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Emptiness


Photo by Crissy Jarvis on Unsplash

Reducing the extent to which we suffer depends upon lessening feelings of anguish and unfulfilled desire. These are feelings which arise from the psychological state of incompleteness, of feeling oneself to be lacking something or lacking in something. For something to be felt to be lacking one must feel that there is a needer and a thing needed, that is for the needer and needed to be concrete entities possessing (respectively) the need and capacity to be satisfied and for there to be a thing chosen that will confer such satisfaction. This double psychological assumption (of course, in origin a key component of our evolutionary inheritance) thus denies us access to the wider truth that everything that we experience is inherently empty of permanent substance, that all that really exists is unfolding states of changing conditions. This fact about the transitory nature of all experience is the great truth of ‘heaven and earth’, (in Taoism) and the teaching that everything is originally and inherently empty (in Buddhism).


One route to realising this truth might be to allow the experience of the thing desired to be conceived of objectively as no more than a contingent state of mind that will soon pass away. It is, objectively speaking, precisely that. But is this to confuse psychological remedies with something that might be objectively true but not quite feel to be the case? Psychologically, I desire something, and that wanting, in the moment of desire, seems to have substance. But if objectively, there is no self to desire something and nothing that can confer satisfaction, or at least lasting satisfaction, this psychological state must itself be illusory or at least inadequate. In perceiving this we might be able to distinguish the necessarily time-bound and evolution-driven realities of our psychological states from the timeless ‘objective realities’ of the human condition. In so doing, might this perception assist an awakening that requires the latter to be seen as preferable to the former?


Or, perhaps more narrowly such an awakening might require the former to be seen as an inadequate psychological response to the reality of experience itself, that is the reality of all our experience, past, present and future. In such a view one would have psychological reality on the one hand and ‘objective reality’ on the other, but one would be less likely to confuse the two. In which case I would not need to worry too much about ‘objective reality’, but rather might be persuaded on purely psychological grounds to ‘float upstream’, to act against my natural impulse. Yet for this to work I would have to be so persuaded in each psychological moment, indeed in all of those recurring moments in which anguish and desire arise.


I suppose it might be possible in theory for something to be seen, at least intellectually, as empty yet still be indulged in as if it were something possessing substance. But in this case would the indulger be able to see that the self that does the indulging is also empty? Rather, is it not the case that the indulger’s contingency is swept away by the experience of attachment to the desired object? If so, it would seem that the requirement is to see experience or conditions as just experience or conditions that arise temporarily but soon pass. If this can be done, both the experiencer and the experienced can be seen (as if from a third-person perspective) as contingent, passing conditions, conditions that like all conditions have no enduring substance. Thus, emptiness might be perceived or experienced from this hypothesised third-person perspective. Emptiness here is the same concept as the Buddhist triad of truths- impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and no-self; or transience, unreliability and contingency. For awakening to occur both subject and object have to be seen through, their contingent nature realised. In this way the duality of the seeming and the objectively real resolves into a duality of the seeming and the emptiness that underlies all appearance.


We might come to see that Buddhism involves a conscious and cultivated rejection of a fact, namely the empirical reality of natural selection and its influence over our personal psychology, and an acceptance that such an objective truth should not be allowed to condition one’s behaviour. Instead, there is an espousal of the moment-by-moment human experience that arises in each passing moment. We cannot deny that we are conditioned by nature to avoid the anguish that such experience often causes us, but we can perhaps begin to see that only living in the moment will ultimately lead to us to be more content and fulfilled. This is achieved by embracing the present, whatever it brings, and refusing to be drawn into the self’s obsession with past and future.


The irony here is that living a conditioned life, that is a life conditioned by natural selection, whilst most ‘natural’ and productive of temporary pleasures, is fundamentally unsatisfactory. On the other hand, living a life that does not come naturally to us, that is at least initially difficult and unnatural, one in which taking the pleasures afforded is, if not exactly renounced, allows those would-be pleasures to arise and then immediately fall away before they are temporarily sated and attachment intensified, is the path that leads to longer-lasting happiness and fulfilment. But in order to live fully in the moment it seems as if one has to give up, or at least look less favourably upon and reduce the cultivation of, those passing pleasures that are sweet. In effect, one prefers the wholesome to the sweet. This is either a victory of truth over life, or a victory of psychological well-being over psychological suffering.


Could one perhaps have the passing pleasures as well as the insight into the fact that they are devoid of substance? Perhaps this is the best of all possible worlds! Buddhism seems to suggest not. Yet Gandhi, with his perspective derived from Vedanta, had an interesting take on this. Once asked whether one had to renounce everything he replied, no, one only has to renounce the renouncer. This would involve denying the reality of the self, of accepting the fact that it has little substance, that it is only a construction through which we frame experience. Of course, there is a sense in which it is a necessary fiction- it enables us to navigate the world and the other selves that we seem to find in it. But a key part of the path to awakening is to accept that there is no self, that selfhood is intrinsically empty, and that its attachment to passing pleasures is unhelpful. Rather, by living in the moment we can become freer of desires and become less interested, and have less investment in, the future of our pleasures.


This dichotomy between natural desire on the one hand, and longer-term welfare and peace of mind on the other, can sometimes seem to be a troubling one. Mahayana Buddhism often seeks to resolve it by saying simply that sugar is sweet and salt is salty. Everything is just what it is. As far as human experience is concerned everything is just what it seems to be at the moment it is experienced. That is to say, at that moment but not at the next, because at the next moment it has passed and something else has taken its place. In this view, what our natural evolution deems at each moment to be sweet at that moment is sweet. What it deems to be bitter is bitter. But we should neither form an attachment to the sweet nor an aversion to the bitter.


Objectively deeming equates to subjectively seeming. Whilst we are asked to accept and embrace the reality that is passing sensation, we should not cling to it, or be a ‘haver’ that clings. Indeed, (as the quotation from Gandhi claims) perhaps you can have everything if there is no haver, if what has experience is itself empty, which of course it is, or we are, objectively speaking. This line of thought returns us to the extinction of the self. But now perhaps it adds an additional psychological insight as to why selfhood has to be transcended. Such transcendence is not what natural selection designed us for, but we can at least begin to see how it is in our interests, that is the interests of our suffering bodies, to rein in the claims that the self has on our attention and behaviour.


#buddhism #emptiness #naturalselection #selfhood #psychology