Thursday, July 30, 2009
The Bad Boys of Emptiness
A few weeks ago I mentioned that I was starting a new text drawing. The piece is called Nausea, and it is the Sunyatasaptati (Seventy Verses on Emptiness) by Nagarjuna, formed with letters that I'm cutting from the novel Nausea by Sartre. The piece is coming along quite nicely. It took me a while to get into it, though. Pretty dry stuff. No, not Sartre - he's a total chucklehead compared to Nagarjuna. This guy's a real pill. Check out this passage from the Sunyatasaptati:
"Without being there is no non-being. Being neither arises from itself nor from something else. This being so, this being does not exist: so there is no being, and therefore no non-being."
Party on, dude. See what I mean? Pretty opaque stuff. So in order to break things up a bit, I tossed in some passages from Nausea - scattered them into the text, just to lighten things up. Ha! now there ya go - the bubbly Sartre as a source of comic relief. These two guys are like the bookends for emptiness. An obscure Buddhist philosopher on one end, a cranky Existentialist on the other, and a couple millennia of emptiness between. Had they lived in the same era, I think they'd have made a great team, sorta like the Laurel and Hardy of existential despair. Nagarjuna as the swaggering straight man, and Sartre the bumbling underdog.
"If nirvana resulted from cessation, then there would be destruction. If the contrary, there would be permanence. Therefore it is not logical that nirvana is being or non-being."
I'd be hard pressed to say which guy surprises me more: Sartre, for how positively enlightened his realizations were, or Nagarjuna, for what a Buddhist butthole he appears to have been. He applied a zero tolerance rule on emptiness: don't ask, don't tell, don't even THINK that there is anything but emptiness. Or else. Okay, okay! I get it, Nagar! Emptiness rules!
The irritating thing is that he's right. Any way you slice it, you come up with emptiness. The notion that reality has substance just doesn't hold water. It's a miracle that a cup even holds water. Whether you're a Buddhist, a Trappist, a quantum physicist, a philosopher, or a Wall Street banker, you end up at the same conclusion: there's nothing there. Your reality is based on illusion, presumption, and projection. Projection of what? Desire. Everything we do, all that we see, is a manifestation of desire, either yours or someone else's. Think about that.
Why is it that my life is so radically different than, say, that of a Wall Street banker? I simply don't project the same desires that she does. Financial security? Planning for retirement? A husband with a twelve inch stock portfolio? Nah, I'm good. The movie that we project onto the screen of our life creates our reality. Turn off the projector, and our reality ceases. What's left? Emptiness.
Try it. Look around the room. You may be in a small loft like I am, an office, a double-wide, or lounging by the pool of your summer estate. Wherever you are, see how your space is the reflection of your desires. What if your desires came to a grinding halt? I don't mean that they changed, I mean that they stopped altogether, and you desired nothing. What would you be left with?
When we turn off the projector and our desires cease, we're left with the substance of who we are - that is, the lack of substance. We're nothing more than consciousness. We conduct our lives as if we are our bodies and our accumulation of things. As if we could take all of our belongings, plop them in a crate, jump in the crate along with them, and say, "This is me." No, that's just your projection of who you are. YOU are something entirely different. YOU are the awareness of the desire; YOU are the awareness behind the desire. The breath inside the breath, according to the Upanishads.
Back to Nagar and Jean-Paul. Their shtick is to do away with all our illusions about ourselves, and strip it down to the basics. When we do that, we find at the core of reality a gaping maw of emptiness, and it's upon this emptiness that the mind builds its castles. Does this make you feel a little queasy? Yeah, me too, but don't worry - we all have our bouts of nausea.
Above: Nagarjuna (right) scolds Sartre (left) for succumbing to the illusion of nausea.