The Heart of Buddhism: Liberation through Emptiness

The Heart of Buddhism: Liberation through Emptiness

Emptiness

As we have discussed in a number of posts on this blog, emptiness (Pāli: suññatā, Sanskrit: śūnyatā) is a fundamental Buddhist teaching that refers to the fact that phenomena do not intrinsically exist. This empty characteristic of phenomena relates as much to animate objects such as a flower, a car, or the human body, as it does to inanimate constructs such as the mind, space, or the present moment. In essence, emptiness means that nothing exists as a discrete entity and in separation from everything else. For example, a flower in the garden manifests in reliance upon numerous causes and conditions, without which, it would not exist. Amongst countless others, these causes and conditions include the water in the earth and atmosphere, nutrients in the soil, respiratory gases carried by the wind, heat of the sun, and so forth. Therefore, at the simplest level, it can be said that interconnectedness is an important principle of emptiness. Phenomena do not exist in isolation of each other and by logical default, they are empty of an independent and inherently existing self. However, for the same reasons that phenomena are empty of an intrinsic self, they also are “full” of everything else that exists. Therefore, as we have previously discussed on this blog, the term emptiness could actually be replaced with the term fullness. In emptiness there is fullness, and vice-a-versa.

Investigating emptiness through the lens of interconnectedness is a perfectly acceptable means of becoming familiar with emptiness, but as demonstrated in our post on Dream or Reality, other lines of reasoning can (and ideally should) be followed. Indeed, one of the drawbacks of relying on interconnectedness to internalize the principle of emptiness is that interconnectedness still implies that phenomena inherently exist (otherwise it would not be possible for them to be connected to each other). Therefore, although interconnectedness can help to give rise to a basic understanding of emptiness, it is nevertheless based on a dualistic manner of perceiving and constructing the world. In Buddhism, even the slightest inclination towards perceiving reality dualistically (i.e., in subject-object terms) is understood to reinforce an individual’s belief in the inherent existence of phenomena, and to constitute a departure from the direct path to spiritual awakening.

The Heart Sutra (Sanskrit: Prajna Paramita Hrdaya Sutra) is a key Māhāyana Buddhist teaching on emptiness that emphasizes the importance of not being bound by dualistic modes of thinking and perceiving.  As shown in the Heart Sutra below, it is by immersing themselves in emptiness (referred to in the Sutra as the perfection of wisdom [Sanskrit: prajna paramita]), that the bodhisattvas and all Buddhas of the past, present, and future are able to break free of the tendency to perceive things dualistically and thus permanently liberate themselves from suffering:

[Note: The Heart Sutra refers to the “five aggregates” of (i) form, (ii) feelings, (iii) perceptions, (iv) mental formations, and (v) consciousness. The five aggregates are understood in Buddhism to represent the different components that come together and give us the impression that we exist as a definite “self”.]

The Heart Sutra

“The Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara,

whilst immersed in the perfection of wisdom,

perceived that the five aggregates are empty,

and overcame all suffering and anguish.

 

Listen Shariputra,

form is identical to emptiness,

and emptiness is identical to form.

Form is of the nature of emptiness,

and emptiness is of the nature of form.

The same applies to feelings,

perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness.

 

Listen Shariputra,

all phenomena are sealed with emptiness.

They do not arise or dissolve,

are neither impure nor pure,

they neither increase nor decrease.

 

Thus, in emptiness, there is no form, feelings,

perceptions, mental formations, or consciousness.

There are no eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, or mind.

No sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, or object of mind.

No eye consciousness and so forth until no mind consciousness.

 

There is no ignorance and no cessation of it,

and so forth until no old age and death.

However, there is also no cessation of old age and death.

There is no suffering, no cause of suffering,

no cessation of suffering, and no path.

There is no insight and there is nothing to attain.

 

The Bodhisattvas who immerse themselves,

in the perfection of wisdom,

overcome all mental obstacles,

and therefore they overcome all fear.

They are forever parted from deluded views,

and thus awake to Nirvana.

 

All Buddhas of the three times,

attain unsurpassed perfect enlightenment,

by immersing themselves in the perfection of wisdom.

