Saturday, January 29, 2005

Notes on Emptiness #1

Forgive me for this long quotation, but at the moment it seems to me the clearest explanation of the Buddhist concept of emptiness that I've encountered. It's from a book called Hua-yen Buddhism: The Jewel Net of Indra by Francis H. Cook published way back in 1977. It was lent to me by my good friend Lynn. This is my second reading of it, and I'd like to copy the whole thing, which I may yet do!

From p.40-41: Cook has just finished explaining how emptiness itself must be recognized as empty.

The problem with words and concepts is that instead of understanding that they have a purely provisional status and a purely utilitarian value, human beings tend to believe that there is a really existing entity to which the word or concept corresponds. It is the fundamental teaching of Buddhism that there is only incessant change, or flux, and that there is no thing which undergoes the change.

There is a very great difference between this view and that which is commonly held; the former rests on the naive assumption that there is really an object (or complex of objects) which undergoes successive states -- ie. birth, subsistence and cessation -- but which itself is a real entity serving as the locus for the change, while the second view rests on the assumption that there is nothing but change, with no real, permanent locus for the change. The intricate fabric of being is thus not really being at all but a ceaseless becoming, pure flux. The change itself at any point comes about as a result of other events which act as the environment of the one point and condition it, causing it to assume a new, different, momentary form.

These conditioning events themselves have no more permanence and stability than the one point mentioned above, because they in turn are being conditioned by other events. The web of interconditionality is thus nearly infinite in scope. For this reason, there is no point anywhere which is exempt from this process of change, and nothing anywhere which lasts in one form for two moments in a row.

In the maze of interconditionality, to speak of real objects is a highly artificial process which is indebted to abstraction, and, according to adherents of the doctrine of emptiness, it is a futile process completely divorced from reality.


A key phrase here is the "assumption that there is really an object...which undergoes successive states...but which itself is a real entity serving as the locus for the change..." Cook calls this assuption naive. Damn, I don't like to be called naive. I think of impermanence -- change -- and that's exactly what I think of. My body, this body, yeah I know it changes from moment to moment. When I really pay attention to it I can sense the molecules gurgling away. But somehow I still think of it as the same body. My body. It's a body which is more or less rapidly decaying. But Cook says no. Emptiness says no. There is no body. There is nothing more than a vortex of change.

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