The World as Emptiness (Part 2)

Out of Your Mind 12

Alan Watts talks about the Buddhist perspective on change and impermanence. He discusses how Buddhism encourages detachment from the world of change and pursuit of nirvana, the state beyond change. However, clinging to nirvana as something permanent is still seeking permanence. True liberation comes from fully accepting change and transience, including death. The void or emptiness doctrine in Mahayana Buddhism elaborates on this by teaching that reality escapes concepts. Freedom comes from letting go of fixed ideas and accepting the void.



The Buddhist Attitude of Change


In Buddhism, change is emphasized, first, to unsettle people who think that they can achieve permanance by hanging on to life. And it seems that the preacher is wagging his finger at them and saying—you know, like the Scotch preacher, one day saying to Sunday congregation,

Preaching on the text, vanity of vanities, all is vanity. And what about the rich food you put into your mouths? ’Tis vanity. And the fine raiment you put on your backs? ’Tis vanity. And all your playing around, going to golf instead of coming to the kirke or the sabbath? ’Tis vanity. And you be spendin’ all your lives devoted to vanity, and the last day will come—the day of your death. And because you’ve devoted your life to vanity, you go down to the burning fiery brimstone pits of hell. And there, you look up, and say unto the Lord, ‘Oh Lord, I did not know it! Oh Lord, I wouldn’t’ve devoted my life to vanity if I had known it! Oh Lord!’ And the Lord, he looked down, and he’ll say unto you, out of his infinite mercy, ‘Well, ye know it now.’


So all the preachers, together, say, “Don’t cling to those things.” So then, as a result of that—and I’m going to speak in strictly Buddhist terms—the follower of the way of Buddha seeks deliverance from attachment to the world of change. He seeks nirvāṇa, the state beyond change—which the Buddha called the unborn, the unoriginated, the uncreated, and the unformed. But then, you see, what he finds out is that, in seeking a state beyond change, seeking nirvāṇa as something away from saṃsāra—which is the name for the wheel—he is still seeking something permanent.


And so, as Buddhism went on, they thought about this a great deal. And this very point was the point of division between the two great schools of Buddhism—which, in the south, were Theravada, the doctrine of the Thera, the elders, sometimes known, disrespectfully, as the Hīnayāna. “Yana” means a vehicle, a conveyance, a diligance, or a ferryboat. This is a yana, and I live on a ferryboat because that’s my job. Then there is the other school of Buddhism, called the Mahāyāna. “Maha” means “great,” “hina” “little.” The great vehicle and the little vehicle. Now, what is this?


The Mahāyānas say, “Your little vehicle just gets a few people who are very, very tough ascetics, and takes them across the other shore to nirvāṇa. But the great vehicle shows people that nirvāṇa is not different from ordinary life.” So that, when you have reached nirvāṇa, if you think, “Now I have attained it. Now I have succeeded. Now I have caught the secret of the universe, and I am at peace,” you have only a false peace; you have become a stone buddha. You have a new illusion of the changeless. So it is said that such a person is a pratyekabuddha. That means private buddha: “I’ve got it all for myself.” And in contrast with this kind of pratyekabuddha, who gains nirvāṇa and stays there, the Mahāyānists use the word bodhisattva. ‘Sattva’ means essential principle; ‘bodhi,’ awakening. A person whose essential being is awakened. The word used to mean ‘junior buddha,’ someone on the way to becoming a buddha. But in the course of time, it came to mean someone who had attained buddhahood, who had reached nirvāṇa, but who returns into everyday life to deliver all other beings. This is the popular idea of a bodhisattva: a savior.


And so, in the popular Buddhism of Tibet and China and Japan, people worship the bodhisattvas—the great bodhisattvas—as saviors. Say, the hermaphroditic Guanyin. People loved Guanyin because she—he/she, she/he—could be a buddha, but has come back into the world to save all beings. The Japanese call he/she Kannon, and they have, in Kyoto, an image of Kannon with one thousand arms radiating like a great aureole all around this great golden figure. And these one thousand arms are one thousand different ways of rescuing beings from ignorance. Kannon is [a] funny thing. I remember one night when I suddenly realized that Kannon was incarnate in the whole city of Kyoto; that this whole city was Kannon. That the police department, the taxi drivers, the fire department, the mayor and corporation, the shopkeepers—insofar as this whole city was a collaborate effort to sustain human life, however bumbling, however inefficient, however corrupt—it was still a manifestation of Kannon with its thousand arms. All working independently, and yet one. So they revere those bodhisattvas as the saviors who’ve come back into the world to deliver all beings.


