Sun, 18 Mar 2012
Way back in 1980, during the 16th Karmapa's last visit to America, he came to Washington DC, which was a big deal. And during that visit Trungpa Rinpoche also came to Washington, which made it a doubly big deal. During that visit I was part of a group interview with Trungpa Rinpoche. I wanted to ask a question about the relation between Nagarjuna's philosophy and the practice of meditation, but never got the chance. Trungpa ended the interview early so he could meet with a Sufi master. I wondered about my question for a long time. Here's my attempt to answer it for myself.
If I were to explain what Buddhism is all about in a few words, I would say that our nature is perfecly free and pure, but we don't experience that freedom and purity because it is hidden from us. Buddhism is the practice that removes the obscurations that hide our nature.
So what hides our nature? How is it possible that we don't see our mind as it is? What could stand between us and our minds? The obscuration which hides our mind is simply our misconception of it. To put it simply, this misconception is the subject/object duality. We can dissolve this duality through the practice of meditation. The process here is that we allow the mind to settle so that there are few thoughts. When the mind is free of thoughts it is easier to see mind as it is and how we distort this reality through our misunderstanding of it. Though it is easier, the process is not automatic. It's quite possible to be an advanced meditator, be able to hold the mind free of thoughts, and still not recognize it for what it is.
This is where the philosophy of Buddhism comes in, particularly the idea of emptiness. The philosophy shows us through argument the contradictions in our way of usually perceiving the world. What is contradictory cannot exist. A simple example of this type of argument is the relation between our selves and our minds and bodies. Neither can be the self because they are composite and changing, while the self is not. Neither can the self be outside the body, for example, as an owner, as this is only a nominal and not a real relation. So through arguments like this the philosophy of emptiness show that our usual understanding of things is mistaken.
But understanding the philosophy is not enough on its own. We need to see how we are making that same mistake in our own life. So we have to bring the philosophy and the meditation together. The meditation gives us the clarity to see the thoughts in our mind and the philosophy shows how they are unsound. The philosophy without the meditation only allows us to see the probem in the abstract. The meditation without the philosophy will likely fail to see the problem with our thoughts. So both are neccessary.
The special characteristic of the philosophy of emptiness is that it is purely negative. It makes no positive statements about how things are, only arguments showing how things cannot be. The philosophy takes this form because it was developed out of the experience of meditation. The experience of things as they are is beyond conceptualization. Hence the philosophy of emptiness, which is shaped, by this experience, strives to show the errors of conceptualization rather than putting forward a positive theory of the nature of reality. This is because any such positive theory would be false to the nature and an obstacle to seeing that nature.
So in emptiness we have a purely negative critique of how we misunderstand reality. And the purpose of the critique is that we can apply it to our experience in meditation and remove the false concepts which obscure things as they are.