Is there a point to the core Mahayana teachings that people in the West can appreciate today?
First let me tell you that the under-informed speculation and elaboration on Buddhist teachings refers to what I write here when I happen to be pondering such a topic. A perusal of the past eight years worth of material confirms this.
This means I am not here to present myself as speaking with any kind of authority on behalf of the Buddhist tradition as a scholar in the field or a long time fruitful and insightful practitioner who speaks from years of ever-deepening wisdom. It's important to state that up front. If you think I sound ignorant, I probably am.
So what background am I coming from? In my spare time I've read some key sutras, many commentaries on major sutras, summaries of commentaries on important sutras, and summaries and commentaries compiled about the summaries and commentaries of those sutras, and once in a while I actually attempt some form of practice. Plus I've got a little familiarity with materials comparing different traditions such a Christian and Buddhist mysticism and monasticism. If that sounds impressive, you're write. If you think it is, trust me, it isn't.
So with that introduction out of the way, off we go.
The World of Illusion
So much ink and so many pixels have been used to write about terms such as emptiness for Western audiences and who, including me, have little real appreciation for the unspoken cultural transmission and atmosphere that provides context for such concepts.
And I suspect that many people are intellectually over-dosing on these terms.
I think they are useful and even ingenious, but I can't help feeling that they are what are called skillful means, or tricks to get people to follow the right path and help them overcome obstacles on the path. Allow to me to explain what I mean by using the broad, generic translations of the terms as they are widely known in the English-speaking world.
Emptiness refers to lack of intrinsic existence of phenomena, i.e. things we encounter in our experiences of reality. We discriminate our experiences into different individual "things" (phenomena), divide those phenomena into named categories (taxa), assign properties and qualities to those taxa (traits), and establish causal scenarios in which taxa interact with each other via their traits. We use these causal relationships to understand and explain what we observe. For example, the Earth's gravity pulls the ball back to the ground. Earth and ground are the primary phenomena, and gravity is another phenomenon that acts as a property of the Earth acting on an unnamed property of the ball (its mass) to produce an effect -- the falling of the ball.
Social scientists and psychologists study how we come to have a sense of reality and how it works. By making our taxa and weaving them together into causal scenarios, we have a sense of how things are and how things ought to be. We produce a subjective sense of reality. We use our mental algorithms for shaping and interpreting our perception to augment that sense of reality and similar algorithms to explain and predict what is happening around us based on that sense of reality.
If those latter algorithms seem to correctly predict things more often than not, we assume they are accurate, even though it is possible that we are right sometimes for the wrong reasons or that we are simply selectively seeing things that match our expectations or interpreting our experiences to fit our expectations. Because we have a sense of how thing ought to be as well as a sense of how things are, we feel any disconnect between the two in emotional and moral terms: fairness, justice, rightness, satisfaction, and so on, as well as their opposites such as unfairness, injustice, wrongness, dissatisfaction, regret, longing, and so forth.
"Fine", you may be thinking, "but where are you going with this?"
Fair enough. Here is why it matters to the topic at hand.