Sunday, November 1, 2020

The Conduct of Emptiness

Buddhism and science share the view that much suffering is due to mistaken ideas about the way the world works, and that much suffering can be avoided by replacing those mistaken ideas with ones that better fit the world. The biggest difference between Buddhism and science is their general strategies for avoiding suffering. Shantideva’s analogy captures the difference. Walking barefoot over rocky terrain is painful. The scientific solution, or at least the technological solution, is to pave a smooth road. The Buddhist solution is to wear shoes. The focus of science is outward; the focus of Buddhism is inward. The more accurate understanding of the world provided by science allows engineers to change the world into a less painful configuration. The understanding of mind taught by the Buddha enables Buddhists to train their minds to respond to the world in less painful ways.

The Buddhist view of the nature of reality is not monolithic. In general, the idea is that the coarse objects of our everyday perception and interpretation, the individual persons and things of our everyday world, do not exist in the cleanly defined discrete way that they appear to. For example, careful examination of a cart reveals that it is just an arrangement of parts such as wheels, an axle, etc. As such analysis is pursued ever deeper, is there some natural stopping point, where analysis reveals some elementary discrete objects that cannot be analyzed any further? Over the millennia of the development of Buddhism, a variety of doctrines have emerged. The Madhyamika school, pioneered by Nagarjuna but also followed by Shantideva, holds that no such elementary objects can exist. Whatever object appears in our investigations of the world, that object can be further analyzed to understand how it arises from the interplay of other objects. Emptiness is a term used to refer to the way objects are never discrete, elementary, and unanalyzable. Interdependent origination is a term used to refer to the way objects arise from the interplay of other objects.

The distinction between the two ways to reduce suffering, changing the world versus changing the mind: this distinction is not so clear and discrete either. Effective engineering requires an understanding of the human mind. For example, designing safe and efficient roadways requires an understanding of how the human perceptual and interpretive systems will parse the various road markings. Mind and world are intimately coupled; indeed, each gives rise to the other: they co-emerge. The Buddhist path of mental transformation is not separate from actions in the world. Ethical and compassionate conduct is one of the cornerstones of the path, along with view and meditation. Cultivating the view of emptiness and interdependent origination is a classic meditation exercise. The view comes alive as it is reflected in one’s conduct.

This perspective flows into conduct mainly through the channels of alertness, curiosity, and sensitivity. Our actions arise out of our perceptions and interpretations of a situation. When we know that further analysis would surely alter those perceptions and interpretations, we don’t commit 100% to the interpretation of the moment. We remain open and curious. The new experiences that unfold as we act can inform us and give us fresh understandings so we can adapt and improvise.

There are classical teaching stories that illustrate the need for keeping our interpretations tentative. One story is about a farmer who finds a beautiful horse and the events that ensue. What first seems like good fortune then turns out to be misfortune; what first seems like misfortune turns out to be good fortune. Things are never quite what they seem.

A further channel for living the view of emptiness and interdependent origination is through community, through collective exploration. So much of our common conversation revolves around who is right and who is wrong. More productive discussion can happen when we understand that no one is altogether right and no one is altogether wrong. Each interpretation of a situation provides another perspective. We may need to take action, and so need to resolve a coherent interpretation on which to base that action. But we can work to act in a way that keeps open opportunities to learn more, for our interpretation to evolve, rather than closing down our perceptions in order to stabilize our interpretation, our actions reinforcing our justifications.

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