 

Therefore know that the perfection of wisdom is:

the great transcendent mantra,

the great bright mantra,

the highest mantra,

the unsurpassed mantra,

and the truth that eradicates all suffering.

 

Thus, the perfection of wisdom mantra should be proclaimed as follows:

Gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate, bodhi svaha

Gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate, bodhi svaha

Gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate, bodhi svaha”

 

At a future point, we aim to provide a full commentary on the above version of the Heart Sutra. However, for the time being, the most important message to take from the Heart Sutra is arguably the statement: “form is identical to emptiness and emptiness is identical to form”. In no uncertain terms, these spiritually profound words explain that emptiness is not a mystical state of mind or an alternative non-worldly dimension, but constitutes the very nature and fabric of the reality in which we currently find ourselves (i.e., the present moment). According to Buddhist thought, when an individual awakens to this fundamental truth—that has always been right in front of their eyes—they move beyond the concept of this and that, of existence and non-existence, and they encounter their indestructible Buddha nature.

Please note: This post adapts and summarises a section of the following (forthcoming) book chapter: Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., Singh, N. N., & Griffiths, M. D. (2015). Mindfulness of Emptiness and the Emptiness of Mindfulness. In: Shonin, E., Van Gordon W., & Singh, N. N. (Eds). Buddhist Foundations of Mindfulness. New York: Springer. [In Press]

Ven Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon

Further Reading

Dalai Lama. (2004). Dzogchen: Heart essence of the Great Perfection. New York: Snow Lion.

Gampopa. (1998). The jewel ornament of liberation: The wish-fulfilling gem of the noble teachings. New York: Snow Lion Publications.

Michalon, M. (2001). “Selflessness” in the service of the ego: Contributions, limitations and dangers of Buddhist psychology for Western psychotherapy. American Journal of Psychotherapy, 55, 202-218.

Nhat Hanh, T. (1999). The heart of the Buddha’s teaching: Transforming suffering into peace, joy and liberation. New York: Broadway Books.

Shonin, E. & Van Gordon, W. (2014). Using mindfulness and insight to transform loneliness. Mindfulness, 5, 771-773.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2014). The emerging role of Buddhism in clinical psychology: Toward effective integration. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 6, 123-137.

Urgyen, T. (2000). As It Is. Hong Kong: Rangjung Yeshe Publications.

Van Gordon, W., Shonin, E., Griffiths, M. D., & Singh, N. N. (2015). There is only one mindfulness: Why science and Buddhism need to work together. Mindfulness, DOI 10.1007/s12671-014-0379-y.

Shonin, E., & Van Gordon, W. (2013). Searching for the present moment, Mindfulness, 5, 105-107

Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., Compare, A., Zangeneh, M., & Griffiths, M. D. (2015). Buddhist-derived loving-kindness and compassion meditation for the treatment of psychopathology: A systematic review. Mindfulness, 6, 1161-1180.

Van Gordon, W., Shonin, E., & Griffiths, M. (2015). Towards a second-generation of mindfulness-based interventions. Australia and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 49, 591-591.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2013). Meditation as medication: Are attitudes changing? British Journal of General Practice, 63, 654.

Shonin, E., & Van Gordon, W. (2015). The lineage of mindfulness. Mindfulness, 6, 141-145.

Does God Exist? A Buddhist Perspective

Does God Exist? A Buddhist Perspective

sentient beings

The question of whether God exists is arguably one of the most debated questions of all time. Nonetheless, given that it is common knowledge that Buddhism does not assert the existence of a supreme being or creator, it may seem strange that we have decided to write a post that explores this question from the Buddhist perspective. Indeed, we suspect that many people – including many Buddhists – would automatically assume that the “official” Buddhist response to this question would be a straight forward “no”. However, here we argue that depending upon how the term God is defined, there may actually be grounds for accepting the existence of God within the Buddhist system of thought.

