The Essence of Catholic and Buddhist Though

We have been having such a rich and valuable dialog in the “Ask a Buddhist” thread about the questions that are really at the heart of our mutual traditions. The exploration and interest has been mutual and so I guess this is my long-awaited opportunity to “Ask a Catholic”. :slight_smile: I guess we should be truly ecumenical and invite everyone in. But I have to admit that as a Tibetan Buddhist, I find such a rich sympathy between these two singular traditions.

I guess the issues we’re encountering boil down basically to:

What does a Buddhist mean when he or she talks about “Emptiness” and “Buddha Nature”? What does a Catholic mean when he or she talks about “God”? Most importantly – since I’m neither a teacher not a particularly good student – how do the answers to those questions affect our every day spiritual practices and lives as ordinary practitioners?

Asking these questions does not diminish either faith. As our brother Vouthon describes below, the teachers in both of our traditions stress the need to sharpen our faith through understanding them in the language of others. I don’t know what exactly we’ll discover here, but my guess is that it will boil down to a deep appreciation for mystery and a renewed appreciation for the limits of intellect in the face of sacred truths.

Anyway, at Vouthon’s sufferance, I’m going to take my response to this new thread. As Vouthon say’s:

Christianity was expressed through Greek philosophy because of locality. It can equally be expressed through Indian philosophy ie Sramana, Buddhist, Jain and this would “enrich” Christian thought as Blessed Pope John Paul II once said…That is the task for us post-60s, Thomas Merton-influenced Catholics :smiley:

And to hear that was really sort of awe-inspiring to me. I mean for example, I would love to see Catholic scholars engage directly with the rich tradition of textual discussion on Buddha Nature and Emptiness. (And vis. vs.) I’d actually love to see so called “scientists” and “philosophers” do the same thing, but that’s probably a lost cause. :smiley:

A warning seems in order here though. :slight_smile: We are wielding a double-edged sword. As soon as you begin down the path of translating your beliefs into other systems, you begin to get the unsettling feeling that those systems are translating their beliefs on to you.

Yes, and from what little I’ve read into the history of the Eucharist (the dangers of wikipedia), I guess that explains why there was so much gnashing of the teeth (and blood spilled, unfortunately) over the concept of transubstantiation during the reformation. Martin Luther’s logic seemed particularly contorted to me. When really, the whole thing is pretty straightforward. After hearing “this is the blood of Christ” you really shouldn’t need to have any more questions about that from a spiritual point of view, and it’s just silly to argue about it from a material point of view. It either is or it isn’t. If you are able to see that reality, why deny it? If you can’t, why pretend otherwise? And if it’s a mere symbol, what’s the point?

And so this gets me right back to your answer to a question I posed about whether a Christian could properly say of him or herself that they wanted to “be god”. I’d thought that this would be frowned upon to put it mildly, and you said no, explaining:

Ah, well perhaps you are thinking of the fact that while we can and do become God by grace, we do not become God in his unknowable Essence.

My understanding now is that that latter would in fact be heresy.

Vouthon has also pointed us to this site which frankly astonished me – showing just how little I understand about the Catholic faith – exploring a very detailed progressive view of prayer in the Catholic tradition:

It is at this stage that deification occurs, and by grace we become more divine than human. Our entire being is captivated by God and everything we do is completely united to God. The soul and God are so united at this stage that they cannot be separated.

I guess it’s obvious where I’m going with this. What’s “missing” at this point? What would I need to claim or experience beyond this point that would differentiate this state from that of being united to God in unknowable essence?

My dear brother/sister Lodro :slight_smile:

Thank you for creating this excellent and thought-provoking thread.

I am composing a reply at the moment and will be with you later tonight to discuss all of the thought-provoking things that you say.

It is truly delightful to discuss with someone of another faith who is so enthusiastic and positive about our mystical traditions.

God Bless and I look forward to this!

I studied Tibetan Buddhism for a couple of years. I even attended retreats and did ngondro. I learned so much and became a better person because of it.

This will be a wonderful thread! :slight_smile:

What an excellent thread.

I look forward to Vouthons reply with interest :slight_smile:

My dear brother/sister Lodro :slight_smile:

I’ll start this conversation by attempting to answer your great question regarding the “Essence” of God:

The state of deification, or theosis, is quite inexpressible and ineffable. Nonetheless many mystics have attempted the near impossible, for the benefit of future seekers, and have tried to describe in language what cannot truly ever be expressed.

One of the best I think, in this respect, was Ruysbroeck and he might be able to help you differentiate what distinction would lie in this supreme state of spiritual union with God - where we really do become God by grace and perceive no difference between ourselves and God - and (for Catholics) the impossible absorption into the “Divine Essence” which would result in us losing our creaturely status and personhood.

He spent much of his mystical career writing tracts against certain other heretical and quasi-heretical groups, such as the Free Spirits and the followers of Bloemardine who taught a doctrine of “Seraphic love” (ie that she had become oned with the Essence of God and so was no longer bound by normal human moral norms but could engage in “free” sexual love).

As a result of experiences with such extravagant claims and heresies, Blessed Ruysbroeck (or “Ruusbroec” as he is also known) was particularly concerned with the proper understanding of union with God which, while a true transformation and transmutation through grace into God, did not change one jot the impenetrable Essence of God, beyond the reach of all human ken and knowing nor touch, interfere with or know in any way, shape or form.

Blessed Jan Van Ruysbroeck taught in his *Spiritual Epousals *and other mystical works (such as the The Little Book of Enlightenment & The Sparkling Stone), that there were three inter-connecting, co-existing, interpenetrating and interrelated levels of “union with God” (each at the highest level of prayer, ie near or at number 9 on the scale described by Saint Teresa).

These are:

** 1. Union through an intermediary:** through the action of grace conveyed in the sacraments and through ascetical endeavour

2. Union without an intermediary: “our being rapt into the very life of the three Persons in the Trinity”, a oneness with God that shares in the essential unity of the three persons in the One God.

3. Union without difference/union of indistinction: The highest stage of union beyond all modes, forms and intermediaries where we perceive no difference between ourselves and God but, in the words of Gerlac Peterson (1377 – 1411) a great Dutch mystic who was a disciple of Ruysbroeck, “…Thou art in me and I in thee, glued together as one and the selfsame thing, which henceforth and forever cannot be divided…” At this level, in the words of Meister Eckhart (one of Ruysbroeck’s main sources), “…The eye with which I see God is the same with which God sees me. My eye and God’s eye are one eye, and one sight, and one knowledge, and one love. Your human nature and that of the divine Word are no different. The knower and the known are one. Simple people imagine that they should see God as if he stood there and they here. This is not so. God and I, we are one in knowledge…”

For Ruysbroeck this third form of union, “though it involves becoming lost in a state of unknowing that finds no distinction in God, not even that of the Trinity” nor any distinction of persons between God and divinised people, “always coexists with and implies union with intermediary and union without intermediary”.

Now you rightly enquire:

What’s “missing” at this point? What would I need to claim or experience beyond this point that would differentiate this state from that of being united to God in unknowable essence?

