In yesterday’s post, See, I discussed the phrases “Nothing exists” versus “No thing exists”. Let’s recap that discussion from another point of view because this is a fundamental Buddhist/Zen topic.
Think of having heard a Buddhist priest saying, “Everything is an illusion. Nothing exists.” Does the priest mean there are no stars, no Earth, no chair I’m sitting in as I type, no laptop, no Cable One providing my Internet connection, not even me? That’s what I thought the first thousand or so times I heard something like that.
Why would it be said that everything is an illusion, nothing exists? Well, it’s pretty much what the Heart Sutra is about, particularly the line, “Form is emptiness and Emptiness is form”. The Heart Sutra succinctly captures Buddhism – thus “Heart” as in “heart of the matter”, not the organ or Valentine’s Day heart.
But things do exist. When I leave for work in a couple of hours, I need to deal with the traffic on real roads, real traffic lights, real other cars with drivers, and everything else that prevents me from just driving in a straight line to work.
You’re probably thinking, “What a load of crap!” Things are there, but yet that is something Buddhist priests do say. So are they insane, high, scamming us, having fun at our expense … perhaps it’s wishful thinking on their part, as if reciting a mantra, “If I say this enough, I’ll actually believe it”. Perhaps some of them … hahaha. Things obviously exist, so out of the priests who aren’t insane, high, or whatever, they must mean something else, something completely different from our Western frame of mind.
Here’s my real-life version of an old Zen story: The hike to Observation Point (the scene in the photo above) is magical. The heights, the views of Angel’s Landing, the very real dangers, the wildlife, the constant change of it all, the untamable erosion. I said to Rubber Ducky, “I feel the Oneness with this place, nothing matters, things will be what they’ll be, there is no pain.” As I looked around in awe and contentment, my toe kicked a rock in the middle of the trail. I hear Rubber Ducky laughing his ass off – Mack Mack Mack Mack Mack Mack …
The Buddhist monk isn’t saying the Universe is empty but that whatever our brain thinks of, whether my car, Mrs. Hanamoku, or the leftovers from yesterday’s Independence Day celebration, are just snapshots of something I encountered in the past. Like JPG photo files on my iPhone or my laptop, they are just snapshots of scenes from the past, specifically whatever the “Date Created” says.
These files encoded on my iPhone and laptop, such as the photo at the top of this post, in no way resemble what is displayed, and even less what was actually there. It doesn’t capture what is behind the things you see in the photo, how things are moving, the sounds, the “Fall-ness” of the time I was there – the cool temperature of the air, the smells. It doesn’t capture that I’m standing very close to the edge of a 2000 foot drop, nor does it capture the spirit of awe I share with the few others there.
Such photos are pitifully inadequate models of what we are seeing. Likewise, my brain holds encoded snapshots of things I recognize that are just encodings in my brain. To be certain, our brain encodings are in most ways magnitudes more sophisticated than the encodings of a JPG file. But still, they are pitifully inadequate models of the what is really there now.
This beautiful scene rendered in the photo above no longer exists. You may be thinking that if you were to go there this coming late October, you could take a photo “exactly” like this. It may even be difficult to differentiate our photos side by side. But by this coming October, tons of the canyon will have eroded away, the trees will be different (although imperceptibly because of the distance), the drama of the wildlife will have a different cast. It may be so crowded there that it could actually be a bit unenjoyable. Do our two photos really represent the same thing?
Everything is an illusion. Nothing exists. Every single thing we think of is just a ghost living only in our brain. The only thing that exists outside of our brain is what is right here, right now. What do you do with this insight? Don’t be the guy who “knows everything”! You know nothing! Do you now know what that means? Empty your cup! Take off your “black belt”, tie on that old “white belt” you haven’t seen for decades, and ironically sew the knot on permanently.
This post is Part 2 of a three-part series on the Heart Sutra: