I run hot and cold about Buddhism, depending on what sort of Buddhist writing I'm reading. Religious Buddhism turns me off, but I like philosophical Buddhism that doesn't fall prey to unfounded supernaturalism.
Recently I've been re-reading Guy Newland's "Introduction to Emptiness." It's a clear and persuasive description of the core notion in Mahayana Buddhism, emptiness.
In the first few pages of his book, Newland explains what emptiness is all about. First, he speaks of the suffering that arises because we wrongly believe that we are something we're not.
We suffer unnecessarily because we do not know ourselves. Like addicts fiercely clinging to a drug, we cannot let go of the sense that we are substantial, solid, independent, and autonomous... Like an addict's drug, the false notion of an independently existing self is the source of great misery for ourselves and others.
For example, humans make up myths about an eternally existing soul. Religions tell us that when we die, we aren't really dead, but live on as some sort of indestructible essence. Newland says:
To be real, to be alive, we feel that we must deep down somehow exist in a solid and independent way. Death tells us a very different story, but for that very reason we find a million ways to avoid hearing the message of death. That message is that we are impermanent.
Our bodies are disintegrating moment by moment, right now. And though we desperately wish to believe otherwise, the truth is that beneath our ever-changing minds and aging bodies there is no eternal and essential self. We have no natural existence, no independent way of existing.
So how do we exist?
Well, as natural beings who are part and parcel of everything in the world. Our existence is the result of previous causes and conditions, all of which are equally interdependent and without a permanent essence.
We exist contingently, interdependently. We exist, but only in dependence on our ancestors, our body parts, our food, air, and water, and the other members of our society. We could not and do not exist otherwise. Devoid of any independent or substantial nature, our existence is possible only because it is far less rigid, less concrete, than what we imagine it to be.
This leads Newland to a description of what emptiness is... and isn't.
Rather than seeing things as they are, we superimpose upon ourselves -- and on things around us -- a false existence, a self-existence or essential reality that actually does not exist at all. In the Buddhist philosophy explained here, the ultimate truth is the sheer absence, the lack, of any such essence.
This is emptiness (stong pa nyid, shunyata). While this may sound bleak, disappointing, or frightening, it is the very nature of reality. And it is reality -- not fantasy -- that is our final hope and our refuge. The path to freedom from needless misery, for ourselves and others, is through profound realization of this fundamental reality.
...The Tibetan and Sanskrit words that we translate as "emptiness" do, in fact, literally mean "emptiness." They refer specifically to some sort of lack or absence in things. But it is not a lack of meaning or hope or existence.
It is the lack of the exaggerated and distorted kind of existence that we have projected onto things and onto ourselves. It is the absence of a false essential nature with which we have unconsciously invested everything. It can be quite frightening as we start to have doubts about this "heavy duty" kind of reality. We will feel that things cannot exist at all if they do not exist in the solid way we are accustomed to seeing them.
Jumping to another chapter in the book, here Newland explains that conventional reality is the only reality there is. This explains the Zen Buddhist emphasis on "chop wood, carry water."
What we are aware of here and now is ultimate reality: emptiness. Newland writes:
Because it is the final nature of every existent, emptiness that is the sheer absence of intrinsic nature is the ultimate reality. While this reality is very important -- because we all suffer immeasurably through clinging to intrinsic nature -- it is not something rare that we have to look for far away.
This ultimate reality is always immediately present as the final nature of every thing in every moment. What is very rare and very precious is the wisdom consciousness that understands this reality.
...When the mind of ultimate analysis looks at a cup, it finds only the emptiness of the cup. When it looks at this emptiness, it does not find some essentially real thing called emptiness as the basis of all. Emptiness, like all other existents, lacks intrinsic nature.
This is a profound point in Madhyamaka Buddhism. It is not that everything else is unreal as compared to the one real thing, which is real in and of itself. There are other philosophies which teach this.
But in Madhyamaka there is only one level of existence or type of existence: conventional existence. One particular conventionally existing phenomenon -- emptiness -- is the utter absence of any other level or type of existence.
Among all the things that exist conventionally, things' lack of existing on their own, in and of themselves, is called the ultimate truth because it is the truth realized by a mind that analyzes how thing ultimately exist.
Difficult to understand. Also, easy to understand.