By John Lee Pendall
Emptiness is one of the central teachings in Mahayana Buddhism, and it’s called dependent arising in Theravada, so it’s super old.
Scholars have found a lot of evidence that sunyata (emptiness) was originally more about the way we know things rather than the things themselves. That might not sound like much of a difference, but it’s huge. It brings emptiness closer to home. This is all about you, after all, your mind. No one else is doing your practice for you.
So we’re gonna set aside the more popular views of emptiness here and go in the direction that the evidence points to. Cool? Cool.
I’ve struggled for well over a week to get this in writing, not because it’s tough to understand, but because—like the scholastic works that point to it—it can come off as incredibly dry. That’s why Thich Nhat Hanh is more of a household name than Dan Lusthaus (Sorry, Dan). The best way to go through this is by heading back to square one: the breath. We’re all breathing right now, so we can all do this together. You’re just going to breathe, and I’m going to ask you questions. Please answer them, even though I can’t hear you.
Let’s get started: just breathe.
What is that you’re doing? Ah, okay, that’s good. Can’t do much else if you’re not breathing, right? What is the breath? Is it really just you breathing in and out air? What else is it? I know that’s a weird question, but please stay with me. What else is the breath besides breathing air in and out?
It’s touch, pressure at your nose traveling down through your throat, into your chest and abdomen, then back out. That’s what we’re literally perceiving on a physical perspective. “The breath” and “breathing” are ideas we stick to that on a mental perspective. “In and out” are part of the mental perspective too. From the physical, there’s just the sensation of pressure and release.
Alright. What else is it? It’s gas particles passing through tissues and merging with cells. What else is it? It’s particles (the cells) combing with other particles (the air). What else? The particles are constantly moving without boundary through space. They’re part of everything—they’re the cosmos.
What else is it? Having moved through all of these perspectives, look to the one we can’t quite put into a box. The one that’s like the space between breaths. Look at all these perspectives at once while still sitting with the breath, holding them all before your mind.
These are all valid ways of looking at the breath. Which one’s right? Which one’s the true breath? Is it the second one, the physical one? Let’s go with that. Now, let’s say that the atomic one doesn’t exist. There aren’t any atoms or particles. What happened to the breath? It’s gone because if there aren’t any atoms, then there’s no body, air, or breathing.
Let’s take out the physical one, so that it’s like we’ve never felt ourselves breathing. What happened to the breath? It’s gone. Even though it might be happening automatically still, we’d have no understanding of what breathing is, so it doesn’t exist to us.
If we take out any of these perspective, the breath disappears. Since they’re all valid, and since each one depends on the others, which perspective is right?
They’re all right, right? Duh, John.
Well, yes and no. 99% of the time we live like only one of them is right, and that’s the way we approach pretty much everything. When we do that, we get attached to that view, and then we suffer when something in reality starts to prove us wrong.
Each of these perspectives are conventional truths. They’re each limited and impermanent ways of looking at the same thing and we don’t know what that thing is or isn’t apart from the ways we look at it. Literally, we have no fucking idea what the true, actual, definitive, absolute breath is.
All suffering comes from thinking that something’s absolute when it really isn’t. That’s it, that’s the foundation of all our pain. When we view conventional things as conventional, then we’re not going to cling to them absolutely. We can see that what we’re attached to is only one or two aspects of what it really is. This gets far more potent when we apply it to things we have a strong emotional attachment or aversion toward.
The point is to cop a squat and apply it to everything, inside and out, real and unreal. Sit and look at all the different ways to look at things and you’ll see your heart start to open and all of those years of stress start to fall away.
But, word of warning, don’t think that the “it’s nothing” perspective is the absolute truth. It’s really just another perspective. The absolute truth is the absence (emptiness) of absoluteness, haha! Even enlightenment is just another conventional truth. Buddha, the big wig at the center of all this, is only Buddha to our minds. Just like the breath, we can also view Buddha in several, equally valid, ways.
Alright, well that’s that. I hope this was helpful and not a snooze fest. It’s a difficult teaching to deliver without, “So what?” being the reply. I’m guessing a few of you probably asked that anyway, but I promise you that, if you do this method correctly, you’ll know.
Keep in mind that there are probably endless ways to view just one thing, but I’ve limited it to six for convenience. Until next time, deep bows.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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