ARTICLE: December 2007
"Buddhism's Emptiness, Dependent-Arising, Karma, and No-Self"
Find that you like Buddhism but you're not quite sure why? Is there something about it that just seems to 'fit' like no other religion or thought system has in the past? Perhaps it is because Buddhism is not a religion in the traditional 'god(s)-oriented' way, or maybe because it is so much more than a 'thought system' or philosophy; but rather, Buddhism is a practical way of explaining both the way the world is, and how we come to know it through our own direct experience. It is practical both because it helps soften and clarify our experience of our life, and also because it is a practice in that it asks of us mindful intention and attention to actualize and realize a life well-lived.
Usually it makes the most sense to begin a discussion such as this at the beginning, but as the present moment is always now, I'd like to discuss Buddhism's more subtle insights. For those of you with little or no working knowledge of Buddhism, I will sometimes refer to what are called the Four Noble Truths; they are:
1) Suffering Exists
2) There is a Cause to Suffering
3) Suffering can be Stopped (Cessation)
4) The Path to Cessation of Suffering (Eight-Fold Path)
It is important to notice the cause and effect relationship that is the foundation of the Four Noble Truths, as this 'flow' of cause and effect is what guides and informs all of Buddhism in the form of karma (sometimes translated as action).
The fact that suffering has a cause is great news; if it did not have a cause, that would mean there would be no way to stop it. If something has a cause, the way to stop it is to stop the cause. So, what is the cause of suffering. Buddhism says that our own ignorance is the cause of our suffering, and that our ignorance most often displays itself as either anger (in some form; ie. irritation) or desire (wanting; often wanting in some way for circumstances to be different than they actually are). How do we 'cause' cessation of ignorance? The Eight-Fold Path is a prescription for the illness of ignorance, medicine if you will.
I've heard emptiness mentioned before, but it sounded like 'nothing' - kind of boring actually. Emptiness is often confused with the existentialist concept of 'nothingness'. Nothingness is nihilism, a philosophy that states that in actuality nothing exists. Emptiness could not be further from nihilism; emptiness is an understanding that all experience is 'empty' of something. Empty of what? All experience is empty of inherent existence. To simplify, emptiness is an understanding that no experience, thing, or person has a 'fixed' essence, a thing that cannot or will not change. The implications of understanding emptiness are endless, and the main byproduct of understanding and 'feeling' emptiness is total freedom. If nothing has a fixed essence, that means that every experience is ripe with infinite potential and creativity.
If you've studied any philosophy, you may recognize the common rebuttal to any thought system - as soon as you make any assertion, there can be an argument from the opposite perspective. The beauty of emptiness however, is that it is a subtle type of assertion in that it is in line with the way cause and effect and nature truly flows. Emptiness is not a strong assertion in the way the mind likes to parade its thoughts, but rather emptiness is an organic offering of the heart in the 'subtle-suchness' way that Buddhism tends to offer its teachings.
One of the most important ways that emptiness 'absorbs' it's detractors is that emptiness is itself empty, it also depends on the way things are for its existence. As was mentioned above, as soon as an assertion of any kind is made, the possibility of the exact opposite assertion is then created. Emptiness is not only not an assertion in the mind's way of asserting, but emptiness also negates itself as possible 'other'. Because emptiness is also empty, there can exist no 'sides' or argument. Emptiness just is. The trick of course is to experience this emptiness directly, as only through our own direct experience can we have a full-being experience of emptiness. Intellectual understanding alone is not enough. To experience emptiness directly of course takes practice.
What is dependent-arising, and how does it relate to emptiness? Dependent-arising is the knowing that all things and conditions arise from the causes that immediately precede them. For instance, when you were 10 years old, you knew for certain that next year you would not be fourteen. No matter how hard you may have tried to 'live faster', there was nothing you could do to be fourteen next year; the year ten causes the next year, year eleven - this is the natural way that cause and effect works in the world. From this, it may already be plain for you to see how dependent-arising is intimately involved in the Four Noble Truths, and also dances clearly and completely with emptiness.
Emptiness exists because of cause and effect, because of flow; and in most simple terms, dependent-arising is karma or cause and effect. Not only does suffering have a cause, everything does, and when we truly know/experience this, then we can begin to let go of the feeling that things 'are just happening randomly'. Nothing happens randomly; things are either caused by karma, or directed skillfully by mindful intention - it is the reason intention is such a very important element in waking up to our true nature. Intention says 'wait a minute', I think there's a more natural and thus healthy way to live.
When we truly 'feel' that things are not happening randomly, then we can begin to take back responsibility for our life. Have you ever heard a friend (maybe yourself) say something like, "Why do I keep ending up in these bad relationships?" Few us want to hear the real answer, but would rather hear, "Don't know, guess it's just bad luck". The real answer actually is, "I'm choosing partners out of my own ignorance of what my deepest values are; why am I doing that?" I know, it is hard to look at why so many of us do that, but we've all been in that position; and now knowing what you do, you can begin the healing process and reclaim a more real, authentic you that is in line with the natural flow of your life.
To recap a bit. All things are empty of inherent existence. All things arise dependent upon prior conditions. Because of these two reasons, all things then naturally have no fixed essence. All things; stones, tables, trees, monkeys, and you and me. That's right. It may be easy to understand and accept that a stone doesn't have a fixed essence, but what about a tree? Or yourself? When a tree is a seed, it has the entire potential to be a tree, but it is not yet a tree. The seed, young spout, young tree, and old tree are all intimately related, but no two can exist at the same time. And the same is true for you. Where is the five-year old boy or girl that you once were? Truly, they are gone. But I remember a lot from that time? You are now an adult remembering that time, but you are not in that past phase of your life. This point is important. Many of us live in our memories of the past, and in the hopes we have of the future. Neither of these two is real; only this very moment is real - this very moment is your life - not yesterday, not five seconds ago.
Accepting and experiencing the 'no-self' of our own felt experience is profound, and can take many years to truly know. To experience 'no-self' is to not be bound by an idea of who we are. We are not ideas or things, but rather we are in continual flux. Only when we appreciate this fact does our life truly live with the radiance and zest that are our greatest gifts.
Let go of who you think you are, and enter the void of creativity and freedom that is emptiness. You are far more than you thought, and far less. The sage Nisargadatta puts it like this, "Wisdom tells me I am nothing. Love tells me I am everything. Between these two my life flows."