Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Empty of what?

One of the more difficult concepts in Buddhism - one of the most fundamental as well as perhaps the most widely misunderstood - is rendered in English as emptiness. In Zen it is taught with the Japanese word Ku. Many people misunderstand emptiness as complete non-existence. When I first came across this idea as an undergraduate, I imagined it was teaching that the phenomenal world was a sort of hologram hiding a sort of vast, cosmic nothingness. The term is sometimes translated as void, or worse The Void, which doesn't help. The word in English also has negative connotations implying a destitution of meaning or value or feeling. Is it any wonder that people think Buddhism is nihilistic? Is this misunderstanding of emptiness just a problem of its translation into English?

The concept that is rendered as Ku in Japanese derives from the Chinese Wu , which comes from Sunyata (Sanskrit), which in turn comes from Sunnata (Pali). The adjective in Pali is Sunna (empty). Have we lost the meaning in this game of Chinese whispers? Sunnata has the same connotation of ordinary physical emptiness in Pali as emptiness has in English - and it was sometimes misunderstood in similar ways. Confusion about the meaning was common even in the time of Buddha it appears and Buddhism has at times been accused of nihilism through much of its history. But in 'Dhamma language' emptiness doesn't mean total nonexistence, or nihilism. It means something quite specific, which can be expressed in positive as well as negative terms, but which is an experience that is beyond words and even concepts. It is the transcendence of the narrow identification of self to an egoless experience of reality without borders, the experience of samadhi - the non-dualistic state of consciousness seen as a pre-cursor to Nirvana.

Originally Sunna referred directly to the anatta (no self-nature) doctrine.

According to orthodox religious and philosophical thought at the time Buddha lived, each and every living being had its own unchanging 'soul' or essence - the atman - which was or became unified with the cosmic Atman (according to some the same as Brahman) on enlightenment. Buddha was contradicting this doctrine - anatta/anatman was a denial of atta/ atman - and sunna was an expression of this. It wasn't a denial of mind or consciousness or the sense of self, it was a denial of a real, enduring, independent, self-existent essence or soul.

In the Suñña Sutta, Ananda asks the Buddha, "It is said that the world is empty, the world is empty, lord. In what respect is it said that the world is empty?" The Buddha replied, "Insofar as it is empty of a self or of anything pertaining to a self: Thus it is said, Ananda, that the world is empty."

So, emptiness is not total nonexistence, but refers specifically to the absence of an atman - an ultimately real self, essence or identity. And describes reality in terms of interdependence rather than self-standing existences. But what relevance does this have to non-Brahmanists and non-metaphysicians?

Such doctrines as the Atman doctrine are really an intellectual expression of the ordinary human way of thinking of life in terms of enduring entities. The identities of things in the world are conventions of the human mind and society. We project these perceived identities outwards onto the universe itself, as if the universe really was divided up into discreet and abiding objects. At best, we see these 'things' as having changing relationships and properties, but nevertheless, an enduring identity. Buddhism teaches that the notion of entities is nominal or conventional. It is a necessary feature of thought and language that we treat identifiable aspects of reality as if they have a continuous existence - even if we acknowledge that this existence is characterised by change. Many computer programming languages are said to be 'object orientated' in the sense that they handle data in terms of identities or objects which have certain properties at any given time. The way that human beings think is remarkably similar to this in some ways. In terms of Buddhist philosophy, we confuse conventional reality with ultimate reality - that is, we confuse the nominal with the actual. No doubt it is a functional, pragmatic way to deal with information, but not a true reflection of reality, which as modern physics tells us, is a seamless and deeply interdependent flux - an evolving matrix of processes within processes. According to Buddhism it is this disparity between out attachment to the notion of enduring entities and the transience of reality, which causes the suffering that we experience from day to day.

Why do the original teachings emphasise this negative description, in terms of absence? It was framed in this way, to respond to the eternalist atman doctrine while perhaps minimising the chance of being interpreted as a new set of statements about the essence of reality. The power of this tendency to reify reality - to project our concepts of identity as if they existed externally - means that we may see even a teaching of inter-dependence in terms of a network of relationships between entities, when really it is only the mind that creates the existence of any entities or even relationships - reality is a seamless - and ultimately indescribable - whole. This is why, to avid nihilistic misunderstandings, some modern teachers describe emptiness in terms of openness or fullness - because phenomena are empty of that which would separate or confine them - a self-existent identity or essence.

