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Buddhadharma : Spring 2010
Ajahn Sumedho also had a favorite analogy for this: Just like the question “Can you see your own eyes?” Nobody can see their own eyes. I can see your eyes but I can’t see my eyes. I’m sitting right here, I’ve got two eyes and I can’t see them. But you can see my eyes. But there’s no need for me to see my eyes because I can see! It’s ridiculous, isn’t it? If I started saying “Why can’t I see my own eyes?” you’d think “Ajahn Sume- dho’s really weird, isn’t he!” Looking in a mirror you can see a reflection, but that’s not your eyes, it’s a reflection of your eyes. There’s no way that I’ve been able to look and see my own eyes, but then it’s not necessary to see your own eyes. It’s not neces- sary to know who it is that knows—because there’s knowing. ~ Ajahn Sumedho, “What is the Citta?” Forest Sangha Newsletter, October 1988 This very error is the reason why it’s perhaps wiser to use a term such as “knowing” instead of “transcendent wisdom” or “awareness.” As a gerund it is a verb-noun, thus lending it a more accurate quality of immanence, activity, and non- thingness. The process of awakening not only breaks down subject-object relationships, it also breaks down the very for- mulation of “things.” Some years ago Buckminster Fuller published a book enti- tled I Seem to Be a Verb, and more recently, and more expan- sively, Rabbi David Cooper published God is a Verb. Both of these were attempts to counteract the floodtide of formula- tions of reality as “things” that the untrained, conditioned mind is prone to generating. Emptiness We come now to the quality of emptiness. First, it is of some significance to note that although the adjectival noun suññata (Sanskrit: sunyata), or “emptiness,” is used in the Theravada scriptures, it is far outweighed by its humble cousin, the adjec- tive suñña, “empty.” In later, Northern Buddhist traditions, sunyata took on not only a central position in the teachings on liberation (for example in the Prajña Paramita Sutras, the Heart Sutra, and the Vajra Sutra) and the Middle Way (as in Nagarjuna’s Madhyamaka philosophy, uniting emptiness and causality), but it also took on the attributes of some kind of quasi-mystical substance or realm—not intentionally or doctrinally even, but more through a subtle and unconscious reification. It became something that is a nothing, that then was worshiped and deified as a universal panacea. This is not to say that all such teachings on emptiness are false or useless—not at all. It is just to say that, like any ver- bal formulation of Dhamma, if grasped incorrectly they can obstruct rather than aid progress on the path. If the concept of emptiness is understood and used as a skillful means, it is clear that it could not be any kind of thing-in-itself. Any tendency to incline the attitude in that direction would thus be seen as falling wide of the mark. If a person were to say that suññata is a material element, his or her friends would die laughing. Some people would say that it is an immaterial or formless element, and here the Noble Ones (ariya) would die laughing. Voidness is neither a material nor an immaterial element, but is a third kind of element that lies beyond the ken of ordinary people. The Buddha called it “quenching element” or “cessation element” (nirodha-dhatu). The words “material element” (vatthu-dhatu) or “form ele- ment” (rupa-dhatu) refer to materiality in visible forms, sounds, odors, tastes, or tactile objects. “Formless element” (arupa- dhatu) refers to the mind and heart, to mental processes, and to the thoughts and experiences that arise in the mind. There is only one kind of element not included in these two categories, an element that is the complete antithesis and annihilation of them all. Consequently, the Buddha sometimes called it “cool- ness element” (Nibbana-dhatu), sometimes “quenching ele- ment” (nirodha-dhatu), and sometimes “deathless element” (amatadhatu). ~ Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, Heartwood of the Bodhi Tree AjAhn AmAro and AjAhn PASAnno are co-abbots of Abhayagiri monastery in redwood Valley, California, which is in the Thai Forest tradition of Ajahn Chah. The process of awakening not only breaks down subject–object relationships, it also breaks down the very formulation of “things.” (left-rIght)rIchardyaskI,uNkNowN