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EMPTINESS AND THE ILLUSION OF SELFHOOD

BY HIROMI SAITO

21/07/2020

Hopefully, most of you have read the Diamond Sutra, at least once.


Today, we’re going to expand on the previous topic and talk about the notion of emptiness in Buddhism. We have already established the limitations of language, but I’m going to continue using language to explore the Diamond Sutra.


Before starting, I want to mention that the idea of emptiness is different between Buddhist practices: Emptiness in terms of non-self, and emptiness in terms of all phenomena. Though it sounds similar, as the notion of self is a phenomenon itself, they are very different when it comes to practices. In Theravada Buddhism, emptiness often refers to the non-self (anatman) often used as a term in meditative state or experience. This is more about letting things go, become crave-less, desire-less, and selfless. This is mostly at the level of Arhats.


But in Mahayana Buddhism, the practice of Bodhisattvas, emptiness (Sunyata) is a bit more complex as it talks about all phenomena and the metaphysical truths. This goes far beyond the absence of inherent existence (selfhood) understood by the Arhats. I’m going to mix them up and throw it at you… see if you can catch the larger picture.


The Diamond Sutra posits that something is what it is only because of what it is not. The sutra is essentially challenging the common belief that in every one of us / or thing is an immovable and unchanging core. Something that we often refer to as identity or selfhood. We often assume that this so called “identity” or “self” is an abiding property to something existing. But really, the sense of self-ness we experience cannot be immovable or unchanging, as if this was the case, we would the same person as yesterday, or 10 years ago…which is absurd. We are all pretty sure that we have changed over time, physically and mentally.

This proves that the sense of self is conditional, and constantly changing at all time. In that sense the very existence of objects, material, and beings (including ourselves) are relational and fluid. This is one of the most important concepts presented in the sutra besides compassion: Interdependence.


If everything in nature depends on one another for their very being, a thing is essentially what it is because of what it’s connected and related to all other things in nature. This is a wonderful example presented by Soraj Hongladarom, from the Chulalongkorn University:


“The reason why a table is what it is is due to many factors, such as its shape and function. The shape of a thing is defined through the relation of the thing with others surrounding it; if there were no such relation then that thing would not be a thing at all because one cannot find the edge beyond which that thing ceases to be that thing. Furthermore, even if a thing may have a shape of a table, but if it is not used as a table then one could say that it is not a table at all. If a big, wooden object which looks like a table is used as, say, fuel, then it becomes fuel, at least in the conception of those who would like to burn it, rather than remains a table. So whether the thing is a table or fuel depends ultimately on how it is being used or going to be used. Either way its being as a table (or fuel) depends on its function, its role in relation to those who are using it. Hence, things are what they are because of their relations to other things, and according to the Buddhists this is the case at all levels, from the huge macro-object to the tiniest one.”


See? Perfect example.


I am the husband of A,

a colleague to B,

a patient to C,

a stranger to D.

I am tall in comparison to E,

short in comparison to F.

I am smart in comparison to G,

stupid in comparison to H.


I am all of those beings, and I possess all of those properties AT THE SAME TIME! Meaning that all of those positions, titles, and characteristics are conditional…meaningless in the context of what is true.

If I divorced A, I am no longer her husband.

If I quit my job, I am no longer B’s colleague.

If I was cured, I am no longer C’s patient.

If I met D, I am no longer a stranger to D.

If E grew taller, I would be shorter than E

If F grew old, I might become taller than F. etc etc.


Like Plato’s classic epistemology, all those positions, titles, and characteristics are opinions formed by how others are related to us. This leads to two key points, both extremely bold and powerful statements from Buddhism: The sense of I, ego, self, existing as a singular independent being is an illusion. All phenomena, things, beings, are fundamentally nothing and empty by nature. Hopefully something is clicking for some people here. Remember the idea of how we are all ultimately one, and nothing? How there is no differentiation between I and the others? How compassion is logical and not emotional? Selflessness, not as a kind and generous gesture, but literally self-less.


The notion of fluidity in all existence highlights the impermanence of all beings. This is obvious because, the 5-year-old me is pretty much non-existent by the time I’m 30. It would be very freaky if the 5-year-old version of me was sitting across the table when I’m 30, you know… as two separate beings. Some, if not most of the memories will be forgotten at some point in the future. My passion will calm over time, sadness will fade, and everything that is creating the sense of “me” will eventually vanish. Understanding the impermanence of all being is not exactly a sad thing. It helps us to not cling, but at the same time teaches us to treasure everything moments by moments. It teaches us to not take things tooooo seriously, dance with the continuous changes, accept things as it is. Because we are so heavily related to each other, and everything, we cannot exist without other things. 


By studying how exactly we attach to others, interdependence, we can effectively learn how to detach, and gradually falling back into the state of emptiness. Most Buddhists who spends time in learning things like this, starts by detaching from the notion of self, ego, I; Hence practicing compassion, selflessness, and generosity. It plays on the idea of letting things go, have no greed, want nothing, etc. Because the things you gain in this world is equally conditional and impermanent, including wealth, social status, fancy cars…The concept is applied to absolutely everything and anything including family, lovers, friends, etc. Might sound very sad, but it's also true that even families are not permanent in the long spectrum of the universe, as all life in the Samsara are finite.


This is why many monks are divorced before becoming a monk; so that they are detached from the notion of lover, romance, family, children. If you have them, it becomes very hard not to cling. Yes, personal love is a form of clinging. In that way Buddhism is fundamentally an extremely lonely way of life. Ever heard of the vow of silence? Where monks devote months, up an entire lifetime, to remain silent. This is a practice of being detached from language, words, and communication, allowing them to see things as it is…clearer than what others see. Like letting go of the linguistic experiences. In many ways, Buddhism teaches us to unlearn the things we learned so that we can truly learn what is to be learnt.



Next time, I’m going to talk a little bit more on the two different understanding of emptiness, Anatman and Sunyata, by comparing the path of Arhat and the path of Bodhisattva. And let's talk about the man Subhuti a little bit.