Monday, January 31, 2005

Is Emptiness Brahman?

From the book Essence of the Heart Sutra by the Dalai Lama, edited and translated by Geshe Thupten Jinpa, Wisdom Publications, 2002:

It is important to clarify that we are not speaking of emptiness as some kind of absolute strata of reality, akin to, say, the ancient Indian concept of Brahman, which is conceived to be an underlying absolute reality from which the illusory world of multiplicity emerges. Emptiness is not a core reality, lying somehow at the heart of the universe, from which the diversity of phenomena arise.

...emptiness -- is not independent of form, but rather is a characteristic of form; emptiness is form's mode of being. One must understand form and its emptiness in unity; they are not two independent realities.

Thupten Jinpa trained as a Buddhist monk and received his geshe degree from the Shartse College of Ganden monastic university, India and a Ph.D. in Religious Studies from Cambridge University, England. He has been the Dalai Lama's principal English translator since 1985.

Saturday, January 01, 2005

Leaving the Palace

As the story of the Buddha goes, 2500 years ago, before Prince Siddhartha Gautama became the Buddha (Sanskrit for "awakened one"), he lived a very sheltered life within the walls of his father's palace. At age 29 he asked his father’s permission to be ridden around the city in a chariot. His father agreed, but had soldiers remove every sign of human aging, sickness, and death from the city.

A bent, aged man escaped the soldiers’ notice and Gautama saw him. Gautama didn’t know what he was seeing, and he was told by the charioteer that this was an old man. Gautama asked if this was the only old man in the world. The charioteer told Gotama that everyone, Gautama , his father, his wife, and friends, would someday become old and bent and would eventually die.

According to the texts, Gautama reacted “like a bull when lightning strikes in the meadow.” He then ordered the charioteer to take him back to the palace at once.

Gautama had to summon courage to venture out from the palace for three more trips. On one he saw a sick person, on the second a corpse being carried to the cremation ground, and on the third trip he saw a renunciate seated in meditation beneath a tree. Gautama was deeply troubled by his encounters with old age, sickness, and death, and inspired by the sight of the renunciate, he asked his father if he could retire to the forest.

His father refused. Gautama then asked his father to promise him that he would never die, grow old, ill, or lose his wealth. His father said he could not make such a promise.

“Prince Siddhartha’s dilemma still faces us today,” writes Stephen Batchelor. “We too immune ourselves in the ‘palaces’ of what is familiar and secure.”

Existential psychologist Irvin Yalom identifies four "ultimate concerns" (Paul Tillich's term) - mortality, groundlessness, existential isolation, and meaninglessness - which we normally are well defended against. To be plunged into confrontation with death, existential freedom, aloneness, and meaninglessness is to leave the palace where we are secure and "comfortably numb."

To Buddhism and existentialism, it is when we begin to face suffering or existential reality that we begin to wake up from a condition that has been likened to sleepwalking.

And what does it mean to face reality?

Yalom writes:
In his four noble truths the Buddha taught that life is suffering, that suffering originates from craving and attachment, and that suffering can be eliminated by detachment from craving through meditative practice. Schopenhauer took a similar position – that the will is insatiable and that as soon as one impulse is satisfied we enjoy only a moment of satiation which is instantly replaced by boredom until another desire seizes us.

To me, these views feel unnecessarily pessimistic. I appreciate the suffering in human existence but I never experience that suffering as so overwhelming that it demands the sacrifice of life. I much prefer a Nietzschian life-celebratory, life engagement, amor fati (love your fate) perspective. My work with individuals facing death has taught me that death anxiety is directly proportional to the amount of each person’s “unlived life.” Those individuals who feel they have lived their lives richly, have fulfilled their potential and their destiny, experience less panic in face of death.

Some modern Western Buddhists would agree with Yalom, as they do not use Buddhism to disengage from life but understand meditation and Buddhist practice as Yalom himself explains meditation in his 1980 classic Existential Psychotherapy:
The process of deepest inquiry - a process that Heidegger refers to as 'unconcealment' - leads us to recognize that we are finite, that we must die, that we are free, and that we cannot escape our freedom. We also learn that the individual is inexorably alone.

To relinquish a state of interpersonal fusion means to encounter existential isolation with all its dread and powerlessness. The dilemma of isolation-fusion - or, as it is commonly referred to, attachment-separation - is the major existential developmental task.

The practice of meditation offers another avenue to isolation awareness. Though meditation therapists and teachers do not often conceptualize the benefit of meditation precisely in this manner, I believe that one of the primary growth-inducing factors in meditation is that it permits individuals in an anxiety-reduced state (that is, anxiety-relieving muscular relaxation, posture, breathing, mind cleansing) to face and transcend the anxiety they associated with isolation.

Individuals learn to face what they fear the most. They are asked to plunge into isolation - and, even more important, to plunge nakedly, without customary shields of denial. They are asked to 'let go' (rather than to achieve and acquire), to empty their minds (rather than categorize and analyze experience), and to respond to and harmonize with the world (rather than to control and subdue it).

Meditation can be a form of escapism, certainly, a way of tuning out, shutting down, closing in, and disengaging and detaching from life. But meditation can also be a way of facing existential anxiety and existential concerns and opening out to life with a "life-celebratory, life engagement, amor fati (love your fate) perspective."