Buddha taught that all phenomena are characterised by three qualities - the Three Marks of Existence:
Dukkha (Sanskrit duhkha) or unsatisfactoriness. Nothing found in the physical world or even the psychological realm can bring lasting deep satisfaction.

Anicca (Sanskrit anitya) or impermanence. This refers not only to the fact that all conditioned things eventually cease to exist, but also that all conditioned things are in a constant state of flux. (Visualize a leaf growing on a tree. It dies and falls off the tree but is soon replaced by a new leaf.)

Anatta (Sanskrit anatman) impersonality, or non-Self. The human personality, "soul", or Self, is a conventional appellation applied to the assembly of physical and psychological components, each individually subject to constant flux; there is no central core (or essence); this is somewhat similar to a bundle theory of mind or soul.
These characteristics are inter-dependent: it is because things lack an independent essence, that they are in a constant state of change; it is because we hold onto the changing aspects of reality as if they had a continuous existence that they are unsatisfactory for us. Emptiness is really just the same as interdependence or dependent origination, and some of the clearest accounts I've come across explain it in these terms. Thich Nhat Hanh's commentary on the Heart Sutra (which I recommend) describes it using his own terminology of 'inter-being'.
If you are a poet, you will see clearly that there is a cloud floating in this sheet of paper. Without a cloud, there will be no rain; without rain, the trees cannot grow; and without trees, we cannot make paper...So we can say that the cloud and the paper 'inter-are.' We cannot just be by ourselves alone; we have to inter-be with every other thing.
A class of Mahayana sutras called the Prajnaparamita (Perfection of Wisdom) sutras developed this concept of emptiness. The earliest is the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra or "Perfection of Wisdom in 8,000 Lines", which is chanted in a shortened form in Zen dojos as the Heart sutra. It includes a number of quite enigmatic lines on emptiness:
"Form is empty; emptiness is form. Emptiness is not other than form; form also is not other than emptiness. Likewise, feeling, discrimination, compositional factors and consciousness are empty."

"Shariputra, like this all phenomena are merely empty, having no characteristics. They are not produced and do not cease. They have no defilement and no separation from defilement. They have no decrease and no increase."
Emptiness is that which is beyond dualities - it is raw reality, prior to conceptualisation and language. It is not to be seen as another concept, set in opposition to phenomena such as form (matter), sensation, perception, mentality, or consciousness. Reality is not separate from appearance. Thich Nhat Hanh explains this beautifully as follows:
Form is the wave and emptiness is the water.
Probably the second most influential Buddhist thinker after Buddha himself was Nagarjuna who, at the time that Mahayana Buddhism was emerging, developed the concept of Sunyata with a thorough and extensive philosophy of negation - the best known exposition of his thought is the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā (Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way). Key features of this teaching are:
  • The Buddhist Concept of Emptiness of all things (i.e., all things, including the Buddha, have no inherent existence)
  • The identity of pratītyasamutpāda (Dependent Origination) with śunyatā
  • The indifferentiability of nirvāṇa from saṃsāra
  • The tentative or merely conventional nature of all truth
The former is expressed in terms of the 'emptiness of emptiness':
Whatever is dependently co-arisen
That is explained to be emptiness.
That, being a dependent designation,
Is itself the middle way.

Something that is not dependently arisen,
Such a thing does not exist.
Therefore a nonempty thing
Does not exist.
One of the problems with philosophies based (for teaching purposes) on negation, such as anatta, sunna and to an even greater extent the work of Middle Path philosophers such as Nagarjuna, is that it is easily interpreted as nihilism. Many people misinterpret these ideas as a denial of reality. But Nagarjuna's philosophy is not nihilistic, it is negative to avoid all attachment to concepts, all reification. But really it is indicating through denial and silence, that which is beyond language and concepts. It is intended to negate attachment to concepts in order to see through them to reality. He has prompted comparison with the (equally misunderstood) 20th century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein.