But there is a more esoteric interpretation of this. The bodhisattva returns into the world. That means he has discovered that you don’t have to go anywhere to find nirvāṇa. Nirvāṇa is where you are, provided you don’t object to it.


Willing to Die


Change—and everything is change; nothing can be held on to—to the degree that you go with a stream, you see, you are are still, you are flowing with it. But to the degree you resist the stream, then you notice that the current is rushing past you and fighting with you. So swim with it, go with it, and you’re there. You’re at rest. And this is, of course, particularly true when it comes to those moments when life really seems to be going to take us away, and the stream of change is going to swallow us completely. The moment of death. And we think, “Oh-oh, this is it. This is the end.” And so at death we withdraw. Say, “No, no, no, not that. Not yet, please!”


But actually, the whole problem is that there really is no other problem for human beings than to go over that waterfall when it comes. Just as you go over any other waterfall, just as you go on from day to day, just as you go to sleep at night. Be absolutely willing to die. Now, I’m not preaching. I’m not saying you ought to be willing to die, and that you should muscle up your courage and somehow put on a good front when the terrible thing comes. That’s not the idea at all. The point is that you can only die well if you understand this system of waves. If you understand that your disappearance as the form in which you think you are you—your disappearance as this particular organism—is simply seasonal. That you are just as much the dark space beyond death as you are the light interval called life. These are just two sides of you, because you is the total wave. You see, we can’t have half a wave. Nobody ever saw waves which just had crests and no troughs. So you can’t have half a human being, who is born but doesn’t die; half a thing. That would be only half a thing. But the propogation of vibrations—and life is vibration—it simply goes on an on, but its cycles are long cycles and short cycles.


Space, you see, is not just nothing. If I could magnify my hand to an enormous degree so that you could see all the molocules in it—I don’t know how far apart they would be, but it seems to me they would be something like tennis balls in a very, very large space—and you’d look when I move my hand like this, and say, “For God’s sake, look at all those tennis balls! They’re all going together. Crazy! And there are no strings tying them together. Isn’t that queer?” No, but there’s space going with them. And space is a function of—or it’s an inseparable aspect of—whatever solids are in the space. That is the clue, probably, to what we mean by gravity. We don’t know yet. So, in the same way, when those marvelous sandpipers come around here—the little ones—while they’re in the air, flying, they have one mind; they move all together. When they alight on the mud, they become individuals and they go pecking around for worms, or something. But one click of the fingers and all those things are going “Zzzhup!” into the air. They don’t seem to have a leader, because they don’t follow when they turn, they all turn together and go off in another direction. Amazing. But they’re like the molocules in my hand.


So then, you see, here’s the principle: when you don’t resist change—I mean over-resist; I don’t mean being flabby—when you don’t resist change, you see that the changing world, which disappears like smoke, is no different from the nirvāṇa world. Nirvāṇa, as I said, means breathe out, let go of the breath. So, in the same way, don’t resist change; it’s all the same principle.


So the bodhisattva saves all beings—not by preaching sermons to them, but by showing them that they are delivered, they are liberated, by the very fact of not being able to stop changing. You can’t hang on to yourself. You don’t have to try not to hang on to yourself. It can’t be done. And that is salvation. Memento mori: be mindful of death. Gurdjieff says in one of his books that the most important thing for anyone to realize is that you and every person you see will soon be dead. See, it sounds so gloomy to us because we have devised a culture fundamentally resisting death.


A Happy Death


I love the story of a conversation at an English country house at a dinner party, where the hostess started up the question of death and asked the various guests what they thought was going to happen to them when they die. And some thought about reincarnation, and others thought about different planes of being, and others thought they were going to be annihilated. But none of the guests had answered except Sir Roderick, who was a kind of a military type, but a very devout pillar of the Church of England. He was the church warden, chief, of the vestry in the local country parish. And the lady said, “Sir Roderick, you haven’t said a word. What do you think is going to happen to you when you die?” “Oh,” he said, “I’m perfectly certain I shall go to heaven and enjoy everlasting bliss. But I wish you wouldn’t indulge in such a depressing conversation.”


It’s true, isn’t it? Death, in the Western world, is a real problem. We hush it up. We pretend it hasn’t happened. Our morticians, who are very smart commercial operators, know exactly what’s expected of them. And they make death just awful by pretending it doesn’t happen. See, what happens—you go to a hospital, and you’re at the end; you’ve got terminal cancer. And all your friends come around, and they wear false smiles and they say, “Cheer up, you’ll be alright. In a few days from now you’ll be back home, and we’ll go out for a picnic again.” The doctors have their bedside manners. See, a doctor is absolutely helpless with a terminal case. Because a doctor is, by social definition, a healer. He’s not allowed to help you die. He’s out of role, even though—I mean—he may sneak behind the rules and do it. But he’s got to heal you, so he’s got to keep you, indefinitely, on the end of tubes and all kinds of things, while there’s a certain grave demeanor to all this, and all the nurses are so pleasant and so totally distant, because they know this is death. And they may be frank with you, that’s why they feel distant. It’s not that they’re not concerned. It’s not that they are heartless people. But that they just don’t know how to be frank. Like lots of people, when they meet a drunk, they don’t know what to do with a drunk. Because he’s not behaving right. So when you’re dying you’re not behaving right! You’re supposed to live! See?


So we don’t know what to do with a dying person. We don’t get around that person and say, “Listen. Now, listen, man. Listen, I got the news for you! You’re gonna die. And this is going to be great! Look! No more responsibilities! Don’t have to pay those bills anymore! Don’t have to worry about anything! You’re going to just die! And let’s go out with a bang! Let’s have a party! See? We’ll put some of that morphine in you so you won’t hurt too much. We’re going to prop you up in bed and we’re going to bring all our friends around, and we’re going to have champagne, and you’re going to die at the end of it, see? And it’s going to be just marvelous! Just like being born!”


See, when we have birth problems—see, all women used to think that birth had to be painful; it was good for them. It was one of those things you had to suffer, because you’d been screwing around with people, and therefore, you had to have a child, and it’s going to hurt. And then the doctors got together and they scratched their heads, and a man called [Grante DeGreed [?]] said, “No, birth doesn’t hurt. It’s natural. All you’ve got to do is talk these women into the idea that it doesn’t hurt, and these so-called pains are just tensions, and that birth is great. It’s not a disease, it’s not really something you ought to go to the hospital for.” Because you associate hospitals with diseases and sickness. Birth isn’t sickness.


Alright, now let’s do some new thinking. What about death? Is death sickness? Or is it a healthy natural event, like being born? Of course it is. So a little change in social attitude about this will fortify everybody else. If I’m alone and all my relatives are moaning and pretending it’s going to be hard for me, I’ve got to challenge the whole bunch of them. Get my dander up and say, “Listen, damn you, I don’t want all this thing around here. You’ve got to take a different attitude about my death.” Well, that’s hard. But if everybody helps me, and we do—we’re all one body—they all come around and say, “Congratulations, you’re going to die!” Liberation! Liberation now, you see?


Because, just before you die—look, I know very well a skillful priest, handling a person dying, can do this for them. But he has to talk very, very, very straight. And he has to say, “Listen, these doctors—don’t you pay any attention to them. They’re trying to amuse you and deceive you. You’re going to die. This isn’t terrible, but it’s just going to be the end of you, as a system of memories. And so you’ve got a great chance—right now, before it happens—to let go of everything. Because you know it’s going to go, and this is going to help you. It’s going to help you let go of everything. So if you have any possessions left, give them away. Give everything away. And if you have anything to say that you felt you ought to say before you die—that you are kind of hanging on to and it’s bothering you—say it.”


I don’t mean, necessarily, a last confession. But say—it’s said that Adlai Stevenson, shortly before he died, said that he’d been making a monkey of himself because he didn’t agree with the government’s policy about something or other. You know? He had to get that off his chest, because he had a little thought in the back of his mind that things were catching up with him. You see? So the moment comes when this thing called death has to be taken completely. Not as some ghastly accident. Something that—oh, your friends are going to stay away because you’re awful. I mean, sometimes, people—when they die—are in a very unpleasant physical condition. They don’t smell good, they don’t look good, and so on. But an enormous amount can be done with scientific methods to make things reasonably tidy from a purely sensory point of view.


But the main thing is the attitude that death is as positive as birth, and should be a matter for rejoicing, because death is the symbol of the liberation. There is a wonderful saying that Ananda Coomaraswamy used to quote: “I pray that death will not come and find me still unannihilated.” In other words, that man dies happy if there is no one to die. In other words, if the ego has disappeared before death caught up with it. But, you see, the knowledge of death helps the ego to disappear because it tells you you can’t hang on.


So what we need—if we’re going to have a good religion around, that’s one of the places where it can start. Having, I don’t know—nowadays, I suppose, they’d call it the Institution for Creative Dying. But something like that. You can have one department where you can have [a] champagne cocktail party to die with, another department where you can have glorious religious rituals, and priests, and things like that; another department where you can have psychedelic drugs, another department where you can have special kinds of music. Anything, you know? All these arrangements will be provided for in a hospital for delightful dying. But that’s the thing: to go out with a bang instead of a whimper.


Raising the Alarm


I was talking a great deal yesterday afternoon about the Buddhist attitutde to change, to death, to the transience of the world, and was showing that preachers of all kinds stir people up in the beginning by alarming them about change. That’s like somebody, you know, actually raising an alarm, just in the same way as if I want to pay you a visit I ring the doorbell, and then we can come in and I don’t need to raise an alarm anymore. So in the same way, it sounds terrible, you see, that everything is going to die and pass away, and here you are, thinking that happiness, sanity, and security consist in clinging on to things which can’t be clung to, and in any case there isn’t anybody to cling to them. The whole thing is a weaving of smoke.


So that’s the initial standpoint. But as soon as you really discover this, and you stop clinging to change, then everything is quite different. It becomes amazing. Not only do all your senses become more wide awake, not only do you feel almost that you’re walking on air, but you see, finally, that there is no duality; no difference between the ordinary world and the nirvāṇa world. They’re the same world, but what makes the difference is the point of view. And, of course, if you keep identifying yourself with some sort of stable entity that sits and watches the world go by, you don’t acknowledge your union, your inseparatability, from everything else that there is. You go by with all the rest of the things. But if you insist on trying to take a permanant stand, on trying to be a permanant witness of the flux, then it grates against you, and you feel very uncomfortable.


But it is a fundamental feeling in most of us that we are such witnesses. We feel that, behind the stream of our thoughts, of our feelings, and our experiences, there is something which is the thinker, the feeler, and the experiencer. Not recognizing that that is itself a thought, feeling, or experiece, and it belongs within and not outside the changing panorama of experience. It’s what you call a cue signal. In other words, when you telephone, and your telephone conversation is being tape recorded, it’s the law that there shall be a beep every so many seconds. And that beep cues you in to the fact that this conversation is recorded. So, in a very similar way, in our everyday experience there’s a beep which tells us this is a continuous experience which is mine. Beep!


In the same way, for example, it is a cue signal when a composer arranges some music, and he keeps in it a recurrent theme, but he makes many variations on it. Or, more subtle still, he keeps within it a consistent style, so you know that it’s Mozart all the way along, because that sounds like Mozart. But there isn’t, as it were, a constant noise going all the way through to tell you it’s continuous—although, in Hindu music, they do have something called the drone. There is, behind all the drums and every kind of singing, something that goes “Nnnneeeeeeoooooooiiiinnggg,” and it always sounds the note which is the tonic of the scale being used. But in Hindu music, that drone represents the eternal Self, the Brahman, behind all the changing forms of nature. But that’s only a symbol. And to find out what is eternal you can’t make an image of it; you can’t hold on to it. And so it’s psychologically more condusive to liberation to remember that the thinker—or the feeler, or the experiencer—and the experiences are all together. They’re all one. But if, out of anxiety, you try to stabilize—keep permanent—the separate observer, you are in for conflict.


