Emptiness

By Stephen Batchelor


Unborn emptiness has let go ofthe extremes ofbeing and non-being. Thus it is both the center itself and the central path. Emptiness is the track on which the centered person moves. -Tsongkhapa

Pick up A ballpoint pen. Take off the cap and ask: "Is this still a ballpoint pen?" Yes, of course-albeit one without a cap. Unscrew the top part of the casing, remove the ink refill, and screw the top on again. Is that a ballpoint pen? Well, yes, just about. Is the refill a ballpoint pen? No, it's just the refill-but at least it can function as a pen, unlike the empty casing. Take the two halves of the casing apart. Is either of them a ballpoint pen? No, definitely not. No way.

What happens to the thing as you dismantle it? When do the components cease (or start) to become a pen? When does the banana you are eating stop being a banana? When does the lump of clay on the wheel start being a pot? Names and concepts suggest there are objects in the world every bit as definite as themselves. Pens, bananas, and pots are self-evident, instantly recognizable things. But subject them to a little scrutiny, and that certainty begins to waver. Things are not as clear-cut as they seem. They are neither circumscribed nor separated from each other by' lines. Lines are drawn in the mind. There are no lines in nature.

Sit on a chair, close your eyes, and listen attentively to the rain falling outside. Where does the sound of the rain stop and your hearing of it begin? Where, for that matter, does your bottom end and the seat of the chair begin? While conceptually the sound of rain is as different from my hearing as my bottom is from the chair, experientially it is impossible to distinguish between them. Rainfall blurs into hearing; bottom blurs into chair.

Consider the bulb of a daffodil buried in the ground all winter. As the weather gets warmer, it begins to sprout. If it rains sufficiently, there is no frost, and no one treads on it, one morning you will exclaim: "Look. The daffodils are out." But did the sprout suddenly cease to be a sprout and in its place a daffodil appear? The same problem: while a sprout is no more a daffodil than a daffodil is a sprout, somehow the sprout becomes a daffodil. The dividing line between sprout and daffodil is a convenient conceptual and linguistic distinction that cannot be found in nature.

In this sense, ballpoint pens, bananas, pots, rainfall, hearmg, chairs, bottoms, sprouts, and daffodils have no beginning and no end. They neither start nor do they stop. They neither are born nor do they die They emerge from a matrix of conditions and ~n turn become part of another matrix of conditions from which something else emerges.

IN EVERYDAY EXPERIENCE, one thing leads to the next. I become irritated by something S said to me and end up wanting to hit him. I imagine I see a snake in the pottery shed and freeze in terror. Everything that happens emerges out of what preceded it. Everything we do now becomes a condition for what is possible later.

We may speak of conditions and consequences as though they were things, but if we look more closely they turn out to be processes with no independent reality. The harshness of a barbed remark that haunts us for days is no more than a brief instance isolated from a torrent of events. Yet it stands out in the mind's eye as something intrinsically real and apart. This habit of isolating things leads us to inhabit a world in which the gaps between them become absolute. The snake in the shed is really there, as sharply differentiated from the frightened person who beholds it as from the shards of discarded pottery on which it is coiled.

Clutching at ourselves and the world in this way is a precondition for anguish. By regarding things as absolutely separate and as desirable or fearful in themselves, we set ourselves the task of possessing something we can never have or of eradicating something that was never there in the first place. Noticing how things emerge from and fade back into an unbroken flow of conditions begins to free us a little. We recognize how things are relatively, not absolutely, desirable or fearful. They interconnect and interact, each contingent on the others, no one of them intrinsically separate from the rest.

Whatever emerges in this way is devoid of an intrinsic identity: in other words, things are empty. They are not as opaque and solid as they seem: they are transparent and fluid. They are not as singular and straightforward as they seem: they are complex and ambiguous. They are not only defined by Philosophy, science, and religion: they are evoked through the play of allusions, paradoxes, and jokes. They cannot be pinned down with certainty: they trigger perplexity, amazement, and doubt.

THE SAME IS true for each one ofus. Just as a potter fornis a pot on the wheel, so I configure my Personality from the spinning clay of my existence. The pot does not exist in its own right: it emerges from the interactions of the potter, the wheel, the clay, its shape, its function (each of which in turn emerges from the interactions of its causes and components ad infinitum). There is no essential pot to which its attributes adhere, just as there is no essential daffodil to which stalk, leaves, petals, and stamen adhere. Pots and daffodils are configurations of causes, conditions, parts, functions, language, images. They are devoid of an identity stamped like a serial number in the core of their being.

And so is each of us. As a human being I am more complex than a pot or a daffodil, but I have also emerged from causes and am composed of diverse, changing features and traits. There is no essential me that exists apart from this unique configurati0~ of biological and cultural processes. Even if intellectually I agree with this, intuitively it may not be how I feel about myself In any event, dharma practice is concerned not with proving or disproving theories of self but with understanding and easing the grip of self~centeredness that constricts body, feelings, and emotions into a tight nugget of anguish.

Imagine you are at a crowded exhibition of Ming porcelain. A voice calls out: "Hey Thief. StO~!" Everyone in the room turns to look at you. Although you haven't stolen anything, the glare of accusation and disapproval provokes intense self-consciousness. You stand as exposed as though you were naked. You or rather the tight nugget of anguish-blurts out: "It wasn't me! Honest."

It is as though this self-which is a mere configuration of past and present contingencies-has been fired in the kiln of anxiety to emerge as something fixed. Fixed but also brittle. The more precious it becomes to me, the more I must guard it against attack. The circumstances in which I feel at ease become ever narrower and more circumscribed.