The Oxford English dictionary defines God as: “(in Christianity and other monotheistic religions) the creator and ruler of the universe and source of all moral authority; the supreme being”. As a religion or philosophical system, Buddhism does not reject anything that can be established as “true” by either robust scientific investigation or flawless logical reasoning. In other words, if it could be scientifically or logically proven that God exists, then Buddhism would also accept the existence of God. However, based on the above Oxford English dictionary definition, there is currently no robust scientific proof affirming the existence of a supreme creator.

In fact, not only is there an absence of verifiable evidence supporting the existence of a creator being, both modern science and logical reasoning actually indicate the non-existence of such an entity. For example, the laws of thermodynamics forbid the existence of perpetual motion – motion that exists independent of any energy input. Since, by their nature, phenomena are in a constant state of flux and change (i.e., a form of motion), this means that it is impossible for phenomena to exist autonomous of any input. In other words, phenomena (and therefore beings) do not exist as isolated occurrences but manifest in dependence on their causes and components. For this exact reason – the fact that phenomena are composite and do not exist of their own accord – they cannot endure indefinitely and are subject to impermanence. “Impermanence” here, refers to both the ultimate “death” of phenomena when they cease to manifest, and to the fact that phenomena do not remain static between two instances of time (please see our post on Exactly what is the Present Moment?).

Therefore, if an “eternal” God-being existed, this would mean that they were not subject to the laws of impermanence and causality and that they existed in complete independence of the universe and reality they had created. However, since established definitions of God assert that they “rule” the universe and are its “moral authority”, then this automatically rebuts any assertion that God exists in isolation of the universe that they are purported to have created. Thus, it is logically and scientifically implausible to assert that a God exists that created and interacts with the universe, but that such interaction takes place outside of the law of causality (because “interaction” implies that God’s choices and actions must result in some kind of effect).

Accordingly, Buddhism is unable to accept the existence of a creator being that exists in an anti-septic corner of the universe and has dominion over it. However, if the definition of God is modified such that God becomes more of a principle rather than a person, then there may be scope for accepting the existence of “God” within the Buddhist system of thought. To explain this further, we have decided to separate out each of the key components of the abovementioned Oxford English dictionary definition of God and provide an alternative interpretation of these terms:

  1. Supreme being: According to the Buddhist teachings, the capacity for enlightenment exists within every sentient being. This enlightenment capacity or “God nature” never goes away – it is indestructible. However, most people can be likened to a wave on the ocean that forgets that it is also part of the ocean. In wanting to express its creative potential the wave gets caught up in itself. It starts to think it is completely independent of all other waves, and of the ocean more generally. The wave becomes more and more concerned with itself and with its own preservation. It wants to become bigger and better than the other waves and it wants to live forever. However, as the wave continues to develop and feed its “ego”, it becomes increasingly ignorant of its impermanent and interdependent nature. The more the wave gets involved with itself, the more ignorant it becomes. The only thing that the wave can experience at this point is suffering because the wave has developed impossible ideas about itself – it is going to be let down.Although the wave has become very selfish and ignorant, never once does it actually separate from the ocean. All the wave has to do is deconstruct some of its false ideas so that it is able to awaken to the fact that it is part of the ocean. In fact, when the wave “wakes up” or becomes enlightened in this way, it doesn’t just realise that it is connected to the ocean, but it actually becomes the ocean. Now the wave is everywhere all at once, and it knows each single drop of the ocean in intimate detail. The wave doesn’t have to go to great lengths to learn about the ocean, it knows about the ocean without trying. Now that the wave knows that it is both the wave and the ocean, it is a supreme being – it has defeated death. This supreme being has infinite and unconditional compassion for all of the other “potential supreme beings” who choose to suffer and remain ignorant of their true nature. The newly-awakened supreme being does their best to bring these ignorant beings to the understanding that they do not have to search outside of themselves to find God.
  2. Source of all moral authority: From the Buddhist perspective, there is an infallible and all-pervasive law or principle that is the source of all moral authority. What we are referring to here is known as karmic law. Karma has absolutely nothing to do with being judged for our “sins”. Rather, karma (which actually means “action”) basically refers to the law of cause and effect – it asserts that there are both short and long-term consequences to each and every one of our thoughts, words, and actions. This is common sense.The more a person “practises” a particular type of mind-set (e.g., greed, anger, hatred, etc.), the more that person will be inclined to continue engaging such a mind-set in the future. According to the Buddhist teachings, dominant thought patterns and emotions leave an imprint upon the mind. In turn, this imprint influences not only the way we see the world, but also the way the world sees us. For example, a person full of anger and hatred is likely to provoke certain (mostly negative) responses from other people, and they are also likely not to notice life-opportunities that require a balanced, patient, and open perspective. Thus, an angry person may frequently encounter what they perceive to be adversities and may feel they are having a difficult time of things. But the cause of such adversity is nobody and nothing other than themselves – a supreme being has nothing to do with it.

