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Buddhadharma : Summer 2017
42 buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly summer 2017 DAiJAkU kinsT is a soto Zen priest and cofounder of ocean Gate Zen Center in santa Cruz, California. she is also a core faculty member and the director of the Buddhist Chaplaincy Program at the institute of Buddhist studies in Berkeley. GUY ARMsTRonG is a guiding teacher at the insight Meditation society and a member of the spirit Rock Teachers Council. He is the author of Emptiness: A Practical Guide for Meditators, published by Wisdom, May 2017. ARi GolDfielD is a Vajrayana teacher, translator, and psychotherapist in private practice. He and his wife, Rose Taylor Goldfield, codirect Wisdom sun, a Buddhist community based in san francisco. (LEFT—RIgHT):SALLyARMSTRONg,ALESSANDRAMELLO,CLAUDINEgOSSETT experience is empty of being unworkable, for exam- ple. And to me, the last part of emptiness—that “ness”—seems to add the element of experience. That “ness” can actually take us into an experience of expansiveness, of openness, of acceptance and love. BuDDhADhARMA: We’re hearing an interesting distinc- tion here between speaking of “things being empty” and speaking of something called “emptiness.” Guy, what do you make of this? Guy ARMSTRONG: “Empty” and “emptiness” are literal translations from the word shunya, or the Pali sunya, which at the time of the Buddha meant “empty” in a very common, ordinary sense. When the Buddha said, “Go meditate in these empty huts,” the word he used was sunya. I think empti- ness as the central philosophical position of a major religion is provocative and encourages some reflec- tion; I suspect that was part of the Buddha’s inten- tion when he used it. So I favor that simple transla- tion. But we need to draw out the full meaning of its implications, because it’s not about nihilism or cynicism or complete absence. Instead, it refers to a very great presence in which oneself and the objects of sense experience are seen to be insubstantial. emptiness is problematic. The reason is that it is so easily misunderstood, particularly by educated Westerners who tend to think of emptiness in terms of its existential meanings. And for those who have experienced trauma, it’s very easy to say, “Oh, I know what emptiness is, it’s that hollowness at the base of my emotional being,” when in truth, empti- ness liberates us from despair and nihilism. I don’t know what the alternative would be, but when I’m teaching, I ask students not to stop with “empty” but to use a complete phrase such as “empty of inherent existence” until they get a feel for what it actually means, which is dependent co-arising. ARI GOLDFIELD: I do think emptiness is an accurate translation. And it’s also problematic. But I think the word always has been problematic in the tradi- tion itself. It’s a word that hits us very powerfully. The word itself serves as a catalyst. It’s hard to fall asleep with that word; we have a reaction to it. It’s a charged word, but I think the difficulties around it have existed from when the Buddha first used it— there are even stories of practitioners who couldn’t take it, who had heart attacks and died. There is a real power there; we have to be very careful with it. So it’s important to ask: empty of what? Our