emptiness

Written by on May 16, 2012 in Commentary with 0 Comments

There is a core principle in Buddhism called ‘emptiness’ which states that nothing inherently exists. Not to be mistaken for nihilism, rather that nothing has intrinsic existence but instead originates dependently upon other phenomenon. Simply put, nothing is truly objective or of itself entirely.

The idea here is that existence of any ‘thing’ is always contingent upon a myriad of other interrelated things. To demonstrate this idea, ask yourself if the constellation of Orion exists? It does exist but only in relation to us, as we ascribe it’s pointillist form to that of a hunter drawing on his bow. It existence is contingent upon us.

If the earth were destroyed tomorrow and the human race wiped out would the constellation of Orion still exist? The stars would go on burning but the idea of the constellation would be gone. Its existence in that context would be lost forever.

If you know anything of Quantum Theory you may see parallels here to the idea of no objective reality through Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and the duality of matter.

This states that matter, at is fundamental level, does not have any distinct objective reality but is available to be put into the context of an observation or measurement. The observer interrelates itself to what it observes, necessarily affecting, in the case of an atom, the condition of its properties. This is known as the measurement problem.

However for Buddhists, having no objective reality hasn’t been a problem. In fact it has been an accepted mode of being for over 2000 years. I find this notion enticing, that ancient spiritual wisdom and modern physics have both arrived at this common principle through their own distinct investigations. It seems Science and spirituality have found common ground in the 21st century.

Impermanence

The assumption of emptiness stems from idea that no thing has ontological permanence in this universe because every thing is in a perpetual state of change. This is another concept in Buddhism, called ‘Impermanence’ and it tells us that no form is ever identical from one moment to the next.

You may think your car is the same as it was yesterday or even a nano-second ago, but it is not. The tire tread is slightly thinner, the paint has faded ever so little, there is marginally more rust than there was before, and the gears are more worn. Albeit, these are differences to a very minute degree, but it is an undeniable fact.

So then, imagine if all the lives of the cars you’ve owned could flash before your eyes at thousand times the speed. What you would see? The car would be built in flash, then quickly alternating between shiny, wet, and dirty conditions, then rust creeping in from the edges, then things braking, then slumping to the ground, then stripped of parts, then pressed into a cube, conveyed into furnace, and melted into metal.

Seeing this over and over again over a short period of time and it would make you feel that a car was more of a living process than a permanent thing, like how a flower grows, spreads its petals to the sky, and then wilts and returns back into the earth. Indeed, everything is a process, everything is impermanent. It is only across what amount of time you consider its circumstances that will make it seem like a actual ‘thing’ or a ‘happening’.

In the example of the constellation of Orion from earlier, it will also change in time as the stars move and we move in relation to them. Will Orion cease to exist then? or will it morph into another form, possibly to be renamed by some future civilization? This would have its existence extending across forms of ‘being’ again and again, as its circumstances have it.

This makes me think when a family member dies, do they cease to exist? My guess is so with respect to their particular configuration (constellation) of atoms, but this isn’t the whole story … there is still how the person was to you, in your memory, which is a large part of their reality that lives on. And just like slowly changing constellations in the sky, they live on as ideas, which is all everything is anyway, in emptiness.

However, it seems then our memory is the only place in the universe where impermanence can stop, or at least slow down and rest awhile. And if this is the case, what a truly special place our minds are in the universe.

–CJ–

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