As a student gets farther into Buddhism, the lessons transition from the simple and near-universally appreciated practice of meditation to the less understood and often more confusing teaching known as “emptiness.”
For those raised in the Abrahamic religions (which teach one God — a Creator; a soul; and eternal life after death) it can be hard to accept that all is emptiness. Even without further examination , when used to describe life itself , the word emptiness doesn’t inspire hope. It is for this reason that some detractors suggest Buddhism is more of a nihilistic philosophy rather than a religion. One that appears to throw the whole concept of goodness & love into question.
That is not quite accurate.
To derive comfort from the teachings of Buddha, particularly those on the importance of cultivating a warm heart, means — by definition — that you are not one who accepts morbid nihilism as a spiritual path for yourself. Therefore, there must be another explanation for what emptiness is and where the roles of goodness and love fit within that teaching. The quick answer is that goodness and love fit within Buddhist teachings in the same manner in which they fit within the fabric of life. You are that which you surround yourself with.
But if nothing exists, if emptiness is the way, then how can anything fundamentally matter?
Buddhism teaches that it is of utmost importance to always relieve the suffering of people, animals and plants, wherever possible. As a practical matter, this is more important than finding resolution on the puzzle and enigma that is emptiness. The Dalai Lama teaches that it is, in fact, more important to focus on being a good person than it is to solve these kinds of deep mysteries and riddles of existence.
Reading about emptiness upsets many people. Further, like an Escher-esque drawing, the teachings suggest our “upset” doesn’t really exist either.
The most erudite Buddhist monk and the Buddhist practitioner just starting out can agree on one thing: No one can know the unknowable. The mystery of the universe cannot be fully understood by us in this lifetime. Perhaps the closest we will get is when we stop trying to understand it.
The religious texts going back millennia provide guide posts for many people — until the very moment that they cease to. Any and all religious teachings on the origins of the universe; what happens when we die; the mysteries of the soul — can in a single instant of divine visitation, which does indeed happen from time to time (have you ever had a psychic experience?), be invalidated. Sometimes religious teachings can appear to come between us — and our selves.
In a nutshell, there can be no “truth” unless a human and an animal are each capable of experiencing it.
This is due to the infinite unknowability of things. We may think our unique position among the animal kingdom makes absolute truth our birthright, but it doesn’t.
Buddha, Einstein, The Dog & The Alien
To grasp emptiness first presume the existence of life elsewhere in the universe — something no one can discount.
Now, imagine Albert Einstein. Beside him is a beautiful and intelligent dog. Her name is Bessie.
Einstein and Bessie are both capable of logic.
We cannot say that Bessie has no logic. Merely, we can say that she is capable of applying less of it than Einstein. Nevertheless, she has logic.
Imagine Einstein playing ball with Bessie. Einstein, through a sleight-of-hand trick, swiftly discards the ball, appearing to make it “disappear.”
From Bessie’s perspective, the ball has vanished. There is no trace of it. No scent of it remaining.
The ball has just gone.
Now, Einstein knows the ball is in his pocket. It hasn’t disappeared.
To Einstein, the ball was placed out of sight but in his pocket.
To Bessie, the ball has evaporated.
Whose truth is greater?
From our perspective, Einstein’s truth is greater than Bessie’s.
We cannot say that Bessie’s truth is invalidated because from her perspective she is absolutely correct. The ball has disappeared. To both human and canine, it’s no longer visible.
Bessie’s truth is perhaps incomplete, but valid.
Next, imagine an alien with far greater faculties of logic than either Bessie or Einstein. This alien is aware of Einstein’s theory of E=mc2, and knows it to be either false or incomplete. Though the alien concedes, from Einstein’s perspective, E appears to equal mc2.
The alien, with superior logic to Einstein, knows more about the nature of the universe than him. The alien knows that E does not equal mc2, but rather only seems to.
Whose truth is greater?
Is Einstein’s truth invalidated by the alien’s greater truth?
Einstein’s truth is not invalidated. Here on Earth, according to humans, E appears to equal mc2. Einstein’s truth is only a lesser truth. To us, it is still a truth. In a vacuum, absent the alien’s more proficient logic, it is an absolute truth. Just as in a vacuum, absent Einstein’s faculties of logic, Bessie is correct. The ball has indeed vanished.
We can continue spiraling the thought experiment upward or downward. Upward to higher beings unknown to us, downward to the amoeba and the atom.
There’s no universal truth. There’s no absolute truth. There is only our truth. In the same way our truth is valid in the absence of a greater logic — or a lesser one, someone else’s truth is valid in the absence of a greater logic — or a lesser one. Of which there is one always. A greater or lesser logic.
Does emptiness exist?
The answer is — it’s okay either way.