A group of Mahayana sutras referred to as the Tathagatagarbha (Buddha Womb) Sutras teach that there is a permanent, unchanging essence within each being. The term Tathagatagarbha can be variously translated as 'Buddha Womb', 'Buddha Embryo' etc, and is closely related to and sometimes synonymous with Buddha Nature. It may have arisen as a result of Hindu/Brahmanist influences since it arose during a Hindu revival in India. These sutras are in agreement that the Tathagatagarbha is an undefiled, eternal essence within all beings. It is presented as an antidote to a false, nihilistic understanding of emptiness. But, as I have already argued, to see these doctrines as nihilism is to totally (yet understandably) misunderstand them. A minority of Mahayana Buddhists adhere to this view literally. However such an interpretation seems essentially indistinguishable from the Vedic/Brahminist teachings of Atman that Buddhism rose out of and broke away from. Others see such interpretation as being in contradiction to the principles of anatman and sunyata. To me, this raises the question of why, if Buddha was essentially in agreement with the Brahminists, he felt any need to debate with them and to give radical, innovative teachings which directly contradicted them. Buddha rejected eternalism as well as annihilationism. How does this interpretation differ from eternalism? Is this not just another attempt to cling to atman, to imagined permanence? Another reification of concepts? How do we reconcile this with the rest of Buddhist philosophy?

Could it be that the authors of these sutras (which were of course attributed to Buddha, but which did not appear until several centuries after his death) had misunderstood such doctrines as Anatta, Sunyata and Madhyamaka philosophy as nihilism? Or perhaps they were creating an antidote to the popular misunderstanding of such teachings as nihilism - redressing the balance by teaching emptiness in positive terms.

In one of the Tathagatagarbha sutras, the Lankavatara Sutra, it is explained that the Tathagatagarbha doctrine is a teaching method:
Then Mahamati said to the Blessed One: In the Scriptures mention is made of the Womb of Tathágata-hood and it is taught that that which is born of it is by nature bright and pure, originally unspotted and endowed with the thirty-two marks of excellence. As it is described it is a precious gem but wrapped in a dirty garment soiled by greed, anger, folly and false-imagination. We are taught that this Buddha-nature immanent in everyone is eternal, unchanging, and auspicious. It is not this, which is born of the Womb of Tathágata-hood the same as the soul-substance that is taught by the philosophers? The Divine Atman as taught by them is also claimed to be eternal, inscrutable, unchanging, and imperishable. Is there, or is there not a difference?

The Blessed One replied: No, Mahamati, my Womb of Tathágata-hood is not the same as the Divine Atman as taught by the philosophers. What I teach is Tathágata-hood in the sense of Dharmakaya, Ultimate Oneness, Nirvana, emptiness, unborn-ness, unqualified ness, devoid of will-effort. The reason why I teach the doctrine of Tathágata-hood is to cause the ignorant and simple-minded to lay aside their fears as they listen to the teaching of ego-less-ness and come to understand the state of non-discrimination and imageless-ness. The religious teaching of the Tathágatas are just like a potter making various vessels by his own skill of hand with the aid of rod, water and thread, out of the one mass of clay, so the Tathágatas by their command of skillful means issuing from Noble Wisdom, by various terms, expressions, and symbols, preach the twofold ego-less-ness in order to remove the last trace of discrimination that is preventing disciples from attaining a self-realization of Noble Wisdom. The doctrine of the Tathágata-womb is disclosed in order to awaken philosophers from their clinging to the notion of a Divine Atman as transcendental personality, so that their minds that have become attached to the imaginary notion of "soul" as being something self-existent may be quickly awakened to a state of perfect enlightenment. All such notions as causation, succession, atoms, primary elements, that make up personality, personal soul, Supreme Spirit, Sovereign God, Creator, are all figments of the imagination and manifestations of mind. No, Mahamati, the Tathágata’s doctrine of the Womb of Tathágata-hood is not the same as the philosopher’s Atman.
Note the phrase 'the Tathágatas by their command of skillful means issuing from Noble Wisdom, by various terms, expressions, and symbols, preach the twofold ego-less-ness'. In what sense is the ego-less-ness twofold? I propose that it is twofold through both negative expression (anatta, sunyata) and positive expression (Tathagatagarbha, dependent origination).

