Monday, February 14, 2011

"Empty of self" or "Empty self"?

I'm reading G.C.C. Chang's The Buddhist Teaching of Totality and an interesting doctrinal question occurred to me regarding emptiness. The answer you get, as always, depends on who you ask.

When we say that something (a dharma, object, person, phenomena, experience, event) is empty, do we mean that it is empty of a self? Or that its self is empty of inherent existence?

I've thought about this quite a bit, and don't think these are expressions of the same position. Chang's book seems to fall into the former camp, while the Prasangika Madhyamika literature I've read falls into the latter.

Both positions have very interesting implications and firm philosophical bases for their positions, and yet for the life of me I can't seem to resolve the issue. If a self is constantly changing and is empty of self-existence, then in what way can it be considered a self? Isn't that a contradiction in terms?

From my understanding, the self as a noun--a concrete, unchanging entity--is a fiction and the source of clinging and suffering. For this reason, it is more accurate to think of ourselves as unfolding processes, or verbs. Constant flux, without a center or core, empty of a self or essence. So does that mean "empty of self" or "having an empty self"?

I realize that I'm trying to apply logic to the Absolute nature of things--admittedly, an inevitably futile task that a Zen master would cudgel me for--but isn't reasoning the very bedrock of Madhyamika philosophy?

More importantly, I can't overlook another obvious question begging my attention: Why must I know? Why do I feel the need for certainty? Isn't this just another form of grasping? The more I gnaw on this question, the more I feel like a dog chasing his tail--tying myself into a mental pretzel.

Which leads me to my final question: How does the answer to the emptiness question affect my practice? It's not like adopting one position is suddenly going to lead me to Enlightenment. If only that were the case!

With that said, I'd still like to know the answer. Please tell me what you think.
Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: Sebastian Mary.


  1. Since you asked, here's what I think. Keep in mind that I'm totally unqualified to answer any of this; I've only been working on this for less than two years now.

    First off, I think you may be using a definition of "dhamma" that's not quite what the philosophers in question had in mind. I understand that a "dhamma" means something like an "atomic cause of sensation." So, the sensation of color would be caused by a dhamma contacting a sense-field, in this case a color-dhamma contacting the sight sense-field. The sensation of color wouldn't be a dhamma anymore, nor of course the cognition of "a flower" that arises from a sequence of sensations clattering through the skandhas, That'd be a phenomenon, or 'construction of that which was not' to borrow a phrase from Vasubandhu.

    As far as I know, all of the Buddhist schools of philosophy agree that phenomena have no inherent existence; they're purely mental constructs. The only ontological disagreement between them is about dhammas—the Madhyamika and Yogacara schools and their descendants believe dhammas have no inherent existence, whereas the Theravada school (and most of the other, now extinct Arahatyana schools) believe that dhammas do have inherent existence.

    So. The contention all of them make is that "a flower" only exists as "a flower" because you and I agree to mentally slice off a piece of the Universe and call it "a flower." The Universe itself exists—I think?—but there's nothing inherent in it to separate "the flower" from the rest of it, or indeed "you" or "I." That is, the distinction between "self" and "other," or "object observed" and "subject observer" is entirely constructed, and only exists in the mind. Easy enough to say, harder to actually realize.

    Against that background, the whole question becomes nonsensical: attempting to apply the notion of a "self"—permanent or otherwise, empty or otherwise—to an "object observed" such as a flower just doesn't make any sense. It's a misapplication of concepts. Sort of like asking if a brick is Christian. The notion of a "self" is only interesting from the point of view of "subject-observer," since we humans obviously have a sense-of-self.

    So, "What is this sense-of-self of mine?" is a valid question in this framework, but "What is this sense-of-self of yours?" is an obviously nonsensical one. How the hell would I go about investigating your sense-of-self in the first place?

    Second, how does the answer to the emptiness question affect your practice: again, from someone completely unqualified to answer, it sounds like "a great deal." Isn't resolving that question—"seeing through the illusion of duality"—considered a fairly major milestone on the Zen path?

    (Obviously, this philosophizing won't resolve the question. At least, it hasn't resolved it for me, although it may have cleared up a few misunderstandings. That's what the practice is for, natch. I've found comparing this stuff with Karl Popper's ideas on methodological nominalism helpful, though, as far as any philosophizing is helpful anyway.)

  2. Well put, Petteri. I agree with much of what you wrote. I guess what I meant to say in reference to Emptiness and my practice is that I'm kind of just juggling concepts of Emptiness, rather than truly experiencing it. Or "becoming" it, I should say. It's as if the more I think about it, as I descend into the labyrinth of concepts, the further I get from the pith of the experience.

    Thanks for the feedback. Please keep reading and commenting.