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Buddhadharma : Winter 2006
buddhadharma| 43 |winter 2006 because the buddha viewed all issues of expe- rience, from the gross to the subtle, in terms of intentional actions and their results, his standard for wisdom applies to all levels as well, from the wisdom of simple generosity to the wisdom of emptiness and ultimate awakening. Wisdom on all levels is wise because it works. it makes a differ- ence in what you do and the happiness that results. but to work, it requires integrity: the willingness to look honestly at the results of your actions, to admit when you‘ve caused harm, and to change your ways so that you won’t make the same mis- take again. What’s striking about this standard for wis- dom is how direct and down-to-earth it is. this might come as a surprise, because most of us don’t think of buddhist wisdom as commonsensical and straightforward. instead, the phrase “buddhist wisdom” implies teachings that are more abstract and paradoxical, flying in the face of common sense – “emptiness” being a prime example. empti- ness, we’re told, means that nothing has any inher- ent existence. in other words, on an ultimate level, things aren’t what we conventionally think of as “things.” they’re processes that are in no way sep- arate from all the other processes on which they depend. this is a philosophically sophisticated idea that’s fascinating to ponder, but it doesn’t provide much help in getting you up early on a cold morning to meditate nor in convincing you to give up a destructive addiction. For example, if you’re addicted to alcohol, it’s not because you feel that the alcohol has any inherent existence. it’s because, in your calcula- tion, the immediate pleasure derived from the alcohol outweighs the long-term damage it’s doing to your life. attachment and addiction are not metaphysical problems. they’re tactical prob- lems. We’re attached to things and actions, not because of what we think they are but because of what we think they can do for our happiness. if we keep overestimating the pleasure and under- estimating the pain they bring, we stay attached to them regardless of what, in an ultimate sense, we understand them to be. because the problem is tactical, the solution has to be tactical as well. the cure for addiction and attachment lies in retraining your imagination and your intentions through expanding your sense of the power of your actions and the possible hap- piness you can achieve. this means learning to become more honest and sensitive to your actions and their consequences, while at the same time allowing yourself to imagine and master alterna- tive routes to greater happiness. Metaphysical views may sometimes enter into the equation, but at most they’re secondary. Many times they’re irrelevant. even if you were to see the alcohol and its pleasure as lacking inherent existence, you’d still go for the pleasure as long as you saw it as outweighing the damage. some- times ideas of metaphysical emptiness can actu- ally be harmful. if you start focusing on how the damage of drinking – and the people damaged by your drinking – are empty of inherent existence, you could develop a rationale for continuing to drink. so the teaching on metaphysical emptiness wouldn’t seem to pass the buddha’s own test for wisdom. the irony here is that the idea of emptiness as lack of inherent existence has very little to do with what the buddha himself said about empti- ness. his teachings on emptiness – as reported in the earliest buddhist texts, the Pali canon – deal directly with actions and their results, with issues of pleasure and pain. to understand and experi- ence emptiness in line with these teachings requires not philosophical sophistication but a personal integrity willing to admit the actual motivations behind your actions and the actual benefits and harm they cause. For these reasons, this version of emptiness is very relevant in developing the sort of wisdom that would pass the buddha’s common- sensical test for measuring how wise you are. the buddha’s teachings on emptiness – con- tained in two major discourses and several smaller ones – define it in three distinct ways: as an approach to meditation, as an attribute of the senses and their objects, and as a state of con- centration. although these forms of emptiness paInTIngcopyrIghT©2006Bradholland