Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Generalizing to Emptiness, Zen Preliminaries II

Indra's Net symbolizes the interconnectedness of all things.
Now that we've let go of the idea of the "self", we are one delusion down, but many more to go. Fortunately, we can kill a few more (quite a few more) delusions by taking the previous discussion about the self and generalizing it to everything in the universe. This is less daunting than it sounds, as the leap from one to the other is rather natural, and is the next logical step. In Buddhism, this generalization is called emptiness, or śūnyatā (Sanskrit). The idea of emptiness is complimentary to the idea of no-self. Where no-self declares that the internal self is an illusion, emptiness declares that all external events and all external "objects" in the universe are, in some sense, illusory. This does not mean, as many western novitiates of Buddhism are tempted to believe, that objects in the universe do not exist, or are some kind of Matrix-like or Allegory-of-the-Cave-like constructs.

Before I explain any further, allow me to ask one question. If the state of the universe remains exactly the same from point t to t+1, did any time elapse in that interval? It at least seems that by any conceivable definition of time, the answer is no. This question and the various answers proposed to it over time (no pun intended), is quite involved, and I wont pursue it any further here. Let it suffice that by most useful definitions of time, the universe must be different than its immediate temporal predecessor. Hopefully, by now the connection between the universe as a whole and the mind is clear: If there is no self because the self is in a constant state of change, then there is no universe because the universe is in a constant state of change.

Obviously, I can point to the universe and say "there it is." But I can do that with "you" or "me", and we already know why that's fallacious. Because when I say "you" or "me", I'm using a convenient linguistic construct, I don't actually mean that there is some "you" that persists over time. In exactly the same sense, I can point to the universe, and call it "the universe", but that doesn't imply that there exists a fixed universe that persists in time. The universe I point to at time t, will be a different universe from the one I point to at time t+1. In a real sense, we only occupy the same world once.

Applying this logic further, we see that it applies not only to the universe itself, but to everything in it, from top to bottom. Since nothing is permanent, it stands to reason that nothing exists in a fixed form--everything is empty of intrinsic essence.

Moreover, everything that exists within the universe exists because certain conditions within the universe allow it to exist. Take your own existence as an example. You only exist because by mere chance your parents came together and produced you. (On a side note, this is more impressive than it seems at first glance. Imagine how unlikely your birth really was. Not only did your parents have to come together, but so did the parents of your parents,  and the parents of your parents' parents, and the parents of your parents' parents' parents, etc. Additionally, for you to be the result of your parents' union, one very specific zygote [one of billions] had to be produced from each parent [this is true for the zygotes of each of your ancestors too, so the chances of your existence drops exponentially with each ancestor that had to come together to make you]. On an even larger scale, the history of our species had to play out in a certain way, as did the evolution of life in general, and even the way in which our solar system and the universe itself formed had to be conducive to your existence.) Your origin, is dependent on the conditions of the universe that preceded it. In Buddhism, this concept is called dependent origination. This concept shows that in a real sense, everything is dependent on everything else.

The implications of this revelation may not be immediately obvious, but they tend toward compassion, and empathy, and I will demonstrate this in a future article. For now, it's enough to understand that nothing in the universe is fixed, and everything in the universe depends on something else if not everything else. 

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