The stage of union of indistinction with God can sound very much like the absorption into the divine Essence, which would be heresy and which was preached by the Free Spirits during the 1300s, even though it is actually distinct from it. What then is the line drawn in the sand separating out the orthodox position from the heretical?

Johannes Tauler, an eminently orthodox mystic who was read even by Martin Luther and esteemed by him as “the Christian tradition in its purest form”, who has exerted a continual influence on spiritual, religious and psycholoical thought up to the present and for whom we have multiple translations of his works into different languages by Jesuits and other orders, spoke of the union of the soul with God in terms that really stress the indentification with God in the divinised human person:

“…Who then could make a separation in the divine and supernatural union in which the spirit is pulled and drawn into the abyss of its origin? Know that if it were possible to see the spirit in the Spirit, one would without a doubt see it as God Himself…The soul has a hidden abyss, untouched by time and space, which is far superior to anything that gives life and movement to the body. Into this noble and wondrous ground, this secret realm, there descends that bliss of which we have spoken. Here the soul has its eternal abode. Here a man becomes so still and essential, so single-minded and withdrawn, so raised up in purity, and more and more removed from all things…This state of the soul cannot be compared to what it has been before, for now it is granted to share in the divine life itself…”

***- Johannes Tauler (1300–1361), Catholic mystic & Dominican priest ***

According to Blessed Juliana of Norwich (1342 – 1416) the soul has two aspects which she calls substance and sensuality - generally translated as ‘essential being’ and ‘sensory being’ or as higher nature and lower nature. Both were created by God. As she explains in Chapter 37 of Showings, “…in every soul there is a godly will which never consented to selfishness and never shall; just as there is an animal will in our lower nature…”.

The substance is the Ground that is directed towards and lifts itself up to God at all times; as distinct from the the sensuality which is our ordinary physical and psychological life.

Our essential reality, our substance, our Ground is eternally united with God though we are not always aware of it. Our sensuality is different, indeed it is very far from always being united with God. Of the Ground/substance she writes:

“…It is a lofty understanding inwardly to see and to know that God, who is our maker, dwells in our soul, and it is a still loftier and greater understanding inwardly to see and to know that our soul, which is created, dwells in God’s substance. From this substance we are what we are, by God.*** I saw no difference between God and our substance, but saw it as if it were all God***.” (pages 179-180)


Jan van Ruysbroeck wrote that in the experience of union “we can nevermore find any distinction between ourselves and God” (The Sparkling Stone, chapter 10); and Eckhart speaks of the birth of the Son in the soul in which God “makes me his only-begotten Son without any difference” (German Sermons, 6).For Augustine the mystical life is Christ “transforming us into himself” (Homily on Psalm, 32.2.2). Luis de León (1527 – 1591), spoke of the theopathic life in terms of Christ-mysticism: “The very Spirit of Christ comes and is united with the soul - nay, is infused throughout its being, as though he were soul of its soul indeed.” Saint John of the Cross wrote of mystical union that “it would not be a true and total transformation if the soul were not transformed into the three Persons of the Most Holy Trinity” (Spiritual Canticle, stanza 39.3).

There is no discernable difference between this deepest part our reality, the Ground or substance of our soul and God. The key is in the word discernible.

Here is Ruysbroec’s description of “union without distinction/difference” after a preliminary and brief description of facets of the two earlier stages of union (this is difficult):

“…This experience (of motionless beatitude; ecstatic stillness; restful rapturous bliss) is our superessential (highest important) beatitude (supreme happiness) which is an enjoyment of God… This beatitude (supreme happiness) is the dark (above reason and intellect) silence (stillness of the soul) that is always inactive (in repose, rest, retraction from personal initiative). It is essential (of highest importance) to God and superessential (absolutely necessary) to all creatures…And there you must accept that the Persons (Trinity) yield and lose themselves whirling in essential love, that is, in enjoyable unity…And for this reason all creatures are there without themselves as in their eternal origin, one essence and one life with God. But in the bursting-out of the Persons with distinction, so the Son is from the Father and the Holy Spirit from them both. There God has created and ordered all creatures in their own essence. And He has remade man by His grace and by His death. He has adorned His own with love and with virtues and brought them back with Him to their beginning. There, the Father with the Son and all the beloved are enfolded and embraced in the bond of love, that is to say, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. It is this same unity, which is fruitful according to the bursting-out of the Persons and in the return, an eternal bond of love, which can nevermore be united. And all those who know themselves to be bound therein must remain eternally blissful…And so they are united to God, by intermediary, without intermediary, and also without difference…Hereafter follows the “unity without difference,” for the love of God is not only to be considered as flowing out with all good and drawing in into unity, but it is also above all distinction in essential (paramount) enjoyment (pleasure) according to the bare essence (nature) of the Divinity. And for this reason enlightened people have found within themselves an essential (all-important) inward gazing above reason (beyond the intellect) and without reason (not using the intellect), and an enjoyable inclination (desire or affection) surpassing all modes (methods or systems) and all essence, sinking away from themselves into a modeless (without method) abyss of fathomless beatitude (indescribable pleasure), where the Trinity of the divine Persons possess their nature in essential (preeminent) unity. See, here the beatitude (ecstatic happiness) is so simple and so without mode (method) that therein all essential gazing, inclination and distinction of creatures pass away. For all spirits thus raised up melt away and are annihilated by reason of enjoyment in God’s essence (spirit) which is the superessence of all essence. There they fall away from themselves and are lost in a bottomless unknowing (beyond intellectual comprehension). There all clarity is turned back to darkness (beyond intellect), there where the three Persons give way to the essential (preeminent) unity and without distinction enjoy essential beatitude (highest ecstatic happiness). This beatitude is essential (extremely important) to God alone and to all spirits it is superessential (absolutely necessary). For no created essence can be one with God’s essence and perish of itself…[this] is impossible. For the essence of God can neither diminish nor increase; nothing can be taken from Him, neither can it be added to Him. Nevertheless, all loving spirits are one enjoyment and one beatitude (happiness) with God. For the blessed essence which is the enjoyment of God Himself and all his beloved, is so plain and simple that there is neither Father, nor Son, nor Holy Spirit, according to personal distinction, nor any creature (basically sharing in the oneness of the Trinity, without having become God). But there all the enlightened spirits are raised out of themselves into an enjoyment without mode (method) that is overflowing above all fullness that any creature has ever received of ever may receive; for there all the elevated spirits, in their superessence are one enjoyment and one beatitude (happiness) with God without difference. There the beatitude (ecstatic happiness) is so simple that no distinction can enter into it evermore (forever lost in God). Christ desired this when He prayed His heavenly Father that all his beloved should be brought to perfect union, just as He is one with the Father in enjoyment, by means of the Holy Spirit (John 17.21-23). Thus He prayed and desired that He in us and we in Him and in His heavenly Father should become one in enjoyment, by means of the Holy Spirit. And that, I think, is the most loving prayer that Christ ever made for our beatitude…There we will abide—unified, empty, and imageless—raised up through love to the open bareness of our mind, for when we transcend all things in love and die to all rational observations in a dark state of unknowing, we become transformed through the working of the eternal Word, who is an image of the Father. In the empty being of our spirit we receive an incomprehensible resplendence which envelops and pervades us in the same way that the air is pervaded by the light of the sun. This resplendence is nothing other than an act of gazing and seeing which has no ground: What we are is what we see, and what we see is what we are, for our mind, our life, and our very being are raised up in a state of oneness and united with the truth that is God himself. In this simple act of seeing we are therefore one life and one spirit with God. This is what I call a contemplative life. When we cleave to God in love we are practicing what is called the better part, but when we gaze at our superessential being in the way just described we possess God whole and entire…”

