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 funny. 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.
Since we make categories within categories within categories of experience, name them and assign them qualities and properties, and then create narratives and scenarios for how they interact, we are creating an artificial and abstract sense of reality. We get just a bit of info about something and interpolate and extrapolate with the mental algorithms used in creating, maintaining, and employing our subjective sense of reality to connect that little bit of information to the categories and patterns we accept as fundamentally real. In plainer English, we use the sense of how things work, a sense produced by our minds, to "know" the objects of our perception -- who or what they are, what they are like, what they will likely do, etc. Even from a small bit of information.
By way of example, when we see someone of a certain skin color, dressed a certain way, acting a certain way, at a particular place and time, and wa la!, we suddenly have all sorts of assumptions about the person. Even if we remind ourselves of the dangers of assumptions and of stereotypes, deep down we still kind of think we have the score.
Racism is a great example, because people will point out different skin colors, face shapes, hair texture, and say, "See, race is real!" But what people fail to realize is that if that is all people meant by race, no one would give a damn. "Oh look, what superficial traits did you inherit? I love that color and the shape of your cheeks!" The term has been used that way for non-human species at times, but for ourselves, scientific racism implied that such traits defined clearly divisible categories with fixed boundaries (they don't) and that they were connected to deeper aspects of our being. Aspects such as inherent physical strength or weakness and the capacity for morality, cleverness, creativity, aspiration, and so on.
By making racial categories along these lines much harm has been done. And the categories themselves aren't accurate. Biology, psychology, sociology, and anthropology tell us that much of what we defined as race was arbitrary and artificial. That is, socially constructed. And what is left after correcting those errors doesn't support attempts to classify people by race.
This is an example of how our human way of understanding reality can be misleading and harmful, but it isn't always so. Many great discoveries and inventions have come about thanks largely to forms of discriminating conceptual thinking. Still, errors such as racism mean that we have to be humble and cautious. That's sensible when you realize that we create and live in an artificial world based on incomplete, inaccurate, and biased information.
Emptiness, Impermanence, and No-Self
So emptiness is great in this regard because it seems to recognize these kinds of problems and operates off of an awareness of the artificiality of our conventional sense of reality. This includes the fact that each category upon which our conventional sense of reality is grounded is connected causally to other categories. Emptiness reveals this by telling us that everything we think is real is conditioned, which means that it arises from particular causes and conditions. Because this requires a consideration of components that are used to describe and explain the thing itself, this in turn implies that all individual things are composites or aggregates made up of other, smaller things. Of course, these other smaller things have their causes and components, and so on and so on. This is how our "discriminating mind", the mind of ideas and concepts and language, works.
So all conditioned things are empty, and everything you think is real is conditioned, so it follows that everything you think is real is conditioned. Perfect.
And because of how we perceive our experiences in terms of motion and hence time, we see these conditioned phenomena arise and pass away. Or in classic Buddhist terms, we see birth and death, emergence and extinction. So Buddhism teaches that conditioned things are impermanent. Therefore, everything you think is real is impermanent.
Now, if that is so, then we have to apply these rules to ourselves. That means our bodies, thoughts, and feelings are also empty and impermanent, which naturally leads to the idea of no-self. As in no permanent and inherently existing self that doesn't depend on specific causes and conditions.
In perusing Buddhist writings you will frequently read that the value of these teachings is that they keep us from grasping at the illusions we create about our experiences and the suffering that results.
In quick summation:
We have avarice or aversion to things because we think we know what they are, but we mostly see what our minds conjure for us based on limited information and presumption. We become fixated on ("attached" to) these things, sometimes aggressively. We do so out of our ignorance, experiencing emotions like greed and anger. We then become disappointed or frustrated with our experience of these things (ideas, physical objects, people, etc), so we suffer. Being self-centered, we may be disappointed that the world doesn't seem to give us what we want the way that we want it.
And even if we aren't disappointed with the things we focus on and are satisfied with our sense of how the world ought to be, because these things we grasp at (including those that create our sense of the world) are impermanent, we will still suffer. Either when these things change or when they fall apart, both due to impermanence. This includes our own sense of self and the aggregate composite of who we think we are -- our minds and bodies. Buddhist scriptures and teachings go into highly detailed and laborious detail about all of this, but for brevity's sake, this description of grasping and suffering will due.
So here we are, with our egoistic minds at the center of our sense of reality trying to cope with our existence. But they can't. They keep churning and churning like a series of linked supercomputers with extremely sophisticated software trying to adjust to individual experiences and make sense of it all, yet we stay sane because our minds hide a lot of the discrepancies and inconsistencies from us and keep us from spontaneously thinking about really deep existential questions. If you want to see the man behind the curtain, or what exactly lurks down the rabbit hole, you have to be intentional about it. And strong focus and concentration doesn't hurt either. Which is where many traditional Buddhist practices involving concentration and the contemplation of the nature of things come in.