In his article The Significance Of 'Tathagatagarbha' - A Positive Expression Of 'Sunyata' Heng-Ching Shih expresses the same argument in detail.
In this passage, the Buddha clearly identified the 'tathagatagarbha' with emptiness, markless, 'tathata', etc., meaning that the 'tathagatagarbha' is without any substantial entity. Then the question arises: -- if the 'tathagatagarbha' is empty by nature , why the Buddhas teach a 'tathagatagarbha' possessing all positive attributes, such as eternal (nitya), self ('atman'), bliss (sukha) and pure (subha)? ...It is pointed out in this passage that the 'tathagatagarbha' is empty in its nature yet real: it is 'Nirvana' itself, unborn, without predicates. It is where no false discrimination (nirvikalpa) takes place. There is nothing here for the Buddhas or Bodhisattvas to take hold of as an 'atman'. They have gone beyond the sphere of false discrimination and word. It is due to their wisdom and skillful means ('upaya') that they set up all kinds of names and phrases in order to save sentient beings from mistaken view of reality. In other words, it is exactly to help sentient beings case away their fear of 'anatman' that the 'tathagatagarbha' with positive attributes (i.e., 'asunya-tathagatagarbha') is taught, and at the same time it is to get rid of the clinging of 'atman' that the 'anatman-tathagatagarbha' is taught. Thus it is clear that the 'tathagatagarbha' is not an Upanishadic 'atman'.
There is a passage in the 'Mahaparinirana Sutra' in which Buddha nature is defined as the ultimate emptiness and the Middle Way. It reads:
Good son, Buddha nature is the ultimate emptiness ,which is 'prajna' itself. [False] emptiness means not to perceive emptiness or non-emptiness. The wise perceive emptiness and non-emptiness, permanence and impermanence, suffering and happiness, self and non-self. What is empty is 'samsara' and what is not empty is great 'nirvana' ... Perceiving the non-self but not the self is not the Middle Way. The Middle Way is Buddha nature.
Heng-Ching Shih explains this as follows:
The essential point of this passage is that true emptiness, or in this case Buddha nature, trancends any dictomony [between] being and non-being, self and non-self, suffering and happiness, etc. Ordinary people and the heterodox see only the existence of self, while 'Sravakas' and Pratyekabuddhas perceive only the non-self, but not the existence of a self. Clinging to one extreme or the other, they cannot realize the ultimate, and true emptiness and consequently cannot realize the Middle Way. Without the Middle Way, they are not able to comprehend Buddha nature. Trying to lessen the monistic flavour of the Buddha nature, the 'Mahaparinirvana Sutra' interprets Buddha nature as both encompassing and transcending the notions of self and non-self. It makes the doctrine of the Buddha nature adhere closely to the Buddhist teaching of non-duality and the Middle Way. Thus Buddha nature should not be treated as equivalent to the monistic absolute. If it does seemly indicate the presence of a substantive self, it is actually a positive expression of emptiness.
Interpreting the Tathagatagarbha doctrine as soteriological - as a teaching device - rather than as theoretical and literal in this way, we can resolve an apparent conflict into a teaching which is harmonious with the rest of Buddhist philosophy.

As with Thich Nhat Hanh's teaching of emptiness, we have another, relatively easy to understand, positive expression of the core teaching of Buddhism. And again we have the danger of literalism and reification - an even greater danger in this case due to the ambiguity of the texts and the ease with which they can be seen as metaphysics. The key, I believe, is to see all of these teachings as just that - to walk a Middle Path, avoiding literalism, clinging to no particular articulation, positive or negative, but instead letting go of all attachment to concepts and language and instead being open to reality itself without such 'mediation'. All good Buddhist teachings are knowingly pragmatic and soteriological, in my opinion.

This post was originally published in my personal blog in 2007. Image copyright Rein Nomm.


  1. Interesting post.

    Perhaps another distinctive 'shunyata' approach from within Zen which warrants attention is that of Japan's Master Dogen.

    In his big work 'Shobogenzo' is a chapter where he lays out his interpretation of the Heart Sutra. In it he avoids a mushy philosophical negating of everything to 'arrive at' emptiness via choosing to affirm things instead as instances of prajna. His approach is affirmative, direct and dynamic.

    Dogen never rejects critical thinking, language or reason but instead advocates 'right thinking/non-thinking' as a reorientational means of finding balance and fairness. He advocates our 'weighing emptiness' to attain fairness. This is, of course, an inherently ethical view of 'emptiness' which avoids the amoral or nihilistic interpretations which have subsequently found an audience.

    Dogen's teaching on the subject is discussed very well by Prof. Hee-Jin Kim in his book 'Dogen on Meditation and Thinking', Chapter 3 'Weighing Emptiness'.



  2. Hi Harry,

    Which chapter are you referring to here?


  3. Hi, Justin.

    Shobogenzo Maka-Hannya-Haramitsu.