***- Blessed Jan Van Ruysbroeck (1293-1381), Catholic mystic & Augustinian priest ***

Here Ruysbroeck speaks of us becoming one “beatitude”, one "happiness, one “love”, one “spirit”, one “life”, one “knowing” etc. with God - in other words everything in God except “essence” - caught up into the divine life and interaction between the three persons (hypostases) of the Trinity, to such an extent that we sink away from all self-awareness into a conditionless, bottomless, abyss of unknowing in which we can perceive no difference between ourselves and God. Yet we do not unite with the Essence.

This Latin mystic is thus using the Palamite understanding of union with the “energies” of God but not the “essence” but without that particular Greek facility of language. It is the same teaching in essence though, as Palamas writes below:

“…There are three realities in God, namely essence, energy, and a Trinity of divine hypostases. Since it has been shown above that those deemed worthy of union with God so as to become one spirit with him…are not united to God in essence, and since all theologians bear witness in their statements to the fact that God is imparticipable in essence and the hypostatic union happens to be predicated of the Word and God-man alone, it follows that those deemed worthy of union with God are united to God in energy and that the spirit whereby he who clings to God is one with God is called and is indeed the uncreated energy of the Spirit and not the essence of God, even though Barlaam…may disagree…”

***- Saint Gregory Palamas (1296-1359), Athonite monk & Orthodox/Catholic mystic ***

In my opinion, the Eastern Catholics have developed the best language out of all the Abrahamic and theistic religions for describing union which makes it clear that we do not unite with the Essence of God and yet which also stresses that we do truly become God by grace and participate in his divine and uncreated Energies.

I’ll dwell more on this in the next post once you’ve digested the above :smiley:

Saint Teresa of Avila described it using the metaphors of rainwater and light filtering in through two windows:

“…It is as if a raindrop fell from heaven into a stream or fountain and became one with the water in it so that never again can the raindrop be separated from the water of the stream; or as if a little brook ran into the sea and there was thenceforward no means of distinguishing its water from the ocean; or as if a brilliant light came into a room through two windows and though it comes in divided between them, it forms a single light inside…”

- Saint Teresa of Avila (1515-1582), Catholic mystic, Carnelite & Doctor of the Church

John of the Cross described it with the analogy of a stained-glass window. The Essence is often described as the “Sun” and the Uncreated Energies as the “rays” emitting from the sun but still the sun:

“…In order that both these things may be the better understood, let us make a comparison. A ray of sunlight is striking a window. If the window is in any way stained or misty, the sun’s ray will be unable to illumine it and transform it into its own light, totally, as it would if it were clean of all these things, and pure; but it will illumine it to a lesser degree, in proportion as it is less free from those mists and stains; and will do so to a greater degree, in proportion as it is cleaner from them, and this will not be because of the sun’s ray, but because of itself; so much so that, if it be wholly pure and clean, the ray of sunlight will transform it and illumine it in such wise that it will itself seem to be a ray and will give the same light as the ray. Although in reality the window has a nature distinct from that of the ray itself, however much it may resemble it, yet we may say that that window is a ray of the sun or is light by participation. And the soul is like this window, whereupon is ever beating (or, to express it better, wherein is ever dwelling) this Divine light of the Being of God according to nature, which we have described. In thus allowing God to work in it, the soul (having rid itself of every mist and stain of the creatures, which consists in having its will perfectly united with that of God, for to love is to labour to detach and strip itself for God’s sake of all that is not God) is at once illumined and transformed in God, and God communicates to it His supernatural Being, in such wise that it appears to be God Himself, and has all that God Himself has. And this union comes to pass when God grants the soul this supernatural favour, that all the things of God and the soul are one in participant transformation; and the soul seems to be God rather than a soul, and is indeed God by participation…”

- Saint John of the Cross (1542 - 1591), Catholic mystic and Doctor of the Church

BTW the “Energies” are just as much God as his “Essence”. :thumbsup:

To cut a (very :rolleyes: ) long story short:

The distinction between the human “essence” and "God’s “essence”, maintains the distinction between creature and Creator that is essential to montheism so as have an Uncreated at all and make sense of our changeable, created human natures; whilst also maintaining that through “grace” this difference really is, on a different level, completely overcome by a true union with God in energy, activity, will, love, knowledge, feeling, awareness etc.

To unite with God in essence would be impossible, to our mind, since we had a “beginning” in time, whereas the Essence of God never had a beginning and is beyond time.

And so we become God by grace without becoming absorbed in his Essence and thereby losing our personhood and createdness. We become by grace what God is by nature without uniting with his Essence and being absorbed in it.

Paradoxically, the creature/Creator distinction is maintained while at the same time transcended utterly and surpassed.

There is deeper aspects, for example how is “our” Ground and God’s “Ground” innately one? How is our “substance” indistinguishable from God and actually “all God”, as Julian of Norwich says, without this lapsing into pantheism? This is where the idea of the Image of God comes to the fore, our innate union with God and participation in God that can never be lost, even by our sin unlike our “sensuality”.

I will answer that later but first await brother.sister Lodro’s thoughts and perhaps movement into other areas more directly applicable to Catholic-Buddhist similarity in spirituality, and the idea of Christianity being expressed now through Indian Sramana (Buddhist, Jain) philosophy rather than Platonic or Aristotelian.

The joy of the elect (those who have attained to theosis) is to behold, either in this life through a special rapture from the body for a brief period and definetly in the afterlife, the Divine Essence “face-to-face” (metaphorically speaking), unimpeded - which we call the “Beatific Vision”. To see the Essence is to see oneself, since we are made in the Image of God and have no existence, reality or being save in Him (in ourselves we are actually “nothing”, we only are through Him in whom we “live and move and have our being”_ and yet we are still not absorbed into the Essence in a non-dual kind of way. There is relationship, and yet oneness beyond relationship without any duality, on another level - just complete awareness without distinction.

Its ultimately inexpressble and unintelligible to our human, mortal minds. It is the “dark silence where all lovers lose themselves,” to quote Ruysbroeck in the limitless abyss of the Godhead where we are powerless to ever fully plumb the depths of this timeless, placeless state of infinity.