What we have so far is that the teachings of emptiness, impermanence, and no-self help us see the limitations of our egocentric, inter-subjective sense of reality. These teachings also suggest that we suffer because of our inaccurate or distorted views and our attempts to create a coherent view of existence with our limited minds. If we apply these teachings, we can overcome such suffering somehow.
And that, as readers of contemporary popular Buddhist literature, from magazines to books to professional blogs, is mostly what everyone focuses on and writes about, finding creative ways to suggest how these teachings can "solve" the problems upon which a particular a segment of society is fixated.
But something important is missing here, isn't it?
Where Does Any of This Take Us?
For some contemporary Buddhists, this conclusion or summary doesn't "take us" anywhere. That's it. That's all Buddhism is about. Just severe your attachments by accepting emptiness, impermanence, and no-self and your suffering will cease. Any elaboration is just meaningless, counter-productive, and misleading speculation from the same mind that created all of the confusion and distortion in the first place.
That may be so, in which case I am going into error by writing more. But that's how we learn, right?
To get at what is missing, let's consider some of the implications of what has been stated already:
Does emptiness mean non-existence? No, it just means no inherent existence that doesn't rely on particular causes and conditions. This is universally accepted Buddhist thought as far as I can tell.
Does impermanence mean non-existence? No, it just means that everything changes and is transformed according to circumstances.
Does non-attachment mean not having any feelings toward or serious interaction with conditioned phenomena? No, but exactly what is or isn't appropriate interaction is definitely up for debate in Buddhist teachings. In some cases certain feelings, like love, are considered attachments to be severed. We could inquire what exactly is meant by love, but from what I've read it often refers to a kind of selfish attitude involving how the object of affection makes you feel or supports your sense of how things ought to be. More egocentrism. In other cases, the issue is that you aren't "loving" (or having any other meaningful interaction with) the object as it is but rather as you see it or want it to be, which will lead to problems for ourselves and, if the object is a person, for them as well.
Does no-self mean non-existence? No. Maybe. Sort of but not really. Yes, this is a juicy one. For some Buddhists, it is OK to accept the conventional existence of conditioned phenomena, yet since conditioned phenomena are impermanent aggregates, the causes and conditioning holding that named conglomeration of parts (that would be you) cannot last and so the object will eventually fall apart. Even while it is still holding together, its smaller parts are still falling apart and being replaced according to other causes and conditions, so the thing is never quite the same from moment to moment anyway even before it comes undone. The upshot, if we leave things here, is that as a person you only exist temporarily and most of what you and other think about who you are is a mirage. In that sense, you exist. You change and change and then the body fails, the mind fails, and you die.
This brings us to the 64 billion kalpa question:
What does this all of this really mean for my existence and the nature of reality? This is broken down numerous ways, with popular versions such as "What actually happens when I die?" and "If there is no self that continues after death then what revolves in the cycle of birth and death" and "If there is no self that continues after death then what is liberated or realizes nirvana?" These are not new questions, as you can find versions of them in texts such as the Lankavatara Sutra, which is estimated to be about 1600 to 1700 years old.
Both the Hidden Consciousness (Yogacara) and Mind-Only (Tathatagarbha) traditions of Buddhism posit a kind of eternally existing and blissful something from which all conditioned phenomena arise and to which all things return. So purification of the alaya consciousness (quick and dirty definition: the deepest part of your individual nature which transmigrates from life to life and influences the nature of your rebirth) or some similar attribute is essential to practice. The point is to recognize this external, blissful something as the true nature of all things, including yourself.
The Middle Way (Madhymaka) tradition focuses primarily on the emptiness of all things and a rejection of eternalism and annihilationism. But just how it does so is another issue that is up for debate. One way of doing this is to say that because of emptiness and impermanence, nothing stays the same forever, so eternal existence in your present form is impossible. On the other hand, there is a kind of (gasp!) "self", at least in the sense of a continuity of some indescribable essence which molds itself according to causes and conditions but which is technically not destroyed (or annihilated) when the form it takes ceases to exist. Even when that essence is no longer you, it still exists.
I am sure Buddhist scholars would have a bone or three to pick with my summaries, and comments to that effect are welcome, but if we go with this rough picture of the major historical traditions of Mahayana Buddhist thought we can see how there might be different answers to our big question and its correlates.
Yet all of those traditions tend to emphasize the teaching of emptiness and to argue against particular notions of eternalism and annihilationism. For example, the traditions emphasizing an eternally existing something identify that something as being pure and empty. Meanwhile, some interpretations of the Madyamaka tradition seem to turn emptiness in a kind of eternal well of infinite potential from which form (conditioned existence) arises. So what does that mean for our question?
And this is where it gets tricky, because here is where consensus begins to really break down.
So, Again, What Does It Mean?
If you read this far thinking I have the answers, I apologize for disappointing you. I'm also really shocked that you would think so. Someone better versed in the sutras and ancient teachings of Buddhism could do a better job of running through the different options for what it all means at this point, as well as what if anything it's good for in light of what has already been described. As for myself, I will use the "wildly-swinging-a-machete" approach to sorting out this Gordian knot.
