Emptiness - Selections
If everything is empty, then what ceases in Nirvana and is born in rebirth? Guy Armstrong tackles this question and more in this richly informed, practical guide to emptiness for the meditator.
The World Is Empty of Self
All yogas have only one aim: to save you from the calamity
of separate existence.
—Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj
WE LIVE IN AN AGE when concern for the self has risen to unprecedented
levels. Families and communities are disintegrating, and with them go our nearest
opportunities for generosity and service. The social contract to care for one
another is under attack. The planet’s environmental health is in crisis, while many
remain oblivious or indifferent. Materialism is widely honored and rampant.
Compromise is becoming a distant memory. In our culture now it sometimes
seems that all that matters is me: my wants, pleasures, needs, opinions, and rights.
Excessive self-concern is, of course, not a new phenomenon. It has always
been a destructive aspect of human nature. But social structures that once limited
its expression are now breaking down, and we are left more and more to face
the naked manifestation of this force. There was once a time when no one would
have dared to say, “Greed is good,” but now this expression is seen as little more
than the frank admission of a common ethic.
Buddhism views excessive self-centeredness as the primary source of suffering,
causing us to act in ways that harm ourselves and others, from infidelity
and dishonesty to murder, terrorism, and war. The habit of self-concern creates
pain in our closest relationships, gives rise to greed and hatred, and torments our
hearts on a daily basis. There is no way to a true and lasting happiness without
seeing into and eventually overcoming this force.
Fortunately Buddhism doesn’t stop with the diagnosis. It offers a radical
therapy for overcoming self-centeredness by questioning the very idea of a self.
Throughout his teaching career, the Buddha returned to this point again and
again. He said that in our obsession with self, we are like a barking dog tied to a
post, running endlessly and fruitlessly around a single point,2 yet we fundamentally
misunderstand what it is. “In whatever way they conceive of self,” he said,
“the fact is ever other than that.”
THE LANGUAGE OF SELF AND NOT-SELF
As we’ve seen, the self is designated by words like I, me, and mine. This sense of
self, or “I,” seems unmistakably real, yet when we look for it directly, it is elusive.
William James said, “When I search for my self, all I can find is a funny feeling
at the back of my throat.” The Dalai Lama said that when something seems clear
to us but we can’t find it, that is a sure sign of delusion. The self is not real in the ways we take it to be.
The Buddha was asked by his cousin and longtime attendant, Ānanda, “Venerable
sir, it is said, ‘Empty is the world, empty is the world.’ In what way is it said,
‘Empty is the world’?” The Buddha replied, “It is, Ānanda, because it is empty of self and of what belongs to self that it is said, ‘Empty is the world.’”4
The world is empty of self. Sometimes this is explained as the Buddhist
teaching of no-self. Yet it seems inarguable that someone has written these
words and someone else is reading them! What is the meaning of the puzzling
assertion of no-self? This is the question I’ll try to answer in part 1 of this book.
To the extent that we can intuit the absence of a self, as opposed to merely
believing in it as a doctrine, we will understand a key aspect of emptiness. The
two understandings—(1) the absence of self and (2) emptiness—are mostly
used synonymously in this part of the book.
The Conventions of “I” and “Mine”
As we explore the assertion that the world is empty of self, we need to distinguish between our everyday use of the words I and mine and the reality these words point to. The Buddha did not tell us never to say these words in any type of conversation.
He said that a wise person can use these terms without being confused
by them.5 Our speech would sound absurd if we did not use the words I or mine
out of a fear of being “dharmically incorrect.” We’d have to resort to cumbersome
expressions like “the speaker” or “the one standing here.”
It’s fine to say “I” and “mine,” “you” and “yours,” as long you understand that
these terms are merely conventions of our social contract that identify where an
activity is taking place or where ownership is assigned. With these useful conventions,
you end up in your home and I end up in mine, after driving our respective
cars. Life would be too chaotic without these conventions and the language
we use to communicate about them.
Similarly, there is a conventional manner in which we can talk about an individual
having a unique way of being that we might call an identity. We all have
characteristics of height, weight, age, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation,
and personality that allow us to describe ourselves in meaningful and
authentic ways. The teaching on the absence of self does not take away or disregard
these useful forms of description. But it does point to the need not to stop
at the conventional description and take it as an ultimate truth—because doing
that will lead to suffering.
The problem arises when we take conventional language to mean more than it
can. By repeating “I” and “mine,” and describing ourselves as being a certain way,
we’ve come to believe that something real is being pointed to that isn’t actually
there. Buddhist practice helps us free ourselves from this delusion and see things
as they actually are. In the process we find a more expansive and generous way to
relate with the world.
No-Self versus Not-Self
There is a debate in the Western Buddhist world on how to translate this key
teaching on the absence of self. Some teachers call it “no-self ” and others call it “not-self.” The Pali term is anattā and could be translated either way: attā means
“self ” and the prefix an- is a negation. Those who translate it as “no-self ” say this is a pithy expression that directly points to the insight that the world is empty of self, that no self can found anywhere. Those who call it “not-self ” are fond of saying (and as far as I know, this is true) that there is no passage in the Pali Canon in which the Buddha categorically states, “There is no self.” They quote a particular discourse in which the Buddha is asked by a wanderer from another sect whether there is a self or not, and he refuses to answer. The reason he later gives for his silence is tied to a subtle philosophical principle in vogue in his day.6
I think these points are interesting but not terribly significant. Philosophically,
saying “the world is empty of self ” is a clear statement of absence, and so
I believe the translation “no-self ” is a valid interpretation. However, the most
compelling argument for using “not-self,” I find, is that it shifts the discussion
from a philosophical position (“There is no self ”) to a point-by-point investigation of one’s direct experience (“The body is not the self ”). A philosophical position can be taken as something we ought to believe, and if we don’t we’re not good Buddhists.
Buddhism is not particularly concerned with beliefs, because beliefs don’t liberate us. The Buddha was interested in having us develop understanding to lead
us out of suffering. When we consider statements such as “The body is not self ”
or “Anger is not self,” we have specific objects to contrast with what we take a
true self to be. That is why I find the “not-self ” language more inviting and provocative, and I will use this translation most of the time in this book.
Our misunderstandings around the nature of the self are reflected in and also
conditioned by the way we use language. In this section we’ll look at some of the
ways we use the words I and my in English that don’t make logical sense. We’ll
also explore what is considered real in Buddhism so that we have a reliable foundation for investigation, and we’ll see how the sense of self gets constructed again and again out of these foundational building blocks. We will see why the Buddha
said that we don’t need to see these basic realities as self and what our experience
might be if we stop doing that. When we know for ourselves the emptiness of self
that the Buddha pointed to, we will be in accord with the old Sri Lankan monk
who said, with great amusement, “No self, no problem!”