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Is suffering something to be avoided? Do we have to want to leave cyclic existence as Buddhists?

Most people aren’t really driven to leave cyclic existence. Traditionally most Buddhists were only invested in getting a good next rebirth – you know, by ethics and generosity. So if you can live with that option, you’re still a Buddhist in my book.

If my ‘self’ is empty, does that mean that helping people is useless too?

I can tell you that a proper understanding of emptiness doesn’t deny the conventional self. It merely addresses the story-telling self, the Ego if you will. That voice in you that interprets reality according to how your desires want it to be and sets itself up as an authority on your life – that self is definitely denied by Buddhism. That is: it isn’t what it seems. It doesn’t even have to be killed or anything. It really just doesn’t exist the way it appears. When you see that fact, realizing it deeply, the Ego loses much of it’s power.

The self that buys groceries? That self is totally fine. In fact, it exists the way it appears and it is necessary.

Don’t feel pressured to believe in something that is beyond you. Emptiness has always been an elite thing. Most Buddhists throughout time were illiterate farmers. They did not think about selflessness. They thought about how to get their rice to grow.

And hey – if it turns out you’re not really a Buddhist – as long as you make sure to guard your karma, you’re still fine from a Buddhist perspective.

The basic instruction in the Gelugpa interpretation of Emptiness (which includes 4 different interpretations in it’s turn) is that when you come upon an interpretation of emptiness that makes you doubt cause and effect, back-paddle. Cause and effect (which includes working for a better world) is more important than emptiness.You’re questioning your understanding of emptiness because you feel doing actual good in the world is more important. Which it is. It only interferes with selflessness if you start thinking ‘hey, look at me doing good’. However, if you notice that in yourself, don’t stop doing good. Just use it as a tool to remind yourself that you’re not quite a bodhisattva/arhat yet.

Emptiness is a very complicated topic. Do take other people’s interpretations of it with a grain of salt. I studied for over a decade and I still don’t have more than a grasp of the basics.

I grew up on a farm. My neighbors were great. They were real altruists and definitely selfless.

Selflessness in the ethical sense has very little to do with selflessness as in emptiness. It’s great when people are altruistic, of course. Great karma for them and great blessings for those around them. However, that doesn’t mean they have realized emptiness. So don’t get your terminology mixed up: people being altruistic is another topic than selflessness in the Buddhist philosophical sense.

In Mahayana Buddhist terms there are two things: (1) the method side of the path: things like ethics, kindness, generosity etc. That’s what those farmer neighbors of yours had and what you are probably doing fine on as well.

(2) The other side is the wisdom side – this is where Buddhist philosophy comes in. And on that side it really takes quite a lot of work. Not that living an ethical life isn’t work – but it’s a very different story. To realize emptiness fully is to have both an intellectual understanding AS WELL AS using that understanding to clean up your own personality. When that realization occurs, that is when the end of cyclic existence comes into view.

But why bother with wisdom at all?

From a traditional Buddhist perspective – Mahayana or Theravada – Without wisdom we’re stuck in cyclic existence. The Tibetan tradition would add that without wisdom kindness is often counter productive. These are two very different reasons. Many people are more ready for the second type than the first. Which is fine.
Why is wisdom important for me personally? Well, meditating on emptiness and applying it to my personality has helped me deal with a few self-delusions.

Kindness without wisdom leads to all kinds of problems. People giving unsolicited advice, for instance. Giving help short-term that only creates problems long-term. This is a very common mistake among amateur bodhisattvas (as one teacher of mine called us).

Buddhists I know often seem to use Buddhism to escape their situation. This denial of the inevitability and importance of suffering feels like a denial of the first noble truth of Buddhism.

In my experience, allowing myself to suffer helps me learn. When I cover it up, I stagnate.

Buddha too wanted to escape suffering. So in itself that is not a problem. What happens is that when people use the dharma to escape suffering, they are just covering it up, instead of using the dharma to deal with it. The story is that the Buddha rooted it out completely. You can’t root something out without confronting it.

When thinking about the path to enlightenment, I get confused. It feels like there is this huge distance between my situation now and Awakening. I like the idea better that I already have everything it takes and need only see it.

You are coming up on one of the things that differ between various traditions within Buddhism. The ‘you need only see it’ approach is very much Zen (also Dzog Chen). The path approach is more classical, so most Tibetan traditions as well as Theravada are on that line. It is just a preference, not an essential difference. You would not deny, for instance, that you still have personal problems, I think. So there is a path in the sense that you’re not a saint just yet and yet you have the potential to become one (using very Western terminology for once). 

So why should I want to leave cyclic existence anyhow? Do you honestly want to leave cyclic existence?

If you think the system through consistently, you will see that – once karma and rebirth are accepted – the urge to leave cyclic existence is really quite rational. If you take people in poverty, dealing with disease without proper healthcare, in war zones etc. into account, most of them would probably think it a nightmare to be asked to return again and again. 