The World as Void


Of course, the separate observer—the thinker of the thoughts—is an abstraction which we create out of memory. We think of the self—the ego, rather—as a repository of memories; a kind of safety deposit box, or record, or filing cabinet place, where all our experiences are stored. Now, that’s not a very good idea. It’s more that memory is a dynamic system, not a storage system. It’s a repitition of rhythms, and these rhythms are all part and parcel of the ongoing flow of present experience. In other words, first of all, how do you distinguish between something known now, and a memory? Actually, you don’t know anything at all until you remember it. Because if something happens that is purely instantaneous—if a light flashes, or, to be more accurate, if there is a flash, lasting only one millionth of a second, you probably wouldn’t experience it, because it wouldn’t give you enough time to remember it.


We say in customary speech, “Well, it has to make an impression.” So, in a way, all present knowledge is memory, because you look at something, and for a while the rods and cones in your retina respond to that, and they do their stuff—jiggle, jiggle, jiggle; it’s all vibration—and so as you look at things, they set up a series of echoes in your brain. And these echoes keep reverberating, because the brain is very complicated. First of all, everything you know is remembered, but there is a way in which we distinguish between seeing somebody here now, and the memory of having seen somebody else who’s not here now, but whom you did see in the past, and you know perfectly well, when you remember that other person’s face, it’s not an experience of the person being here. How is this? Because memory signals have a different cue attached to them than present-time signals. They come on a different kind of vibration. Sometimes, however, the wiring gets mixed up, and present experiences come to us with a memory cue attached to them, and then we have what is called a déjà vu experience: we’re quite sure we’ve experienced this thing before.


But the problem that we don’t see—don’t ordinarily recognize—is that, although memory is a series of signals with a special kind of cue attached to them so that we don’t confuse them with present experience, they are actually all part of the same thing as present experience; they are all part of this constantly flowing life process, and there is no separate witness standing aside from the process, watching it go by. You’re all involved in it. Now, accepting that, you see—going with that; although, at first, it sounds like the knell of doom—is, if you don’t clutch it anymore, splended. That’s why I said that death should be occasion for great celebration. That people should say “Happy death!” to you, and always surround death with joyous rites, because this is the opportunity for the greatest of all experiences, when you can finally let go because you know there’s nothing else to do.


There was a kamikaze pilot who escaped because his plane—that he was flying at an American aircraft carrier—went wrong, and he landed in the water instead of hitting the plane, so he survived. But he said afterwards that he had the most extraordinary state of exaltation. It wasn’t a kind of patriotic ecstasy. But the very thought that, in a moment, he would cease to exist—he would just be gone—for some mysterious reason that he couldn’t understand, made him feel absolutely like a god.


Well then, in Buddhist philosophy this sort of annihilation of oneself, this acceptance of change, is the doctrine of the world as the void. This doctrine did not emerge very clearly, very prominently, in Buddhism until quite a while after Gautama the Buddha had lived. We begin to find this, though, becoming prominent about the year 100 B.C., and by 200 A.D. it had reached its peak. And it was developed by the Mahāyāna Buddhists, and it is the doctrine of a whole class of literature which goes by this complex name: Prajñāpāramitā. Now, ‘prajna’ means wisdom. ‘Paramita,’ a crossing over, or going beyond. There is a small Prajñāpāramitā sūtra, a big Prajñāpāramitā sūtra, and then there’s a little short summary of the whole thing called the hṛdaya, or Heart Sutra, and that is recited by Buddhists all over Northern Asia, Tibet, China, and Japan, and it contains the saying, “That which is void is precisely the world of form, that which is form is precisely the void.” Form is emptiness, emptiness is form, and so on, and it elaborates on this theme. It’s very short, but it’s always chanted at important Buddhist ceremonies. And so it is supposed—by scholars of all kinds who have a missionary background—that the Buddhists are nihilists; that they teach that the world is really nothing, there isn’t anything, and that there seems to be something is purely an illusion. But, of course, this philosophy is much more subtle than that.