We can break the issue down into a few major options based on what I've come across so far. In doing so I'm broadly generalizing and summarizing.
First is a nihilist position. You are a conditioned thing. You will cease to be when you die. The teachings are meant to help you reduce or eliminate suffering in this life. For some this is it -- the whole point of Buddhist teachings and practice. For others who accept the reality of karma, the teachings are also meant to keep your karma from generating another life of suffering after you are gone. That new life won't be "you" in any sense. Extinction means just exactly what it sounds like. Nothingness, except maybe for some ethereal cosmic play dough that is longer being shaped by the consequences of your actions. This position or a variation on it seems to be somewhat popular in Western societies.
Second is a pseudo-nihilist position. This is similar to the first one, but it emphasizes that extinction can be realized while you are still alive rather than after your conditioned existence ends. Hence, while "you" are still "alive" you can live in bliss being freed from illusion and its resultant suffering by simply appreciating the freedom of emptiness, impermanence, and no self. The freedom to explore your life and its experiences unfettered by limited assumptions coloring your perception. Still, when you die, you die, and some essence (usually "emptiness") goes on without you. Another less common variation is that you may still kind of exist if causes and conditions are right to "summon" you, such as living on in someone's heart. In this case, every potential thing exists in emptiness and comes and goes as they are summoned, but "you" are more like a stored imprint or memory.
Third is an eternalist position. It is similar to the variation on the pseuo-nihilist position, except that you aren't just a memory or imprint. Not exactly. You exist in the well of infinite potential (which is how emptiness is presented in this view), and you can indeed return and materialize in the world of form, that is, the world of conditioned things. But it is by choice, not because you have been summoned against your will by karma (those causes and conditions of rebirth). You are "you" in the sense of your conscious continuity and thus your recollection of your previous incarnations, but you are not quite the same you. Just as you are and yet are not the same "you" at age 50 as you are at age 5 or 15. "You" are the same trajectory or continuity of awareness that has been accumulating wisdom and growing in compassion, and you readily merge with or diverge from the unity of all things when existing in emptiness or existing in form. In fact, you can do both simultaneously, so that "you" are capable of being a you, a we, an us, an I, and nothing in particular at all at once. In other words, you exist as something that cannot be categorized, labeled, or conceived of by the individual human mind. We can refer to this indescribable state for the sake of convenience as Mind.
Fourth a pseudo-eternalist position, which in some ways is like the eternalist position and also the pseudo-nihilist position. The whole eternally existing Mind that dwells in emptiness is the same as the eternalist position, but you lose your distinctiveness as continuity of awareness and instead merge permanently into the larger awareness of Mind. So any appearance of "you" or any of your individual qualities is more like a projected image or replica for the sake of convenience or usefulness.
I am sure people can come up with other positions, but these summarize the poles around which people seem to be revolving when they write and teach about Mahayana Buddhism. At least that's how I break it down. I strongly suspect anyone who has studied or practiced Buddhism, at least in Western societies, will have an affinity with one of these positions above the others. Or at least recognize something in them.
Nor is this just idle academic or philosophical speculation. Since Mahayana Buddhism is concerned with the welfare of others as well as oneself, the meaning of such concern and the possibilities of how one can reach and help them is paramount. If one wishes to take Buddhism seriously, then the meaning of things such as wisdom, compassion, bodhi(-mind), and so on, as well as the value and purpose of practice, must be properly understood. Each of these positions gives a different spin on these things, as well as concepts like liberation, nirvana, Buddha-nature, and so on. Even if one "goes beyond words and concepts", which meanings of what words launched you there? Which are you transcending? In the nihilist position, for example, nirvana is just bait to get people to practice, so why bother discussing it?
And speaking of going beyond words and concepts, let us recall that emptiness, impermanence, and no-self are human concepts based on a recognition of the limitations and flaws of trying to understand reality based on -- yes -- human concepts. Which rely on our "interacting categories" that make up our artificial view of the world, remember?
Do we then assume that everything in reality must play by those rules, or just the things we experience and turn into categories and definitions? Some varieties of Buddhist thought seem to insist on the former, making their claims a little suspect.
So if one is able to get a glimpse beyond such blinders, what would one see?
Is it what the Buddha saw? And which of our four major positions (or something else) would it support? Are the symbolic and poetic images of the sutras and other teachings (and even the scriptures of other religions and sacred paths) just wishful thinking, or perhaps skillful means to make people happier and kinder? Or are they revealing something that is indeed ineffable and amazing? Something toward which one should set ones life?
I suppose to get the answer to that question, one should make up ones mind to practice whole-heartedly, and by being open and vulnerable to the possibilities, make ones way to the unknown. That is, have diligent practice guided by faith.
What do you have faith in? Does my summary fit with your own experiences of the presentation of Buddhism in the English speaking world?
Thanks for reading. I'm going to go now and learn something about patience, compassion, and loving-kindness by spending some time with my dogs.