“… Emptiness teachings … transform life in a way that makes it light-hearted, joyful and vibrantly alive …” ~ Greg Goode
How Can Emptiness Help with Suffering?
Buddhism is emphatic about the connection between the emptiness teachings and the alleviation of suffering. But how does this work? To answer this question, I find the Buddhist legend about Gautama leaving home to be quite instructive. The legend helps us understand what Buddhism means by suffering, and how emptiness teachings can alleviate it.
According to the legend, which is a beloved part of the Buddhist teachings, Gautama was a sheltered prince in India who grew up in a palace where the only people he came across were young, healthy and attractive. He grew up, got married and had a son. One week, on four successive days, he went hunting and saw four things he had never seen during his entire life. An old person. A sick person. A corpse. And a sramana, which is a yogi or renunciant who dedicates his or her life to investigating spiritual questions.
Gautama was deeply shaken, and was motivated to become a sramana in order to investigate the matters pertaining to life and death. He came to liberation, and out of compassion for others, shared his discoveries.
There are two points about this legend that help pinpoint what Buddhism means by suffering.
- Gautama’s life was already going well before he ever began seeking. According to the legend, he was royalty. The legend doesn’t mention any sufferings related to food, shelter or interpersonal relations.
- The issues that upset Gautama had to do with human impermanence and mortality. Being a member of the royalty was perhaps an easy, pleasant life, but it was not enough to counteract these existential issues.
Of course, after a few thousand years, Buddhism has developed activities and practices for virtually every facet of life, and like other forms of spirituality, Buddhist activities can make life beautiful. But these two points about Gautama help us understand the point of his own search. It was about the big stuff, the existential issues surrounding life, impermanence and death.
If we regard events to have an objective meaning for our life (and vice-versa), and if we regard our life to be metaphysically independent and governed by the self-same identity through time, we’ll cling to life and protest as we notice changes we don’t like. We’ll regard life as something that we think ought to really and truly be there, and maybe forever. In the midst of this clinging, we will be painfully shaken when we confront evidence of life fading away and ending. And through time, the evidence gets stronger and stronger.
Suffering is said to come from conceiving that we and the world have fixed, independent and unchangeable natures that exist on their own without help from anything else. We expect that there is a true way that self and world truly are and ought to be. These expectations are unrealistic and prevent us from granting things the freedom to come and go and change. We like pleasant things to abide permanently, and unpleasant things to never occur. We experience suffering when we actually encounter comings, goings and change. Suffering often takes the form of anger, indignation, existential anxiety, and even a sense that, as they say in TV sitcoms, “something is wrong with this picture.”
One of Gautama’s liberating discoveries was that one’s life (and indeed all other things) are pervaded by impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and no-self. Things are pervaded by impermanence because they don’t last forever. Things are pervaded by unsatisfactoriness, not only because pleasant things come to an end and unpleasant things begin, but more profoundly because if our happiness depends on objects or states that come and go, we will not be able to find deep satisfaction. And things are pervaded by no-self because under even extremely close examination, there’s no evidence that anything has an inherent nature or an objective existence.
The Emptiness Antidote
The emptiness teachings serve as an antidote to this existential suffering by inspiring peace, and freedom from clinging to changing objects. Peace can be experienced in the midst of flux. Sometimes this may sound like bad news. One may think, “So, emptiness teachings are gonna make it easier to die? How depressing!” But the emptiness teachings make it easier to live. They remove suffering by removing existential clinging, which is caused by the deep-seated but false demands for permanence, pleasantness and self-identity. If we’re OK about the big stuff, we’ll have ways of transforming the small stuff as well. Emptiness teachings do not deny life; they transform life in a way that makes it light-hearted, joyful and vibrantly alive.
The emptiness teachings examine the supposed inherent self; they allow you to realize that there isn’t one. But the teachings are not limited to examining one’s self. They also examine the entire range of other beings and objects. The reason for such a broad spectrum is this. We may have realized that our self is empty. But if there is anything we still regard as inherent, self-natured or objectively existent, our sense of inherency is not gone. We can always use those other things that we still regard as inherent as a pretext to return to thinking that we ourselves are also inherent. And suffering can return. So there is nothing that the emptiness teachings say not to investigate.
Even emptiness must be investigated sooner or later, because not even emptiness is inherent, self-natured or objectively existent.
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In Part 4 of this 10-part series … Greg will cover “The Dialectical Approach” to emptiness and “The Buddhist” perspective on emptiness … so stay tuned …
We are honored to publish this guest post series authored by Greg Goode and is sourced from his website. Greg is one of the teachers in Stillness Speaks library so please visit his teacher’s page for comprehensive information about his work.
Images: (all edited and logo added) 1) & 3) to 5) are CCO Public Domain, 1) Happiness Joy by fancycrave1, 3), Buddha by PeteLinforth, 4) Spiral by ractapopulous, 5) Colorful by tammcd.
Image: 2) Buddha encounters disease, old age, death, and ascetic – purchased from dreamstime for use only at this website (this image is not permitted to be shared separate from this post).