elephant in this room”, all that brings to mind is the lack of an elephant in this room, it does not imply there is a bishop, for example, here instead. You’re just left looking at a mere lack or absence of an elephant in this room, without any other object being implied or affirmed in its place.
Some absences or lacks can be quite significant. If you park your car, do some shopping, and then go back to the parking lot with heavy bags to find an empty space where your car was, what are you seeing? Are you seeing an empty space or are you seeing a lack of car? A passer by will be seeing just an empty space, but you will be freaking out because what you are seeing is a very meaningful absence. Not dissimilar to the absence of car keys in my hand.
This sounds a bit technical, I know, but it is actually exceedingly helpful to know that “emptiness” (also known as “selflessness”) is just a mere lack of something. What exactly? Emptiness is the mere lack of everything we have ever thought existed! Knowing this lack is quite significant, to be honest – it is profound knowledge that will free our mind if we become familiar with it.
Why? Well, you know that thing you are worried about? It’s not there. That person you are so hung up on? They are not there. That body which feels sick, not there. The politics you are so mad at, not there. They only appear to be really there because of our ignorance. Everything exists in a state of freedom. Everything is mere appearance to our mind with no substantiality, nothing behind the appearance. So, change your mind, change your world.
It takes time to get a direct or non-conceptual realization of emptiness, at which point all our problems are over forever; but even a slight taste gives us a liberating sense of possibility.
Centered in the solution
After this recent article my dad said: “Still trying to understand what the following means. ‘Buddhas never focus on the problem out of the context of being centered in the solution.’”
What is the solution? The simple answer is that it is the realization that everything depends upon the mind, so change the mind and the worry goes away. We already know this a bit because when we are able to calm down and get perspective, for example by taking a few minutes out to breathe and connect to the peace in our heart, and perhaps connect to blessings, the situation always seems to improve, become manageable. This means not just that our perception of the situation improves, but the situation itself improves, because there is no situation outside of our perception of it, as explained here.
At its most profound, the solution is realizing emptiness, the mere absence of the things we normally perceive. Because the things we normally perceive are not there at all – which is a meaningful non-affirming negative or absence — we don’t have to get upset, worried, anxious, angry, etc., on our own or others’ behalf, any more than we have to get upset in a dream, if we only knew we were dreaming. For when we wake up, we realize that the situation that seems to be so real is not there — it is mere appearance with no existence from its own side. This doesn’t mean that situations, whether asleep or awake, don’t exist at all, but it does mean they exist in a state of fluidity and freedom, and that just by changing our thoughts we will change the situation.
My dad also asked what was mean by Nagarjuna’s quote, “For whom emptiness is possible, everything is possible.” You know that scene in Kung Fu Panda where Po defeats Tai Lung after a lot of tedious fist fighting. They are fighting each other “out there” to begin with — pretty tiring and tiresome if you ask me — but then with a little twist of Po’s finger, the Wuxi finger hold, everything is dissolved away in all directions. I find that a nice visual for the power of realizing that everything is empty and therefore depends entirely upon our mind, meaning we can change everything effortlessly and immediately if only we realize this.
Does that answer your questions, Dad? If not, let me know 😉
That’s why as soon as we realize we are mere appearance not other than the emptiness of all phenomena, like Buddha Heruka, we can send light rays out to purify and transform each and every living being instantaneously and effortlessly. For they are not outside the mind. (And I may as well point out that we are not outside our mind either, and nor is our mind outside our mind – a subject for another day.)
Emptiness — the mere lack of the things we normally perceive — can be accessed through searching for things with wisdom, through reasoning our way into reality in the traditional meditation on emptiness. You can read how to do this search in Transform Your Life and other books, and I’ll try to come back to it later if I live long enough.
Back to my predicament …
Back to my predicament in Loveland… Well, I ran out to look for the car keys and, dear reader, I had parked all of 100 feet away but they were nowhere to be found. Nowhere — even when another young barista decided to come out and help me comb the grass for them. So then, in my usual turn-to when I lose something, I started saying Tara mantras, requesting her help. Immediately a charming man appeared and, hearing of my predicament, helped me look and then said he’d stay and call people for me.
Because of course I had left everything in the locked car, including my phone. And including, as it happened, every single telephone number that I might ever have use for. That is one moral of this tale. Failing to dredge up even one phone number from my computer-addled mind, we tried emailing the only two emails I could remember. To no avail. We stood there for a while, me foolishly, both wondering, and then a cop showed up randomly.
Happened they knew each other. And then the cop started googling for break-in companies because he said he was not allowed to break into cars himself any more. But then Tara blessed his mind or something, for he changed his mind, “Hang on, I think I have a colleague who will break in for us.” (Yes, he really said “us”.) So I then had one charming man and half the Loveland police department trying to solve my problem, and lo and behold they did break safely into the car. Whereupon I was able to call one of my usual guardian angels, who appeared a mere 45 minutes later with a spare set of keys. During which 45 minutes I managed to memorize all of 3 phone numbers, including my own, for future eventualities. I wonder if I still remember them …
Moral of the tale
Okay, what was all that about? That mini-first-world panic went to demonstrate:
(1) A great example of a meaningful absence.