    Its Chapter 2 of the Nishijima/Cross translation which is based in the 95-chapter edition (said to be the most comprehensive single edition) of Shobogenzo which was arranged in chronological order by Master Hangyo Kozen.

    Dogen's discussion of 'emptiness' and balance/fairness appears suddenly via his introduction of the image of a
    steelyarn (weighing device) in Shobogenzo Muchu Setsumu (chapter 38 of the same edition).



  4. "Such doctrines as the Atman doctrine are really an intellectual expression of the ordinary human way of thinking of life in terms of enduring entities."

    I would like to hear more about this claim. I'm not necessarily saying it's wrong, but that I would like to see a more detailed explanation from someone who knows more about it than I do. The Buddha in his time was both adapting his message to a common-view of things (in terms of Atman) and responding to this "intellectual expression" as such.

    While we can intellectual grasp the Atman-tradition as a religious practice, I think we are still in the dark for how it functioned as part of a common worldview, which is to say how it is an expression of a common worldview we (outside of India) share.

    You can say "self-nature" or adapt something like Hume's bundle-theory of perception, but they're pretty meaningless for most people without the background to appreciate these examples as really coming out of their life.

  5. Thanks Harry, I might not have got that far yet. I'll look it up.

  6. Sorry, i wasn't very clear there I think.

    The Shobogenzo 'Maka-Hannya-Haramitsu' chapter is the one which directly relates to the Heart Sutra, Justin (Dogen's 'take' on it). Its chapter 2 in vol. 1 of the Nishijima/ Cross trans.



  7. Hi Joe,

    "I would like to hear more about this claim. "

    I'm not sure that I understand the problem. The human mind thinks in terms of discreet, enduring entities - we do it with objects, other people, abstact ideas and ourselves. Even though this is the common-sense way of seeing things, it doesn't mean that everyone who sees this way necessarily has a metaphysical belief in such discreet essences or entities.

    The Atman in Hinduism is the concept of an unchanging essence within each being. Some see this dualistically as each person having a separate Atman; others see it in terms of 'spiritual monism' with each Atman merely being an aspect of the universal self - Brahman. So this is the taking of the common-sense view as a metaphysical reality.

    But even people who don't believe in such 'spiritual essences' at some intuitive level feel that they (in some sense they don't necessarily have an explanation for) feel that they are separate and discreet from the universe. This explains, for example, the sense of shock and outrage with which many western, materialistic philosphers reacted to Parfit's deconstruction of personal identity.

    Does that answer your question?

  8. My copy is on loan Harry, but I found it online here: http://www.shastaabbey.org/1dogen/chapter/002makah.pdf

    And I can see what you're getting at.

  9. The existence of a particular thing being named, as apposed to another, is dependent on total non-existence of everything else. Niethche says that Nihilism is the being stuck in the choice of the being or no being of a thing. Nihil being the root as apposed to Nil. Using "not" to refer to something is an attempt to fill the void between the "is" and the "no" in an active or passive manner. Nil ends up being the root of Nihilism just for the sake of comedy.
    I feel a lack in my self so I will want to either get rid of the lack or fill the lack in some way. Both being the same, this is Nihilism. The "I" does not see that this is going on, because it's the source itself, and if left to manage things will lead others down an imaginary path.
    I think that speaking without the word "not" and seeing what happens makes emptiness more clear.

  10. Justin,

    Of course I'm forgetting that the Nishijima/Cross translation (vol.1 only) is online now. Here it is:




  11. Brilliant. Your essay is very clarifying for me. Thanks enormously, Justin.

  12. I'm not meaning to sound contrary, but the discussion seems to be based on a misinterpretation of the word "true".
    I think Heng-Ching Shih would have to agree.
    A True Self is not the Self because the Real Self is No-Self. I's the "I" that makes it so. It's the "I" that turns a thing into a tree. Without the "I" there is NO-Thing called a "tree". Calling it a tree makes it one with me, namely a word. The "I" is just a word. Be it the first word that makes every Thing exist with it, yet the word is always lacking because the word is not the thing. Emptiness!! The Heart Sutra is about calling a No-Thing a Thing that is Not. The "I" does not-hear. It fills the perceived gap between the Self and the ear with listening instead. Nietzsche would say you're in a Nihilistic discussion with nowhere to go, so more data is added instead.
    The Buddha said at enlightenment, "I am one with all things." because it's the "I" that names them all, including the Self, in the first place as Things have no "I"'s.
    Again, sorry, I really trying not to sound like a smart-ass. You guys are just so smart that I'll get lost if I don't go right at what you're saying.

