Monday, August 31, 2009

There's No Such Thing as Emptiness

We Buddhists like our emptinesses. But we have a problem with talking about emptiness in English, because "emptiness" is a noun. There is no such a thing as emptiness. It should be an adverb -- a word used to describe a quality.

Things are "empty" of three particular characteristics: things are not permanent; things are not separate from the causes and conditions in which they arise; and things are not ultimately satisfying. These are the three marks of all things.

We have this odd word “emptiness” that refers to very different things and experiences. Feeling empty -- feeling a lack of companionship -- is not the same as "all things are empty.” Though when I hear about how there is no thing that can make me ultimately happy, I feel a little lonely! But I think the loneliness is a different emptiness than the lack of permanence and satisfaction. When I’m lonely, or angry, there's something really vivid there!

Like everything that arises, feelings are empty (of permanence, separateness, and satisfaction), but feelings and things do exist -- they are experienced, they function. Tables are square and hard, eyes do see them, ears do hear birds that do fly in the sky, emotions do arise and feel good or bad.

The Heart Sutra says emptiness and form are not different. Things are not separate from their lack of certain characteristics. And things’ lack of those qualities is not separate from the things. You can't have a thing without its lack, and you can't have the lack without a thing.

Personally I find the language of the Heart Sutra to be a little one-sided. It keeps saying things don’t exist. They don’t exist the way we think they do, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. The English doesn’t really work well here. At least it’s the compassionate one Avalokiteshvara who’s telling me -- I keep trying to hear what he’s saying!

We humans also lack permanence and separate existence. This lack we call "non-self" -- another adverb masquerading as a noun! But the sense of self certainly does exist: the sensations and feelings and behaviors we call our self are experienced, they function, and they can cause all sorts of problems. When we are not grasping at our sense of self, "it" stops arising in ways that make us suffer. We are "selfless" even though we are still there. There is neither a self nor a non-self.

When we see that things are empty of the solidity that we usually try to impose, when we see the futility of trying to grasp and gain satisfaction from things that are impermanent, then we feel compassion. We have experienced the suffering that comes from grasping, and we wish that everyone could see the true nature of things, so that their confusion, grasping, and suffering would end.

This is all rather abstract. Yesterday I was arguing with a friend. Both of us were defending our sense of self, and experiencing hurt and anger. Then for a moment or two, I saw that I was defending an experience that lacked any permanence or any possibility of making me happy. For a moment I felt compassion -- here we were, stuck in our lousy sinking boats. And then my sense of self grabbed at its territory again, and confusion and anger rose right back up.

Experience is heart-breaking, language is tricky.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Suffering, Awareness, Response

Suffering exists. It ranges from losing a job or a loved one, to the inevitable pains of illness, old age and death, from the subtlest personal dissatisfaction and uncertainty, to the deepest hells of collective conflict and greed. To the degree that we are sheltered, through geography, or wealth, or emotional numbness -- to that degree our personal feelings and possessions become paramount, and the sufferings of others fade from view and concern. We can become obsessed with what Dzigar Rinpoche calls "bourgeois suffering" -- locked into a wrestling match with our existential angst and our personal foibles while ignoring the murder, rape and mayhem going on around us.

Whether we are engaged in social and political issues, or coping with personal problems, the buddhadharma -- the path of awareness -- begins with feeling pain and wanting a way out. Recognizing the causes of suffering is necessary before we can respond intelligently. Greed and hatred inevitably arise from the delusion that I am a self separate from experience. Knowing this, I begin to stop sowing those seeds.

But neither my own problems nor the world's suffering is relieved magically because I feel certain things or have certain thoughts. The point of awareness is to be able to respond skillfully. From time immemorial we have been engaged in reacting to pain with a deluded view and confused emotions, believing we can be happy by defending personal territory. The eightfold path invites us to be aware and respond to every aspect of personal and social life.

