Tuesday, July 8, 2008

On Emptiness and Relish

The very concept of emptiness (shunyata in Sanskrit) is often seen as antithetical to emotions, enjoyments, and the richness of the flavors of life. This understanding proceeds from a deficient concept of shunyata, from an insufficient grasp of Buddhist fundamentals, and from a lack of skill to integrate apparent conflicts into a single mental framework.

In fact, it is only with the attainment of shunyata and its constituent tranquil space that any real flavor and texture in life can be fully experienced. Shunyata is the very platform on which as-is existence is experienced, in its natural flavor and free of projections. Here are some beneficial angles and applications on reaching emptiness.

 A blank sheet of paper is ideal for new artwork. Have that neutral sheet in your mind.
You can remember this image and return it to your mind when you need clarity and space.

The Quiescent Platform of Experience

The old Indian authors developing the theory of rasa, or the dynamics of emotion and aesthetic flavor in drama (natya-shastra), insisted that this rasa, literally "juice" or "essence" representing the rich flavor of emotion in exchanges and relationships, can only be experienced as-is on the tranquil platform of sattva, a serene, crisp and tender plane of existence.

In other words the involved actor, or a person in real life if we extend the application of the theory beyond dramatics, is not the proper experiencer of rasa. The flavor or rasa of the drama is appreciated in full only through vicarious experience, an experience where the emotions are seen in their own nature on a neutral mind-platform.

It was Abhinava Gupta (ca. 950-1020 CE) of Kashmiri fame, one of the most significant dramatic theorists in the history of classical Sanskrit literature, who developed the concept of shanta-rasa or "the flavor of peace", and aptly observed:

''All emotions, when their respective conditions or excitants arise, proceed from shanta; and when the conditions are withdrawn, they again merge or repose in shanta.''
Shanta, literally "peacefulness", is a quiescent, tranquil and detached state of mind. It is a state where the mind is wholly undistracted by the urges that accompany us in our daily lives, a state where the happiness of serenity predominates over all common – and even vulgar – flavors of human experience. You can think of shanta as the happy background-radiation of all existence.

Some theoreticians of drama have built a metaphoric bridge between the traditions of Natya and Vedanta, stating that the simultaneous experience of aloofness and the fullness of emotional thrill was equivalent to the experience of the bliss of moksha or liberation the jnanis (wisdom cultivators) savor. A cultivated individual with the ability to understand and relish the fullness of the nature of emotion and exchange is called a rasika, or a connoisseur of emotional flavors.

Shunyata: The Ultimate Platform

In classical Buddhist thought, shunyata or emptiness does not refer to a state of a final void and emptiness as an objective entity or domain. Rather, shunyata is a characteristic defining existence (often called samsara, as in "the world we live in"), and as such is inherently tied with it. Samsara and nirvana sojourn hand in hand.

The perpetual flux of mind and matter animating the universe is in and of itself empty of purpose, being fundamentally transitory. The natural plainness and peace of shunyata is compromised by the individual personal ego projecting and superimposing its value assessments on phenomena. As the personal ego resolves, shunyata or the beautiful natural plainness of reality shines forth.

The factors preventing us from experiencing the fullness of life, the countless distractions and disturbances, all spring forth from the active personal ego. With the pollutant introduced as a central element of our experience, indeed at times with deluded vigor and immense craving, our experience of the world is reduced to a neurotic reflection of its richness, and life in general becomes less agreeable in its nature.

Samsara and Nirvana

With the distracting and neurotic ego resolved with wisdom arising from meticulous introspection and contemplation, nirvana or the wholesome quietening of existence is experienced. It is as if the orchestra had just played its final note, leaving the crisp, attentive atmosphere of the concert hall in a state of profound, active stillness. The orchestra is still present, as is the concert hall. And so is samsara.

As to whether there truly is parinirvana (final post-death emancipation), or what exactly an egoless, disembodied and undivided reality is, is not of much concern for us. Our lives are lived here and now, and for us the world of samsara is a vivid reality that cannot be wished away, one that is only temporarily shunned by even the best meditators, only to return once again owing to the inevitable tie between the world and the constituents of our psyche.