  13. Not sure I follow all of that Ted.

    But one thing occurs to me:

    If the origin or cause of emptiness being turned into 'things' is 'the I', then what is the origin or cause of emptiness being perceived as 'the I' in the first place?

    Surely the cause of all of these misunderstandings is delusion?

    Other than that, as far as I understand you, I don't see the disagreement.

  14. Hi Ted,

    Mature practitioners/teachers such as Master Dogen avoided such unrealistic 'hard' dichotomies as 'true self' vs 'self' real/ unreal etc.

    Dogen realised that we are authentically enlightened and authentically deluded and so practicing realising delusion is endless: 'greatly realise delusion' was one of his big sayings. In experience there is tension between realisation and delusion and beings are clearly and effectively 'deluded' or 'realised' in their actions, but, in Buddhist practice (Zazen/meditation), they are seen as not in the least bit separate.

    The "I" notion I think has to be looked at in terms of direct Buddhist practice and not from some of the lamentable metaphysical and philosophical traps that are attached to Buddhism at this stage.

    Dogen's key direction in Zazen was: 'think not thinking. How do you think not thinking? It is non-thinking'.

    In terms of 'emptiness' that pans out as:

    Thinking is form.

    Not thinking is emptiness.

    Non-thinking is how things exist, its the real 'doctrine of emptiness' realised. Its 'Form is emptiness, emptiness is form' in our real life. It is "I" directly coming forth moment-to-momrnt to realise us.

    'Non-thinking' is wholehearted sitting, or any action, letting thoughts come and go. In this way things, including "I", come forward and realise us.

    In understanding "I" directly in this way maybe we can appreciate the full value, function and potentials of "I" thinking, the fullness and function of 'not thinking' and the fullness and function of non-thinking as 'they' really exist i.e. as not in the least bit separate.



  15. Hi Harry,

    I agree with what you say. Just a minor and somewhat pedantic point about this:

    "Thinking is form.
    Not thinking is emptiness."

    The famous couplet from the heart sutra (form is emptiness, emptiness is form) is very often misinterpreted (because it's being looked at in isolation rather than as a response to the Buddhadharma of the Pali Canon) - taking 'form' to mean 'phenomena' or something similar. In fact, 'form' here refers to rupa (matter) which is one of the five skandhas. The overall meaning is unchanged since rupa here is representative of all of the skandhas, and this is why the heart sutra goes on to say 'This is also true of feeling, perception, volition, consciousness' (the other four skandhas.

  16. It can be seen that each of chapters of Shobogenzo are written from different designations of the I-Self-Other triad. I study under the notion that Dogen's writings as a whole are saying, "It is delusion to think the "I" means what it says. It is enlightenment to see what it is not saying, if anything at all." Not saying being from the other side of the "I"'s position of saying what it doesn't want to say. That signifies, Harry, that not thinking is the "I"'s desire for no thinking and that's the thinking we need to listen to, since that's what the "I" is avoiding which is impossible for it to do, in order to learn more about ourselves. Maybe that's what zazen is supposed to enlighten. Ultimately the imaginary cause of suffering.
    Full speech,
    Empty speech,
    Turning words. All terms taken from the practice of Rhetoric.
    I think Dogen says that if we don't study words like he did, we won't have a clue what he's really saying and if we take truth to be certain instead of a pointer to the conflict of concealment then we'll believe anything anyone of importance says.
    Dogen insisted Shobogenzo be spoken so it becomes a speech act. I think that listening as a Buddhist is still the "I" dressed up that is not hearing the words turn.
    I think this outlook fits Dogen with his times, also.
    What do you guys think?
    Can you tell I don't sleep a lot" Ha,Ha.

  17. "The human mind thinks in terms of discreet, enduring entities - we do it with objects, other people, abstact ideas and ourselves."

    Sure, and this is simply a system of conventions, though I would go further to say this is simply what thinking is period. My question is in what sense do people try to milk these conventions, as it were, for more than they are worth.

    Given that the Buddha put much effort into avoiding the charge of nihilism, I take it that he had no problem with conventional/conceptual thinking as such, but that there is something else, which is perhaps most straight-forwardly manifest in conventional mental activity, that we are doing that causes our problems.

