By Seth Zuiho Segall, Ph.D.
I started my Buddhist practice in the Insight Meditation tradition, and after about a decade and a half, switched to practicing within the Zen tradition.
The reason for my switch wasn’t due to any dissatisfaction with my Insight Meditation practice. I had moved to a new location, and there just weren’t any Insight Meditation groups nearby. There was, however, a zendo in the next town that proved to be a congenial place to practice.
I soon found myself puzzled, however, by the differences between the Zen talks I was now hearing and the Insight Meditation talks I was more familiar with. As a result, I developed a keener appreciation for the differences between the multiple—sometimes conflicting—streams of Buddhist thought that had made their way to American shores.
There is a tendency for Westerners—practitioners and teachers alike—to sometimes blend those streams together in a kind of incoherent mash-up without sufficient awareness of, and/or appreciation for, the inconsistencies lying just beneath the surface. The Mahayana Buddhist tradition was acutely aware of these inconsistencies and devised various ingenious ways of dealing with them.
One method was to divide teachings into those that were considered subject to interpretation (neyarhta) and those considered to be definitive (nitartha), or ultimately true.
The central idea underlying this typology was that the Buddha offered different teachings to audiences of different capacities. Buddhist commentators then organized these teachings into doxographic hierarchies, with the most definitive teachings at the top.
Not surprisingly, commentators differed as to which teachings were thought to be provisional and which were thought to be definitive. Also, not surprisingly, there was a tendency for historically later schools to view their teachings as definitive and those of historically earlier schools as interpretable. While Buddhist scholars are well aware of these intricacies, Western Buddhist teachers and practitioners (especially outside of the Tibetan tradition) often are not.
There are a number of crucial ideas in Zen (and Mahayana in general) that are either not found or not emphasized in the Theravada tradition from which Insight Meditation is derived. Just to give an example, the concept of “emptiness” (sunyata) is crucial in Chinese, Tibetan, Korean, Vietnamese and Japanese Buddhism, but relatively unimportant in the Buddhism of Sri Lanka, Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, or Cambodia.
The concept of emptiness didn’t gain currency until the first century BCE, only reaching its full flowering in the second century CE in the Prajnaparamita Sutras and Nagarjuna’s Madhyamaka philosophy. The Theravada tradition, on the other hand, was transmitted from India to Sri Lanka in the third century BCE, well before the blossoming of Indian Madhyamaka.
What does this mean for each tradition?
For one thing, it means that the Insight Meditation tradition focuses on insight into the three marks of existence—the impermanence of all things, the idea that all things are in some way experientially unsatisfactory, and the idea that nothing experienced ought to be considered as “I, me, or mine.”
This is essentially a psychologically-minded approach.
The last of the three marks—not taking experiences as part of the “network of me-ness”—was meant to help people see that they had no unchanging, essential Self to grasp onto. It was concordant with the Buddhist doctrine of anatta, or “non-self,” which denied the idea (derived from the Vedas and Upanishads) that people had eternal souls that shared an ultimate identity with the godhead.
By way of contrast, the idea of “emptiness” is an elaboration on and extension of the Theravada idea of not self-grasping at phenomena as “I, me, or mine.” Emptiness posits that everything—not just the personal Self—lacks independent self-existence.
Nothing exists in the world by virtue of itself, but instead depends for its existence on its interrelationship with everything else.
This is essentially a process view of reality; reality isn’t made up of “things” or “substances,” but instead it’s made up of the flow of ever-changing interrelated processes. “Things,” according to this point-of-view, are just slow-moving processes. Thus, the person I am now—once a sperm and an egg, and later dust and ashes—exists only by virtue of its interchanges with the environment, such as taking in food and oxygen, dependent on energy from the sun and water from the rain, existing by virtue of parental rearing, and living in a community.
Without any one of those elements, “I” cease to exist.
To a certain degree, the doctrine of emptiness shifts Buddhism’s focus away from Theravada’s psychological-mindedness towards an ontological concern with the absolute nature of reality. Zen, and the various schools of Tibetan Buddhism, posit that it’s possible to undergo a fundamental shift in how we directly experience reality based on this fundamental interrelatedness of things.
This second-century Madhyamaka view of emptiness underwent a further metamorphosis with the development of the Huayan school of Buddhism in Seventh and Eighth Century Tang Dynasty China.
This change is beautifully expressed in the Flower Garland Sutra metaphor of “Indra’s Net.” Indra’s Net is an infinitely vast net with jewels at each of its interstices, each jewel reflecting the light of every other jewel. According to this metaphor, reality is just like Indra’s Net—every part of the universe is in immediate and intimate interrelation with every other part.
The word “interpenetration” is often used to describe this intimate relationship. This cosmological vision of absolute interconnectedness—everything in the universe depending on every other thing without exception for its existence—lead to placing a more positive spin on the Madhyamaka view of emptiness. In Madhyamaka, the emptiness and lack of self-existence of all phenomena was seen as something negative; one more reason not to get attached to things. Why become attached to things if no “thing” really exists?
The Tang Dynasty Huayan visionaries, on the other hand, sensed a profound beauty in this complete interpenetration of everything—they called it the “Suchness” of things.
This positive transvaluation of emptiness moves one beyond mere detachment and towards a positive caring for all of existence.
There is a way in which earlier forms of Buddhism sought to detach us from the everyday world to reach a higher plane—Nirvana—whereas the heirs to the Huayan tradition (and Zen is one such heir) sought to ground us in caring for all of existence as it is, insisting that there’s no difference between form and emptiness (between everyday reality and Nirvana) except in our view of things.
In this way, the Huayan tradition turned early Buddhism on its head.
Seth Zuiho Segall, Ph.D. is a Zen priest and a retired clinical psychologist. His publications include Encountering Buddhism: Western Psychology and Buddhist Teachings (SUNY Press, 2003) as well as articles for Turning Wheel, Tricycle, and the Journal of Transpersonal Psychology. He is the science writer for Mindfulness Research Monthly, and a volunteer chaplain associate at White Plains Hospital. Seth’s blog, The Existential Buddhist contains over a hundred essays on Buddhist philosophy, ethics, history, art, meditation, and social engagement.
Editor: John Lee Pendall