Shamil Chandaria's talk on the Bayesian Brain and Meditation that I wrote about recently is a gift that keeps on giving. For on one of his slides there was a small image of a book by Rob Burbea, Seeing That Frees: Meditations on Emptiness and Dependent Arising.
I recall that Chandaria mentioned it briefly, but he certainly didn't dwell on the book. I figured, correctly as it turns out, that the book was in line with the ideas about the brain that Chandaria was talking about, so I decided to order a copy from Amazon.
It took a while to arrive, maybe because Seeing That Frees was published in Great Britain by Hermes Amāra Publications. I just looked up the publisher, which must be part of the Hermes Amāra Foundation.
The Hermes Amāra Foundation (HAF) was established in 2019 at the request of the late Buddhist Dharma and meditation teacher Rob Burbea (1965 - 2020). Its main role is as custodian of his extensive body of teachings, which exist in the form of audio talks, interviews, online seminars, podcasts and the book Seeing That Frees: Meditations on Emptiness and Dependent Arising. HAF also exists to support the teachers and community of practitioners (sangha) engaging with Rob's teachings.
Burbea died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 54. I feel grateful that he wrote such a magnificent book before he died. This morning I read the first 28 pages, which comprise the "Orientations" section. I've read many books about Buddhism, including several about emptiness.
Burbea's writing, thinking, and approach are exceptional.
I can tell that much already and am looking forward to making my way through the rest of the book. It definitely is a classic in the Buddhist genre. His foundation has many examples of his writings and talks, so that's another way to learn about his approach to Buddhism.
It's fascinating that the book (The Experience Machine) I wrote about in "Our brains don't see reality as it is, but as it's predicted to be," along with a couple of follow-up posts, is so compatible with the notions of emptiness and dependent arising in Seeing That Frees.
When modern neuroscience and ancient Buddhism end up with the same conclusions even though one has a scientific approach and the other a philosophical/spiritual approach, that gives me more confidence that both are pointing to something true about reality and the human mind.
Plus, in just the first 28 pages my own mind was blown by what Burbea said. Here's some excerpts from those initial chapters, which end with some mind-blowing passages that I found strikingly original, though solidly within Buddhist teachings. It just was a fresh way of looking at emptiness for me.
Revered in the tradition as the 'crown jewels' of the Dharma, the Buddha's teachings on emptiness and dependent arising point and pave the way to the most beautiful possibilities for us as human beings. Their realization brings a truly radical revolution in our whole sense of existence in a way that opens up a profound and extraordinary freedom.
Emptiness -- in Pali, sunnata, in Sanskrit, sunyata, which may also be translated as 'voidness' -- is deep and subtle, however, not easy to see or explain, and in many respects it is even counter-intuitive.
...It might also be imagined that voidness is some kind of thing that can be obtained, but it is not a thing. Nor is it a state of mind or a state of consciousness.
...We assume, in a way that involves no thinking, that our bodies or this book, for instance, exist independently of other things and independently of the mind that knows them. We feel that a thing has an inherent existence -- that its existence, its being, inheres in itself alone.
Believing then that this real self can really gain or lose things or experiences which have real qualities, grasping and aversion, and thus dukkah [suffering, discontent, pain], arise inevitably.
...We can, at least for now, define emptiness as the absence of this inherent existence that things appear to naturally and undeniably have... A thing is 'empty' of its seemingly real, independent existence. And all things are this way, are empty. This voidness is what is also sometimes termed the ultimate truth or reality of things.
...Unquestioningly but mistakenly then, we intuitively sense and believe in this inherent existence of phenomena in 'real' experiences of a 'real' self in a world of 'real' things. Now, in itself, this may strike some as a rather abstract or irrelevant piece of metaphysical philosophizing.
But as alluded to earlier, the complete dissolution of this error in our sense and understanding of things is the deepest level of what the Buddha calls the ignorance or fundamental delusion (Skt: avidya; Pali: avijja) that we share as sentient beings. We cling, and so suffer, because of the way we see.
...But we do not cling to what we know is not real. Thus when, with insight and wisdom, we realize that something is illusory in some sense, we let go of any clinging to it -- of chasing it, trying to hold onto it, or trying to get rid of it. Since clinging brings dukkha, in this release of the clinging there comes release and freedom from dukkha.
...A ferocious and hungry-looking tiger appears in front of you seemingly about to leap. The distress of a reaction of terror there would be quite understandable. But if you notice on closer inspection that this tiger is not real, that it actually is a holographic projection with accompanying sound recording from a nearby hologram projector, the fear and the problem simply dissolve.
...The Buddha's assertion that things are beyond existing and not existing is not easy to fully comprehend. One of the keys that can unlock our ability to realize, more than just intellectually, this mystical way things are is tied in with an important way in which our holographic tiger illustration is limited.
For that illustration gives no suggestion of a certain aspect of the illusory nature of things -- how all appearances are fabricated by the mind.
...A 'lie' is a 'fabrication' we say. And this is also the fullness of the Buddha's meaning. When he proclaims that things are fabricated, he is declaring much more than the simple fact that they were put together from other building blocks as causes and conditions. He is pointing more radically to their illusory nature.
...The world of inner and outer phenomena is, in some very important sense, 'fabricated', 'fashioned', 'constructed' by the mind, so that it is somehow illusory, not real in the way that we assume, and not independent of the mind that fabricates it.
...As the Buddha discovered, not even appearances, but the 'whole show' is fabricated, including the mind with its various factors and its consciousness. Thus he also declared the illusory nature of any and all awareness, any consciousness of anything.
...It is not that while everything else is fabricated by the mind, the mind itself is somehow real, a really existing basis for the fabrication. The mind, whether conceived as mental processes or 'Awareness' -- even the awareness that we can know as vast and unperturbed, that seems natural and effortless -- is also fabricated in the process.
We find, in the end, that there is no 'ground' to fabrication.
And as if that were not cause enough for amazement, we eventually also recognize, taking this exploration of dependent arising deeper and deeper still, that even this profound realization of the fabricated nature of all phenomena is only a relative truth.
Fabrication itself is empty too. Ultimately, it turns out we cannot say that things are fabricated, nor that they are not fabricated. We cannot even say that they arise and cease, nor that they do not arise and cease.
What we come to understand is that the way things truly are is beautifully beyond the capacities of our conception. Practicing with dependent arising forms a thread, though, that can be followed to such great depths. For in doing so, insights of greater and greater profundity are progressively opened, until this thread ultimately dissolves even itself. It leads and opens beyond itself.
...What the Dharma thus teaches, and what we will discover for ourselves as practice evolves, is that absolutely everything is empty, without exception.
The self is empty. So too is the body, and the whole material world, together with its constituent elements, its subatomic particles, fields, and forces. Also all our inner experiences, emotions, and thoughts, and even whatever experience we might have through 'bare attention' that so much seem as if they are 'direct experiences' of 'things as they are' -- indeed, whatever is perceived, as the Buddha said, is empty.
...While at first these may have seemed strange ways of looking at things, and still probably involve some effort, the mind begins to gravitate towards exposing the emptiness of this and that, of situations and perspectives that we would have solidified before.
To the heart is revealed a sense of beauty in the open, space-like nature of things. More able to shift ways of looking, less locked into any perspective, it wants to see the emptiness. Gradually conviction builds, based firmly on our experience.