As Ruysbroeck says,

if we would become one with the brightness of the Sun, we must follow love, and go out of ourselves into the Wayless, and then the Sun will draw us with our blinded eyes into Its own brightness, in which we shall possess unity with God…This Fruit is so infinitely sweet to our taste that we can neither swallow It nor assimilate It, but It rather absorbs us into Itself and assimilates us with Itself…The man must sink down to that imageless Nudity which is God; this is the first condition, and the foundation, of a spiritual life…Could we renounce ourselves and all selfhood in our works, we should, with our bare imageless spirit, transcend all things, and without intermediary we should be led by the Spirit of God into the Nudity. . . . When we transcend ourselves, and become, in our ascent towards God, so simple that the naked love in the height can lay hold of us, where love enfolds love, above every exercise of virtue – that is, in our Origin, of Which we are spiritually born – then we cease, and we and all our selfhood die in God. And in this death we become hidden sons of God, and find a new life within us: and that is eternal life… This brightness is so great that the loving contemplative, in his ground wherein he rests, sees and feels nothing but an incomprehensible Light; and through that Simple Nudity which enfolds all things, he finds himself and feels himself to be that same Light by which he sees and nothing else. . . . Blessed are the eyes which are thus seeing, for they possess eternal life…”

“…he finds himself and feels himself to be that same Light by which he sees and nothing else…”

So very profound! We are the light (God) without any distinction and yet still in relationship with it.

There is a lot to absorb here and I unfortunately only have time to respond briefly, as much as I would like to do otherwise. I am tempted to spend a good part of the day on this, but that would be neglecting my temporal duties. :slight_smile:

It’s always been interesting to me that both traditions recognize an essential paradox at core. (If I may say so, literalists and many fundamentalist views miss the deepest part of faith by pretending that such problems do not exist.) And while the paradox seems to be centred around completely different concerns, I also have the intuition that the particular paradoxical obsession of both systems is in both cases is a historical accident.

It sort of reminds me of a seemingly more mundane issue in computer science. It revolves around a specific class of problems and asks the question “does P equal NP?”. The details aren’t important, but the point is that you can get to the essential problem through many different original problems, which on the surface seem very different. “What is the quickest route for a salesman to travel between a number of cities?” “How can we sort a number of bins in the most efficient way?” By the way, each of these problems defines a question that seems quite straightforward, but that are so difficult that with non-trivial problem sizes even the largest computer one could imagine couldn’t solve the problem to any degree of certainty within the timespan of the known universe. Most people who are unfamiliar with software (and far too many who are) don’t realize that most of the interesting problems in the world cannot actually be solved on a computer, and that fact is governed by something magical that has the force of a natural law. But all of the problems that lead to this core problem are mappable to each other.

Put in another way, there must be an essential paradox governing these systems, and if we continue to dig into ever more rarefied levels, we will get to the point where we can dig no further. One tradition began digging in Bodh Gaya, the other in Jerusalem.

By saying that, I don’t mean to diminish the very real and sacred differences here. I’m not interested in some kind of bland “Christians and Buddhists thought reaches the same ultimate place, so it ultimately doesn’t really matter” argument. (Even though I find the stories of Jesus travelling to India immensely compelling.) The point is actually that we have to encounter, wrestle with these questions within our own systems, and then ultimately accept the futility of those efforts. And there is that divine unknowable aspect to how both of these systems developed in themselves. It would not be helpful to try to meet in the mushy middle.

Still, it might be worth asking whether the essential questions of Buddhism and Christianity mappable to each other? Would it matter if they were?

Because Christian theology starts with a basis in Monotheism, and then filters through the more or less materialistic lenses of the Greek philosophers, it must come to the question of how can God be other, and yet we can be one with God? That’s simply because historically western thought had always imagined the gods to be separate, and then followed with the sense that God was separate, and then tried to figure out how to marry that with the actual experience of not being separate from God. How can you be both a “self” and a God? The answer of course is that you can’t. But note that the actual personal question beings asked is “What is this hole in my heart? What’s missing?”

The Buddha simply sat down and eventually discovered that he had no self. Then he had the actual experience of non-separateness. It was only later that he and others made an attempt to explain that experience. (The Buddha at first resolved not to teach, feeling that this experience would be impossible to explain to others.) But the actual question he was asking was the same. “What’s missing?” The Buddha discovered that it was actually this sense that something was missing, this dissatisfaction or “suffering” that was the central issue. And that egolessness was the answer. If you don’t have a “self”, then you don’t have the problem of resolving your relationship with “other”. (Or you do, if you imagine yourself to be empty but imagine the other to be “real”. That’s the problem of one-fold and two-fold egolesness.) But you do have the problem of “why would you care?” This obvious problem is probably where Buddhism gets its reputation for Nihlism in Christian interpretation.

There are various different ways to answer this question, but from the point of view of Mahayan/Vajrayana buddhism, these drive us to ask, “well, what exactly is this emptiness thing, anyway?” From that we get the Second and Third Turings of the Wheel of Dharma, but, ahem, I’m afraid I have to stop there for now. :wink:

There is deeper aspects…I will answer that later but first await brother.sister Lodro’s thoughts and perhaps movement into other areas more directly applicable to Catholic-Buddhist similarity in spirituality, and the idea of Christianity being expressed now through Indian Sramana (Buddhist, Jain) philosophy rather than Platonic or Aristotelian.

I think the issue we’ve hit upon is probably the core issue, but again taken from very different points of view. It would be good to dwell on the key issues at this rarefied level before diving into the deeper issues.

–[Brother] Lodro

Thank you brother Lodro for your deeply compelling post :thumbsup:

Please don’t let me distract you from your concerns out there in the world!

We can and will I think take our time with this thread, reflecting over what each of us say and then replying, in our own time.

I have much to think about :smiley: (which is good!)

I was just eating lunch, and as has happened on many other occasions, I picked up a random dharma book and found it completely aligned with what I had just been thinking about. I quote it not because it reflects a shared understanding or to get embroiled in the details of the argument, but precisely because it highlights the differences the two views as I tried to sketch out above.

*"Without a single scientific tool, Prince Siddhartha…came to the realization that all form, including our flesh and bones, and all our emotions and perceptions, are assembled – they are the product of two or more things coming together. When any two components or more come together, a new phenomenon emerges – nails and wood becomes a table; water and leaves become tea; fear, devotion and a saviour become God. This end product doesn’t have an existence independent of its parts. Believing it truly exists independently is the greatest deception…

He realized that this applies not only to the human experience but to all matter, the entire world, the universe-- because everything is interdependent, everything is subject to change. Not one component in all creation exists in an autonomous, permanent pure state. Not the book you are holding, not atoms. not even the gods. So as long as something exists within reach of our mind, even in our imagination, such as a man with four arms, then it depends on the existence of something else. This Siddhartha discovered that impermanence does not mean death, as we usually think, it means change…

Through these realizations, Siddhartha found a way around the suffering of mortality after all. He accepted that change is inevitable and that death is just a part of this cycle. Furthermore, he realized that these was no almighty power that could reverse the path to death; therefore there was also no hope to trap him. If there is no blind hope, there is no disappointment. If one know that everything is impermanent, one does not grasp, and if one does not grasp, one will not think in terms of having or lacking, and therefore one lives fully.

