Always Half Way There
Many years ago, I attended a weekend martial arts training camp with my son and several good friends. It was a yearly event we attended while we were still active in this particular school.
One of the Senior Black Belts was also a Presbyterian minister and he offered a Sunday service which we attended. Coincidentally, his topic for the service was a comparison between Christianity and Buddhism. I don’t think he was aware that there was a Buddhist in his flock.
He began his talk with the assertion that he had studied comparative religion as part of his degree in divinity. Then he laid out some popular, but incorrect, assumptions about Buddhism and used them to make a case for Christianity’s superiority. To someone who didn’t understand Buddhism, the argument may have made complete sense.
If someone with a degree in divinity can misunderstand and misrepresent Buddhism, then what about the rest of us?
Half a Paradox
The Greek Philosopher Zeno left us with a number of interesting paradoxes. One was called the dichotomy paradox. It stated that in order to reach point B from point A, you must first travel half way. To travel half way, say to point C, you must also travel half way to that point. This goes on ad nauseam. Since you have to go half way an infinite number of times, it is impossible to actually reach point B.
The point that I wanted to take from this, is that if you only go halfway, you’ll never get there.
My Presbyterian friend argued that Buddhism leads its followers to the belief that nothing exists. He said that the Buddhist doctrine of emptiness is nihilistic. For that reason Buddhism is inferior because it will lead its followers to despair and away from salvation.
True, any religion that leads to the conclusion that nothing exists, has to be absurd. If the Buddha taught this, then following the Buddha’s teachings would be as foolish as believing Zeno’s claim that you can’t get there from here.
Nothing is Something
Form is emptiness, emptiness is form. ~ the Heart Sutra
The doctrine of emptiness can be a liberating and a frightening concept. It is important to fully grasp its meaning and its implications. Taken out of context or in parts, it can be, as the minister said, nihilistic.
In order to free us from the error of misidentification of the self, the Buddha made the point that all things are impermanent and therefore empty of inherent nature.
All objects are empty of inherent existence. They do not exist independently of other things.
So far there is nothing frightening about emptiness. It’s common sense.
But when we apply this logic to ourselves, we are forced to recognize that we are also empty in nature. We are made from the seeds of our parents. We’re a product of our upbringing and our circumstances. As they say, we are what we eat. It is also true that we cannot name or point to anything that is purely, in and of itself, us.
Does this mean we don’t exist? Yes and no. Do we exist on our own, independent of other things? No. Do we exist in the same way that a flower exists? Yes.
Why the distinction? Because it sheds light on our relationship with the world. We are not separate from our community or our environment. We are deeply connected to them. It reminds us that we are just like the flower. We die and leave seeds for the next flower. It gives us a sense of priority.
It tells us a great deal about our own happiness. If I stake my happiness on things that do not last, my happiness will pass when they pass. But, if I am clear and honest with myself, I’ll see the preciousness of each thing while it last, but allow it to pass when it’s time.
Being in Emptiness
Understanding this concept is an important step. But it’s only one step. The Buddha was very clear that we should not take his word for it. We have to discover and verify what he had to say.
This is accomplished by being with ourselves. Yoga, qigong, and meditation are different ways that we can be with ourselves to verify and internalize the teachings.
By observing the nature of everything we are, we become more and more attuned to the temporary nature of all phenomenon. Our thoughts are fleeting. They arise, hold our attention briefly, and dissipate into nothing. The sensations in our bodies, our respiration, and our level of comfort change over time.
We also discover that investing too much importance in the quality of our meditation or yoga leads us to more dissatisfaction. We learn that any good or bad perceptions about the cultivation of our practice are not any more important than having a good, or bad, piece of cake. They are both fleeting ideas.
But there is a great deal of bliss that can arise when we rest in emptiness. We develop a sense of equanimity that brings peace in the moment. That peace expands into our daily life. The experience of resting in emptiness is deeply profound.
But we can’t sit on our cushion all day in emptiness. It would artificially separate us from the environment and community that we are so deeply connected to. This, like any other attachment, is a source of dissatisfaction. Discovering the truth of emptiness allows us to live more fully. But it’s not an end in itself.
As we develop a deeper connection to emptiness. It permits us to live in proper perspective. The equanimity we find in meditation gives us the capacity to immerse ourselves in experience, both good and bad, without attachment or aversion.
The Buddha taught that all forms are empty, which allows us to embrace emptiness as a dance of ever shifting and evolving forms. All experiences are the unfolding of the interdependent whole.
The miracle of the pure light awareness of Buddha Amitabha gives us the ability to appreciate every precious moment.
Being All The Way There
So while emptiness without form is a bleak and terrible view. Emptiness as form and form as emptiness gives us cause to acknowledge the sanctity of all things. Buddhism is a path to the sacredness we seek.
I wish no ill will to my Presbyterian friend. Popular notions of Buddhism are rife with falsehoods. In the age of the internet it is common for false ideas to become data to support a particular thesis. These are traps we all fall into.
I pray that he finds bliss in Christ, as I find it in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. I also thank him for the clarity I’ve gained from the experience.
As Sergeant Esterhaus used to say on Hill Street Blues, “Let’s be careful out there”.
Andrew Furst is a Meditation Teacher for Buddha Heart USA, a yogi, a backup guitarist for his two teenage boys, a lucky husband, a third dan, and a self employed software consultant. He’s generally forgetful and generally interested. He’s constantly trying to remind himself that he’s in union with the great divine, and willing to send reminders to anyone needing the same.
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