The main person who was responsible for developing and maturing this philosophy was Nagarjuna, and he lived about 200 A.D.—one of the most astonishing minds that the human race has ever produced. And the name of Nagarjuna’s school of thought is Madhyamaka, which means, really, the Doctrine of the Middle Way. But it’s sometimes also called the Doctrine of Emptiness, or Śūnyavāda, from the basic word śūnya, or sometimes śūnya has -ta added on the end, and that -ta means ‘-ness’—‘emptiness.’


Voiding the World


Well, then, emptiness means, essentially, transience. That’s the first thing it means. Nothing to grasp, nothing permanent, nothing to hold on to. But it means this with special reference to ideas of reality, ideas of God, ideas of the Self, the Brahman, anything you like. What it means is that reality escapes all concepts. If you say there is a God, that’s a concept; if you say there is no God, that’s a concept. And Nagarjuna is saying that, always, your concepts will prove to be attempts to catch water in a sieve, or wrap it up in a parcel. So he invented a method of teaching Buddhism which was an extension of the dialectic method that the Buddha himself first used. And this became the great way of studying, especially at the University of Nalanda—which has been reestablished in modern times, but, of course, it was destroyed by the Muslims when they invaded India—the University of Nalanda, where the dialectic method of enlightenment was taught.


The dialectic method is perfectly simple. It can be done with an individual student and a teacher, or with a group of students and a teacher. And you would be amazed how effective it is when it involves precious little more than discussion. Some of you, no doubt, have attended tea groups, blab-labs, in which people are there, and they don’t know quite why they’re there, and there’s some sort of a so-called resource person to disturb them. And after a while they get the most incredible emotions, and somebody tries to dominate the discussion of the group, say, and then the group kind of goes into the question of why he’s trying to dominate it, and so on and so forth. Well, these were the original blab-labs, and they have been repeated in modern times with the most startling effects. That is to say, the teacher gradually elicits from his participant students what are their basic premises of life. What is your metaphysic, in the sense—I’m not using metaphysic in a kind of a spiritual sense, but what are your basic assumptions? What real ideas do you operate on as to what is right and what is wrong, what is the good life and what is not? What arguments are you going to argue strongest? Where do you take your stand? The teacher soon finds this out, for each individual concerned, and then he demolishes it. He absolutely takes away that person’s compass. And so they start getting very frightened, and say to the teacher, “All right, I see now. Of course I can’t depend on this, but what should I depend on?” And unfortunately, the teacher doesn’t offer any alternative suggestions, but simply goes on to examine the question, “Why do you think you have to have something to depend on?” Now, this is kept up over quite a period, and the only thing that keeps the students from going insane is the presence of a teacher who seems to be perfectly happy, but is not proposing any ideas. He’s only demolishing them.


So we get, finally—not quite finally—to the void; the śūnya. And what then? When you get to the void there is an enormous and unbelievable sense of relief. That’s nirvāṇa. “Whew,” as I gave a proper English translation of nirvāṇa. “Aaaah. Great.” So they are liberated, and yet they can’t quite say why or what it is that they found out, so they call it the void. But Nagarjuna went on to say, “You mustn’t cling to the void.” You have to void the void. And so the void of nonvoid is the great state, as it were, of Nagarjuna’s Buddhism. But you must remember that all that has been voided, all that has been denied, are those concepts in which one has hitherto attempted to pin down what is real.


In Zen Buddhist texts they say, “You cannot nail a peg into the sky.” And so, to be a man of the sky, a man of the void, is also called ‘a man not depending on anything.’ And when you’re not hung on anything you are the only thing that isn’t hung on anything—which is the universe. Which doesn’t hang, you see. Where would it hang? It has no place to fall on, even though it may be dropping; there will never be the crash of it landing on a concrete floor somewhere. But the reason for that is that it won’t crash below because it doesn’t hang above. And so there is a poem, in Chinese, which speaks of such a person as having above, not a tile to cover the head; below, not an inch of ground on which to stand.


