Certainly, we live in a consumer-oriented, materialistic, hedonistic society bent on pleasing self. In comparison to some portions of the world, most of us are accustomed to very high levels of luxury by way of our comforts, pleasures, and security. With this has come the prominent idea that happiness comes in accomplishments, in recognition, in material possessions, comfort, and the like. We have come to believe the mistaken (and Satan promoted) notion that if we just acquire certain things, then we can be truly happy and even secure. As a result, people develop their own agendas by which they seek to climb the mountain of success or happiness. Of course, the chosen agendas are very much the product of the mindset of a Wall Street, Madison Avenue controlled society.
As Christians, we may have rejected some or even a lot of these notions. Yet, the heart is deceitful and desperately wicked, and because we are all so easily influenced by the world around us, our hearts need guarding.
Scripture clearly teaches us that the real issues of life are spiritual and are really matters of the heart, the inner man. Maybe it’s for this reason the word “heart” is found so many times in the Bible. Because the word “heart” can be translated several ways, depending on the context, the number of times it is found varies in the different translations of the English Bible (863 in the NASB, 963 in the KJV, and 791 in the NIV). As these numbers suggest, the heart is a prominent concept and one of the most commonly used words of the Bible. Most of these occurrences are used metaphorically of the inner man. When used metaphorically (depending on the context) heart refers to either the mind, the emotions, the will, to the sinful nature, inclusively to the total inner man, or simply to the person as a whole and is often translated as such. As a simple illustration of how various translations handle the word heart, compare the translation of the KJV in Exodus 9:14, “I will send all my plagues upon thine heart (referring to Pharaoh), and upon thy servants,” with the NASB’s “I will send my plagues on you (marginal reading has “heart”) and your servants.”
The term heart, then, generally speaks of the inner person and the spiritual life in all its various aspects. This multiple use of “heart” along with the way it is used strongly focuses our attention on the importance of the spiritual life. Like the human heart, it is central and vital to our existence.
HEART. EYE. SOUL. By kneading clay, you form vessels. But it is only their hollow space, the nothingness, which enables the fill. From walls, ruptured by doors and windows, you build a house. But it’s only its hollow space, the nothingness, which gives value to it. The visible, that which has being, gives the work its form.
“Nothing exists except atoms and empty space; everything else is just opinion.” –Democritus of Abdera
When you take a look out at the Universe, past the objects in our own solar system, beyond the stars, dust and nebulae within our own galaxy, and out into the void of intergalactic space, what is it that you see?
What we normally think of as the entire Universe, consisting of hundreds of billions of galaxies, with about 8,700 identified in the tiny patch of deep-sky shown above. Each one of those galaxies, itself, contains hundreds of billions of stars, just like our own Milky Way, and this is just counting the part of the Universe that’s presently observable to us, which is by no means the entire thing!
And yet, if we map out everything known in the Universe, and trace out the cosmic structure, we find that the normal matter — things made out of all the known elementary particles — is less than 5% of the total energy density of the Universe. There’s got to be about 20-25% of the Universe in the form of dark matter, a type of clumpy, collisionless matter that is made up of a yet-undiscovered particle, in order to get the type of clustering we see.
But perhaps most bizarrely, the remaining energy of the Universe, the stuff that’s required to bring us up to 100%, is energy that appears to be intrinsic to empty space itself: dark energy.
“Emptiness” is a central teaching of all Buddhism, but its true meaning is often misunderstood. If we are ever to embrace Buddhism properly into the West, we need to be clear about emptiness, since a wrong understanding of its meaning can be confusing, even harmful. The third century Indian Buddhist master Nagarjuna taught, “Emptiness wrongly grasped is like picking up a poisonous snake by the wrong end.” In other words, we will be bitten!
Emptiness is not complete nothingness; it doesn’t mean that nothing exists at all. This would be a nihilistic view contrary to common sense. What it does mean is that things do not exist the way our grasping self supposes they do. In his book on the Heart Sutra the Dalai Lama calls emptiness “the true nature of things and events,” but in the same passage he warns us “to avoid the misapprehension that emptiness is an absolute reality or an independent truth.” In other words, emptiness is not some kind of heaven or separate realm apart from this world and its woes.
