Saturday, February 18, 2012

God is emptiness (the transcendence of God)

This is part of a series reflecting on God-talk and Buddhist terminology. It is an opening to dialogue, not a final word on the subject.

Emptiness. If you are ever going to get tired of hearing people talk about a Buddhist concept this has to be a front runner.

If you spend time reading about emptiness in popular magazines and books or popular websites, you will learn that some older translations into English included "void", and that this negative impression still remains with emptiness.

In attempting to correct this, other images are sometimes suggested. Emptiness refers to a lack of something, but what? One expression popularized by Tibetan Buddhists is that things don't exist "on their own side". Chan/Zen Buddhists favor "lack of intrinsic existence". Pure Land Buddhists, Nichiren Buddhists, and others have similar variations on this theme.

Another way to approach the matter is to turn the negative into a positive. If something does not exist under its own power or will (emptiness), but is instead made up of and connected to other things (dependent co-arising), then everything must be subject to change (impermanence) and hence can only exist because they are not permanent and independent objects (no-self). The capacity for change, the formless ground from which phenomena emerges, can be thought of as the essence of potential itself. The power of possibility. 

That sounds much more affirming and exciting than talking about what things are not. Yet it is precisely in emphasizing what things, including our basic categories of perception and thought, are not that emptiness does its best work. This is probably because emptiness itself is not a thing at all, but an insight about things.

Simple, right?
And that's precisely the problem: it's too simple.

There is a part of the mind that lives to analyze, to generate abstraction, to make lists, and so on. It is very useful and productive to have it operating properly. And it distrusts things which are ambiguous, vague, and difficult to pin down or label. It want to interpolate, and extrapolate, and explicate, and lots of other rhyming things, finding and creating patterns.

The concept of emptiness and its correlates (dependent co-arising, impermanence, and no-self) are ways to cut off the root of this line of thinking, to pull the rug out from under it. It is similar to the Hindu teaching "Neti, neti...(not this, not that)." It is also similar to the apophatic mysticism or the via negativa of Christian contemplatives.

Where does form come from? (emptiness.) What is form really composed of at its most essential level? (emptiness.) What was your face before your parents were born? (emptiness.)

See how that works? It tells what we sometimes call the left-brain approach to understanding and experience that it is getting into areas that are beyond its capacity. The answer to form cannot come from form--the mind must get outside of that part of itself to a more spacious and inclusive state. Words and concepts fail.

Which is where God comes into the picture.

Well, sort of.

One problem with discussing God or emptiness is that they become ontological placeholders, the mystery force or object X as the beginning of all chains of causality, the very chains of causality constructed by, yes, the analyzing part of the mind. God or emptiness is reduced to something labeled as ineffable but which has a definite property or quality, such as "first cause" or "ultimate source". The expansiveness implied by the teaching has been reigned in. The hole in the world of form has been sealed off. It's back to a closed system of meaning and potential, however large the imagination governed by the rules of that system may be.

This is the same problem that systematic theologian Paul Tillich wrestled with, and why he claimed that God does not exist. Tillich wasn't espousing atheism. He was rejecting the idea of God as an object, that is, of God as form, even the wisest or coolest or most powerful object. God, Tillich claimed, cannot be limited in that way. Yet even Tillichian phrases such as "object of ultimate concern" and "ground of Being" are prone to a form of spiritual reification. Indeed, a sort of debilitating deification.

Niether emptiness nor God can be said to exist or fail to exist, they are simply beyond the reductionism of language. They are the counters to what we think we know, what we want to grasp. They are everywhere and nowhere. They are everything and nothing. Before the beginning and after the end, before the end and after the beginning.

Not that!

Not that!


  1. The more you look for something, the less you find it.

  2. Three thoughts come to mind in response to the suggestion that "the more you look for something, the less you find it."

    The first is that if we don't have a disposition to seek we will never find. There has to be some inspiration to form a willingness to connect to whatever we are seeking, and this is often framed in terms of the seriousness of effort with which one attends to their search.

    The second is a parable in which a students asks his guru how to find God (or enlightenment, etc). The guru replies that there are two primary rules one must follow. The student asks the guru what those rules are, and she replies that the first rule is that no amount of prayer, chanting, study, works of mercy, alms-giving, or meditation can ever bring one closer to God because God is ever present. Hence there is nothing to do or to accomplish in seeking God. The student asked the guru what the second rule was, to which she replied that one must pretend that they don't know the first rule.

    The third is an experience of living with a puppy 15 years ago that loved to get outside off-leash and run and run, even toward the street. The more she was chased, the faster she ran, dodging and doubling back. It was a game to her. The only way to catch her was to stop chasing her, sit or lie down, and wait. She would look back, see you weren't playing anymore, and run over to lick your face or lay on your stomach.


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