Thursday, October 16, 2008

Thoughts on Emptiness

The Buddhist practice as it has evolved for me more closely resembles a practical science than it does a religious practice. Meditation is nothing more than a technique for becoming familiar with the activities of our mind and studying it. Everything else——all the highly touted spiritual goodies— simply flow from that common-sense observation.

What I invariably notice is that very precise, close observation of almost any subject always has the effect of eliminating the subject's solidity. Study a piece of marble and you begin to see the veins of ocean sediments, even the individual grains of sand—not a big solid chunk stone. Meditation, like any form of observation, introduces space into any object. And in the case of mind-study, it introduces space into thoughts, emotions, concepts——all the stuff that we sometimes treat as though they have material concreteness.

Some years ago, after I'd already studied meditation for a few years, there came a quiet little breakthrough. On the cushion one day, I was looking at some very old, very ingrained hostility toward a family member that had arisen in me. It was a very common thing for me in those days. I was looking at this hostility very closely, studying all its nuances—when the thought suddenly came to me:

"This is only a feeling. It has no weight, no physical body, no substance of any kind. This feeling is present only in this moment, and only in my mind. It can't be photographed or recorded in any way. It is not real, but only an odd mental activity."

The "solid thing" was a story I had been telling myself. Over and over.

And instantly, the decades-old resentment I'd been nursing was seen as a rather bad plot in a soap opera. It wasn't real in any truly identifiable way, other than as a weird little constellation of enzymes and hormones and brain chemicals that had strangely come together for a moment. And I felt, for perhaps the first time, that my emotions didn't own me, nor I them, but that they were just phenomena with their own cycle of life.

That day didn't mark an absolute turning point. I still have times when I'm gripped by worries and irritations and fears—times when I treat them as though they're my possessions. But with increasing regularity, as I get more astute at studying these mind activities, I see them as little more than stories that my mind habitually tells itself. Deep seeing reveals this to be true about virtually everything —everything—that troubles me: it always turns out to be nothing more than a temporary construction of mind. Not real in any kind of demonstrable way, less concrete than water vapour.

This, I've come to realize, is one way of looking at the Buddhist concept of emptiness. When you look at anything closely, you realize that it has no permanent, concrete substance at all, but is merely a snapshot of energy in time. All things arise, all things pass away, and the illusion of stability and permanent realness is just a story we tell ourselves.

Even a chunk of marble is really just a collection of recently bonded sand particles on its way to becoming sand again sometime in the future.

Initially, I found myself a little saddened by this recognition, because something in me really wanted some things to be permanent. Gradually, though, I'm recognizing that it's the clinging to permanence that causes much of the sadness and pain. Turn loose, go with the emptiness, and illusion begins to fall away and a pretty delicious freedom begins to cook.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Tuesday Buddhism

Buddhist philosophy begins with position that is terrifically different than the tenants of most western spiritual beliefs. This perhaps explains why it feels so alien, especially to those of us raised in Judaic/Christian traditions.

The degree of difference can be clearly seen when you look at the Buddhist version of genesis:

In the beginning, Buddhism would argue, human beings mistakenly made a incorrect distinction between matter and space. To matter, and the various physical forms assumed by matter, they gave the name "real." Spaceousness, however, was demoted to a position of non-reality, so much so, in fact, that to this day we believe that space is nothingness, a void.

This belief in the primacy of form makes up what Buddhists term the first of five skandas, sometimes translated as "aggregates" or "heaps". The skandas represent five different mistaken assumptions human beings make, which form the foundation of a cyclical, unhappy existence. Each of the skandas is a karmic result of the preceding skanda, and depends upon the others.

So the first skanda, form, arises due the human decision to reduce spaciousness to non-existence, and to give primacy, and false permanence, to the various shapes that matter takes. The first human error is in separating matter from space, in separating various forms from one another, and in believing in the truth of "this vs that."

Note how radically different this position is from Judaic/Christian mythology, where the separation between matter and space, rather than being the cause of misery, represents the birth of reality. In this mythology, it is God, not man, that separates heaven from earth.

In the Buddhist cosmology, the second skanda arises when we strangely choose to take up a relationship to the various forms that we have noticed. We create the illusion of ego by creating a feeling that we exist in relation to the various forms that have arise. Feeling is the second skanda, and it is created because we hold to a belief in self and other. "This is me, and that is not me, and that's how I know I exist," is the logic.

The third skanda is usually called perception, and with this skanda there arises an impulse to take some kind of action in relationship to the various forms perceived by ego. We respond with longing to the form, with hostility to the form, or with indifference to the form. This is the skanda that is responsible for desire and hostility in all their forms, and it exists to prop up the illusion of ego/self. We grab for the things that support our sense of self, we reject those that threaten it.

The fourth skanda is usually translated as intellect. This aggregate includes a complicated system of mental concepts and beliefs, a framework that attempts to make sense of various forms and their relationship to one another. In modern western society, this is the skanda that is most highly celebrated. We may, in fact, view intellect as the supreme accomplishment of the human species. Buddhists, however, regard intellect as a construct built on faulty foundations (the previous skandas) and do not find it of particularly important value.

And because intellect cannot exist without a context, the final skanda is consciousness, which is a somewhat artificial ocean upon which the intellect bobs and sails. In this context, it does not mean awareness, which is a non-judging quality that does not discriminate. Awareness is much different from the skanda of consciousness, which exists to give relationship and context to ego and form. Awareness leads us to awakening; consciousness (as defined here) is something of an obstruction.

For theoretical Buddhists, the skandas represent the basic fallacies of human existence, and are the root of all unhappiness. On the face of things, this fact could depress us mightily, since the skandas seem to represent pretty much everything we consider part of the human experience. What could a world without form, with intellect, without passion, without consciousness possibly look like? we wonder.

The key to the Buddhist path is pretty simple, though. We simply look at the initial premise of the first skanda—that form is separate from spaciousness. Is this really true? we ask ourselves. And we then ask what existence would feel like if we ignored the illusion of separateness, and behaved as though form and space are not separate, but are the same phenomenon.

It is no oversimplification to say that this is precisely what represents awakened enlightenment—the discovery that form and spaciousness are not separate at all. For Buddhists, meditation is not a religious practice, but a laboratory in which we experiment with our assumptions regarding matter and space.