The options at our disposal are then two-fold. We can choose to lead a life of extreme outer detachment, the ascetic's way, seeking to escape the surrounding reality into an emulated and underdeveloped parinirvana-state time and again. And on the other hand, we can choose to lead a life of integration and reconciliation with the world, being in it but not of it. And it is this latter option that I consider wholesome, an option offering the best of both worlds.

In observing the transitory nature of the world, in observing the ego-less nature of reality, and in observing the inevitable rise and fall of joys and sorrows, one grows immune to the ego-grown poisons of greed, hatred and delusional states. One observes the plain yet rich beauty of both mind and matter, fully involved yet wholly uninvolved, deploying but a functional ego (contra the personal ego) to accomplish his natural tasks.

The Texture of Life

I would quote from Chögyam Trungpa (1939-1987), a perceptive author who has had a substantial influence on my outlook on life. It is especially the psychological dimensions of his writing that I find to be of profound value. Quoting from "Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism":

"So the real experience, beyond the dream world, is the beauty and color and excitement of the real experience of now in everyday life. When we face things as they are, we give up the hope of something better. . . . Depression and ignorance, the emotions, whatever we experience, are all real and contain tremendous truth. If we really want to learn and see the experience of truth, we have to be where we are." (p. 60)

"We have to be brave enough to actually encounter our emotions, work with them in a real sense, feel their texture, the real quality of emotions as they are. We would discover that emotion actually does not exist as it appears, but it contains much wisdom and open space. The problem is that we never experience emotions properly." (p. 236)
If only we can bring ourselves to a still for a moment, letting the present speak for itself without painting it all and around with our coloring perceptions, the beauty of the constantly renewed presence of the ongoing moment becomes as vivid, charming, eloquent and unique as anything could ever be. There is wonder in every nuance, there is flavor in its every fiber. With the silencing of the ego, lady reality emerges from the shadows for her pristine dance.

Nothing Really Matters...

When all things become equally beautiful, when the mind finally halts the wheel of positive and negative associations and evaluations, all directions of life's flow gain equal fascination. Anyway the wind blows, doesn't really matter to me...
Nothing really matters,
Anyone can see,
Nothing really matters,
nothing really matters to me...
The later life of Trungpa Rinpoche is a rather fascinating tale. This 11th reincarnation in the line of Trungpa tulkus, who moved to England for his studies at Oxford, eventually disrobed and acted as a lay-teacher, establishing numerous institutions and centers across the world. He also became an alcoholic, and was known for his harem of girlfriends. By any ordinary standard of assessment, he touched the bottom pretty hard — even if he never left his teacher's shoes.

His history reminds me of Nisargadatta Maharaj, one of the brightest lights of Advaita-vedanta in the 20th century. Despite his vast popularity and its potentials, he chose to live his later years in the suburbs of Mumbai, working at his bidi shop nearby and teaching in his home at his spare time. His choice of profession wasn't without its toll — he eventually died of cancer.

Each of us has an infinite stock of karma, a stock of action seeking to resolve itself in its unique way. Bondage lasts as long as one tries to modify or unweave the web of actions through his vigilant endeavors; in that, the chain of karma is only extended further. With the stilling of the ego and the subsequent dissociation from the reactions affecting our bodies and minds, one becomes an unopinionated observer of the nature's drama. Its course doesn't really matter any more.

There is no longer any impetus for protecting a fragile ego-facade, there is no dependence on anyone or anything — what to speak of subservience to others' opinions. Pain and pleasure become equally interesting and disinteresting. Life and death become irrelevant and insignificant inevitabilities. There is a realization of full independence. And independence means I am free to let everything glide down the sewer and laugh at it, watching the drama unfold. And in that independence, liberation shines in its own nature, calling for no effort for its sustenance.

To touch the full spectrum of life, 
One must cross the gates of nirvana 
That are nowhere to be seen or found.

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