When true believers (as I was at one time) start to give up religiosity, often they pass through various stages of withdrawal from their addiction to dogma.
For me, one stage is an admiration of Buddhism and Taoism, spiritual philosophies which have an affinity with modern science and secular ways of looking upon the world. I'm still in that stage. I may never leave it.
Yesterday I picked up Stephen Bachelor's "Verses from the Center: A Buddhist VIsion of the Sublime," after a long absence. It's Bachelor's interpretation of Nagarjuna's teachings about emptiness, a core Buddhist concept.
Well, non-concept. Because if you think you know what emptiness is all about, you don't. (I have another Buddhist book aptly titled "The Emptiness of Emptiness."
I must have first read Bachelor's book in 2005, since I mentioned it in a blog post I wrote that year, "Search for self called off." It was stimulated by a classic Onion piece -- which I bet Nagarjuana would have liked a lot.
Talking about what emptiness is and isn't gets us into some pretty damn deep, as well as shallow, philosophical, spiritual, and scientific thought-waters.
Rather than run the risk of getting readers of this post lost in my own meanderings about what Bachelor says, I'll simply share some excerpts from his book that resonate with me.
That which is negated by emptiness is an instinctive sense of selves and things existing in their own right. From the point of view of common sense, a thing such as a vase appears to stand out vividly on its own, apparently independent of its causal conditions and components, not to mention the various conceptual and linguistic conventions that humans use to identify vases.
Tsongkhapha [an Indian commentator on Nagarjuna's Verses from the Center] insisted that emptiness was simply the absence of such a sense of "inherent existence." Rather than representing a doorway that opens to a mystical, transcendent sphere hidden beneath the surface of everyday reality, emptiness merely removes the false veneer of inherent existence, thereby enabling a vision of the essential contingency of life.
...Nagarjuna's vision is one of uncompromising immanence. What keeps one locked in repetitive cycles of anguish has nothing to do with being cut off from a transcendent God or Absolute or Mind. The classical Buddhist notions of buddhanature and nirvana are treated as metaphors for a freedom that occurs in the very world of sense and reason.
...To elevate anything, however noble or exalted, to the status of a transcendent reality beyond this world is fixation's final and yet perhaps most seductive strategy of all.
...Just as a path is nothing but a space that has been cleared of those obstacles that prevent freedom of movement across a terrain, so emptiness is nothing but a space cleared of those fixations that prevent freedom of movement through the dilemmas and ambiguities of life. To follow the track of emptiness is to discern the living contours of contingency as they unfold from moment to moment.
...Fixations imbue self and things with a tightness, solidity, and opacity. Instead of experiencing the world as an uncertain play of conditions, we prefer the safety of one that appears to be clearcut, predictable, and manageable.
Yet the price to pay for this preference is that life is rendered dull and repetitive. To reduce the tedium, we find ourselves driven to ever more intense moments of experience (food, shopping, drugs, sex, vacations, movies, religion). For Nagarjuna, the problem lies not in the way the world is but in the way we have construed it.
...To recognize that things are contingent is the key to understanding what it means for them to be empty. A self, a plant, a body or a time is empty because it is incapable of being neatly circumscribed as a thing cut off from other things.
Selves, plants, bodies and times are utterly contingent on the complex interplay of conditions, attributes and language with which they are not identical and from which they are not different. To know emptiness is not to negate these things but to be dumbfounded by the sheer fecundity of life.
...You are unique not because you possess an essential metaphysical quality that differs from the essential metaphysical quality of everyone else, but because you have emerged from a unique and unrepeatable set of conditions.
The Amazon reader reviews of Bachelor's book are worth reading, whether or not you buy "Verses from the Center." Most are quite perceptive. This reviewer hit upon something that bothered me: Bachelor's seeming contention that freedom is possible for humans.
Given the interdependence of everything, this seems at odds with Buddhism and Nagarjuna. Here's what Norman Bearrentine said in his review. I like the last part.
Nagarjuna, Batchelor, the other reviewers and I share a common problem: our grasp of reality is hampered by our brains' conceptual and perceptual limitations. Nagarjuna's attempts to deal with those limitations have affected millions of people through various translations and interpretations, and Batchelor's version will no doubt affect many who would be untouched by the others.
His comparison of Nagarjuna to thinkers from different times and cultures serves to show that all have struggled with the limitations that are common to all human beings--the brains in which we live are quite similar.
In one review, Batchelor is faulted for failing to note the implications of Nagarjuna's writing for "realization of the unconditioned (absolute)... that which does not arise and pass away." Indeed, Batchelor proclaims that Nagarjuna's key insight was that emptiness is "inseparable from the utter contingency of life itself," it is "contingently configured" rather than absolute.
Whether this interpretation is consistent with Nagarjuna's thought in the context of Buddhism as it was in his time or not, it is certainly consistent with the human condition: we are constitutionally incapable of apprehending anything that might be called "absolute." It seems that space itself, used for thousands of years as a metaphor for emptiness, is not empty at all, but chock-a-block full of dark energy, dark matter, and who knows what else.
The absolute, the unconditioned, the other shore, emptiness, the self, the soul, etc. are all human conceptions, and all human conceptions arise from our perceptions. As instruments expand our perceptions, our conceptions try to keep pace, but in many cases we have come to the point that the only way to express reality is through mathematical formulas--none of our perceptual metaphors can be stretched to fit: light seems to be neither a wave nor a particle, leaving us with something inconceivable. The only adequate response to this predicament is, as Batchelor says, "to be dumbfounded by the sheer fecundity of life."
Unfortunately, Batchelor cannot sit content with being dumbfounded, but somehow finds in emptiness, "the freedom to configure oneself..." as if one's self could somehow act independently of the contingencies that created it. The only freedom we have is to gaze in amazement at the things we think, say, and do, and it's quite enough, really.