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Buddhadharma : Spring 2015
40 buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly spring 2 0 1 5 the contrIved self The cause of all suffering can be boiled down to grasping onto a fictional, contrived existence. But what does that mean? If we really come to under- stand, then there is no longer even a container to hold together our normal concepts, to make them coherent. The precious pot shatters, and all our valuables roll away like marbles on a table. Reality as we thought we knew it is disrupted; the game of contriving an ideal self is suddenly irrelevant. This is shunyata, which gets translated in various ways, most commonly as “emptiness,” but there is no real correlate in our language, no single word or idea that can cover this ground of disrupted reality. Because “emptiness” in English has negative conno- tations, shunyata is sometimes translated as “void- ness,” “open spaciousness,” and even “boundless- ness”; Nyingmas such as Longchenpa explained emptiness in positive terms inextricably associated with presence, clarity, and compassion. But in the context of death and birth, shunyata refers to a direct experience of disruption felt at the core of our being, when there is no longer any use manu- facturing artificial security. We’re not talking about giving up our precious human life here, of course; we’re talking about giving up on this subtle game. We hold pictures of our ideal self in an ideal world. We imagine that if we could only manipulate our circumstances or other people enough, then that ideal self could be achieved, and in the meantime, we try to pretend to have it together. It’s the game we play all the time: we keep postponing our acceptance of this moment in order to pursue reality as we think it should be. When we suffer disruption, we find we just can’t play that game anymore. The bardo teachings are really about recognizing the value of giving up the game, which we play without even giving it a second thought. But when we are severely ill or in hospice, and we have to cede control over our own bodily functions to strangers, holding it all together is not an option. There are times like these in our lives—such as facing death or even giving birth—when we are no longer able to manage our outer image, no longer able to suspend ourselves in pursuit of the ideal self. It’s just how it is—we’re only human beings, and in these times of crisis we just don’t have the energy to hold it all together. When things fall apart, we can only be as we are. Pretense and striving fall away, and life becomes starkly simple. The value of such moments is this: we are shown that the game can be given up and that when it is, the emptiness that we feared, emptiness of the void, is not what is there. What is there is the bare fact of being. Simple presence remains—breathing in and out, waking up and going to sleep. The inevitability of the circumstances at hand is compelling enough that for the moment, our complexity ceases. Our compulsive manufacturing of contrived existence stops. Perhaps in that ungrounded space, we are not even comforting ourselves, not even telling ourselves everything is okay; we may be too tired to do even that. It’s just total capitulation—we’re forced into non-grasping of inherent reality. The contrived self has been emptied out along with contrived existence and the tiring treadmill of image maintenance that goes along with it. What remains is a new moment spontaneously meeting us again and again. There is an incredible reality that opens up to us in those gaps if we just do not reject rupture. In fact, if we have some reliable idea of what is hap- pening in that intermediate, groundless space, rup- ture can become rapture. emergIng presence It is said that the great fourteenth-century terton in the Nyingma lineage, Karma Lingpa, soon after los- ing his wife and their child within just a few days of each other, extracted a treasure of teachings from the side of a mountain. Because of all the spiritual practice he had done, the disruption he experi- enced sparked a volcanic eruption of wisdom from which flowed The Self-Emergence of the Peaceful and Wrathful Deities from Enlightened Awareness, known here in the West as The Tibetan Book of the Dead. That act of revelation is in itself a key teach- ing, the idea that death and loss are great teachers if we can just open to the experience of profound disruption. Just like Karma Lingpa, encountering death can open us up to a basic level of being—raw, unmanaged, unmanipulated. That natural condi- tion, that unconditioned state, is what shunyata points to. What’s underneath all of our experience? If there is no inherent existence to hold on to, then what ©antonygormley (Opposite) Another Time, 1989 Earth, rabbit skin glue, and black pigment on paper 38x28cm