Those who believe in an almighty God generally do not analyze their concept of time, because God is assumed to be independent of time. To give credit to an all-powerful, omnipotent creator, we must factor in the element of time. If this world has always existed, there would be no need for creation. Therefore it must not have existed for a period of time before creation and thus a sequence of time is required. Since the creator – let’s say God – necessarily abides by the laws of time, he, too, must be subject to change, even it the only change he had ever gone through has been creating this one world. And that is fine. An omnipresent and permanent God cannot change, so it’s better to have an impermanent God who can answer prayers and change the weather. But as long as God’s actions are an assemblage of beginnings and ends, he is impermanent, in other words subject to uncertainty and unreliable.

When Siddhartha spoke of “all assembled things”, he was referring to more than just the obvious perceptible phenomena such as DNA, the Eiffel Tower, eggs and sperm. Mind, time, memory, and God are also assembled…

Whether you pride yourself on your religion or on not belonging to any religion, faith plays an important role in your existence. Even “not believing” requires faith – total blind faith in your own logic or reason based on your ever-changing feelings. So it is no surprise when what used to seem so convincing no longer persuades us. The illogical nature of faith is not subtle at all; in fact, it is the most assembled and interdependent of all phenomenon."*

–Dznongsar Jamyang Khyentse WHAT MAKES YOU NOT A BUDDHIST 2008, Shambhala Publications.

My dear brother Lodro :thumbsup:

Thank you for this! A fascinating read.

I have a few thoughts (not to get into debates over it but just a few comments).

I would like to give you the perspective of a Catholic mystic on time and creation:

Those who believe in an almighty God generally do not analyze their concept of time, because God is assumed to be independent of time. To give credit to an all-powerful, omnipotent creator, we must factor in the element of time. If this world has always existed, there would be no need for creation. Therefore it must not have existed for a period of time before creation and thus a sequence of time is required. Since the creator – let’s say God – necessarily abides by the laws of time, he, too, must be subject to change, even it the only change he had ever gone through has been creating this one world. And that is fine. An omnipresent and permanent God cannot change, so it’s better to have an impermanent God who can answer prayers and change the weather. But as long as God’s actions are an assemblage of beginnings and ends, he is impermanent, in other words subject to uncertainty and unreliable

From what I know of Catholic mysticism, the view of God and time presented above is somewhat ‘off’. In conventional theistic understanding of cosmology, in the popular sense, it is probably on the money in many ways.

The idea goes: God cannot be unchanging but rather must be subject to the same conditions which move the impermanent and ever-changing cycles of the material world because the the world must not have existed for some “duration” before creation, and the ‘change’ from not-world to “creation” shows that God is subject to change.

Meister Eckhart (14th century) describes God as self-generating, creating without ceasing. He believes that there is a sort of womb of God which he calls “the Abyss of God” which “… remains forever unique, uniform, and self-generating.” The practitioner of the via negativa seeks entrance to this womb, but it is with the understanding that they will not stay there in the place of no thing, they cannot. This womb is a place of constant birthing, of constant creation. By returning to this place, the mystic is “decreated” and created at once.

Suzuki, the great 20th century Zen Buddhist teacher, understood correctly the Catholic mystic’ understanding of “creation” which is in the ever present “Now” and is an unceasing act, as he explains when speaking of Eckhart’s exegesis of the creation account in Genesis:

"…Eckhart’s Christianity is unique…He stands on his own experiences which emerged from a rich, deep, religious personality…God is not in time mathematically enumerable. His creativity is not historical, not accidental, not at all measurable. It goes on continuously without cessation with no beginning, with no end. It is not an event of yesterday or today or tomorrow, it comes out of timelessness, of nothingness, of Absolute Void. God’s work is always done in an absolute present, in a timeless “now which is time and place in itself.” God’s work is sheer love, utterly free from all forms of chronology and teleology. The idea of God creating the world out of nothing, in an absolute present, and therefore altogether beyond the control of a serial time conception will not sound strange to Buddhist ears. Perhaps they may find it acceptable as reflecting their doctrine of Emptiness (śūnyatā)…It is now necessary to examine Eckhart’s close kinship with Mahāyāna Buddhism and especially with Zen Buddhism in regard to the doctrine of Emptiness.

The Buddhist doctrine of Emptiness is unhappily greatly misunderstood in the West. The word “emptiness” or “void” seems to frighten people away, whereas when they use it among themselves, they do not seem to object to it. While some Indian thought is described as nihilistic, Eckhart has never been accused of this, though he is not sparing in the use of words with negative implications, such as “desert,” “stillness,” “silence,” “nothingness…”

***- Shunryu Suzuki (1904-1971), Meister Eckhart and Buddhism ***

God has always been creating, always “birthing” beyond all time in the Eternal Now. He sits on a maternity bed ceaselessly giving birth, says Eckhart, for all eternity. It is not a time-bound historical event ie there was “no universe” and then God decided one day, “oh, lets create the world!”.

That is not God as known by the mystics. God is impasssible, unchanging and unconditioned:

“…While I yet stood in my first cause I had no God and I was my own; I willed nothing and wanted nothing, for I was conditionless being, the knower of myself in divine truth. Then I wanted myself and nothing else. What I willed I was and what I was I willed. I was free from God and all things. But when I escaped from my free will to take on my created nature, then I acquired a God, for before creatures came into existence, God was not God. He was what he was. When creatures came into existence, God was not God in himself, but he was God in creatures…I pray God to rid me of God because conditionless being is above God and above distinction…attaining this, the soul loses her identity. God absorbs her so that as self she becomes nothing, just as the sunlight swallows the dawn…If also say, God is a Being, it is not true; He is transcendent Being and superessential Nothingness. I say that God is neither a being nor intelligent and He doesn’t ‘know’ either this or that. God is free of everything and therefore He is everything. I pray God to make me free of God, for [His] unconditioned Being is above God and all distinctions…God dwells in the nothing-at-all that was prior to nothing, in the hidden Godhead of pure knowledge whereof no man durst speak…The One is a negation of negations…”

***- Meister Eckhart (1260-1329), Catholic mystic & Dominican priest ***

God is creating the entire universe, and all things now, in this very moment. ‘*My Father has never ceased working, and I too must be at work’ *(John 5:7). This continuous divine activity is Creation. It is symbolized in Genesis as an event that took place in primordial times, but in reality is a continuous activity. As Meister Eckhart said in one of his sermons, ‘God did not create the world 6,000 years ago, but creates it in this very moment,’ in this ‘indivisible now’.

