Saturday, April 20, 2013

Emptiness and The Heart Sutra

The Heart Sutra, translated by Tr. Edward Conze, gives an account from the understanding of a bodhisattva named Avalokita. According to this text, everything is empty, down to the dharmas which make up what is conventionally defined as matter.1In class, we learned the word 'emptiness' can also be translated as 'openness' or 'undefined.' From Avalokita's enlightened perspective, as he “looked down from on high,” he told us, “form does not differ from emptiness,” and visa-versa. The text goes on to explain that when one can see form as empty, a one is without “thought-coverings,” and will eventually be one of the Buddhas who are, “fully awake.”

I found it clever the way in which the Heart Sutra goes about the task of describing the truth of Nirvana. Instead of saying what this truth is, the Heart Sutra says what it is not. I think the writer used this strategy for two reasons, first of all, because nirvana is ineffable, and if one were to give positive descriptions about nirvana, the very act of doing so would imply that nirvana is describable, that it is tangible. To make denying descriptions makes more sense. The second reason I see for this strategy is that when both sides of a dualistic view are denied, all that remains, if one chooses to believe Buddhism is not nihilism, is openness or emptiness or an undefined (for lack of a better word) state. For example, the text conveys that in emptiness there is, “no ignorance, no extinction of ignorance, and so forth.” So when emptiness is known in wisdom, there isn't a reality to ignorance nor lack of ignorance. I think here it is very intentional that the text does not say there is 'nothing.' For lack of a better word again, something is, though it is not a thing and it does not necessarily exist, but nonetheless it is. Whatever it is that is, it is empty, or undefined. Itis entirely without dualism. For the Buddhist, dualism can exist in every description, even if it is simply of the form, “yellow and lack of yellow.” The more awake truth would be, “neither yellow nor lack of yellow,” the latter of which is a double negative.

Buddhist texts seem to be clear in their denial of the existence of everything, without saying there is nothing. If the only truth was that there really was nothing, the Heart Sutra could have just been two words: “Nothing is.” Obviously this is not the case, so I think it is with care that these ancient philosophers took time to create an understanding within the student of what emptiness is like.

Emptiness here starts to paint a picture with Daoist brushes. When I was reading the Daodejing, at first I kept waiting for Laozi to come out and just explain the Dao, but it was as if the author kept dancing around the outskirts of what the Dao is, prodding the reader toward a particular understanding which had to be found for oneself. Buddhism is a bit more direct than Laozi in its metaphysical explanations, but it utilizes the strategy of keeping the most important piece of the philosophy beyond what is possible with description. The Heart Sutra, the Daodejing, and Zhuangzi are like poetry, and I think this is no accident either. I think the concepts are so lofty it is more appropriate to use linguistic imagery to convey a deeper meaning than words alone are able.
1all dharmas are marked with emptiness; they are not produced or stopped, not defiled or immaculate, not deficient or complete.”

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