And, you see, this—which, to people like us, who are accustomed to rich imageries of the divine; the loving father in heaven, who has laid down the eternal laws. Oh word of God incarnate, oh wisdom from above, oh truth unchanged unchanging, oh light of life and love. The wisdom from which the hallowed page, a lantern for our footsteps, shines out from age to age. See, so that’s very nice. We feel we know where we are, and that it’s all been written down, and that, in heaven, the Lord God is resplendant with glory, with all the colors of the rainbow, with all the saints and angels around, and everything like that. So we feel that it’s positive, that we’ve got a real rip-roaring gutsy religion full of color and so on. But it doesn’t work that way.


Consider Death Now


The more clear your image of God, the less powerful it is, because you’re clinging to it; the more it’s an idol. But voiding it completely isn’t going to turn it into what you think of as void. What would you think of as void? Being lost in a fog, so that it’s white all around, and you can’t see in any direction. Being in the darkness. Or the color of your head as perceived by your eyes. That’s probably the best illustration that we would think of as a void; because it isn’t black, it isn’t white, it isn’t anything. But that’s still not the void. Take the lesson from the head. How does your head look to your eyes? Well, I tell you: it looks like what you see out in front of you, because all that you see out in front of you is how you feel inside your head. So it’s the same with this.


And so, for this reason, the great sixth patriarch, Huineng, in China, said it was a great mistake for those who are practicing Buddhist meditation to try to make their minds empty. And a lot of people tried to do that. They sat down and tried to have no thoughts whatever in their minds. Not only no thoughts, but no sense experiences, so they’d close their eyes, they’d plug up their ears, and generally go in for sensory deprivation. Well, sensory deprivation, if you know how to handle it, can be quite interesting. It’ll have the same sort of results as taking LSD, or something like that, and there are special labs made nowdays where you can be sensorily deprived to an amazing degree.


But if you’re a good yogi this doesn’t bother you at all. Sends some people crazy. But if you dig this world, you can have a marvelous time in a sensory deprivation scene. Also, especially, if they get you into a condition of weightlessness. Skin divers, going down below a certain number of feet—I don’t know exactly how far it is—get a sense of weightlessness, and at the same time this deprives them of every sense of responsibility. They become alarmingly happy, and they have been known to simply take off their masks and offer them to a fish. And of course they then drown. So if you skin dive, you have to keep your eye on the time. You have to have a water watch or a friend who’s got a string attached to you. If you go down that far, and at a certain specific time you know you have got to get back, however happy you feel, and however much inclined to say, “Survival? Survival? What the hell’s the point of that?” And this is happening to the men who go out into space. They increasingly find that they have to have automatic controls to bring them back. Quite aside that they can’t change in any way from the spaceship. Now isn’t that interesting?


Can you become weightless here? I said a little while ago that the person who really accepts transience begins to feel weightless. When Suzuki was asked, “What is it like to have experienced satori?”— enlightenment—he said, “It’s just like ordinary everyday experience, but about two inches off the ground.” Zhuang Zhou, the Taoist, said, “It is easy enough to stand still, the difficulty is to walk without touching the ground.” Now why do you feel so heavy? It isn’t just a matter of gravitation and weight. It is that you feel that you are carrying your body around. So there is a kōan in Zen Buddhism: “Who is it that carries this corpse around?” Common speech expresses this all of the time: life is a drag. I feel like I’m just dragging myself around. My body is a burden to me. To whom? To whom? That’s the question, you see? And when there is nobody left for whom the body can be a burden, the body isn’t a burden. But so long as you fight it, it is.


So then, when there is nobody left to resist the thing that we call change—which is simply another word for life—and when we dispel the illusion that we think our thoughts, instead of being just a stream of thoughts, and that we feel our feelings, instead of being just feelings; it’s like saying, you know, to feel the feelings is a redundant expression. It’s like saying, “Actually, I hear sounds,” for there are no sounds which are not heard. Hearing is sound. Seeing is sight. You don’t see sights. Sight-seeing is a ridiculous word! You could say just either ‘sighting,’ or ‘seeing,’ one or the other, but sightseeing is nonsense!