SELF-CONCIOUSNESS IS AT once the most obvious and central fact ofmy life and the most elusive. If I search for my self in meditation, I find it is like trying to catch my own shadow. I reach for it, but there's nothing there. Then it reappears elsewhere. I glimpse it from the corner of my mind's eye, turn to face it, and it's gone. Each time I think I've pinned it down, it turns out to be something else: a bodily sensation, a mood, a perception, an impulse, or simply aware-ness itself.
I cannot find the self by pointing my finger at any physical or mental trait and saying: "Yes, that's me." For such traits come and go, whereas the sense of "I" remains constant. But neither can I put my finger on something other than these traits that-however ephemeral and contingent they may be-nonetheless define me.

The self may not be something, but neither is it nothing. It is simply ungraspable, unfindable. I am who I am not because of an essential self hidden away in the core of my being but because of the unprecedented and unrepeatable matrix of conditions that have formed me. The more I delve into this mystery of who I am (or what anything is), the more I just keep going. There is no end to it, only an infinite trajectory that avoids falling into the extremes of being and nonbeing.
This trajectory is not only the center, which is free from this duality, but the central path itself.

"EMPTINESS" SAID THE Tibetan philosopher Tsongkhapa, in 1397, is the track on which the centered person moves." The word he uses for track is shul. This term is defined as "an impression": a mark that remains after that which made it has passed by-a footprint, for example. In other contexts, shul is used to describe the scarred hollow in the ground where a house once stood, the channel worn through rock where a river runs in flood, the indentation in the grass where an animal slept last night. All these are shul: the impression of something that used to be there.

A path is a shul because it is an impression in the ground left by' the regular tread of feet, which has kept it clear of obstructions and maintained it for the use ofothers. As ashul, emptiness can be compared to the impression of something that used to be there. In this case, such an impression is formed by the indentations, hollows, marks, and scars left by the turbulence of selfish craving. When the turmoil subsides, we experience tranquillity, relief, and freedom.

To know emptiness is not just to understand the concept. It is more like stumbling into a clearing in the forest, where suddenly' you can move freely and see clearly. To experience emptiness is to experience the shocking absence of what normally determines the sense of who you are and the kind of reality you inhabit. It may last only a moment before the habits of a lifetime reassert themselves and close in once more. But for that moment, we witness ourselves and the world as open and vulnerable.

This calm, free, open, and sensitive space is the very center of dharma practice. It is immediate, imminent, and dynamic. It is a path, a track. It grants an intimation of the invisible point to which the ~ines of our life converge. It allows unob; structed movement. And it assures us that we are not alone: it 1inplies indebtedness to those who have trodden this path before and responsibility to those who will follow.

"EMPTINESS" IS A confusing term. Although used as an abstract noun, it does not in any way denote an abstract thing or state. ~t is not something we "realize" in a moment of mystical insight that "breaks through" to a transcendent reabty concealed behind yet mysteriously underpinning the empirical world. Nor do things "arise" from emptiness and "dissolve" back into it as though it were some kind of form-less, cosmic stuff. These are just some of the ways emptiness has been appropriated as a metaphor of metaphysical and tdigious consolation.

"Emptiness" is a starkly unappetizing term used to undercut yearnings for such consolation. Yet ironically it has been called into the service of such longings. shunyata (emptiness) is rendered into English as "the Void" by translators who overlook the fact that the term is neither prefixed by a definite article ("the") nor exalted with a capital letter, both of which are absent in classical Asian languages. From here it is only a hop, skip, and a jump to equating emptiness with such metaphysical notions as "the Absolute," "the Truth," or even "God." The notion of emptiness falls prey to the very habit of mind it was intended to undermine.

EMPTINESS IS AS devoid of intrinsic being as a pot, a banana, or a daffodil. And if there Were DO pots, bananas, or daffodils, there would be no emptiness either. Emptiness does not deny that such things exist; it merely describes how they are devoid of an intrinsic, separate being. Emptiness is not apart from the world of everyday experience; it only makes sense in the context of making pots, eating bananas, and growing daffodils. A life centered in awareness of empti ness is simply an appropriate way of being in this changing, shocking, painful, joyous, frustrating, awesome, stubborn, and ambiguous reality. Emptiness is the central path that leads not beyond this reaTity but right into its heart. It is the track on which the centered person moves.

And we too are impressions left by something that used to be here. We have been created, molded, formed by a bewildering matrix of contingencies that have preceded us. From the patterning of the DNA derived from our parents to the firing of the hundred bilTion neurons in our brains to the cultural and historical conditioning of the twentieth century to the education and upbringing given us to all the experiences we have ever had and choices we have ever made: these have conspired to configure the unique trajectory that culminates in this present moment. What is here now is the unrepeatable impression left by all of this, which we call '~me." Yet so vivid and startling is this image that we confuse what is a mere impression for something that exists independently of what formed it.

So what are we but the story we keep repeating, editing, censoring, and embellishing in our heads? The self is not like the hero of a B-movie, who remains unaffected by the storms of passion and intrigue that swirl around him from the opening credits to the end. The self is more akin to the complex and ambiguous characters who emerge, develop, and suffer across the pages of a novel. There is nothing thinglike about me at all. I am more like an unfolding narrative.

As we become aware of all this, we can begin to assume greater responsibility for the course of our lives. Instead of clinging to habitual behavior and. routines as a means to secure this sense of self, we realize the freedom to create who we are. Instead of being bewitched by impressions, we start to create them. Instead of taking ourselves so seriously, we discover the playful irony of a story that has never been told in quite this way before.


From Buddhism Without Beliefs (Riverhead Books - 1998)