  18. Ted Said:

    "It is delusion to think the 'I' means what it says. It is enlightenment to see what it is not saying, if anything at all."

    So, what you are saying is that Dogen was a Lacanian, or at the very least a Freudian of some sort?

  19. "What is the meaning of the First Patriarch's travel?" The only correct answer is an answer that really has no meaning to it because meaning itself is arbitrary (empty). The question could be showing us that to ask the question is show the desire for a particular meaning to the Patriarchs travel is being avoided by the questioner. Only "I" know the meaning of what "I" do not say, unless "I" screw up saying it. If the questioner responds to the oak tree, he runs that risk.
    I think Freud and Lacan were correct in saying that suffering is imposed on by the mis-recognition of the Self due to a perception of an eye that isn't there. A re-reading of the Four Noble Truths shouldn't be dismissed because someone can call them Freudian or Lacanian.
    Thanks Joe. Isn't it just the study of rhetoric,though? Nothing special.

  20. "Do not be bound by word and phrases." Sounds like a zen joke. The phrase itself has a k-not at the beginning of it.

  21. Didn't mean to give the impression I was dismissing anything, Ted. I emphatically endorse considering Dogen and more basically the Buddha's teachings through a psychoanalytic framework. It's a tremendously valuable pairing depending on who you are. People have been putting Psychoanalysis and Buddhism, particularly Zen, side-by-side for decades now, but the most valuable text I've read in this area is Shingu Kazushige's Being Irrational: Lacan, the Objet a, and the Golden Mean.

  22. Joe,
    I was a little strong to say dismissing, although it might have helped in the honor of your response. I check your blog for anything new all the time.
    You question earlier was, "In what sense do people try to milk these conventions, as it were, for more than they are worth?"
    I would say in the sense of suffering. We suffer because we chose to, albeit unconsciously, or out of ignorance of the way of the Self. When we realize what is going on we can make the choice of seeing with no suffering or as the character in the "Matrix" says,'Ignorance is bliss.", and continue our enjoyment.
    Kazushige's book is pretty neat. There needs to be more Buddhist books like that.
    A great article, for you scholarly types, is "The Logic of the Diamond Sutra" by Shigenori Nagatomo on line. Sorry I don't have the link.

  23. Oh, people milk them to take advantage of other people that don't know any better. Like in politics for example.

  24. Good stuff. I love your articles, Justin.

  25. "I think that listening as a Buddhist is still the "I" dressed up that is not hearing the words turn."

    Hi Ted,

    Dogen seemed to have that base covered better than anyone else that I've come across, but it is really a matter of how thoroughly the practitioner engages in this sort of thing:

    "To learn the Buddha's truth is to learn ourselves. To learn ourselves is to forget ourselves. To forget ourselves is to be experienced by the myriad dharmas. To be experienced by the myriad dharmas is to let our own body-and-mind, and the body-and-mind of the external world, fall away. There is a state in which the traces of realisation are forgotten; and it manifests the traces of forgotten realization for a long, long time" (Nishijima/ Cross trans).

    That is to be realised by whatever it is that is coming forth be it Buddhism, Freud, The Beatles, the price of fish... so the type of 'dressing' isn't as important as the fact that we are dressed and that we must necessarily use it, all of it.

    'Myriad dharmas' coming fourth to realise us was Master Dogen's focus, not "I" or "not I" or "non I". This is a recognition of the mystical intimacy between things, not just, as Genjo-Koan states it: 'When all dharmas are the buddha dharma, then there is delusion and realisation...' i.e. not just things seen in relation to "I" one way or the other.



  26. Maybe another way of thinking of 'emptiness', which avoids reifying it, is to regard it as the endpoint of a process, the exhaustion of a procedure.

    We go through all the usual examinations of what makes a thing or person what they are, and eventually come to the conclusion that the 'essence' is unfindable.

    We have not come to a positive result (we haven't found 'it'), but neither have we come to a negative result (we haven't PROVED 'it' does not exist). What we have done is to show that 'it' is unfindable.

