In my shelf of Buddhist books, there's one called something like The Emptiness of Emptiness. I bought it for the title. The description of emptiness in the book left me confused.
Not so with the chapter on Emptiness in Stephen Bachelor's Buddhism Without Beliefs.
Below are some extensive quotes from the chapter. Hope you enjoy them as much as I do.
After reading, or rather re-reading, the final passage, I was reminded of an experience I had in college while stoned on mescaline. I related it in a 2007 post, Loosening the bounds of "I am..."
Might as well copy it in, since it relates quite well to what Bachelor says about our fluid self.
I was with a group of fellow "stoners" who'd headed off to a San Jose-area park to be high with nature. The path we were on led around a hill.
I felt energetic and forged on ahead by myself. My feet were flying through the northern California landscape. Until I rounded a corner and saw a different sort of group on the left side of the trail a short ways ahead of me.
Bikers. Drinking beer. Next to their choppers. With their equally tough-looking old ladies. At the time San Jose was a headquarters for the Gypsy Jokers motorcycle gang, which had a reputation rivaling the Hells Angels.
I didn't know anything about the bikers I was walking toward. But my first reaction was that I was an isolated peaceful hippie dude stoned on mescaline with long hair, glasses, and a corduroy coat, and they were cultural near-opposites in almost every way. Not good.
However, something snapped in me the very next moment. As I walked nearer to them I didn't feel like there was any difference between us. I could see them looking at me. I looked at them. More, I became them.
"What's happening, man?" someone called out. "Hell if I know," I said with a smile. They laughed. I laughed. I felt like I could sit down with them, have a beer, and fit right in.
My fear vanished as soon as I stopped thinking "I am…" and "They are…" Sure, it was partly (or mostly) the mescaline talking, but I suddenly felt that I was them and they were me, and we were all in this park getting high together.
Not exactly akin to the Buddha's enlightened experience of selflessness under the Bodhi Tree. But, hey, I'll take a speck of understanding any way I can get it.
Passing the biker group I realized that "I am…" can be flexible and boundless, not rigid and restricted.
Some things we always are; some things we always aren't; but there's a huge store of being-possibilities available to us moment to moment.
Here's the quotes from Bachelor about emptiness.
In everyday experience, one thing leads to the next. I become irritated by something S said to me and end up wanting to hit him. I imagine I see a snake in the pottery shed and freeze in terror. Everything that happens emerges out of what preceded it. Everything we do now becomes a condition for what is possible later.
We may speak of conditions and consequences as though they were things, but if we look more closely they turn out to be processes with no independent reality.
The harshness of a barbed remark that haunts us for days is no more than a brief instance isolated from a torrent of events. Yet it stands out in the mind's eye as something intrinsically real and apart. This habit of isolating things leads us to inhabit a world in which the gaps between them become absolute.
The snake in the shed is really there, as sharply differentiated from the frightened person who beholds it as from the shards of discarded pottery on which it is coiled.
Clutching at ourselves and the world in this way is a precondition for anguish.
By regarding things as absolutely separate and as desirable or fearful in themselves, we set ourselves the task of possessing something we can never have or of eradicating something that was never there in the first place. Noticing how things emerge from and fade back into an unbroken flow of conditions begins to free us a little.
We recognize how things are relatively, not absolutely, desirable or fearful. They interconnect and interact, each contingent on the others, no one of them intrinsically separate from the rest.
Whatever emerges in this way is devoid of an intrinsic identity: in other words, things are empty. They are not as opaque and solid as they seem: they are transparent and fluid. They are not as singular and straightforward as they seem: they are complex and ambiguous.
...The same is true for each one of us. Just as a potter forms a pot on the wheel, so I configure my personality from the spinning clay of my existence. The pot does not exist in its own right: it emerges from the interactions of the potter, the wheel, the clay, its shape, its function (each of which in turn emerges from the interactions of its causes and components ad infinitum).
...As a human being I am more complex than a pot or a daffodil, but I have also emerged from causes and am composed of diverse, changing features and traits. There is no essential me that exists apart from this unique configuration of biological and cultural processes.
...To know emptiness is not just to understand the concept. It is more like stumbling into a clearing in the forest, where suddenly you can move freely and see clearly. To experience emptiness is to experience the shocking absence of what normally determines the sense of who you are and the kind of reality you inhabit.
It may last only for a moment before the habits of a lifetime reassert themselves and close in once more. But for that moment, we witness ourselves and the world as open and vulnerable. This calm, free, open, and sensitive space is the very center of dharma practice
..."Emptiness" is a confusing term. Although used as an abstract noun, it does not in any way denote an abstract thing or state. It is not something we "realize" in a moment of mystical insight that "breaks through" to a transcendent reality concealed behind yet mysteriously underpinning the empirical world.
Nor do things "arise" from emptiness and "dissolve" back into it as though it were some kind of formless, cosmic stuff. These are just some of the ways emptiness has been appropriated as a metaphor of metaphysical and religious consolation.
...Emptiness is as devoid of intrinsic being as a pot, a banana, or a daffodil. And if there were no pots, bananas, or daffodils, there would be no emptiness either.
Emptiness does not deny that such things exist; it merely describes how they are devoid of an intrinsic, separate being. Emptiness is not apart from the world of everyday experience; it only makes sense in the context of making pots, eating bananas, and growing daffodils.
A life centered in awareness of emptiness is simply an appropriate way of being in this changing, shocking, painful, joyous, frustrating, awesome, stubborn, and ambiguous reality.
Emptiness is the central path that leads not beyond this reality but right into its heart. It is the track on which the centered person moves.
And we too are impressions left by something that used to be here. We have been created, molded, formed by a bewildering matrix of contingencies that have preceded us.
From the patterning of the DNA derived from our parents to the firing of the hundred billion neurons in our brains to the cultural and historical conditioning of the twentieth century to the education and upbringing given us to all the experiences we have ever had and choices we have ever made: these have conspired to configure the unique trajectory that culminates in this present moment.
What is here now is the unrepeatable impression left by all of this, which we call "me." Yet so vivid and startling is this image that we confuse what is a mere impression for something that exists independently of what formed it.
So what are we but the story we keep repeating, editing, censoring, and embellishing in our heads?
The self is not like the hero of a B-movie, who remains unaffected by the storms of passion and intrigue that swirl around him from the opening credits to the end. The self is more akin to the complex and ambiguous characters who emerge, develop, and suffer across the pages of a novel.
There is nothing thinglike about me at all. I am more like an unfolding narrative.
As we become aware of this, we can begin to assume greater responsibility for the course of our lives. Instead of clinging to habitual behavior and routines as a means to secure this sense of self, we realize the freedom to create who we are. Instead of being bewitched by impressions, we start to create them.
Instead of taking ourselves so seriously, we discover the playful irony of a story that has never been told in quite this way before.