“…To say that God created the world yesterday or tomorrow should be foolishness, for God is creating the entire universe, fully and totally, in this present now. Everything God created…God creates now all at once. Indeed, time that has been past for a thousand years is as present and near to God as the time that now is. The soul that lives in the present Now-moment is the soul in which the Father begets his only begotten Son and in that birth the soul is reborn in God as the Father begets his only begotten Son…Now God creates all things but does not stop creating. God forever creates and forever begins to create and creatures are always being created and in the process of begining to be created…From all eternity God lies on a maternity bed giving birth. The essence of God is birthing…God the Father and the Son have nothing to do with time. Generation is not in time, but at the end and limit of time. In the past and future movements of things, your heart flits about; it is in vain that you attempt to know eternal things; in divine things, you should be occupied intellectually…Again, God loves for his own sake, acts for his own sake: that means that he loves for the sake of love and acts for the sake of action. It cannot be doubted that God would never have begot his Son in eternity if [his idea of] creation were other than [his act of] creation. Thus God created the world so that he might keep on creating. The past and future are both far from God and alien to his way…”

***- Meister Eckhart (c. 1260 – c. 1327), Catholic mystic & Dominican priest ***

God as we Catholics know him, is one eternal, unceasing, divine act:

“…When God says that He is being…it can only mean this: that he is the pure act of existing…Pure act: therefore excluding all imperfection in the order of existing. Therefore excluding all change, all becoming, all beginning or end…”

God is one unchangeable, eternal act. All language attributing human characteristics to God - such as “anger”, “happiness”, “joy”, “sadness” etc. - is all analogies for our benefit. In fact they are projections - illusions - that we foist upon God so as to try and bring him down to the human level. This is natural however it can lead to extreme error because in a sense it can be a subtle and well-meaning form of idolatry, since we make up in our own minds a God we can imagine and thereby lose the reality of God, which is far above and beyond all thought, forms and is ineffable, inexpressible and infinite.

I thought that you might like to read this brother Lodro :slight_smile: :

The most daring forms of Catholic mysticism have emphasized the absolute unknowability of God. They suggest that true contact with the transcendent involves going beyond all that we speak of as God - even the Trinity - to an inner “God beyond God,” a divine Darkness or Desert in which all distinction is lost.

**This form of “mystical atheism” ** has [as its] main exponent the Pseudo-Dionysius, who distinguished “the super-essential God-head” from all positive terms ascribed to God, even the Trinity (The Divine Names, chapter 13).

In the West this tradition is first found in Erigena and is especially evident in the Rhineland school. According to Eckhart, even being and goodness are “garments” or “veils” under which God is hidden. In inviting his hearers to “break through” to the hidden Godhead, he daringly exclaimed, “let us pray to God that we may be free of ‘God,’ and that we may apprehend and rejoice in that everlasting truth in which the highest angel and the fly and the soul are equal” (German Sermons, 52).

The notion of the hidden Godhead was renewed in the teaching of Jakob Böhme, who spoke of it as the Ungrund - “the great Mystery,” “the Abyss,” “the eternal Stillness.” He stressed the fact of divine becoming (in a nontemporal sense): God is eternally the dark mystery of which nothing can be said but ever puts on the nature of light, love, and goodness wherein the divine is revealed to human beings.

And of course it is the popular conception that Dznongsar Rinpoche is responding to here. Great teachers are not above making pedagogical generalities, I guess, and of course we are both aware of a number of Buddhist teachers who have directly encountered the inner-most teachings of Catholicism, Suzuki Roshi as you mention and Trungpa Rinpoche, who had a deep connection to Thomas Merton.

I guess we should ask ourselves at this point whether we are most interested in relating the highest esoteric teachings or the conventional beliefs. I’d say the former, because the latter will quickly lead to intellectual cul-de-sac and will miss the warmth of the true meaning. But it is worth asking why there is such a chasm between the depth of understanding available – even in the core gospels and sacraments of the church, let alone from the minds of the great mystics – and the level of understanding at the popular level, since of course it is the popular understanding that drives almost everything that happens within the city of God and the city of men. As I’ve said, I think the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches have managed to preserve the inner essence of those teachings; perhaps one possibility in this encounter with translation would be for the church to find a path toward renewing and rejuvenating its own deepest teachings so that they could be made available to the broadest possible group of practitioners. Really, it’s none of my business, but my greatest aspiration would be that this kind of dialog could facilitate just that kind of reawakening.

Great Buddhist teachers – including the Dali Lama – have emphasized that people that are involved in other faith traditions and feel a heart connection to the Buddhist teachings should not “become” Buddhists but instead should become better Catholics, Muslims, Jews, Pagans or whatever. (I’d add Scientists to that list, because Scientism is probably the most self-deceptive religion of all.) In one story I’ve heard and am probably getting wrong, a Russian Orthodox priest asks the mahasiddha Trungpa Rinpoche to take him on as a teacher, and Rinpoche tells him that he should instead return to his calling, because the Orthodox church needed people like him. The world really doesn’t need more so-called Buddhists, it needs more people who see the deepest truths in their own faiths.

It’s not my place to speculate on why these great Catholic teachings aren’t more widely known and practiced, but probably the greatest chauvinism I feel toward the Buddhist tradition is not for the foundational teachings themselves, but for the meta-level consequences of those teachings on the continued unfolding of the very same teachings. Somehow the Buddhist system hit upon an extraordinary methodology to drive continual renewal and relevance, while at the same time preventing the core teachings from being distorted or diminished – the central challenge for any religious system, I think.

Because Buddhism starts with egolessness and non-attachment, it has a built in (forgive me) BS detector, giving it the ability to constantly challenge misconceptions and make the teachings relevant in a new context. In fact, the continuing development of Buddhist thought and practice can be seen as an unravelling of misconception after misconception, in the process revealing more subtle and profound ways of relating to these basic truths. This also means that Buddhism can be a very disconcerting path, because there is literally nothing to hold on to; the Buddhist teachings and practice continually push our noses into our material, intellectual and spiritual attachments so that we can see just how much they stink – to the point where in the 9th century a Buddhist lineage master gives this famous instruction: “If you meet the Buddha in the road, kill him”.

I think this is a good place to jump into the discussion of the core paradoxes of Buddhism, centered around emptiness. (I’d like to get back to the issue of creation but I think a discussion of Emptiness is the best place to start.) These discussion will also exemplify the self-correcting, self-enriching process I described above.

Again, I think you could say that all development of Buddhist thought involves diving further and further into Emptiness. These developments may progress historically, pedagogically, analytically, in the practices we do, or as is usually the case, all of these together. All of Tibetan scholarship can also be understood as encounters of increasingly subtle understandings of Emptiness, and a working out of the implications and consequences of these encounters. And this process continues today.

I think the most important of these progressions might be: the Three Vehicles, or the Hiniyana, Mahayana and Vajrayana; the related but not equivalent Three Turnings of the Wheel of Dharma; and my favorite, the Progressive Stages of Emptiness. A reminder that these so-called progressions are coming from a Vajrayanist point of view, other traditions may get off the bus at some point, have a different take on these distinctions or just don’t find them relevant. All traditions understand that you all you really need are the foundational teachings of the Buddha, and all realization ends up at the same place, which is what the Buddha achieved, probably without needing any of this theoretical nonsense. I think this is similar to saying that if a Catholic really prayed and became filled with the grace of God, they wouldn’t need to read all of the Mystics and so on; they would just naturally come to the same understanding as the great mystics, even if they didn’t express it in the same language.

