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Buddhadharma : Spring 2006
buddhadharma| 27 |spring 2006 to the unfettered, brilliant qualities of experience. It is conventionally unimaginable to move beyond these concepts, for they condition every moment of our lives and shape our sense of identity, our relationships, our emotions, our sense perceptions, our very dreams. Most attempts to point out the binding nature of our conceptual landscape merely intensify our concepts as we grope to fit even spiri- tual teachings in our previously devised categories. This is how existentialism and post-modernism are chained to their philosophic predecessors, with allegiance to truth, beauty, rationality, or prag- matism. all are based on conceptual models of reality, all of which must be ultimately shed in Buddhist practice. nilhilism is said to be particularly challenging on the path. The most dangerous kind of nihilism is the one that conceptualizes emptiness, and the great acharyas of the tradition always targeted this as problematic. as nagarjuna said, “emptiness will liberate one from all conceptual views. But those who conceptualize emptiness will fail to realize liberation.” In other words, emptiness is merely a designating word. It is not itself any thing, any thought, or any phenomenon that can be con- ceptualized. and insofar as we conceptualize emptiness, we will find only painful dead ends. affirming phenomena is eternalism; negating phe- nomena is nihilism. nagarjuna said, “Skillful meditators should neither affirm nor negate phe- nomena.” In the Mahayana sutras, the Buddha manifested his skillful means to point out our clinging to conceptuality, and to introduce directly, mind to mind, the true nature of reality. What the Buddha taught cannot be accurately expressed in words, but he used specific pedagogical terms, like shu- nyata, to point to that inexpressible realization. yet the core of these teachings cannot be directly accessed through even the most revered of sacred texts. It cannot be uncovered by the precision of the finest “middle way” (Madhyamaka) logics, or the most beautiful of empowerments or rituals. The inexpressible realization of the Buddha can only be discovered through the kindness of a liv- ing teacher. Through my first years of study and practice, I thought I understood all of this. I was drawn to the work of Chögyam Trungpa rinpoche because he wrote about loneliness and desolation. he emphasized the experience of hopelessness, and he wrote poetry about the stark landscape in which I lived. he spoke a language I thought I understood, and I was eager to meet him. But that first sum- mer of naropa University, I was unprepared for the actual experience of encountering him face-to- face. In our first conversation, he reached into my mind, knowing the question behind my question, and he answered it before I could even ask. he recognized my inner desolation, and yet to him it was not tragic. There was no boundary between us, and he neither confirmed nor denied anything in my experience. he had not lost heart, and his joy and celebration were apparent in everything he did. I was shocked, afraid, and magnetized. Still, the ramparts of my desolation endured for years to come. I relaxed in rinpoche’s presence, but the joy and humor were his, not mine. I rode his charisma and basked in his warmth. I practiced and studied and soaked up everything I could of his teachings, determined to fulfill his wishes. When he taught on hopelessness, I resonated, feeling vindi- cated. yes, I felt hopeless – I must have been a good student! But one day he strode into my desolation, eyes flashing with humor, and called my bluff. My desolation became anger and disappointment. The secret hope at the heart of my hopelessness was exposed. nihilism was a brand of theism. I couldn’t look anyone in the eyes, my disappointment was so sharp. But that was the turning point. no concept could capture the true nature of reality or the mind. My mind was pulled inside out, like a sock. and the inner desolation began to melt, like ice in the sun. I glimpsed the basic goodness at the heart of the world, and I was included within it. I can never repay rinpoche’s kindness. In the Buddhist scriptures of India and Tibet, the dangers of the nihilistic stance are described and addressed in the teachings of Maitreya and asanga. Those who mistake the teachings of emp- tiness are said to fall into any of five traps. first, we may fall into depression and discouragement, convinced that while the buddhas of the past or the teachers of the present became enlightened, this is not something possible for us. hence, there is no reason to strive in our practice, for enlightenment is simply not possible for ordinary sentient beings like us. This attitude defeats the very ground of our practice and yields a depressed and hopeless attitude in our daily activities as well. Without trust in our own basic goodness, life becomes a shadow of a life, filled with resignation. This per- spective is one that the great acharya Shantideva called a brand of laziness, becoming hooked on a dark, sinking, and denigrating state of mind. Second, nihilism is a kind of arrogance, think- ing our own understanding of the nature of real- ity, while discouraged, is superior to others in scope and realization. We believe that our own perspective is the only true and correct one. The Tibetan example of this is that we become like a solid sphere, a ball, rather than a vessel. When My inner life became increasingly desolate and lonely. I assumed that this was an experience of what the Buddhist texts called emptiness.