(2) The kindness of strangers and how we ALWAYS depend on others, it’s just that we can forget that when seemingly ensconced in our comfort zone cocoons/cars.
(3) An external problem doesn’t have to lead to an internal problem and can even be a source of happiness. For I was happier after all this happened then before it started, and I was already in a great mood from the retreat. I could not help but feel the warm fuzzies due to those 5 Lovelandy men spending their Monday afternoon helping me. And in another twist there was a huge thunderstorm while I was waiting in the car, but instead of being a problem it actually cleaned the car beautifully from the red sticky dust of the unpaved mountain roads.
(If my skin had been a different color it may [or may not] have been a different story – I was conscious of that too; and it gave me some more ideas for an article I have been wanting to write on the subject of discrimination.)
More articles on the emptiness of the mind coming up soonish. Meanwhile, your comments are most welcome.
I have been at the Fall Festival in Toronto this week, which has been an incredible pleasure, one that could only have been improved upon if you had all been here as well. During one lunch with my old friend G from Florida and his charming new wife S, who is relatively new to Buddhism, she asked me how it is that living beings are experiencing suffering if that suffering is not “real”, or inherently existent – that is, if the suffering we normally see does not exist?
A similar question came up during the Tantric Q & A, to which Gen-la Jampa gave a beautiful reply. Only I didn’t take notes so you’ll have to wait for that. Unless someone feels like typing up their notes on that for us all in the comments section … ah, done, thank you, see below.
But I know that S has 3 crazy little mini-schnauzers, and so what I said to her was this.
Imagine that Murphy is sleeping on that huge big bed with you and G, and he is fine, all safe and cozy. But you see that he is whimpering and twitching, and you know he is having a nightmare. You know that he is not “really” suffering, but that is not how he is seeing it at the moment. He believes that the big dog is actually attacking him or the black squirrel has outwitted him yet again or that his family have really deserted him (etc, etc, whatever). But you know that all this is mere appearance to his dreaming mind, and so all you want to do is wake him up.
The Buddhas feel the same way about us. All the time.
It’s a fine mess we have gotten ourselves into …
In a surreal counterpoint to this sane, harmonious Pure Land of the Festival was the divisive second US presidential debate – Greek drama or tragedy, take your pick. Jaws worldwide were dropping. You couldn’t make this stuff up. Only we did, between us. Please by all means vote on November 8; I certainly am going to. However, I have also concluded that the only way to cure these weird appearances and resultant widespread discomfort and delusion is to focus on developing compassion for everyone concerned (including the Rocky Mountain Trump supporter sitting next to me on this flight, who is drinking lots of beer and trying to sleep the whole thing off). Not to take these politics too seriously, if I even could, but to remember to purify it nonetheless, remembering that it is all dream-like karmic appearance. (Perhaps it is even better that it is now “out” rather than “in”, providing it encourages us to do something about it.) For the alternative to purifying it is buying into it and experiencing an increasingly tangled mess.
I was moved by the last question of the debate, when an earnest undecided voter asked the candidates to please name one thing that they actually respected about each other — and they did both come up with something. The atmosphere in the town hall immediately softened. There was some opening. Everyone could breathe a little more freely. You saw the possibility of sanity and kindness being restored one day. All in the space of a few minutes. I know the clouds rolled back in again almost straightaway, but there was a glimpse for a moment there of sky-like Buddha nature.
Centered in the solution
We think to cure suffering that we need to focus on the problem. But Buddhas never focus on the problem out of the context of being centered in the solution. How are we going to help others if we hold them to be inherently problematic? There is no space — there is no room to bring out their potential, their pure nature, their kindness or clarity or peace. All we can do is try and patch things up, shuffle things around, all the while in danger of being dragged further and further into the morass. There is no hope in a world of inherent existence. Borrowing the newly-minted Nobel Laureate to make this point:
Yes, and how many times must a man look up
Before he can see the sky?
Yes, and how many ears must one man have
Before he can hear people cry?
Yes, and how many deaths will it take ’till he knows
That too many people have died?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind.
The answer is blowin’ in the wind.
Luckily the world is empty of inherent existence. As Gen-la Khyenrab explained in the Festival, emptiness is the true nature of phenomena. Emptiness is not nothingness; it is the opposite of nothingness. It is because of emptiness that everything can exist.
Because emptiness is possible, everything is possible. ~ Nagarjuna
So emptiness means that things can change completely and radically – that this otherwise intractably tangled mess of samsara can be unravelled by pulling on a single thread.