The Heart Sutra says, “all phenomena in their own-being are empty.” It doesn’t say “all phenomena are empty.” This distinction is vital. “Own-being” means separate independent existence. The passage means that nothing we see or hear (or are) stands alone; everything is a tentative expression of one seamless, ever-changing landscape. So though no individual person or thing has any permanent, fixed identity, everything taken together is what Thich Nhat Hanh calls “interbeing.” This term embraces the positive aspect of emptiness as it is lived and acted by a person of wisdom — with its sense of connection, compassion and love. Think of the Dalai Lama himself and the kind of person he is — generous, humble, smiling and laughing — and we can see that a mere intellectual reading of emptiness fails to get at its practical joyous quality in spiritual life. So emptiness has two aspects, one negative and the other quite positive.
Ari Goldfield, a Buddhist teacher at Wisdom Sun and translator of Stars of Wisdom, summarizes these two aspects as follows:
The first meaning of emptiness is called “emptiness of essence,” which means that phenomena [that we experience] have no inherent nature by themselves.” The second is called “emptiness in the context of Buddha Nature,” which sees emptiness as endowed with qualities of awakened mind like wisdom, bliss, compassion, clarity, and courage. Ultimate reality is the union of both emptinesses.
With all of this in mind, I would like to highlight three common misunderstandings of emptiness: emotional, ethical and meditative.
When we say “I feel empty,” we mean we are feeling sad or depressed. Emotionally speaking, “emptiness” is not a happy word in English, and no matter how often we remind ourselves that Buddhist emptiness does not mean loneliness or separateness, that emotional undertow remains. At various times, I have looked for a substitute translation for the Sanskrit sunyata — I have tried “fullness,” “spaciousness,” “connectedness,” and “boundlessness” — but as Ari Goldfield points out, “emptiness” is the most exact translation. “Emptiness” is also the term that my own teacher Shunryu Suzuki used, though he usually added context. Once, speaking of emptiness he said, “I do not mean voidness. There is something, but that something is something which is always prepared for taking some particular form.” Another time, speaking of the feeling tone of emptiness, he said, “Emptiness is like being at your mother’s bosom and she will take care of you.”
Some Buddhist students rationalize or excuse bad behavior of their teacher by asserting that through his understanding of emptiness the teacher is exempt from the usual rules of conduct. One student said, “Roshi lives in the absolute so his behavior can’t be judged by ordinary standards.” While it is true that Buddhist teachers sometimes use unusual methods to awaken their students, their motivation must come from compassion, not selfishness. No behavior that causes harm is acceptable for a Buddhist practitioner, teacher or otherwise.
Some Buddhist students think that a meditative state without thought or activity is the realization of emptiness. While such a state is well described in Buddhist meditation texts, it is treated like all mental states — temporary and not ultimately conducive to liberation. Actually, emptiness is not a state of mind at all; it is, as the Dalai Lama says, simply “the true nature of things and events.” This includes the mind. Whether the mind of the meditator is full of thoughts or empty of them, this true nature holds.
Finally, since emptiness seems so difficult to understand, why did the Buddha teach it at all? It is because of his profound insight into why we suffer. Ultimately, we suffer because we grasp after things thinking they are fixed, substantial, real and capable of being possessed by ego. It is only when we can see through this illusion and open ourselves, in Ari Goldfield’s words, “to the reality of flux and fluidity that is ultimately ungraspable and inconceivable” that we can relax into clarity, compassion and courage. That lofty goal is what makes the effort to understand emptiness so worthwhile.
The essentials are invisible for our eyes… we know the quotation from “The Little Price” only too well, and we know and feel better and better that we can only see well with our hearts. Wherever we don’t see anything, there is actually everything, all being, all essentials, fullness. A couple of days ago, a friend of mine who works as an architect has explained it to me very graphically *smile* What makes a tree a tree? If I clutter a room with pieces of furniture, there is nothing left of the room itself, its original nature, as it is truly meant, gets lost. Isn’t it the same with us? The more knowledge we accumulate or trainings we complete, the less there is of ourselves. Although we know: less is more. Reduced to the essentials.
The path to health and happiness is often not a path of adding to or gaining something, but of removal or letting go. This is a critical principle of healing that is rarely discussed.
The media, books and even parents often encourage us to obtain more, to attain great heights, to grow and accumulate degrees, things, friends, children, money and so on. All of this has its place. However, its opposite – learning to let go of the past, in particular, and of all attitudes, emotions, things, friends and other “baggage” that are holding one back – is often a hidden key to happiness and healing. It is a must to make room for more wonderful things to come. Let us explore the secret of the very freeing process of letting go (Part 2 – coming soon).