    Furthermore, due to the imprint left on the mind by such a person’s propensity for anger, the Buddhist teachings assert that this anger will cause them to be attracted to certain (unfavourable) conditions when taking rebirth. Again, there isn’t a supreme being involved here – it’s just that the angry person has conditioned themselves to see things in a certain way. Exactly the same principles apply for positive emotions (e.g., love, generosity, patience, compassion, etc.) but these tend to lead to more favourable outcomes (e.g., if you are a kind person then people are invariably kind in return). Thus, it is the human being that asserts moral authority over their thoughts, words and actions – we are our own judge, jury, and executioner or saviour.

  3. Creator and ruler of the universe: As human beings, and whether we like it or not, we are creators. Every single one of our thoughts, words, and deeds has an influence on the world around us. Our past endeavours have created the world as we know it today, and today, we are creating the world that we will live in tomorrow. If we want to create a house, we build it. If we want to create new life, we have sex. If we want to create death and destruction, we wage war. If we want to create heaven on earth, we put aside greed and selfishness and cultivate peace, love, and compassion. Human beings are inherently creative. We create our world and then we live in it and rule it.Phenomena – the outcome of our creative work – exist in dependence of our ability to perceive them. If there is no perceiving mind, there can be no perceived phenomena. The entire universe only exists because there are minds that are able to perceive it. We will discuss this further in a future post but the Buddhist teachings assert that for as long as mind remains confused and continues to perceive itself as an independent entity, universes materialise in order to provide a seat for the mind. In essence, Buddhism asserts that mind creates matter and is inseparable from it. Mind itself is the creator of reality and mind’s creativity is self-existing – it happens all by itself.

In summary, if the definition of God is modified such that rather than an all-powerful universal ruler, God is thought of more as a principle – the principle of all-pervasive and self-existing wisdom that is the indestructible nature of reality and of every single sentient being – then it seems that there is scope for accepting the existence of God within Buddhism. Perhaps this is the definition of God that is conveyed in the Christian Gospel of Thomas where Christ is recorded as saying “Split a piece of wood, and I am there. Lift up the stone, and you will find me there.” In fact, as we discussed in our post When Buddha and Christ Met for Tea, perhaps the Buddha’s and Christ’s teachings were essentially the same. As a final thought, it is important to highlight that although Buddhism does not accept or believe in the existence of an all-powerful creator being, it does accept and respect those people and religions that advocate such a belief. Ultimately, we suspect that each individual has their own unique understanding or experience of what constitutes “God” and each of these constructions are undoubtedly meaningful in their own right.

Ven Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon

Further Reading

Dalai Lama & Cuttler, H. (1998). The Art of Happiness. London: Hodder & Stoughton

Dalai Lama. (2001). Stages of Meditation: Training the Mind for Wisdom. London: Rider.

Shonin, E., & Van Gordon, W. (2013). Searching for the present moment, Mindfulness, 5, 105-107.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2014). The emerging role of Buddhism in clinical psychology: Towards effective integration. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, in press.

Shonin, E., & Van Gordon, W. (2013). The consuming mind. Mindfulness, DOI: 10.1007/s12671-013-0265-z.

Sogyal Rinpoche (1998). The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. London: Rider.

Tsong-kha-pa. (2000). The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment, Volume I. (J. Cutler, G. Newland, Eds., & T. L. Committee, Trans.) Canada: Snow Lion.