My Significant Other is the Kosmos - Darker Than Any Mystery Part 2: Emptiness Emptying?

Thursday, January 9, 2020


Prelude

Just in case there is a misunderstanding out there, I want to make a quick disclaimer.  I am not a teacher, not even an expert here to share my wisdom (much less to suggest you fork over a few hundred bucks to gain access to said wisdom).  My intention in this blog is not to lay out a theory of everything, much less a theory of anything.  I'm far too cognizant of the vast depths of my ignorance to attempt any such thing.  My intent here is to explore and inquire, and to share some of those explorations and inquiries in the hope of initiating a dialogue, or what I like to call a web of interlocution.

 I have a picture in my mind that we are all, every one of us, students. Imagine us sitting around the cafeteria if you will, exchanging ideas, letting our minds intermingle, sometimes clashing, sometimes melding, sometimes drifting down blind alleys; but always with a spark of excitement that comes from facing the unknown together.  This is not quite like high school, or even university - let's just borrow a phrase and call it 'The Earth School'.

There's a curious phrase that arises within the department of learning known as Buddhism that has always intrigued me - the Other Shore, or sometimes the Further Shore.  I take this to be a description of the goal of Buddhist study and practice, to arrive at the Further Shore.  Quite an ambiguous phrase for sure, yet I think we, as students of Earth School, are always oriented toward that Further Shore, whether we are aware of it or not.  I would even suggest that just might be the orientation of Evolution itself ever since the Big Bang; and we are, if nothing else, part and parcel of that process - Evolution exploring.  So let's lace up our hiking boots and take a stroll.

Speaking of Buddhism...

Fugue

There are three terms that seem to persist in Buddhist doctrine in descriptions of that Further Shore - Emptiness, Void, and No-self.  I'm assuming that a Buddhist Master, when using such terms, is absolutely authentic and as articulate as possible concerning his or her experience.  Yet, as I hear or read those terms a quite visceral reaction wells up in me, and it's not a pleasant one.  I find myself asking, why would anyone want emptiness, void, no-self???  On examining that reaction it appears to be quite instinctual, given that all three of those terms can be construed as a kind of oblivion, even death, and as such can appear as a threat.  On the other hand, if I am to take the Master as authentic, this surely cannot be what is intended, much less what is waiting for us at that Further Shore.  It could, of course, be a metaphor, as in the closing lines of the Prayer of Saint Francis -

By dying to self
We are born to eternal life

Yet it appears Emptiness in Buddhism is not followed by anything resembling a rebirth; it's just....emptiness.  Void is just...void.  No-self is just...no-self, not new self.  So what gives?

OK, taking a deep breath here.  I am, after all, not on that Further Shore, but on this shore, gazing out across a vast ocean (of ignorance?).  I can't see the Further Shore, but I can sense it, I can orient myself to it, I can maybe even sniff it.  Besides, I look around and see pretty much everyone I know sitting around on this shore, some of them with noses lifted, sniffing as their heads turn slowly side to side (and some muttering under their breathes " where's the juice, where's the juice?).  I take some comfort in this.  From the perspective of someone on this shore I see that as humans we can at least step back a bit from our instinctual reactions, step back and take another look at those seemingly ominous terms (sticks and stones will break my bones but words can never hurt me?).  Dare I say, shake hands with them, give em a little hug?

So if Emptiness, Void, No-self are going to be embraced, then a different way of understanding those terms has to be found, something deeper than what can look like existential nihilism or post-modern radical deconstruction, two philosophies I find distastefully shallow.  If evolution tells us anything it's that we are decidedly not at the end of history, so we have a little time to mull this over.

Perhaps the error I'm making is that I'm projecting a quality onto those terms, one that repels me.  Emptiness just sounds so...bleak.  Void sounds so...empty.  And how the hell can that Buddhist Master tell me I don't have a self when he is clearly speaking with the voice of a self??  With an accent, no less.  But there is another curious phrase I've heard, the claim that Emptiness has no qualities, it is unqualified (disqualified?).  Now that gives me pause.

To be continued...