A Christian View on Emptiness

Screen Shot 2014-10-02 at 9.30.16 PM The Psychic Grid
by Beatrice Bruteau

This is an excellent explanation of what Buddhists call Emptiness (Sunnata or Shunyata). Written by a Western philosopher, who is also a Christian and has probably never heard of Emptiness, it avoids many of the pitfalls of Buddhist writers on Emptiness.
The Buddha was a radical empiricist and a pragmatist, which is why his teachings resonate so well with modern science. His message to us was not to assume that our perceptions are a valid representation of reality, and to stop analyzing the world in terms of substance and essence, as consisting of things with inherent natures. The Buddha consistently refused to engage in discussions of ontology, focusing instead on epistemology, what we can know and how we can know it. Nevertheless, all but the most sophisticated of Tibetan and other Mahayana thinkers have mistaken the notion of Emptiness for a doctrine about what exists. It is not. It is a statement that what we perceive is not, and cannot be, what actually is.

Dr. Bruteau’s discussion of how we create the world we know makes this perfectly clear. Once we understand that reality is Empty of being what it appears to us to be, and why, then questions about whether the things we perceive actually exist or not become irrelevant. “Things” exist – but only in our minds. “Something” exists outside of our minds, there is an Ultimate Reality, but we can never perceive that reality directly. We can never have a direct experience of ultimate reality, but we can have a direct experience that reveals this fact to us – a direct experience of Emptiness. Liberating insight comes through this realization of Emptiness. Ignorance is destroyed, the illusion we have been trapped in for our entire lives is dispelled, and true wisdom follows.

I highly recommend this book for everyone, but especially for anyone who has struggled to understand the teachings on Emptiness.

Thoughts about “Ultimate Reality”

IMG_0733A mind that is properly trained and applied to the investigation of experience will discover the ultimate nature of reality. And what it discovers is exactly what needs to be discovered. It’s just that what it discovers won’t be what was expected – even if the seeker is familiar with the terms I’m about to use:

The well-trained and properly applied mind will discover: that the ultimate nature of reality is emptiness; that ultimate, as opposed to relative reality is what remains when mental formations completely cease; that there’s no way for mental formations to touch upon, let alone grasp, that which remains upon cessation; that the only “reality” the mind can ever have direct knowledge of consists of mental formations. (As an aside, have you ever heard the phrase “direct perception of emptiness?” When I first heard it, I moaned. Now it just makes me chuckle and shake my head.) Subsequent to the “cessation of mental formations,” or in Mahayana-speak, the “realization of emptiness,” the mind abandons absolutes and resorts to aporia and apophatic statements.

Some Buddhist thinkers are on the lookout for anyone attributing absolutes to the Buddhadharma. To them I’d have to say: Have you considered what will happen if you succeed in convincing all those spiritual seekers who are looking for absolutes that the Buddhadharma doesn’t offer any? Or if you convince them there are no absolutes to be found anywhere? Where do you think they will go then? What will they do? The Buddha never came right out and said it, but he implied it pretty clearly and the Mahayana totally got it: “We’ll all walk out of samsara hand in hand.” Tolerance and understanding bring peace, happiness, and wisdom.

Along those lines, these days I try to take a lesson from the Great Teacher himself. There is no point in directly challenging people’s views… It’s far better to meet them where they are, then try to guide them to an understanding that allows those views to change on their own. “You say you’re looking for ultimate truth? So was I, my friend. Let me show you the way, and I promise, you’ll find exactly what you need…”