The world presents us with endless encounters and challenges, and finding the “right” response for each experience seems crucial. But some Eastern schools of thought find fault with this.
The focus of my previous article centered on the strange persistence of distinctions that we make about reality as we interact with the external world and in our minds as well. By distinctions, I mean simply concepts that seem to give us the ability to see differences between things. Finding distinctions is considered a sign of intelligence in the Western world. The ability to distinguish between people to make friends with and people to avoid is a key skill of many successful individuals. So it seems that many distinctions serve our interests well and they are the sign of a discriminating person, someone with a sharp eye and a keen intellect.
There is no “guide” for how to make distinctions; sometimes they are visible and specific (e.g., white versus black), sometimes they are abstract (e.g., finite versus infinite), and sometimes they are a bit of both (e.g., busy versus idle). Regardless of the kinds of distinctions we see in reality or how nuanced our view of the world is, my actual argument is that distinctions too often end up siphoning our energy by distracting us from more abstract considerations. Any kind of thinking that draws us into smaller and narrower thoughts that focus obsessively on even more categories and further distinctions absorbs our attention. In fact, any contrast will suffice to show how obsessed we can easily become once we use distinctions as a form of questioning reality—for example, this distinction: am I attractive or unattractive?
To make the point further, let us consider an even narrower distinction. Suppose that I now believe that there are “people with attractive noses” and “people with ugly noses” in the world. I could soon begin to obsess over this difference and might feel pressured to think about the value of cosmetic surgery—something that was never important to me before this distinction existed in my mind.
Is it necessary to think in terms of narrow distinctions? Young children, for example, lack the capacity for subtle distinctions and live in an internal world that is simpler. Yet, by the time we enter adulthood, we have already learned how to be defined by distinctions, yet we rarely understand how to transcend them. Many people live in the prison of their own worldview, believing that these are distinctions that are really “out there” in the world, rather than being created by their own subjective perspective. Religious fanaticism, extreme nationalism, and many other “isms” all provide evidence of how easily people can become “stuck” in the trap of distinctions.
So, we have considered success in life as a result of making good distinctions, and we have considered funny noses, as well as religious fanaticism, as the result of bad distinctions. So the question to ask now is this: are distinctions real things? The modern world of European thinking that we inhabit in the US and other countries is built on a tradition dating back to Plato that believes that things in the world have built-in attributes that define their essence. To make this absurdly clear, consider that a chair has certain attributes (such as legs or an armrest) that a fish does not have, and vice versa. These attributes of things are precisely where distinctions are born, and this Platonic philosophy, where things have their own essence, is called essentialism. Western philosophers have long argued that an understanding of the essence of things is what distinguishes a wise person from a fool.
But now let us consider this scene: there is a forest, and in it are many trees. Near an alcove, one tree is very tall and next to it, another is short. Anyone looking at these two trees will accept that this contrast between tall trees and short trees is a real, visible distinction and that “tallness” is an attribute of the essence of trees (for example, a tree of zero height is impossible).
But let us now imagine that this forest existed 250 million years ago here on earth, long before humans evolved. At this very primordially early point in earth history, does it matter that any tree is “tall” and any other is “short”? This is a human distinction and makes no sense in the absence of an observer. There are many such distinctions which, once we remove the human perspective, become irrelevant, even unreal. To say that the temperature at the surface of our sun (about 10,000 Fahrenheit or 5,600 Celsius) is hot versus cold makes sense only in the presence of humans. In the world of suns, this temperature isn’t particularly hot or cold, it just is. Even the concept of temperature is irrelevant – it’s merely a human measurement, meaningless in the realm of the suns.
In fact, all distinctions are products of an observing, present mind; they are not “out there” in the physical world, yet they seem to exert power over our reality. And here is a familiar example: the distinction between the “good past” and the “bad present,” evident in the thinking of many nostalgic people. To them, the past was always happier and better than the present—that’s the nature of nostalgia—but such people are often unaware of how they select the best past memories to compare with the worst current events. Instead of living in the marvel of their present, such people may instead wallow in memories, becoming disconnected from the here and now. Real distinctions, false differences. As we can see, distinctions can distort as well as distract our thinking.
The problem isn’t to find a way to avoid thinking, but rather to know when to push back useless distinctions. To accomplish this, our mental health must turn to some tool for escape, for, without it, we are prisoners stuck within our beliefs. In fact, several people I’ve known who tragically turned to suicide did so out a paralyzing inability to get out of quicksand of their own false distinctions about reality. It is for this reason that a method for transcendence is crucially important. But how to find one?
Indeed, one total way to transcend the mouse trap of distinctions and categories is by transcending all of them. For this goal, the most powerful exercise is one which contemplates nothingness with complete focus. But there are two ways to do this: one is impossible, and the other is entirely in our grasp.
