Sunday, March 27, 2011
Thank God Emptiness is Cool
I'm walking through a Tibetan Buddhist monastery full of robed monks and nuns. As I reach the innermost room, I remember that I'm dreaming. Without thinking, I ask to experience our true nature. The answer blooms through me as soon as the question arises. A calm, full warmth renders me boundless. When the surge of Reality gradually releases me back into the dream, I am thinking, ironically, "Thank God." Thank God emptiness is cool.
Fundamentally, nothing possesses an enduring identity, hence the Buddhist term "emptiness" [of phenomena]. But you don't have to be Buddhist to know this, and in fact, you can't even call yourself a Buddhist if you do know it, since Buddhism is a label, a stagnation, an irony. Emptiness, if you want to call it that, is what it is, and any being who looks at the nature of Reality finds it. A group of Hassids took me to their temple in a dream and showed me their highest teaching: "Prayer and crime are equal." Regular Joes are walking around all over the place who know this. They also happen to be Buddhas.
Take a piece of bread and put it on your kitchen counter. What is it? Is it something you bought at the store? Is it the ingredients? Is it the machines that ground the grain? The people who work at the factory? Is it the sunshine or the earth or the rain that helped the wheat to grow? Is it the Moon that keeps the Earth stable in its rotation and orbit? Now watch the bread. Where does it go? It becomes stale, then moldy, then eventually dust. Where did it come from? Where did it go? Try to pin down any old thing. Try to pin down your self.
In waking life, my ego (or whatever you want to call it) feels threatened by the notion of no abiding self and no creator. I am learning not to pay too much attention to the language that Buddhists chose to translate their experiences into when they brought their wisdom to the West. Its cold edge throws me off: "emptiness", "impermanence", "transience", "suffering."
General Systems Theory (as a means to understand that nothing discrete exists) is baffling in a different way. It offers "fliessgleichgewicht" (LOL), "feedback loops" and "holonarchies." Any term that tries to touch on the implications of interdependence is bound to distance us from the dynamic warmth it describes. (The French have nihilism, but it is dissipative rather than warming.)
The bottom line is that words don't cut it. Cognition has its treasured place, but the groundlessness of Reality is not cognitive. If our poor brains try to go there, they find themselves at the edge of a sheer cliff, and then they find themselves falling off of it for all eternity.
The arts and meditation can go there, though. Sustained dynamic curiosity--and dare I say the discipline to meditate--creates an open space for Reality to present itself to us in a felt way. This stabilizes an awareness of what life is, and helps us keep a less-preferential perspective when we bumble into bliss or trod into a shitstorm. In short, it keeps us laid back no matter our conditions.
The world is continually illuminating our tired crap as well as our Buddha nature with abject equanimity. Sometimes in one fell swoop. And I have to say, I am pretty grateful for the contrast between the ego and the actual. Awareness of our Buddha nature arises with a glow. It simply does. I guess that's why he's always smiling. (But just a little.)