“… Emptiness teachings entail a radical critique of the notions of objective truth and independence. This is part of how one realizes that emptiness is empty. The teachings look at themselves …” ~ Greg Goode
“… the single reality that is beyond pointing, but which is what the self and everything is made out of …” ~ Greg Goode
When I began to study the emptiness teachings in earnest, I had already been familiar with the advaitic awareness-style teachings for many years. By “awareness-style teachings” I mean the teachings for which global, non-phenomenal awareness or Brahman is a foundational element. These teachings would include traditional Shankaracharyan Advaita-Vedanta, as well as the teachings coming from Ramana Maharshi, Nisargadatta Maharaj, Ranjit Maharaj, Krishna Menon (Sri Atmananda) and others. I was familiar with all of these.
So when I began to study the emptiness teachings, I found it altogether natural to equate the “emptiness” in the new teaching with the “awareness” mentioned in my earlier teachings. This actually caused confusion on my part, and made it much harder to understand what even the very best emptiness teachers were talking about.
So I thought I would put together this post to, hopefully, help spare you the confusion I experienced!
In the awareness teachings you often see lists of names for the un-nameable. Sometimes they are capitalized, sometimes not: awareness, consciousness, the un-nameable, reality, truth, being, clarity, God, love, knowledge, thisness, oneness, the singularity, I, the I-principle, and sometimes even emptiness or “emptyfullness.” They are all used more or less synonymously to point to the single reality that is beyond pointing, but which is what the self and everything is made out of.
If you are used to these teachings and then attend a class or pick up a book on emptiness, it will be almost inevitable for you to perform a mental substitution as you take in the new teachings. You’ll hear “emptiness” and say to yourself, “awareness.”
It took me a while to understand this, but the emptiness teachings do not think of themselves as a version of the awareness teachings. When the emptiness teachings say, “emptiness” they do not mean “awareness” at all. They are not referring to anything beyond phenomena, which baffled me at first. Instead, the emptiness teachings refer to something more like the impermanence of phenomena, or the contingency, non-objectivity, or relationality of phenomena.
So What is the Truth?
If you begin studying the emptiness teachings after spending time with the awareness teachings, you may start to wonder, “OK, so which teaching is true? They seem so different. Either there is global awareness or there isn’t.”
How are such questions answered from within the awareness teachings themselves?
Depending on the variety of awareness teaching, the reaction to questions like these might very well assert that they are a non-issue: these questions, like any mentations, may be said to be nothing more than arisings in global awareness. Therefore, the questions can’t possibly be relevant. Notice that when the questions are viewed in this way, the effect is not a move toward the question but a move away from the question. This move-away amounts to a statement that already assumes the teaching to be true.
The emptiness teachings, however, tackle such questions more critically and profoundly. Emptiness teachings do not take themselves for granted as true. Instead, they submit themselves to their own investigation.
Emptiness teachings entail a radical critique of the notions of objective truth and independence. This is part of how one realizes that emptiness is empty. The teachings look at themselves.
Nagarjuna is able to say, “If I had a position, no doubt fault could be found with it. Since I have no position, that problem does not arise.” The teachings allow one to investigate how this can be. The self-examining reflexive process becomes part of the teachings, and brings deep peace about questions such as “Which teaching is true?”
There are similarities between the two teachings which made me at first think they were identical with each other. For example, here are some similarities:
In the awareness teachings, realizing that you are this very same awareness that constitutes the entire world is the goal, or at least one way to describe it. In the emptiness teachings, realizing that you and all phenomena are empty is the goal. And in both cases, realizing the goal leads to peace, freedom and happiness.
Awareness and emptiness are both valorized, key terms in their respective teachings. The terms even sound a little bit alike.
According to both teachings, persons and other phenomena do not exist objectively. Whether it is a body, a material substance, a thought or a concept, it is held by both teachings not to exist in an independent way.
Not all awareness teachings are the same in this respect, but in the traditional Advaita Vedanta teachings as well as in the Atmananda direct-path teachings, self-inquiry includes focused inferential activities such as logical analysis along the way to realization. And the emptiness teachings have this focused inferential, analytic feature as well.
Both sets of teachings originated in ancient India. In fact, Gautama, who later became Shakyamuni Buddha and the founder of Buddhism, was raised in the Vedic Hindu tradition, which gave rise to the Vedantic teachings. It’s sort of like Jesus being Jewish.
By the way, the West has teachings that are surprisingly similar to Buddhist emptiness teachings, for example the teachings of Sextus Empiricus, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Jacques Derrida and Richard Rorty, which developed independently.
And, here’s Part 3 – the conclusion.
We are honored to publish this guest post series authored by Greg Goode and is sourced from one of his websites dedicated to emptiness. 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) Mount Hood by tpsdave, CCO Public Domain, 2) Abstract Universe by Activedia, CCO Public Domain, 3) Face by geralt, CCO Public Domain, 4) Origin by geralt, CCO Public Domain.