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All things are empty, and that includes all physical things, the whole process of experience, also concepts too, like awakening, the dharma, even life and death.
There is a saying “A glass is useful because of its emptiness”. It is the potential of the glass to hold something that makes it precious. That is beautiful, but that is not the kind of emptiness we are talking about in the dharma teachings.
Emptiness is not a thing, it is not something you can fill with something else, it is a characteristic of all things which is specifically ungraspable. All things are empty of the ability to exist in the individuated way we often presume them to. This brings a radical shift in view. When this understanding is absorbed and assimilated deeply into the way we look, sense, and feel the world, we are changed. We change because we too are empty.
Slipping into a lens that sees all things are empty is so radical it can easily feel destabilising, but only in the way waking up too quickly sometimes feels disorienting. It is helpful therefore to not rush the seeing of emptiness but to let it expand at a natural speed. Seeing that all things are empty (including, but not limited to, who we take ourselves to be) is like waking up from a weird dream (or if not from it, then into another less illogical dream).
The other day I had the pleasure of walking along a sandy seashore. As I was walking I saw a piece of clear broken glass sticking up out of the sand just where the waves were breaking on the shore. I was glad to have seen it, and went to pick it up so that no one less observant or less well-sighted would hurt themselves on it. The dependent arising thought came “Why would someone leave this here?” But as I picked it up I saw how smooth it had become, it had lost all its jagged edges, it felt as smooth as a river stone. So I too left it there.
The waves of water and sand had eroded the glass. Where had some of the glass gone? Glass is highly heated (2,000ºC) sand, which is skilfully manipulated, then allowed to cool slowly. Glass is fabricated from sand and skill, and even with good eyesight, I could never isolate those components now on the beach.
As I walked in the rising and receding wash of the waves, my feet were pressing temporary imprints in the sand. Each new footprint was ‘washed away’ by the next high wave. This image can impress a poetic metaphor and a plain depiction of emptiness in our minds. Yet no footprints were washed away, they never really were. The appearance of my footprint, was also just a shape in the sand. I couldn’t take it home with me. We can easily see this towards a footprint, but actually all things are fabricated appearance made up from other things. No trace remains of eroded glass, or footprints.
“Now they know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall.” John Lennon
Everything we know has this nature, everything is fabricated. All things are aggregated together from other things. Everything is made up. That is a sentence that can be taken in many ways, and at sometime any one of them could be seen to be true.
We are really not in a position to say. How would we know reality? We would must know it through our senses. But the senses have a limited range: we don’t have as good eyesight as an eagle, or sense of smell as a wolf, or sensitivity of touch as an octopus. So is this really reality we perceive or a mere skimming of it’s potential? Further to the limitations of our physical organism, any reality we experience is processed through our minds.
The question we can ask is not “what is this reality we experience?”, but “what is our experience of reality?” Once we refine the question that way we start to see the empty fabricated nature of experience. This is the phenomenological lens of exploration. How do we experience? The answer to that is something like the links of dependent origination.
As Nagarjuna said: “Emptiness is just this dependent origination.” If something depends on something else, it is not able to also independently exist. The scales fall from the eyes of one who sees dependent origination deeply, for them all things are empty.
All experience is dependent on perception. If no thing is perceived no thing is experienced. If some thing is perceived then some thing is experienced.
Not just because it is dependent is perception empty, but also because perception is an isolating concept. What really is perception? It is an activity of mind, and is even more ephemeral and ungraspable than a footprint in the wash of a wave. If we accept the definition of perception to be the forming of distinct things from a chaotic unfolding flow of sensory phenomena, we see that perception is a generative process of experience. By perceiving we are somehow making things out of not-things.
This screen you are looking at is made up of things which are not a screen. If we took all the parts apart there would be no screen. At that moment where would the screen have gone? Would the screen be waiting somewhere — stage left — for all the parts to be put together? That doesn’t make sense. We have to see the label of things are not in the object (or else the screen would be a part), nor in a collection of those objects (for the screen would continue to exist in any shape), not even in the shape of those objects (for someone could perceiving it as something other than a screen, or if it’s shape were somehow different it could equally be take as a screen). The screen-ness of the screen is only existent in the mind.
Again everything has this nature, including the perception which fabricates it. Perception is likewise made up of not-perception.
Furthermore the way some thing is perceived affects how some thing is experienced. Any thing depends on how it is viewed. There is always a way of ‘looking’ affecting perception. We can have all kinds of ‘lenses’ — like seeing all things as permanent and individual, or taking all things to be inconstant and interconnected. We will see different worlds dependent on different lenses. It is not possible to see without a lens. There is no access to pure reality, yet we believe we see things as they are. No wonder we don’t understand each other well, we don’t really have the means to understand anything.
When we are fully ignorant of dependent origination and emptiness we have a mode of viewing that inclines us towards dukkha; stress and distress. But once our view is wisely informed (the first limb of the eight-fold path) we are far less likely to blindly stumble into self-made stress.
Because of the dependency between view and experience, and thanks to the nature of change, we can develop a more skilful lens, a way of ‘seeing’ that frees, as Rob Burbea says.
When something is held strongly in our perception it is because it is strongly grasped at. The story “I want this”, “I must have this”, “I can’t live without this”, makes the object so much more vivid and real. Likewise with the story, “I don’t like this”, “I despise it”, “I can’t live with this in the world too”.
When the sense of self is strong, like in this narrative, the sense of the object is equally strong. If the sense of self quietens, then so does the sense of object. If the sense of self really goes still, or the sense of dukkha, demand, or story fades, then so does the object. If we stay steady and attentive through this process of calming and stilling, we will see a fading of the object in perception.
If we draw out this understanding further than we see that seeing something as a thing is dependent on the way of looking, and the way of looking is dependent on the looker. As we saw in Emptiness of Self the looker in this way of looking is also empty. So the object just became a further degree empty: it is dependent on the activity of an empty self. And the self also appears more empty for the phenomena it perceives, and in turn depends on, is also more empty than previously seen.
No matter what you experience it is not the thing itself, it is the mind’s best guess. All reality is virtual reality. All things are our conceptualisation of them. Revealed via an approximation by the limited senses and the biases of the fabricating processes of our minds. We see what we imagine is important, in a way we think will be useful. We see a concept of the world. With clear and wise looking we see that life is dependently arising in this way due to many factors. Some of those we can influence with wisdom, and that is what this teaching is pointing towards.
Sometimes this kind of practice is compared to jumping out of an aeroplane without a parachute. We start to freak out, and can’t let go into this weird dream of falling. But at some point we realise that emptiness means there’s also no ground. This is a dramatic and catchy image, but in reality our practice is both less dramatic and more empty even than that imaginal concept. There is no parachute and no ground, but also nothing to fall through, so no falling, and no one to fall, so no faller either.
“All things are empty” sounds like a wild thing to say. But it is not a statement of reckless nihilism, more a tug away from absent minded reification. “All things are made up” does not imply that things don’t matter. It isn’t even saying that things aren’t real, but that they aren’t really the way we see them. The way we see them is part of what makes them appear that way.
All of this matters because it encourages freedom. We can have more fluidity and creativity as we experience, and that changes everything including the sense of self—this liberates.
Everything will change, because everything is inconstant. But anything can be changed, because it is dependent on the way we’re looking at it—from objects, to processes in minds, to the very sense of existence at all—it all depends, it’s all made up.
Because it is empty, if we change the way we look at it, we can’t help but to see it differently. With skill and wisdom, an empty lens of viewing all as empty can be a way of looking that frees.
Written by Nathan Glyde