So we keep doubling our words, and this doubling is comparable to oscillation in an electrical system where there’s too much feedback. Where, you remember, in the old-fashioned telephone—where the receiver was separate from the mouthpiece, the transmitter—if you wanted to annoy someone who was abusing you on the telephone, you could make them listen to themselves by putting the receiver to the mouthpiece. But it actually didn’t have that effect; it set up oscillation. It started a howl that could be very, very hard on the ears. Same way if you turn a television camera at the monitor—that is to say, the television set in the studio—the whole thing will start to jiggle. The visual picture will be of oscillation. And the same thing happens here. When you get to think that you think your thoughts, the ‘you’ standing aside the thoughts has the same sort of consequence as seeing double, and then you think, “Can I observe the thinker thinking the thoughts?” Or, “I am worried, and I ought not to worry. But because I can’t stop worrying, I’m worried because I worry.” And you see where that could lead to. It leads to exactly the same situation that happens in the telephone, and that is what we call anxiety; trembling.


But his discipline that we’re talking about, of Nagarjuna’s, abolishes anxiety because you discover that no amount of anxiety makes any difference to anything that’s going to happen. In other words, from the first standpoint, the worst is going to happen: you’re all going to die. And don’t just put it off in the back of your mind and say, “I’ll consider that later.” It’s the most important thing to consider now, because it is the mercy of nature, because it’s going to enable you to let go and not defend yourself all the time; waste all energies in self-defense.


Thunderous Silence


So this doctrine of the void is really the basis of the whole Mahāyāna movement in Buddhism. It’s marvelous. The void is, of course, in Buddhist imagery, symbolized by a mirror, because a mirror has no color and yet reflects all colors. When this man I talked of, Huineng, said that you shouldn’t just try to cultivate a blank mind, what he said was this: the void—śūnyatā—is like space. Now, space contains everything—the mountains, the oceans, the stars, the good people and the bad people, the plants, the animals, everything. The mind in us—the true mind—is like that. You will find that when Buddhists use the word ‘mind’—they’ve several words for ‘mind,’ but I’m not going into the technicality at the moment—they mean ‘space.’ See, space is your mind. It’s very difficult for us to see that because we think we’re in space, and look out at it. There are various kinds of space. There’s visual space: distance. There is audible space: silence. There is temporal space: as we say, between times. There is musical space: so-called distance between intervals, or the intervals between tones, rather; quite a different kind of space than temporal or visual space. There’s tangible space. But all these spaces, you see, are the mind. They’re the dimensions of consciousness.


And so, this great space which every one of us apprehends from a slightly different point of view—in which the universe moves—this is the mind. So it’s represented by a mirror, because although the mirror has no color, it is for that reason able to receive all the different colors. Meister Eckhart said, “In order to see color, my eye has to be free from color.” So, in the same way, in order not only to see, but also to hear, to think, to feel, you have to have an empty head. And the reason why you are not aware of your brain cells—you’re only aware of your brain cells if you get a tumor or something in the brain, when it gets sick—but in the ordinary way, you are totally unconscious of your brain cells; they’re void. And for that reason you see everything else.


So that’s the central principle of the Mahāyāna. And it works in such a way, you see, that it releases people from the notion that Buddhism is clinging to the void. This was very important when Buddhism went into China. The Chinese really dug this, because Chinese are a very practical people, and when they found these Hindu Buddhist monks trying to empty their minds and to sit perfectly still and not to engage in any family activities—they were celibates—Chinese thought they were crazy. Why do that? And so the Chinese reformed Buddhism, and they allowed Buddhist priests to marry. And in fact, what they especially enjoyed was a sūtra that came from India, in which a layman—who was a wealthy merchant called Vimalakīrti—out-argued all the other disciples of Buddha. And of course—you know, these are these dialectic arguments that are very, very intense things—if you win the argument, everybody else has to be your disciple. So Vimalakīrti, the layman, won the debate, even with Mañjuśrī, who is the bodhisattva of supreme wisdom. They all had, you see, a contest to define the void, and all of them gave their definitions. Finally, Mañjuśrī gave his, and Vimalakīrti was asked, then, for his definition, and he said nothing, and so he won the whole argument. The thunderous silence.

The World as Emptiness (Part 2)

Alan Watts

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