Monday, March 01, 2004

Ye Emptynesse of Selfe

Incidentally, I hope you all know that "Ye" is an old spelling of "The" -- the letter which looks like a capital 'Y' there being actually a capital thorn, the letter which the Old English and Old Norse, among others, used to represent the "th" sound. ("Th" is an abomination introduced by Norman scribes who couldn't pronounce the Old English sound, and tried to write down something that would approximate it in their own alphabet.) It has nothing whatever to do with the word "ye" which means "you all."

So. The emptiness of self. Not a difficult concept to grasp, once the bogus difficulties have been cleared away.

First difficulty: you'll hear Buddhists speak of "the delusion of self." You may even hear them say "there is no self." And the fact that "self" is a reflexive pronoun in English results in what seems to be a very mysterious (or maybe just very stupid) contention: that people don't exist, that you and I aren't here. We're not here, we just think we are. And the obvious rejoinder to that is "well, who is it then, who thinks we're here?"

Substitute the word "soul" for "self" and things begin to clear up. What we mean is that there is no permanent, immutable essence at the core of a person's being -- divinely made or otherwise. There is no unchangeable Daleness about me. Just as my body appears to be a separate static object, when it is actually a dynamic, constantly changing system that can't survive even for five minutes without drawing on other systems outside of itself, so also we take our minds, our personalities, to be independent, permanent things. And so seriously do we take these things that we spend the bulk of our time anxiously protecting them, worrying about them, criticizing them, looking for their validation, dreading their exposure as inadequate. We take them very seriously indeed.

But they're not there. Not as things. Whole contemplative traditions are devoted to systematically searching for this thing, this essence, this unique identity we supposedly have. Traditions in which you try to follow your thoughts backward to their source. What you find is that, look as you may, they have no source -- no source but other thoughts. One thought jostling after another is all there is in that mind. There may be plenty that's repetitive, but there is certainly nothing that's permanent.

Not only is there no permanent core "underneath" or "behind" these thoughts. They also are not independent. Other people's thoughts are floating in among them all the time. Bits of things we read, conversations with other people, glances from strangers are all mixed up in there. Our thoughts are porous, soluble. Thoughts and images that take their proximate origin from Tonio, from T.S. Eliot, from Buddha Shakyamuni are all floating around in my mind. Any sense in which they're mine is a very loose one. They happen to have shown up in the "same" (don't even start) stream of thoughts that sometimes appear to precipitate motor responses in this particular animal. It's all quite chaotic and quite open, quite permeable.

Second bogus difficulty: the word "emptiness." I suppose it may have been the least misleading of the possible translations for Shunyata, but in that case maybe the word should have been left untranslated, and imported wholesale into English. I don't know any Sanskrit, but the Tibetan, tong pa nyi, might also be translated as "openness" or "transparency." It's the same word that's used to describe the openness of a glade in a forest, or the transparency of a pool of water. It indicates spaciousness or clarity. English "emptiness" has completely negative emotional connotations -- an "empty feeling" is certainly nothing like an "open feeling."

Form is emptiness and emptiness is form. So the standard English translation of the Heart Sutra has it. But one might also say Matter is open and openness is matter. Or Stuff is clear and clarity is stuff. That fact that the self is empty is not a cause for lamentation. It's cause for the deepest, gladdest celebration. Because if it were not empty, we would be locked into our suffering forever.

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