The interdependent causes and conditions that lead to suffering are complex, subtle, and ongoing. Internal experiences and external situations co-arise in a web of other experiences and situations. Every action becomes the seed of future experiences and situations. There are no exceptions and no exemptions: we will experience the consequences of every action. It is not easy or wise to say what is the "right" response to a particular situation. The martial arts principle of not overextending our momentum, of being able to change direction at any time, is relevant here. We need an exquisite sensitivity to how we feel and to how others are behaving, and we need to respond flexibly to the emerging effects of our own and others’ actions. A moment of daydreaming or sleep and we awaken to the sad consequences of our foolish actions. Trees cannot be put back on the stump, and relationships severed are never the same again. We have all been through this time and again.

The personal, familial, cultural, political, economic, and ecological are intertwined. The person who responds to environmental destruction is a neighbor, a brother or sister, a consumer, an employee or an employer, a member of a spiritual community, and a biological animal. Setting up boundaries between these aspects of oneself, clinging to any identity, is an attempt to simplify the web and justify a partial response. We may convince ourselves for a while, we may sway others temporarily, but the world is still an interdependent web of causes and conditions, and every action will have its consequences.

But act we must. There is no possibility of not being in the situation we are in. We might try to avoid a powerful response because we are afraid, or because we think the world is not our responsibility, or because we think we are exempt from the situation. But passivity, regardless of its origin, also has vast consequences for ourselves and others. Waiting for the right conditions, waiting for perfect knowledge, waiting for bravery or patience or skill to save us from feeling discomfort, life passes us by -- and we suffer the laws of nature anyway.

It is possible to act (or refrain from an act) from clarity and compassion rather than from reactive emotions. It is possible for a response to arise from a place unconcerned with being right, without defining a sense of self, without defending personal territory. It's possible to act with full acceptance of the consequences. And it's possible to care for everyone, regardless of their current role in a situation.

Every one of us has these inherent abilities, and everyone has acted from them at times. Much of the path of awareness and compassion is remembering our abilities to be aware and responsive, and regaining the confidence to rely on them. Much depends on the momentum of our training, and everything also depends on each moment's intention. Grand visions, righteous moral principles, and mere efficiency are not nearly fine enough tools.

The Buddha's student Sariputra said that everything -- life, personhood, pleasure and pain -- everything is bound together in a succession of moments that take place quickly. Events, emotions, and mental states come and go, glimpsed as they’re passing by. “Like lightning flashing in the sky, they arise and pass away.” Our internal experience, our actions, and all the consequences are poised precariously upon the tip of our intention, “like a seed on the tip of a needle.” The compassionate heart knows it will respond to suffering. Awareness trembles with the obligation to relieve and not create more suffering. The power to respond appropriately arises when we feel everything and have the love and courage to respond without grasping.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Why Do We Say "Pay Attention"?

How do we "pay attention"?
With the brain? The eye? The hand? With time? With energy?

What does it cost to pay attention?
Does it pay to pay attention?

"Attend" means to assist, to take care of, to participate.
What are we assisting or participating in when we attend to something?

Old French: atendre
= to expect, wait for, pay attention
Latin: attendere = give heed to, literally "to stretch toward," from ad (to) + tendere (stretch)

Old French: intendre = to direct one's attention
Latin: intendere, in = toward + tendere = to stretch

Old English: hedan = to take care, attend
West Germanic: hodjan
Old Saxon: hodian
Old Frisian: hoda
German: hüten = to guard, watch

"lo and behold"
lo, loke = look and see
load = burden
loaded = rich
behold, behealdan= hold, keep
beholden = indebted

Old French: paiier
Latin: pacare = to please, pacify, satisfy, especially a creditor
Latin: pax (pacis) = peace

Japanese: chuui (atention) o harau (pay) = pay attention
okane (money) o harau (pay) = pay money

Spanish: atención de la paga = put attention
prestar atención = pay attention, watch, listen
poner atención = put attention

French: attention de salaire = pay attention
faire attention = do attention
attirer l'attention = draw attention
prêter attention = lend attention

German: achtgeben = pay attention, take care

Italian: attenzione di paga = pay attention

Dutch: besteed aandacht = pay attention