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A Mercifully Short Essay on Emptiness

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Why would I of all people, someone barely literate, try to write something fairly technical about religion unless out on insane arrogance or some other delusion. The answer is out of necessity. I had to think a lot about religion because being someone who embodies religious pluralism I experienced some of the many kinds of pain that can result from selecting an inferior religious or spiritual path. By embodying religious pluralism I mean someone who has a functioning religious impulse but no str
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  Why would I of all people, someone barely literate, try to write something fairly technicalabout religion unless out on insane arrogance or some other delusion. The answer is outof necessity. I had to think a lot about religion because being someone who embodiesreligious pluralism I experienced some of the many kinds of pain that can result fromselecting an inferior religious or spiritual path. By embodying religious pluralism I meansomeone who has a functioning religious impulse but no strong identification with a particular tradition or sect within one. The problem is that we have no justifiable way todetermine the relative values of the religions. Although this does not mean that we can’tmake some valid distinctions. But if we know that kind of pain it can lead to an impasse.Moreover, religious leaders cannot really speak to this issue since they cannot, for “structural” reasons, admit that their religion might be inferior. That is, from a certain point of view a second best religion must be a contradiction in terms since no religionadmits to being one.If John Hick’s metaphor for describing religious pluralism, “the great supermarket of religion”, is useful it would follow according to the logic and language of commercialismthat the customer is king. What does that mean? I mean by it that there must be adiscourse written from the point of view of the follower or potential follower of religionalthough I don’t know what to call it. This discourse will amount to saying that inaddition to getting salvation from religion we also need salvation from religion but this isalso through religion. And while we can’t determine what the best religion is we candetermine the best type of religion. I am confident this is right since one we rejectTillich’s claim that Christianity is the best religion it is a very minor extrapolation fromhis work.The parts of this essay labeled as “an exercise” and “a corollary” may be, and as far Iknow are, a new way to illustrate the key Buddhist term “emptiness”. The advantage, if itis an advantage which will be discussed below, is one of clarity compared to thetraditional explanations. Emptiness means that the structure of experience does notconsist of the two independently existing elements of the subjective self and the “object”.The word “object” stands for any thing and every thing (the world) that the subject is or can be aware of. Although I’m not a Buddhist and certainly cannot speak as a Buddhist itis useful to use Buddhist terminology to explain what could be called generically andmore properly given the topic of religious pluralism, non-duality, since it is the mostaccessible and familiar. Of course if the structure of experience is not dualistic this factdoes not belong in principle to Buddhism or in practice. Still the Buddhist literature is theonly elaborated discussion of non-duality that I personally know of.Even if the upcoming illustration, the “exercise” is actually a demonstration, is as clear asI think it is it would have little meaning except possibly for someone like me whostruggled unsuccessfully for years to understand the standard explanations of emptiness.Consequently it will have to be put in some kind of context. Part of this contextualizingwill be to show that emptiness can provide answers for the contemporary religious problems not just of religious pluralism but also corruption. Emptiness can also shed lighton the confused relationship of religion and post-modernism.  So what is emptiness, broadly speaking? According to the theologian Paul Tillichemptiness is an example of a type of religious philosophy of which he said there are twothat he called the cosmological and the ontological. Emptiness is an example of thelatter. What did he mean by a “philosophy of religion”? He meant fundamentalexplanations internal to a religion and not the musings of an outside philosopher; butexplanations of what? Whatever else a philosophy of religion might contain it wouldhave to explain the problem that religion proposes to treat and the remedy for it. Thereligious problem is in general the chronic negative emotionalism the religions detect inthe normal adult, sin or samsara for example, and its consequences. And a religious philosophy would also have to explain the resolution of the problem, at least initially, inwhat John Hick called the “core mystical experience” that he says is the basis for all of the so called “world religions”. A little more descriptively this might be called non-visionary ecstatic experience. This raises the question of what Tillich, a Christiantheologian meant when he used the word God which will be dealt with later.Tillich described the cosmological philosophy as the view that “…religion is man’srelation to divine beings.” And he said that the ontological philosophy is held by thosewho “…refuse to accept the cleavage between the subject and object as final”. Given thatthese two philosophies are competing explanations, at least for anyone raised in a theisticculture, this is an astonishing equation. How could the relationship between the omi- potent creator of the universe, his son, or perhaps his messenger possibly be equated withwhat must mean correctly accessing the fundamental structure of experience? This is notquite so astonishing if we understand that the ontological philosophy can be encoded inmythological stories.Even so the question remains. Perhaps the most fundamental point of comparison is this:While there are many implications of saying that the structure of experience is notdualistic, that are to say the least not immediately apparent, we can easily see even at thelevel of even a rough schematic that if there are not two elements that need to broughtinto an optimal “alignment” through self-conscious reflection then there is no need toself-consciously control our experience which is surely a central theme of religionregardless of philosophical type. That is, there is no imperative rooted in the fundamentalstructure of experience that we self-consciously control our experience through imaginingand choosing between alternative courses of action in order to achieve the best possiblequality of experience. It should be noted that Tillich told us Christianity was srcinally anontological religion and ought to be again because that type of philosophy is justifiable.It should be and is readily apparent that experience is not structured dualistically..Assuming that it can be easily demonstrated that experience is not dualistically structuredwhat is the significance of just knowing that? As has been implied the religious problemlies in our efforts to self-consciously control our experience. (Self-consciousness andsubject-object dualism are more or less synonymous). This is pretty straight forward butif I had to give evidence it would be two of the foundational stories of what could becalled the two proto-world religions – Hinduism and Judaism. In the story of Adam andEve humanity is said to fall from acquiring the knowledge of