Conversations with Joseph (Emptiness)

Ah yes, emptiness. The cornerstone of the Buddha's teaching—the realization of which leads to absolute non-clinging, the total end of suffering, and something we sometimes call "enlightenment" or "awakening."

The problem, of course, is that while emptiness is actually a non-conceptual experience, to train in it, we need teachings and methods. And teachings and methods require concepts. So, for generations now, Buddhist teachers have used concepts to point toward the non-conceptual realization of emptiness. And, for generations, students have stumbled through various iterations of attachment to those very concepts before finding their way, usually gradually, often through tremendous perseverance and a bunch of dead ends, toward the non-thing that is "the heartwood of the bodhi tree."

The finger and the moon stands as a classic metaphor for this dynamic. The teacher points to the moon. Her finger is the words, the concepts. The moon is the truth, beyond words. We all keep looking at the finger and arguing about the finger and thinking the finger is super cool. Until finally we start to recognize the light of the moon and, slowly, begin to rest our very life on the recognition of that light.

Another metaphor: the raft. We're on one side of a river. We want to get to the other side. And so we use the raft (the teachings, the concepts) to get to the other side. But once we get to the other side of the river (here's hoping), we leave the raft behind.

At any rate, the next thing Joseph emphasized in our conversation was emptiness.

(This is part 3 in a 3 part series about a single conversation with my teacher and mentor, Joseph Goldstein. Please click here for part 1 and here for part 2.)

This idea of taking on and putting down roles, he said, is best understood in the context of emptiness. All roles, from the perspective of emptiness, are just roles. Dharma teacher is a role to be responsibly adopted, and then released. Just like the role of father, son, husband, mother, daughter, wife, employer/employee: all these are roles, nothing more. Each of them could and should be responsibly filled. But none of them exists, not really.

What does exist then? Well, that's a little harder to pin down. Does the body exist? The body is parts; each of the parts is made of parts; which are made of parts. Break it down and you get blood vessels, cells, ribosomes, mitochondria, all the way down to particles, which aren't so much parts as probabilities and magnetism . . . but somehow we still perceive a world.

That's the mystery. And the idea is to recognize and live in that mystery, whatever role you might be taking on in any given moment. This releasing out of clinging to roles, and then out of clinging to identity, and then out of clinging to self, body, sensations, thoughts, or anything else—this is the fundamental teaching of all the Buddhist traditions.

As I listened to Joseph speak, I felt the familiar widening of mind that moves through me when I hear teachings on emptiness. From a moment, I just rested with all that. Then we hung up the phone and I went back to my day, seeing if I could relax my sense of "being someone," moment by moment, as I moved from role to role and day to day.

I'll be thinking about these conversations with Joseph conversations for years to come, I'm sure. Thanks for being part of the process.

All the best,

P.S. As a fun experiment, I’m enabling likes & comments for this post. If you think this is cool, let me know. Personally, I kind of like the clean lines of a comment-less blog. But we also want to build community, and comments are one way folks can get to know each other. What do you all think?

Craig Hase