From enlightened beings’ point of view, we are already pure. Geshe Kelsang said in Portugal in 2009, for example, that he views us all as Heroines and Heroes, which is why he has so much respect for us. And this seems to be why he has never tired in liberating us, why he finds it effortless. Buddhas understand that we are not inherently pure, and that from our point of view we can feel far from pure. But that is just a point of view, and when we stop “awfulizing everything” with our inappropriate attention, as a friend put it the other day, and improve our imagination or imputation based on wisdom, we will see ourselves and others in a completely different way. No more “real” but infinitely more enjoyable.
We always think we know stuff about people — yeah he’s really annoying, yeah she’s boring, yeah he’s great, etc. Occasionally we find ourselves hopelessly confused, for example when a friend becomes an enemy or a stranger and we are not sure how that happened, “What happened?!” — but generally at any given moment we accept the appearances of friends, enemies, and strangers for what they are. Or, rather, what they seem to be.
Contemplating equanimity is fantastic for shaking us out of our grasping at both permanence and inherent existence.
And … it clears the space for a heartfelt understanding that, just like us, everyone else wants to be happy and free from pain.
For what else do we really know about them?!
Let me explain a bit more.
As described more here, we see how those categories of friends, enemies, and strangers into which we are constantly placing people are not remotely fixed – they are changing all the time due to impermanence, and also because whether someone is a friend, enemy, or stranger says far more about our own projections than what is actually going on. Indeed, nothing is really going on. As Geshe Kelsang explains in Meaningful to Behold:
It is extremely short-sighted and ultimately very mistaken to think that anyone is permanently or inherently our friend, enemy, or stranger. ~ page 24
So, given the facts of both impermanence and emptiness:
If these three positions are so temporary and variable – then who is the proper object of our attachment or hatred?
Not just in this lifetime — we have been around since beginningless time projecting stuff on people, everybody. Let me tell you a quick story.
Life, the Universe, and Everything
Wowbagger the Infinitely Prolonged had immortality thrust upon him.
“Most of those who are born immortal instinctively know how to cope with it, but Wowbagger was not one of them. Indeed, he had come to hate them, the load of serene bastards.”
Anyway, Wowbagger decided during one long dark teatime of the soul, around 2.55 on a Sunday, to insult everyone in the universe — in alphabetical order.
On his spaceship, Wowbagger:
“gazed at the fantastic jewelry of the night, the billions of tiny diamond worlds that dusted the infinite darkness with light. Every one, every single one, was on his itinerary. Most of them he would be going to millions of times over.”
Point being, over infinitely prolonged beginningless time, we have been doing this too! We have insulted everyone in the universe. We have slept with them. We have both slept with and insulted them. We have done everything with everybody.
On this particular trip he was on his way to insult a small slug by calling it a “brainless prat”.
That’s one thing, impermanence. And there is also emptiness to consider.
If things are not fixed, and cannot be found outside the mind, you could argue that there are infinite versions of every situation and person. Even seemingly factual labels, such as “This is my husband or my boss or my President” have nothing real behind them. I saw a picture of the US President with his daughters the other day and I thought how he is a gazillion things – everyone is calling him something different. Stand up the one and true Barack Obama. Impossible.
Or sitting in nearby Cheesman Park writing this – for me, a pleasant leafy place with wafting breezes; for that dog with the Frisbee, a playground; for the person who just approached me to canvass for the democratic party, an opportunity to get out the vote; for the more than 5,000 or so unclaimed bodies still buried under the ground, I’m not quite sure what. That is just two blunt illustrations amongst countless subtle variations. (Pics of said park liberally scattered through this article.)
We all have our own labels or versions of the people in our lives, and what we may sometimes forget is that so does everyone else. We might get possessive of our version, thinking it’s the only real person or the only version that counts, “This is MY husband, that’s who he is” — but try telling that to his mom, his best friend, his cat? Not to mention all those who knew previous versions and will know future versions.
So, we project our own stuff on everybody we meet – creating friends, enemies, and strangers over and over again. And this destroys our peace, causes us a lot of trouble, and blocks us from really helping people. We yearn for our objects of attachment to come here and make us happy while wanting our objects of anger to shut up and go away. But projected people can’t do anything from their own side to help us further our wishes for happiness and freedom, any more than can an actor on a screen.
So, what can we do?
If people are not permanently nor inherently friends, enemies, and strangers, what ARE they? What DO we know about them, really?
Only that they want to be happy all the time and free from suffering. Just like us.
Yup. That we can know.
One of the most amazing things I find about this way of thinking is the amount of space and freedom it opens up to abide with the minds that help me, instead of wasting time and peace being sidetracked by the three poisons. As Geshe-la says inJoyful Path:
Equanimity reduces our attachment and hostility, but it does not reduce our liking and our love for others.
Quite the opposite. With equanimity understanding impermanence and projection, we now have the space to consider how others feel about things, rather than how we do, stepping into their shoes and walking through doorways to interesting new worlds based on appreciation, respect, affection, rejoicing, compassion, and empathy. Instead of staying confined to the claustrophobic spaceship of “me, me me”, our mental horizons are broadened on the way to the all-pervasive compassion and omniscient wisdom of a Buddha.