Cosmopolitan Quaker discussion of emptiness in the Heart Sutra
After many weeks of snow, and medical and political distraction... back to the Sunday morning discussion with Quakers.
The reading for the day was from the Heart Sutra. The reading was very strong in saying that emptiness transcends consciousness, perception, form, and so on. But it wasn’t so clear on what “emptiness” IS.
After one key paragraph... I tried hard to parse the meaning, to translate the words on the page to something with an objective meaning. (i.e. “What the hell is this guy actually trying to say? Does it mean ANYTHING, really, or is it just empty gobbledegook like a lot of what I hear in the presidential debates?”) We have often discussed passages which have different meanings, depending on how you understand a word which was translated from some other language. But this time, it was a struggle to find ANY possible meaning at all.
After that paragraph, I broke in and said: “Hey! Maybe I can see a way to make this make sense! Please forgive... it’s not EXACTLY a joke.. but maybe ‘emptiness’ here means Minkowski space. It’s something which actually exists (we think) and is important and meaningful, PRIOR TO all the specific field strengths and patterns and states which can exist IN Minkowski space.” One or two people were horrified that I might interpret such an elevated philosophical feeling with something as mundane as Minkowski space... but I was amused a few paragraphs later when the sutra went on to describe the usual stuff (consciousness, perceptions, etc.) as like “waves” and ‘emptiness’ as like the water which the waves travel on!! Hey, that really does sound a WHOLE lot like Minkowksi space! OK so the sutra says we need to think explicitly about Minkowski space itself to make sense of our experience... and yes, there really is that great void, not unlike what we see looking up at stars on some nights.
But before we got to the waves, a different KIND of emptiness came into it. (If one really understands language...it is not SO surprising when humans shift definitions in midstream. It happens all the time. It often happens that the multiple concepts are all worthwhile, but do need to be distinguished to get a really clear understanding.)
The sutra urges us to be “empty” of all preconceptions, to attempt a kind of zero-based budgeting of our thoughts, starting from scratch in a way...
So I said: “THIS emptiness is not the blank slate of objective reality, of space-time, but the blank slate of the mind. (Like restarting from zero weights, a bit.) That is certainly important. ..
“I am reminded how many mystics will spend hours or days meditating on a physical object, like an apple or a fire in the fireplace or on a candle. For myself, I find more and more that there are WORDS which merit that kind of intense, focused meditation. In a way, the most important single message in this sutra is that OPEN-MINDEDNESS, openness, is one of the important words deserving that kind of attention. That is the kind of ‘emptiness’ which really matters here.”
I thought, but did not voice, my memory of Nietzsche’s “withdrawal and return,” of the final “return” scene in Voyage to Arcturus, and of a Rosicrucian meditation where an openness exercise is alternated with a radiant exercise. (And, oh yes, Elizabeth ... Noble.. childbirth exercises...alternating squeezing and relaxing.) The open phase is essential, but is not the whole story, and is not the ultimate goal.
This reminded me... that my concept of first-level sanity or “integrity” or “zhengqi”... can be seen as a kind of unification or “marriage” of the objective and subjective viewpoints, not CHOOSING between emptiness as Minkowski space (which may be our objective ground of existence, or alternatively whatever space eventually supplants it in physics) and emptiness as our subjective open mind, but fully integrating the objective and subjective points of views, as described in a couple of my published papers. In a way it is SIMILAR to the Alchemical Marriage (level two), but here there is no difference in VALUES between the two (as deep values exist only on the subjective side!),
only in expectations or predictions or cognitive aspects of life. “The mundane objective/subjective marriage of cognition”? But between body/brain and soul, the true Alchemical Marriage is more like a real marriage, a combining of values, a coalition of self and Self.
One person, more established in Quakers than anyone else in the room (including the moderator), asked: “Can I even say I am a Quaker really? I cannot claim to agree with the other things people say Quakers believe? I guess I am like Emerson, who said ‘I am ALMOST a Quaker.’”
But the rest of us noted that Quaker in the modern version (i.e. the new most common mainstream definition of the words among mainstream FGC Quakers) does not refer to specific BELIEFS. In fact, it is more a commitment to being open-minded, just like in the sutra. REALLY open, to all levels of existence. (If it were all mundane, why even come to Meeting? Not that anyone is excluded, if they don’t actively disrupt the group.) One person noted... hey, in reality, we need SPECIFIC beliefs, just to survive, and Quakers do not meet that need. But I note: that is like another part of the sutra, discussing the need and the inescapable reality of the IMPERMANENT – which reminds me of the states S(t) of actual universes or field theories defined OVER Minkowski space. (OK, so knowing the true Hamiltonian of the universe would be part of the great ‘emptiness’ too ?! Not impermanent...). The key point is that the greater objective reality, containing both mundane and esoteric variables, is highly specific (as in some belief systems, at least the ones which are not fuzzy and incoherent and logically inconsistent)... but NOT KNOWN to anyone on earth. Yes, our knowledge is fuzzy (to the extent that it has any connection to objective greater reality), but that does not mean that reality itself is fuzzy. Quakers do not CLAIM to know the detailed specifics of objective reality.
I am also reminded of what the US Constitution was intended to be (before various myopic bad guys started twisting it)... a framework, just like Quakers or world-class universities, in which a wide variety of competing ideas could flourish as PART of the larger system, governed by a kind of honorable competition. We ALSO need specific ideas and specific schools of thought, in a flux of growth and change and impermanence... schools like Rosicrucian Order and various orders of Sufis and yogas for example... but no rigidity about the details, and no monopoly nonsense stifling growth or the economy or the freedom/liberation of the mind and of the spirit. Just yesterday... having read Dark Money (which COMPLEMENTS the last chapter of “A G-Man’s Journal,” written by a conservative with vibes like Kasich’s).. I do worry a lot about the hack job lobotomy some folks are doing on the US lately.... the horrible “Magog” phenomenon just as bad as the “Gog” of the extreme sharia core of the international Moslem Brotherhood behind both ISIL and Cheney (and the patsies and blobs who empower them to make trouble). Will the human species survive? It is too early to rule out the possibility of a Judgment Day scenario... but every spiritless loveless rigid fundamentalist of all religious factions... should realize that this would not be what they want... that they should fear what might be coming for THEM as much as the most atheistic axe-murderer should. I do hope it doesn’t come to that, but the folks I see on TV lately., do pose that possibility. Especially if they should exercise their free will by choosing Cruz! (Unless Cruz truly changes... but how real is that? One may hope but...)
Of course, I can easily imagine some Zennies I have known going into orbit after seeing the above.
Buddhist clergy is a diverse lot, like Christian and Moslem clergy, etc.; whatever the founders taught, in all these religions, there are always some insensitive folks who use religious dogmatism as a way to pamper their ego. I still remember visiting Nara, in Japan, where people talk to this day about the nasty physical wars between monks with one color of hat versus monks with another color of hat, and places in China where people think one's chances of enlightenment depend n which way one bends the finger, just for its own sake, and they argue and forget which way is which....
In Tricycle, the magazine of American Buddhism (serving all groups), I was intrigued to read about the great debate at Samye... circa 670AD?... a place in Tibet... where the "nothingness" (Zen) Tibetan school basically lost the debate to the mindfulness school (which became the main Tibetan school), and then went in exile... to Shaolin. Not a Chinese cult after all. Zen has many great techniques, but in the end... sheer logic.. and any serious mindfulness... clearly points towards mindfulness as the sane choice, the only coherent choice between the two, in terms of goals. Techniques are another matter.