Here’s a recent photo I took of the full moon eerily glowing through the trees. Out of context, the image looks dark and foreboding. But, in fact, I snapped the shot on a bustling Saturday evening at the local Dairy Queen. Not what you might expect.
Relationships can be the same way. They’re not always what they seem. Knowing what goes on in the mind of others is basically impossible. While we can read our partners by their body language and tone of voice, our reads are unreliable. Oddly, the mystery and ambiguity of the “other minds” problem is a clue to the meaning of the Buddhist concept of emptiness.
Emptiness is profound. It can open the door to an intimate understanding of the nature of being. Meditating on emptiness can be a life changing experience. But as complicated as it sounds, its roots lie firmly in our day-to-day experience.
The Heart Sutra tells us enigmatically:
There is no wisdom, and there is no attainment whatsoever.
Here’s my take.
When we look for wisdom, we discover that it is hard to find.
What if I asked you to name the wisest person. Would it be Jesus? How about Confucius? Maybe Martin Luther King, Stephen Hawkings, or Ronald Reagan? Why is it so difficult? Somehow, you have to measure and compare wisdom. How do you measure it?
What Would God See?
Here is the connection to the photograph of the moon. Standing in line at the Dairy Queen with my sons, I happened to look up to the sky and notice how remarkable the moon looked through the trees. I pulled out my iPhone and snapped a few shots and moved on.
In the meantime, my boys were chatting about something and barely took notice. The experience of the moon was perhaps lost on them, but from their perspective the moon had no meaning or relevance. Whatever they were discussing was what mattered. Which perspective is correct? Which provides insight to the truth about the moment? If you dig deep into it, these questions really don’t make any sense.
Is there an ultimate perspective? Is there some point of view where the underlying meaning of all things is clear? From our vantage point, things only have meaning when we give it to them. Take it one step further. Often we see what we want to see, with only minor reference to our direct perceptions of them. Everything we see is through the prism of our moods and accumulated experiences. If we’re scared, we’ll see things as a threat. If we’re happy, we’ll take delight in them.
Werewolves Exist (In my mind)
When I see a full moon, and my youngest son is with me, I think of werewolves. This, in and of itself, isn’t a unique perspective, but dig deeper, and the color that my memories add to the experience makes it one of a kind. When he was very young, he was extremely scared of werewolves. So much so that we avoided talking about the full moon to keep from frightening him. I can picture the look on his younger face, the house where we lived, and a whole host of things unique to my experience.
Of course, your experience of a full moon will be different from mine, even if we stood next to each other taking in the same view. In those differences can lie an infinitude of meanings. Yet none of those meanings belong to the objects of our perceptions. If we take this line of thinking to its conclusion, we’ll discover that all form and meaning is held in our minds.
What makes the moon the moon? Imagine it through the eyes of a newborn child. The baby has no concept of the moon. On noticing the shape in the sky, she inquires by pointing. There is no word for her, there is only light. Her mother tells her, “that’s the moon sweetie”. This is the first meaning – the first form – of the moon taking shape in the little girl’s mind. The world does not create or hold any ideas about itself. This is what is meant by emptiness. The objects of our perceptions are empty of inherent existence.
form is no different to emptiness,
emptiness no different to form.
Is this all just obscure psycho-babble or can we use this little insight on emptiness to improve our relationships and quality of life?
Actually, to many, the idea of emptiness is considered heresy and an impediment to a good life. It is a relativistic view that undermines absolutes, particularly morality. Emptiness implies that right and wrong are fuzzy and situational. Welcome to the chewy center of human relationships. Welcome to reality.
The Heart Sutra is one of the most cherished Buddhist scriptures. It is also one of the most challenging. Its mind-boggling. Just look at some of the passages
[things] are neither appearing nor disappearing,
neither impure nor pure,
neither increasing nor decreasing
[there is] no ignorance and no end of ignorance,
up to no aging and death,
and no end of aging and death;
This interpretation fails the Buddha’s prime directive, which is try it out and see if it works in experience. We understand right and wrong. We know that walls require doors to walk through them. So what is this enigmatic scripture trying to tell us?
Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva, the speaker in this Sutra, is telling us where form and meaning come from. They reside in our minds. Morality is born at the crash site where our minds and reality collide. Right and wrong distinguish good and bad strategies for survival, social cohesion, and contentment. We develop morality by piecing together our experience and the advice of others who’ve learned the hard way. It doesn’t exist outside of our minds in any pure state. Take the example of wisdom I used before. There is no objective measure of wisdom that we can apply to determine who has the most. The concepts of wisdom and morality are subjective.
How does this understanding help us?
It gives us a clue about how to approach being in relationships. If right and wrong is relative, than how right can you be in an argument with your partner? If I’m scared of the moon because it reminds me of werewolves, where is the root of fear? In the Moon? No, it’s in my mind.
If someone else is afraid of something, how valuable is it for you to try and convince them that they shouldn’t be? If you recognize that the fear lives in that persons mind, and that it is the result of accumulation of negative experiences, it is instructive. It would allow you to approach the problem in a more compassionate and validating way. Observe the difference:
I can’t believe you’re scared of the moon. Why would anyone be scared of the moon?
Wow, I didn’t realize you were scared of the moon, why is that?
The Buddhist concept of emptiness offers a practical foundation for compassion in our relationships. Our view points are undeniably subjective. Ideas like I’m right and you’re wrong should be viewed in relative terms. The minds of others are shaped by their unique constellation of experiences. The preferences and aversions that arise from their life stories are the root of suffering. As we discover this for ourselves, we can also take away some important insights into our relationships. Buddhism calls these insights wisdom and compassion. The wisdom to see the source of our suffering and the compassion for others, because they suffer as we do.
But be careful with Emptiness. It is just a concept, and therefore in our head. Don’t let it confuse you or convince you that the world isn’t what we experience it to be. Look to emptiness as a tool, which can be put aside when we’re done with it. If we don’t need to drive any more nails, the hammer is no longer useful.
The victorious ones have said
That emptiness is the relinquishing of all views.
For whomever emptiness is a view,
That one has achieved nothing.”