good and evil. We mustapply a two valued scale of measurement when we evaluate imagined alternative coursesof action which also requires a self-image. And in Hinduism the name of the GoddessMaya is usually translated from the Sanskrit along the lines of “she who measures”; If we  understand the religious problem and feel it to be a problem and especially if thisunderstanding results in some kind of religious practice then knowing experience is notdualistically structured can be regarded as salvation. By the word salvation I mean theinitial conversion from a mundane to a spiritual life even in the absence of what would beconsidered a “conversion experience”. That is, the more “natural” resolution of the “coremystical experience”If there is no need to self-consciously control our experience how can it be reconciledwith practice? There can be reconciliation because in general “no need to control our experience” is the practice. Or at least certain kinds of practice may be preliminary to,and thus under the “auspices” so to speak of “no need to control our experience”. Practiceis necessary because our control efforts are compulsory and more or less unceasing. Andthere are numerous kinds of practice because there are multiple aspects of our controlefforts, for example personality type.How are we compelled to control our experience? Once the dynamics self-consciousnessare established in the course of our socialization we could not simply decide to stop, after considering the situation, since that would just be a continuation of it. Another reason isthat we cannot control our minds. Religious teachers who teach concentration, whichmeans to focus on a single thought or sensation for an extended period, tell us thatwithout considerable practice we are unable to concentrate for more than a few seconds.But the most compelling reason in the sense of being the most difficult to see any wayaround is that if we think experience is dualistically structured it seems that we arecompelled to self-consciously control our experience due to the fundamental structure of reality itself .If the trajectories of independently existing objects are to an extent predictable, and if experience is more or less determined by the objects with which weare in contact with through the senses then it seems like we must consider alternativecourses of action for their effect on the quality of our experience.Why is any of this a problem? Imagining ourselves in pleasant or painful situations it theassociated (respective) pleasant and painful emotions that motivate us towards the former and away from the latter. And experience shows that if there is some aspect of our experience that we cannot control the negative motivating emotions do not just go away.In fact if we see our emotions and associated thoughts as independently existing, whichof course we do, they can in principle, and obviously do in practice, become topics of self-conscious reflection and additional control efforts. And this process again canobviously in theory, and I think does in practice, become a self-reinforcing spiral thatnecessitates the formations of the defense mechanisms. At every turn of such a spiral wewould become more fragmented, tense, and symbolically oriented which is a pretty gooddescription of the average adult in a general way. Consequently a tremendous resistanceto thought develops which is only truly apparent in the resolution of the “core mysticalexperience’ that is frequently called a “flow state”. This self-reinforcing spiral alsooperates when things go well. This can lead to such emotions as complacency andarrogance.The mechanism of the “self-reinforcing spiral while probably too simplistic nonethelesscaptures important features of or chronic negative emotionalism. And it can explain thefollowing kind of instruction for practice. “Not doing, not constructing, not fabricating,not altering or manipulating your mind while remaining undistracted… this is the heart  essence of meditation. A more succinct version from the same Buddhist school is to“leave the mind in its uncorrected state”.Another consequence of subject-object dualism is that a significant meaning of the word“meaning” is knowledge sufficient for some purpose. And it appears because of subject-object dualism that our essential purpose is controlling our experience. But unless wehave certain knowledge of some desirable final outcome for our control efforts, which of course we do not, then in an overall sense our lives are meaningless, that philosophicallyis called nihilism. If there is not an imperative rooted in the fundamental structure of experience to self-consciously control our experience then the problem of nihilism isdissolved.The ontological philosophy of religion also bears on another aspect of meaninglessness.An important part of religious discourse has become meaningless under the condition of religious pluralism. Pluralism is certainly the present culmination of the historicaldevelopment of religion. The problem is how to determine the best religion from amongthe available options. This is not a trivial concern. From a certain point of view a second best religion is virtually a contradiction in terms since no religion presents itself as such.Most religions make explicit claims of superiority and in that context even if a religiondoes say the religions are equal it is an implicit claim of superiority. An easy way todescribe the difficulty is to point out that the person with ordinary perceptions has no justifiable way in principle to choose between conflicting supernatural doctrines Thesedoctrines include the rejection of the supernatural from religion altogether. Apparently if we acquire a strong identification with a certain religion or a tradition as part of our socialconditioning the claims of superiority by the religion in question seem intuitively correctand allow us to proceed. Lacking such identification can lead to an impasse since theimplication of choosing an inferior religion will be that we will experience unnecessarysuffering compared to one that is first rate since our spiritual growth will be delayed or even prevented.As far as I know religious pluralism was not a major concern of Tillich’s. Yet there is ananswer for it implicit in his work. Consider: “Anyone who is open to the Holy Spirit is asaint despite their lack of saintliness”. This is quite similar to Dogen’s “To sit inmeditation is to be completely enlightened even though it may take thirty years to fullymanifest”. Both of these non-dual philosophers point to there being a qualitative and aquantitative or functional aspect to the ontological philosophy of religion. The firsttemporally, the qualitative aspect or “salvation”, can be said to be knowing that there isknow need to control our experience which then becomes the basis for practice. Andwhile in most cases our control efforts will continue with all of their suffering it is not afundamental problem.The reader will note that the upcoming exercise and corollary are given in visual terms.Is there a special significance to visual phenomena or ism vision merely another sensefield? In at least one school of Buddhism that is currently prominent in the west(Nyingma/ Dzog-chen ) “visual space” is equated with experience in general and evenwith being. It is worth noting that Martin Heidegger tells us that for the ancient Greeksvisuality was also integral to being. I can think of a few reasons why this might be so.First of all I can think of no way that subject-object dualism could be described withoutreference to visual space even if it is in some way a corruption of non-duality. Secondly
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