Friday, September 2, 2011

Full emptiness, empty emptiness, and an empty mind

The word emptiness is often thrown around in spiritual circles, in different contexts, leading to confusion.  For purposes of this post, I will distinguish between three types of emptiness:

1.  Emptiness as the source.  This is the root in Taoism, represented by the character wu.  It is an emptiness that is potential, but is unrealized.  Without attributes, it gives rise to all things. 

2.  Emptiness as openess.  This is more of emptiness is the Buddhist sense.  In Chinese, it is represented by the character kong, which also means open.  In Madhyamaka philosophy, it is emptiness of self nature, i.e. and independent and enduring subtance.  Another way to put this is that things depend on each other and are open to change.

3.  A blank mind.  Many people when they hear about meditation think of a blank mind. 

The Taoist may state that all things arise from wu.  The Buddhist may state that all things are kong.  However, it is important not to confuse the two.  Under traditional Taoist cosmology, Tao gives rise to wu chi, wu chi to tai chi, and tai chi to the universe.  According to the Book of Balance and Harmony, arising goes from subtle to gross.  The physical world arises from the energetic world, which arises from the spirit world, which arises from the uncreated.  Contrary to materialism, which says that the mind arises from physical processes, the physical processes arise from more subtle energies. 

An astute observer will think here of Huang Po and other Chinese Chan masters and their teachings of the pure or original mind. 

However, when a Buddhist says that the mind is empty, they are referring to the lack of a closed, independent, unchanging nature.  Here, emptiness is a lack.  It exists only as a mental concept.  So when a Buddhist says a table is empty, it doesn't mean that the table is not there in some way.  It just means that there is no "table" substance--- there are only parts of a table.  And looking in these parts, there is no table nature there either.  The table is nothing more than an arrangement of parts. 

Some people, when they hear of emptiness think that they must make their minds blank.  Some masters have stated that a cultivated mind is empty of thought.  I can attest from experience that as one cultivates ethics, mediation, and right living, thoughts tend to become quiet and less in number.  Patanjali starts his yoga sutras by stating that the aim of yoga is ending the modification of the mind. 

Accordingly, people wish to jump to the end. 

Because of this, people think that if they make their mind empty, they will achieve the same thing the masters are talking about.  However, they are mistaking the outer appearance for the inner nature.  A mind becomes empty of thoughts naturally when it stops clinging to things.  This is why Hui Neng said that no mind means freedom from thought in the midst of thought, not a lack of thought.

A forced emptiness is sterile.  I believe this is what the masters criticized as dead tree zen.  A mind in a forced state of stillness is not responsive.  The Taoist virtue of natural spontaneity is lost.

A mind that does not cling is ready for anything, on the other hand, can respond to everything.  This sort of mind attains the best of wu and kong.  It is open and pregnant with possibilities. 

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