  27. Hey Brian,
    Thanks for the statements.
    1- Thinking of emptiness is the reflection of emptiness. If emptiness is always already and is only manifested then emptiness has no beginning, so emptiness has no end. The “I” is doing the process considering emptiness as an object of study when there is no object. The object of study must be the thinking the “I” does as the object of study. When the I realizes it’s reflection is what the “I” is and nothing else then emptiness has been manifest.
    2- The examinations (unsure what you’re saying by usual) we go through are dependant on words. Words have no essence in and of themselves. They are dependant on other words. A sentence says nothing until there is a period. Another way of saying something I said earlier is when there are “nots” used in any description then the periods are being ignored. Things are things and person are constructs based on how a particular thing sees other things.
    3- Your second “not” proves your first “not”. If we haven’t found it, thus named it, then so far there is no existence of it. If emptiness is what we’re calling an “it”, refer to 1. The "I" want it to exist because existence validated the "I".

  28. There is no proving a "not".
    Use Dogen's "Firewood and Ash".
    Yes you can sat when firewood burns, there is then ash and ash is not firewood. Using that logic, though, you can just as easily say that ash is not a tractor.

  29. Hi Harry,
    Your dogen quote earlier,"To learn the Buddha's truth..." is Dogen retelling the Four Noble Truths.

  30. Ted, by usual examinations I mean the mental analysis where we take an object (such as a car) to bits in order to find the 'essence' of the car, the 'car-ness' that makes it what it is. This essence is unfindable, and eventually we are left with the emptiness of the car.

    As a rather curious aside, we can actually run this process in reverse, starting with the empty set and generating the natural numbers, the basis of mathematics, by adding further layers of emptiness:

    "Today, most mathematicians do not associate the notion of emptiness with zero, but with the empty set, which is a construct of set theory. A set is a collection of objects or numbers. For example, the set { 1, 2, 3, 5, 8 } is a set of numbers containing five elements; it is therefore said to have the "cardinality" of 5. The empty set { } is a collection that contains nothing and has the cardinality 0. The mathematician John von Neumann (1923) invented a method, known as von Neumann hierarchy, which can be employed to generate the natural numbers from the empty set as follows:

    Step 0: { } (empty set)
    Step 1: { { } } (set containing the empty set)
    Step 2: { { }, { { } } } (set containing previous two sets)
    Step 3: { { }, { { } } , { { }, { { } } } } (set containing previous three sets)
    Step 4: { { }, { { } } , { { }, { { } } }, { { }, { { } } , { { }, { { } } } } } (etc.)

    This sequence is obtained by iterating a functor that creates a new set from the union of the preceding two sets, thus generating sets with the cardinalities 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, ad infinitum. In less mathematical terms, the principle can be described as follows: Beginning with emptiness (step 0), we observe emptiness. Through the act of observing we create an entity containing emptiness (step 1). Now we perceive emptiness, as well as an entity. From the combination of the former two we create another entity by observation, which is different from the first entity (step 2). This process is repeated again and again. Interestingly, if we define suitable operations on the obtained sets based on union and intersection, the cardinalities of the resulting sets behave just like natural numbers being added and subtracted. The sequence is therefore isomorphic to the natural numbers - a stunningly beautiful example of something from nothing." from http://www.thebigview.com/buddhism/emptiness.html

  31. Cool man. When people start reading Lacan the end up learning some set theory. It's very helpful, I think.
    The word "car' is one from the empty set to distinguish that thing from another thing that is not from the empty set. If we go at a car in a Shantideva manner, we can take apart the thing we call a car into smaller parts that would again be not from the empty set so would have to give each one a name from the empty set to distinguish each one from another until the thing we called a"car' was no more. The big part of this for us is that counting implies a counter that is not one of the one's counted. One is the only nunber that is also not number, but counter. There is only one not-one. This explains my "goofy talk in this and past posts!
    The "I" is both a counter as well as one that is counted by another "I". It's misrecognition as a counter only and thus creating an illusion of suffering is the point of Buddhist practice. It is Wisdom beyond wisdom to know when to be the 1 and when to be not one for another 1 that counts. There is ultimately one jewel appearing to be three. One- not one- no one. Thanks Brian!!

  32. Ted,

    Yes indeed, his is the 3-D, Dolby Stereo surround sound version.

    In the case of that quote he tells the old story from the point of view of direct practice/realisation.

    What before might have represented a 1-2-3-4 one-way sequential formula before now can be seen as a dynamic and do-able process working in every direction.

    Very 'Dogen'.



  33. Lacan said that if his students learn nothing from him then at least they will know how to count to four.

  34. This is a pretty good explanation of a complex concept, though when realized, we see exactly how NON-complex it is.