However, from the position of relative wealth still prevalent in the West, this urge is definitely not one that comes naturally. That is the Buddhist answer.

As one of the topics of meditation in the Lam Rim I have trained to try and get a feel for it. I can’t honestly say I have internalized it. However, I do see that if karma is true, and rebirth is true, then the chances of being reborn as favorably as I was this time aren’t that good. I may be building enough good karma to prevent an unfortunate rebirth, but I can’t be certain. 

Why would you meditate on such a depressing topic?

Good question. Because if karma and rebirth are facts, then cyclic existence is a problem waiting to be solved. Just because my current life is too comfortable to make that too deeply felt, doesn’t make the problem less real. 

However, as I started out saying: nothing is mandatory. Meditating on cyclic existence isn’t mandatory either. You are completely free not to be a Buddhist, and if you are, to be your kind of Buddhist. 

Conclusion

The above is clearly only a summary of the doctrines of emptiness and cyclic existence. It may be enough to meditate on, but it certainly doesn’t replace the libraries of books written on each in Indian Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism and Japanese Buddhism.

Tibetan Buddhism divides the philosophical interpretations of emptiness into four schools. However, each of these is separated into at least two others – with often diametrically opposed viewpoints. Japanese Buddhism made no attempt to simplify the topic into a mere four schools. Instead they have about a dozen main interpretations. 

If you haven’t been confused by emptiness, you haven’t even begun to understand it. 

Some emptiness terminology

 Anatma (Sanskrit) = Anatta (Pali) = literally NO (an) SELF (atma)

The no-self doctrine. As you can see above, the translation of anatma with ‘selflessness’ ads to the confusion about the topic. I prefer the translation ‘no-self’. This doctrine is common to all types of Buddhists, though the precise interpretation varies. 

Sunyata (Sanskrit) = Sunnata (Pali) = literally ZERO (sunya) NESS (ta – merely a suffix). 

Emptiness. In Mahayana discourse ’emptiness’ has come to refer to the lack of a ‘self of phenomena’. In other words: it refers to the fact that nothing exists the way it appears to us, not merely the Ego. 1) Phenomena don’t exist the way they appear to our senses and 2) we don’t really look with our senses all that clearly. Instead we see the world through the filter of our conditionings. 

Ego

I am using the word Ego here the way it is used in common discourse. Don’t get Jung or Freud involved when thinking about Emptiness. 

When we say ‘he has too much Ego’, we mean that he takes himself too seriously. The male Tibetan gurus who came to the West were quite confused by their, often female, students. Instead of having too much ego, they didn’t have enough: they lacked self-confidence despite all their accomplishments. In time the teachers found a way of fitting it in with their worldview as follows: the Ego of a lack of self-confidence. 

I think this is quite useful. Lack of self-confidence is a sense of ‘poor me’. We tend to see it as humility, but the effect isn’t good. Lack of self-confidence makes us avoid trying things we may be able to do. Humility on the other hand can co-exist with achievement quite peacefully. It merely means that we don’t make our accomplishments an Ego-thing. 

With this addition, Ego becomes something everybody has. Everybody has a story-line about themselves that is off from the reality. In my understanding, that is the ‘conceit of I’ that the realization of no-self will get rid of. 

[This is adapted from a Facebook group discussion. The Question-parts are rewritten from the original to respect their copyright.]

[Shown here is my amateur version of 4-armed Avalokiteshvara]

About the author: Having studied Buddhism and other religions and spiritual traditions since 1995, Katinka Hesselink became a Buddhist formally in 2011. She has studied world religions at Leiden University where she focused on religious anthropology, philosophy and psychology. She has written online since 1999 and started this blog to share her Buddhist knowledge, insight and opinions. Katinka is best known for her common sense approach to Buddhism.

{ 2 comments… add one }
  • Bao April 13, 2015, 11:39 pm

    Do you have an explanation for why rebirth existed? Is it to helps one learn about human suffering so that ones can get him/her self out of suffering? Let say for a Buddhist to help those who are lost (good or bad), he/she has to also walk that path to understand it? Maybe a rebirth into misery and despair is also just a part of learning, like a choice that one make rather than to improve their own life with every re-incarnation. For example of a psycho killer who kill without any thought of good or bad, can still feel the nirvana if his mind is empty (no thought) because to him, there is no differentiation. Does a Buddhist has to also walk that path in one life or another to understand it?

    • Katinka Hesselink April 14, 2015, 8:01 am

      There are several famous arhats and bodhisattvas who were killers in the very life that they reached awakening. So yes, it is possible to become enlightened even after having done terrible things.

      It IS taught that since we have all had beginning-less rebirths before this one, we all have already had all possible sorts of experiences, including the one of being killers. The point is: let’s stop repeating the same mistakes and get OUT!

      The traditional view is more of an endless cycle than of a comfortable upward stroll. However, you’re free to interpret it differently if you want.

      The hells Buddhists talk about can be taken figuratively too. Vasubandhu already did so, so it’s not as if we have to fear literal fires.

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