And note that no-one – unless in the context of critical examination, say through debate – would say the the prior views were wrong, even when those views seem on the surface to be contradictory! The differences are seen to be refinements and perhaps correctives to view and are then encountered through practice and direct experience. This is because the point of all of these teachings is not that they are literally, absolutely correct – they can’t be because they are ultimately assemblages! – but that they are helpful and necessary. You simply can’t say “Oh yeah, I like the bit about luminosity, but let’s forget that whole no-self thing, ok?” Or “Okay, everything is composed of particles, yadayada, I guess that sort of makes sense, but when do we get to the part where we say that doesn’t really matter? That sounds more interesting to me.”

Personally, I have had exactly that experience of trying to go from point A to point F, and been humbled by it. So let me make one thing really clear before going any further. As I said above, I am not a Buddhist scholar or teacher and have only received the most limited instruction in these teachings, most of which I don’t fully understand. That goes especially for the foundational teachings, such as the Pali canon, of which I know hardly anything compared to the other Buddhists on this site. That isn’t some kind of false modesty, I really very simply don’t want to be the cause of any confusion. So for my sake please don’t take this as anything more than the ramblings of a novice, a novice who is taking the opportunity to sharpen and correct his own understanding by writing some of it down. I’d encourage anyone interested in any of the concepts I’m sharing here to go to the root material and attend teachings by actual masters in the traditions that you are most interested in.

With that major caveat, let’s look at the Three Turnings of the wheel of Dharma. These are cycles of teachings where the Buddha presented teachings that were appropriate for the level of understanding of the students gathered at that time, and each reveals a startling new way of looking at emptiness. The first turing is concerned mainly with actually working with the teachings as an individual seeker and encountering the four noble truths. We suffer, the cause of that suffering is attachment, we can end our suffering, and the cause of that ending is the path. All of the things that we think are going to make us happy actually drive us deeper into despair. To see that, we have to recognize that what we take as a self is actually empty of inherent existence, and the quotes that Vouthon gave demonstrate that the Cahtolic Mystical teachings have the same realization.

These core teachings on emptiness are exemplified by the quote above, so we should read it again, and look at other material on the First Turning teachings. (The discussion of Nidanas and Skandas is particularly helpful in understanding how the whole basic setup works.) This is an illustration of what I was talking about above. Note that Dznongsar Rinpoche is a great master of the highest Vajrayana teachings, particularly of the Kagyu and Nyingma traditions. But the teachings he gives above are foundational Buddhist teachings that if I’m not very mistaken anyone from any Buddhist tradition would be conversant with. And this is very typical. All Vajrayana teaching cycles seem to work this way. And all Vajrayana teachers admonish their students to never forget these foundational teachings. Over and over we are told that if we think we can abandon the core teachings in favor of some kind of higher truth, we’re dangerously mistaken.

This is fascinating, because it highlights that in the exploration of “Emptiness” and “Buddha Nature”, even – especially! – the more esoteric brands in the Buddhist aisle of the grocery store must deal with an analogous core pedagogical/liturgical/practice issue to what comes up in the Catholic faith as the problem of God – the distinction between being one with whatever that is “through grace” or “in essence”. In both cases, there are profound paradoxes that a student must work with, but in order to encounter them, the practitioner needs protection from the consequences of making the ultimate mistake. I’d say – again chauvinistically – that Buddhism has more subtle built in safe-guards, but we still definitely have the “free-love junky” problem. For example, one might see a teacher behaving in an apparently crazy way and believe that one could act in the same way without consequences. This is why you can’t even get access to the highest teachings and practices without years of preparation and many warnings about the consequences of taking these paradoxical views to their extremes.

Okay, enough for now, I’ll do my best to introduce the Second Turning and provide some further references on that in a follow-up post.

I’m reminded again to be careful in my terminology. When discussing the “three vehicles” or yanas we have the problematic issue that the description of the first of the three vehicles as “hinayana” is taken to be pejorative by the Thervadan (or Way of the Elders) tradition, whose teachings are often – wrongly or rightly – associated with that vehicle because they emphasize the original historical teachings of the Buddha. I certainly don’t intend it that way, and will focus on the Three Turnings as a better description of the Tibetan tradition’s view of the unfolding of Dharma. My sincere apologies.

Also, to clarify what I said at the beginning it is not my intention at all to exclude other traditions and perspectives from this dialog.

I for one would love to hear more about your experience and what experiences brought you to your present path.


Sadhu, Sadhu, Sadhu. :thumbsup:

The second turning of the Wheel of Dharma took place at Vulture Peak mountain. It’s a one-sided dialog where Shariputra, one of the key disciples of the Buddha, asks Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisatva of compassion, for advice on how to practice.

Already we can see that there is something different going on, as the term Bodhisattva in this context refers to an enlightened being who has emanated in some way on this plane of existence. (This might sound vaguely familiar to Christian readers.) So it would be a fair question to ask whether this exchange actually happened in the historical, literal sense. Also, while previous sutras recount the direct teachings of the Buddha, his only role in the sutra is to confirm the truth of what has been said – and even that part may not have been in the original text. You can explain that in terms of emanations of the Buddha in various times and places, or in conventional terms, as dedicated students taking the heart essence of the Buddha teachings and evolving and enriching them. I personally don’t think it makes much difference.

The Heart Sutra is the most commonly known and I think you could even say loved of all of the Sutra teachings in the Mahayana Buddhist world. It is recited as part of the morning chants in the Zen tradition and in my own tradition. It is used on other occasions as well. We chanted the mantra when gathered around my father as he lay dying in the hospital. On September 12, 2001, my Sangha gathered to recite it. Over and over again, we said the mantra that calms all suffering:


Something like… “Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone beyond going, awakening, thus it is”.

But what Avalokiteshvara says in framing the mantra is astonishing. I first heard it when I was quite young, so although I have always appreciated it, I think due to it’s familiarity I hadn’t fully appreciated how radical it really is until the last few days as I’ve been contemplating it for this post, and especially as I’ve been discussing these same issues with other Buddhists who don’t hold it as part of their tradition.

We’re asking this Boddhisatva, what should our view be when we meditate? We’ve seen that at this point there are a lot of potential views we could base our practice on so I suppose Avalokiteshvara could have said our view should be any number of things. But what he says is that it should be nothing, or No-Thing.

Everywhere I have recited this chant, either in a Zendo in Japanese or at a Tibetan practice centre using the beautiful english translation we have, we chant these words along with an almost insistent drum beat, saying:

Form is Emptiness, Emptiness also is Form…

Sounds nice so far…

…in emptiness there is No form, No feeling, No discrimination, No formation, No consciousness

Hold on, those are the teachings on the Five Skandhas. How can they not exist?!

No Eyes No Ears No Nose No Tongue No Body No Appearance No Form No Sound No Smell No Taste No Touch…

And there goes all of our understanding of how the senses work, and how they relate to our awareness of the world!

