Buddhism is a peculiar tradition in that, unlike most spiritual or religious traditions, it emphasizes not only the emptiness of objects and things, but even the emptiness of its own teleology, in a certain wonderful self-referential way. That is to say, not only does it say the world of apparent things, events, space, and time, and so on are not what they appear to be and are empty of inherent existence (which isn’t to say they have no existence at all — it just means they’re not solid, self-existing “things” that exist on their own, without relation to perception), but it also denies the simple story that “enlightenment” (which is usually seen to be the “goal” of Buddhism in more simple presentations) is itself not in fact a goal, a result of a process in time that unfolds to reach “Buddhahood” as the final limit.
It’s a peculiar tension, because, despite this, Buddhism does talk a lot about realization, enlightenment, and so on. From one point of view, it appears that they’re referring to a process in time, something you build up to and eventually attain (they even use a word which translates to “attainment”.) Yet, it’s not attainment in the ordinary sense, the result or product of ordinary effort in time, because that would be a self-contradiction. The resolution of this seeming contradiction is a central koan, so to speak.
I’ve been attending a meditation retreat, and I came across this book, “Buddhahood Without Meditation”, and flipped open randomly to two pages which seemed quite poignant to me, related to these topics. In the first passage, a mysterious teacher has appeared, and is giving instruction:
“…all sentient beings… are confused because they become fixated, investing apparent phenomena with truth, even though they are in fact like the unfolding of dream images—they cannot be established to be more than mere appearances, empty and without objective existence.
“If you thus come to a definitive conclusion regarding the apparent phenomena that arise from confusion, realizing that they lack true existence, are empty and do not exist objectively, you will have dredged the pit of cyclic existence from its depths. By arriving at the decision that buddhahood is none other than your own inherent ground of being, and by gaining this confidence within yourself, you will actually attain what is referred to as the ‘natural freedom of the many buddhas.’
“Ah, powerful lord of space, omnipresent vajra, you must come to the definitive conclusion that none of the phenomena of samsara and nirvana exist but that all are empty, and you must realize their inherent nature to be that of nonexistence.”
Saying this, he vanished from sight.
Then I flipped to another page, at random, discussing various points one should master:
1) Collapsing the false cave of investing buddhahood and its attendant pure realms with true existence, as objects of hope
Even ”buddhahood” and the various phenomena associated with it do not have real existence and should not be wished for as something one hopes for in the future, as the future result of an ordinary process in time.
a) Negating fixation on conceiving of buddhahood and its attendant pure realms as some final limit
They warn against thinking of “buddhahood” as a limit case of a process or series.
b) To that end, examining the five senses and their attendant objects and refuting the exaggeration of ascribing true existence to these
To begin to realize this, they recommend starting with understanding the constructed, contingent nature of objects of ordinary perception.
2) Collapsing the false cave of investing the states of cyclic existence and their attendant pleasures and pain with true existence, as objects of fear
At the same time, this could potentially lead to the opposite extreme, i.e., thinking of samsara, apparent “reality”, with its pain and pleasure, as something one ought to be afraid of, avoid, attempt to “escape”. In other words, they’re warning against both problematics: setting up “buddhahood” as the limit case of a process in time, or, alternately, seeing “samsara” as a problematic, something one ought to be afraid of, escape, fear. One of the most famous Mahayana sayings is “samsara = nirvana, nirvana = samsara” — not two distinct realms or modes, but two aspects of one unified reality. Yet at the same time, this doesn’t mean there’s no issue — just that the way to work with this tension isn’t via ordinary effort in ordinary time, but rather via an opening to something which is always already the case.permalink | 1 comment