When I wrote a recent post about the Buddhist notion of emptiness, I noted how Guy Newland defined an important concept:
intrinsic nature: an essential nature whereby something comes to have an independent way of existing without being posited through the force of consciousness. The sheer absence of this is emptiness.
Even though I'd just read Newland's fascinating book, "Introduction to Emptiness," I didn't really understand the reference to the force of consciousness when I typed those words. So I suspect others would be equally mystified by what he meant.
I'll let Newland explain:
Therefore, at bottom, to understand emptiness means understanding that things have no way of existing apart from minds that impute them. This is difficult to understand, and we can see that it is not at all how we ordinarily perceive the world.
In teaching this, I begin by scratching out a large letter A on the chalkboard. I ask the students what it is, and they say "A." But where does this identity come from? Does it come from the chalk dust? Does it come from the shape of the left slanted line? The right line? The centrally located crossbar? On the thin surface of the board, it is clear that there is no hidden interior place where the intrinsic A-ness of the A can reside.
...We find that an A utterly lacks any natural, independent identity from its own side, apart from our participation -- but that it is, mysteriously, fully capable of functioning. It works in words; it works as a letter-grade on a test.
It does its job perfectly well even though it has no trace of the objective existence that we unconsciously attribute to it. This seems mysterious, even disconcerting, because we are deeply habituated to the idea that objective and intrinsic existence is necessary for things to be real and to work.
...In the twilight someone sees a rope and mistakes it for a snake. Suppose we leave aside anything we might know about the perspective of the person who sees the snake. Instead, we will ask about what the snake is like on its own terms.
This is absurd; we cannot begin to discuss the features of the snake because, in fact, there is no actual snake there at all. Analogously, suppose we leave aside any consideration of how people and cars and tables appear to ordinary, valid conventional consciousnesses, and ask, "How do these things exist from their own side? What are they like in and of themselves?"
There is nothing that is purely objective, nothing out there completely apart from mind that we can pin down and point out.
...Whatever we know or talk about is already a thing-as-it-is-known, a thing as conceived by a mind. We cannot talk about or get at things as they are in and of themselves, apart from mind or in a way that is logically prior to any kind of conceptualization.
...It is because the thing in question, that which we would wish to know, is already something of which we are conceiving, something that we are asking about. When we completely set aside the involvement of our minds, and ask about how things are in and of themselves, we never find a shred of thing-in-itself. This understanding that things are empty in this way, is precisely the opposite of how ignorance sees things.
We usually suppose that the world is already and always fully real, independent of our minds, out there waiting to be revealed by the searchlight of consciousness. In fact, our minds are actually collaborating in the creation of the world, moment by moment.
This does not mean that hallucinated snakes have the same status as people and cars and tables. Snakes falsely imputed to be ropes do not in fact exist, while tables and people do exist because they have a valid, conventional existence. This is a vitally important distinction.
Suppose I very much want gold. I may see a rainbow and, affected by my desire for gold, think, "Over there I will find a pot of gold." This is rather in the nature of seeing a rope and, out of fear, believing it is a snake.
There is no snake, no gold, in those places at all. But there is a rope; there is a rainbow. These things exist conventionally. We can appropriately impute them, saying, "There it is." They function.
...So we can recognize that this idea -- that things depend upon minds -- does not destroy conventional existence. At the same time, it is definitely not just another way of talking about what we already know. It does not leave our our usual sense of the world unscathed.
To take the snake example: When a person sees a rope and imagines a snake, there is no snake at all in the rope. But even when there actually is a snake and we perceive a snake, the snake as we perceive it is also completely absent. It is just as nonexistent as the rope-snake.
This is profound and important to reflect upon. As we perceive it, the snake is inherently existent. It appears to our minds as something objectively real, existing in and of itself. Such a snake does not at all exist right now -- and it never could exist.
...We living beings all inhabit functioning worlds that arise through the unimpaired operation of our respective mental and sensory faculties; these worlds are external to -- but never independent of -- our minds.
Thus it is that the worlds of our experience intersect and overlap in astonishing ways, in infinitely complex patterns. All of this would be completely impossible if in fact each thing actually existed objectively, out there on its own, by way of its independent and intrinsic nature.
Like I said before, this is the best book about Buddhism I've ever read. Its opening my eyes to what both Buddhism and reality are all about. To explain that last sentence requires another blog post.
But if you think deeply and clearly about what Newland said above, you'll see how absurd traditional religiosity is, and how close the Buddhist teachings about "emptiness" are to modern neuroscience.