No Ignorance No End of Ignorance No Old Age and Death Up To No End Of Old Age And Death

And everything we know about impermanence!

No Suffering No Origin Of Suffering No Cessation Of Suffering No Path

No Four Noble Truths!

No Wisdom No Attainment No Non-Attainment…

And apparently there isn’t anything to gain by practicing either!

As Karl Brunnhölzl says in a stirring essay in this quarter’s (Fall 2012) Buddhadharma magazine:

"From an ordinary buddhist point of view we could even say that the Heart Sutra is not only crazy, but it is iconoclastic or even heretical. Many people have complained about the Prajnaparamita Sutras because they also trash all the hallmarks of Buddhism itself… Is there any other spiritual tradition that says, “Everything that we teach, just forget about it’?”

I guess you can imagine how this went over with a lot of people, and in fact the story is that some of the very learned and realized people hearing these teachings couldn’t handle it. They had heart attacks and died. That seems a bit extreme to me, a little bit of a spiritual “NaNahNaNah”. The first of the Buddha’s teachings were radical enough. Imagine for a moment what would happen if someone in your religious tradition stood up in front of an assembly of believers and said something like this.

Now, is the Sutra really saying that everything we’ve just heard is wrong? I’m pretty sure that’s not really the point. It’s saying that everything we’ve heard is conditioned. All of the scriptures and teachings are mental constructs, no more eternal or absolutely true than anything else. It’s saying that it is our responsibility, and only our responsibility to practice the true heart of the teachings; which is non-attachment to all phenomenon, even – or especially – attachment to a particular formulation of the Dharma itself.

But if you think about it, this is the foundation of a full understanding of emptiness. If you really want to know emptiness, you have to unknown everything else. That’s an enormous challenge, to put it mildly. Daunting.

Balanced against that is a really wonderful, beautiful aspect of this particular kind of emptiness – Sunyata – as it was introduced in the Second Turning. The experience of emptiness is completely bound to the experience of compassion, just as the form of Avalokiteshvara is completely bound to the form of the sutra. This is very special emptiness; it’s not pure negation despite what all of those "No"s would make you think. Instead, the experience of emptiness naturally opens into an experience of deep love and caring for all sentient beings.

You could explain this in a lot of different ways – for example, without concepts and attachments, we are able to cherish others more than ourselves (sound familiar?) – but honestly none of those explanations are really very helpful to me. What matters is that anyone can experience the truth of the inseparability of emptiness and compassion. This may happen in small glimpses, but with practice we simply notice that the less engaged we are with our own concepts, the more engaged we are with other beings. It’s so basic and – in a funny kind of way – so complete.

So far, what we’ve seen sounds like a kind of Third Century deconstructionism. What happens after you’ve proven that everything is empty? If your practice is all about abandoning all attachments to conceptions, what’s the biggest misconception of all? The conception that nothing exists! One big problem with that is the same problem that secular materialism and rationality comes up against. After you’re done with all of that “No No No”'ing, what do you have left? If you forget about the compassion side of emptiness, then all those who have said that Buddhism is nihilism would be right.

Before I say anything more, I should say that on some of the below I’m going out on a limb – I may not be following all of the various school’s points of view perfectly, but it’s the way of looking at this that makes the most sense to me. Again, I’m just an ignorant dharma student, so take this all with an enormous grain of salt.

Anyway, The Third Turning of the Wheel of Dharma addresses the whole nihilism issue in a way that is both completely radical but also completely consistent with the previous teachings. (Though not surprisingly, some beg to differ, as we’ll see.)

To understand how it works, we have to have some sense of the core teaching on ultimate vs relative truth. This distinction is used in a lot of Buddhist contexts, but is most important to the Madhyamaka tradition. Every club includes some folks who like to sit around and argue about things, and for Tibetan Buddhists, that’s the Madhyamakans. Think of them like Tibetan Jesuits or something. :slight_smile: The distinction is probably what you would guess: Ultimate truth just describes completely non-biased non-imputed reality; relative truth is reality as we describe it within our inherently dualistic, conceptual framework.

While there are a lot of complexities and subtleties to the arguments, I think that what the Third Turning view basically says is that all of the negation we’ve been doing necessarily only pertains to relative truths. Because how can you argue about something that can’t be conceptualized!?

I think that the proponents of the Third Turning get away with something cool here (it would be nice to pull the same trick on the scientists and rationalists of the Western world, but they’re probably not intellectually honest enough to accept it’s subtlety, and don’t have enough of a sense of humor):

The Madhyamika view is that if you believe something you have to prove it (sound familiar?). But the Third Turning view is that you can’t demonstrate something to be true if your only tool is negation. That means that there is a built-in bias for negation. Since the point of the Dharma is not to simply argue but to understand, what is really important is to recognize how our biases might affect our view and work with those biases in an intelligent way. (I’d love to hear about parallels to this in the Mystical tradition. I’ve got something tickling the back of my mind but I can’t remember the context.)

We could say that emptiness itself is empty, or we could say that it might not actually be really “empty empty” – we just don’t know. But if we did know, what would that thing be? There is some great rhetorical play here. “Everything is empty.” “Does emptiness exist?” “Yes … um … I mean no.” To this day, various schools take positions on whether the Third Turning is correct or not. The purely Second Turning view is called “Rangtong”, or “Emptiness of Itself” and the Third Turning is the “Shentong”, or “Emptiness of Other”. Rangtong is intrinsically empty, Shentong is only extrinsically so. This is probably a gross over-simplification, but it’s sort of glass-half-empty v. glass-half-full.

But I think the joke might really be that it doesn’t actually matter. You can map them both to each other using some really profound and satisfying arguments. My suspicion is that that debate is more of a dynamic tool to protect the Dharma from the twin evils of eternalism and nihilism. Students seem a little too “everything is love, lalalala!”? Toss some emptiness at them. Seem a little morose, wearing too many dark clothes, not bathing? Give them some luminosity! I’m being flip, but in these dark, painfully materialistic times, teachers seem to be putting a lot of emphasis on the luminosity side of things.

Anyway, with the argument out of the way, the great teachers are able to investigate about what this non-empty emptiness would look like. But this isn’t empty speculation, it’s really beautiful and profound. And it’s all true. :smiley:

What do they discover? Luminosity. Tathagatagarbha. Buddha Nature!

At this point I’ll let the genuine dharma speak for itself, rather than ramble on any more. The main scripture for all of this is The Mahayana Uttaratantra Shastra, and this is what it says:

***Buddha is without beginning, middle, or end. He is peace itself, fully self-awakened and self-expanded in buddhahood.
Having reached this state, he shows the indestructible, permanent path so that those who have no realization may realize.
Wielding the supreme sword and vajra of knowledge and compassionate love, he cuts the seedlings of suffering
and destroys the fall of doubts along with its surrounding thicket of various views. I bow down to this Buddha.

Being uncreated and spontaneously present,
not a realization due to extraneous conditions,
wielding knowledge, compassionate love, and ability,
buddhahood has the two benefits.***

BUDDHA NATURE, trans. Rosemarie Fuchs

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