Of the first kind of encounter with nothingness, I had an early introduction to the impossible form of mental transcendence. One day, when I was 7 years old, my father mentioned the idea of meditating on nothingness. He introduced this idea as a challenge, stating that it was very difficult because “the mind is a machine and it cannot stop.” I tried and tried… and tried, never succeeding for more than a few seconds. In fact, try as we might, we will find that contemplating nothingness is an impossible thought because to think is to think about something. Any human experience, including thinking, always has a subject, and our presence is already a something that destroys the nothingness we are trying to contemplate. Such thinking, therefore, is an impossibility.
But there is a seed for a different kind of reflection on nothingness. It lies at the heart of certain philosophical and religious texts that aim to quiet the mind, rather than to stimulate it to work harder.
This tranquility is described in various ways; but let us remain among the Tibetan Buddhists informed by certain Indian meditative traditions. For them, nothingness isn’t merely a form of contemplation, it is a way of seeing reality, because they believe that reality itself is made of nothingness to begin with.
This is a rich and long tradition, but it can be somewhat summarized through the words of a few masters. For example, the Prasangika Madhyamaka school (known as the The Middle Way Consequence school) is one Tibetan Buddhist tradition that explores the concept of the “emptiness” or “nothingness” that we are considering. It calls this concept śūnyatā (from the original Sanskrit, which refers to an absence of inherent existence in all phenomena). Śūnyatā is a totality without form or distinction; it is the voidness that defines ultimate reality. It is not a denial of existence (which is how the Western world defines the concept of nothingness); instead it is the state of undefinable formlessness out of which all distinctions and beings appear to materialize. Śūnyatā is not a void, it is the world before distinctions emerge. And so, in śūnyatā, there is something, but it is not approachable by any mind that sees categories, distinctions, or differences, since these separate any whole into smaller elements, as we have discussed. You could think of the formlessness of śūnyatā as the opposite of Plato and his ideal forms in Western philosophy.
For Tibetan philosophy, what justifies this nothingness is the fact that everything derives from something else; nothing exists by itself. To clarify this, notable scholars and texts from this Buddhist tradition offer profound insights into the concept.
Nagarjuna, founder of Madhyamaka, the philosophical Middle Way School (Source)
Nagarjuna, a foundational figure in Madhyamaka philosophy, wrote that “Whatever is dependently co-arisen, that is explained to be emptiness.” This quote argues that things exist interdependently and are devoid of intrinsic nature. Because they are thoroughly interconnected, all things lack their own reality. We might note that this comment was made centuries before modern physics found that particles surround a non-physical nucleus, so that, at its most fundamental core, physical matter is made up mostly of empty space between particles. Thus physics itself can be described exactly through that quote: whatever is dependently co-arisen, that is explained to be emptiness.
The fact that everything is connected to something else and is derived from something else means that nothing has a true self, a true origin that is separate from everything else. Selfhood is seen by Tibetan Buddhists as an illusion in things, and also in people. We might consider that we come from other beings, and our own DNA is entirely derived from our ancestors, so we are not “us” in any original sense, either. There is no actual “self-existence,” everything is derived and connected.
And that is why Chandrakirti, another philosopher of the Madhyamaka school, once said “Things lacking in self-existence are never real.” To these Buddhists, “real” means existing independently, so that clinging to intrinsic existence (selfhood) of phenomena or beings leads to suffering and samsara, the cyclic existence of continual delusion.
Likewise, a third philosopher, Shantideva, wrote a classic text, “Bodhisattvacaryāvatāra” (The Way of the Bodhisattva), which the Dalai Lama has explored at length:
Still, in my view, extended treatments are not required here — the meaning of this text comes down to two small stanzas:
“There is nothing”—when this is asserted,
No thing is there to be examined.
How can a “nothing,” wholly unsupported,
Rest before the mind as something present?
When something and its nonexistence
Both are absent from before the mind,
No other option does the latter have:
It comes to perfect rest, from concepts free.
That is, when intrinsic existence and non-existence are both negated, the mind comes to rest in a non-conceptual understanding of reality, which is emptiness – a world without distinction, entirely formless, but entirely free. Since this is the very state that the mind (whose nature is to discern things from other things) is trying to avoid, it is (without telling us) functioning as a delusion machine. To experience the horizon of śūnyatā, our mind must surrender its habit for conceptual control.
In brief, then: what have we learned from our Tibetan elders? Three facts. Firstly, that all phenomena arise dependently around each other, and hence, are empty of a self-sustaining, intrinsic nature. Second, that nothingness reveals one profound and subtle secret of reality: it is beyond organized thought. And, finally, to accept nothingness is not to ponder an empty void, but to realize how this fabric of interwoven causality has no anchor and no origin. The web of appearances demanding our participation is a consummate illusion in which distinctions play a part, but beyond these appearances lies our own greatest uncharted terrain.