Please join us at Gar Drolma for the continuing study group; Buddhist and Western Concepts Study Group. The group will meet on the 2nd Tuesday of each month.
The discussions will include reflecting on Buddhist and Western philosophical thinking about the mind, reviewing neurophysiological evidence concerning the body and mind, and discussing recent theories and ideas from physics. We will provide web links each month that provide relevant background information on the topics to be discussed to make it easier for everyone to participate in the discussion. The principal focus of the group is to attempt to reconcile Buddhist ideas and concepts about the body, mind, and universe with Western knowledge.
Tuesday Feb. 13
Emptiness: East and West
In the West the concept of emptiness is normally applied to physical space and usually means that there is nothing there (i.e., you can put things into it). If we apply the empty concept to forms we would say that the form is not solid, it is a phantasm. There is nothing there.
To help concretize this idea, when I was much younger, I once heard a scientist say that all of the matter in the sun, which comprises 1.4 x 1027 cubic meters of matter, if compressed (i.e., if they squeezed out the empty space between atoms), would fit into a thimble. And that was before they discovered that the components of atoms (protons and neutrons) were mostly empty space; that is, this was before they discovered quarks. Now, all of the matter of the sun, if compressed, would probably fit on a pinhead. So something that seems to have form can be mostly empty.
On the other hand, modern physics postulates a field of energy/matter that extends throughout the universe from which matter arises (Economist link below). From this perspective, there is actually no space anywhere that is “empty”. The empty space we perceive is actually matter/energy, but of a type that allows other matter/energy to move in to that space (e.g., when you fill a glass with water, you displace the air that pervaded the “empty” glass).
In Buddhism, the concept of emptiness is normally applied to perception and cognition (rather than space). One tries to experience the world without invoking our normal, automatic conceptualization of it. That is, one tries to experience the world empty of concepts. The reason for this is that the perception of forms triggers the activation of concepts which in turn cause thoughts to arise, and Buddhist believe that these thoughts prevent us from experiencing the true reality.
A well-known Buddhist technique for studying emptiness is to contemplate the sameness of objects and space by reciting the sayings from the Heart Sutra: “Form is emptiness and emptiness is form”. When we look at the world we see solid things and “empty” space. The Heart sutra suggests that we try to see the empty space as a form, to elevate it to the same level of perception as the objects/forms that we naturally perceive. Buddhist teachings maintain that this can change our perspective on reality and enable us to experience more awareness (shunyata or rigpa).
Buddhists also believe in something similar to the Western physicist’s field. Buddhists believe in relative and absolute truths. Relative truth is the world we perceive of form and emptiness. It is the world of separate objects with space between them. Absolute truth is mostly an unknown, although it is said to pervade all of reality and transcend limitations of existence or non-existence. It is a state beyond duality and intellectual understanding. Subjectively, it is described as being primordially pure intrinsic radiant awareness
So why do we pay attention to forms? From a Western perspective, we attend to objects that afford us opportunities. Over evolutionary time our senses have become focused on making us aware of objects that can help us or hinder us in our goals.
In contrast, the Buddhists say you should attempt to look at events occurring in the senses and mind with no consideration of whether there’s anything real behind them (first link below). You just perceive. This loosens the role of automatic cognitive processes, and can eventually lead to an experience of the absolute reality.
In this meeting we will discuss the two concepts of emptiness, explore the possibility of viewing percepts without activating concepts, consider the idea of a universal ground, and discuss how a change in cognition could potentially dramatically change our view of reality.
Economist. (2015). What is the universe made of? http://www.economist.com/sciencebriefs