From Advaita to Emptiness
When I began to study the emptiness teachings in earnest, I had already been familiar with the advaitic awareness-style teachings for many years. By “awareness-style teachings” I mean the teachings for which global, non-phenomenal awareness or Brahman is a foundational element. These teachings would include traditional Shankaracharyan Advaita-Vedanta, as well as the teachings coming from Ramana Maharshi, Nisargadatta Maharaj, Ranjit Maharaj, Krishna Menon (Sri Atmananda) and others. I was familiar with all of these.
So when I began to study the emptiness teachings, I found it altogether natural to equate the “emptiness” in the new teaching with the “awareness” mentioned in my earlier teachings. This actually caused confusion on my part, and made it much harder to understand what even the very best emptiness teachers were talking about.
So I thought I would put together these pointers in case they might help spare you the confusion I experienced!
In the awareness teachings you often see lists of names for the un-nameable. Sometines they are capitalized, sometimes not: awareness, consciousness, the un-nameable, reality, truth, being, clarity, God, love, knowledge, thisness, oneness, the singularity, I, the I-principle, and sometimes even emptiness or “emptyfullness.” They are all used more or less synonymously to point to the single reality that is beyond pointing, but which is what the self and everything is made out of.
If you are used to these teachings and then attend a class or pick up a book on emptiness, it will be almost inevitable for you to perform a mental substitution as you take in the new teachings. You’ll hear “emptiness” and say to yourself, “awareness.”
It took me a while to understand this, but the emptiness teachings do not think of themselves as a version of the awareness teachings. When the emptiness teachings say, “emptiness” they do not mean “awareness” at all. They are not referring to anything beyond phenomena, which baffled me at first. Instead, the emptiness teachings refer to something more like the impermanence of phenomena, or the contingency, non-objectivity, or relationality of phenomena.
If you begin studying the emptiness teachings after spending time with the awareness teachings, you may start to wonder, “OK, so which teaching is true? They seem so different. Either there is global awareness or there isn’t.” How are such questions answered from within the awareness teachings themselves? Depending on the variety of awareness teaching, the reaction to questions like these might very well assert that they are a non-issue: these questions, like any mentations, may be said to be nothing more than arisings in global awareness. Therefore, the questions can’t possibly be relevant. Notice that when the questions are viewed in this way, the effect is not a move toward the question but a move away from the question. This move-away amounts to a statement that already assumes the teaching to be true.
The emptiness teachings, however, tackle such questions more critically and profoundly. Emptiness teachings do not take themselves for granted as true. Instead, they submit themselves to their own investigation. Emptiness teachings entail a radical critique of the notions of objective truth and independence. This is part of how one realizes that emptiness is empty. The teachings look at themselves. Nagarjuna is able to say, “If I had a position, no doubt fault could be found with it. Since I have no position, that problem does not arise.” The teachings allow one to investigate how this can be. The self-examining reflexive process becomes part of the teachings, and brings deep peace about questions such as “Which teaching is true?”
There are similarities between the two teachings which made me at first think they were identical with each other. For example, here are some similarities:
In the awareness teachings, realizing that you are this very same awareness that constitutes the entire world is the goal, or at least one way to describe it. In the emptiness teachings, realizing that you and all phenomena are empty is the goal. And in both cases, realizing the goal leads to peace, freedom and happiness.
Awareness and emptiness are both valorized, key terms in their respective teachings. The terms even sound a little bit alike.
According to both teachings, persons and other phenomena do not exist objectively. Whether it is a body, a material substance, a thought or a concept, it is held by both teachings not to exist in an independent way.
Not all awareness teachings are the same in this respect, but in the traditional Advaita Vedanta teachings as well as in the Atmanandan direct-path teachings, self-inquiry includes focused inferential activities such as logical analysis along the way to realization. And the emptiness teachings have this focused inferential, analytic feature as well.
Both sets of teachings originated in ancient India. In fact, Gautama, who later became Shakyamuni Buddha and the founder of Buddhism, was raised in the Vedic Hindu tradition, which gave rise to the Vedantic teachings. It’s sort of like Jesus being Jewish. (By the way, the West has teachings that are surprisingly similar to Buddhist emptiness teachings, for example the teachings of Sextus Empiricus, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Jacques Derrida and Richard Rorty, which developed independently.)
Where to study the teachings
Awareness teachings. Awareness teachings are very easy to find these days. There are satsangs, retreats, workshops, conferences, FaceBook, Google+, portal sites, networks of friends, and many personal websites. And, of course, there are quite a few books and some publishers specializing in these teachings.
Emptiness teachings. As I write this in January 2012, emptiness teachings are much harder to come by. One must usually attend teachings at a Buddhist dharma center, and then not all dharma centers have classes in emptiness. Tibetan and Chinese Buddhist centers may have emptiness classes, but sometimes these classes are given only in the Tibetan or Chinese languages. There are some classes in Madhyamika or Buddhist philosophy taught in colleges and universities. And sometimes professors will offer public, non-academic seminars. As for writings, when one includes the Western varieties of what we’re calling emptiness teachings (which include various kinds of non-essentialist areas of culture), then there are writings that number in the thousands. Depending on the author (whether Eastern or Western), the reading can be quite challenging.
Awareness teachings. In the awareness teachings, awareness is said to be the essence of all things. In fact, “things” aren’t really things at all; there is awareness only. The sum and subsance of everything is awareness. Nondual inquiry often proceeds in a reductive fashion, where one looks at the world, body and mind, and experiences in different ways that there can’t be any separate or distinct reality to any of it. Everything consists of awareness only.
Emptiness teachings. In the emptiness teachings, there are no essences. Things are said to be empty, but they aren’t said to be made out of emptiness. Physical things are composed of various pieces and parts and constituents, all of which are empty. Emptiness is not a substance of any kind. Rather, it is a name for how things exist — in an interdependent fashion.
Awareness teachings. In the awareness teachings, awareness=I and I=awareness. Awareness is the Self.
Emptiness teachings. In the emptiness teachings, I am said to be empty, but I am not made of emptiness. When the emptiness teachings say that there is no self, they are negating the idea of a partless, seamless, unified, independently existing essence that is supposed to be the basis of identity through time and space. That kind of self cannot be found anywhere, no matter how closely one looks. But the empty self is said to exist. This is the self that is a convenient, informal designation. It’s a placeholder, a bit of shorthand to refer to a constantly changing psychophysical complex. And underneath this complex there is no fundamental substance or nature. (Some Mahayana Buddhist teachings, such as the Tathagatagarbha and the Dharmakaya doctrines, come very close to affirming a Vedantic-like, Atman-like Self. But the emptiness teachings from Nagarjuna, Chandrakirti and Tsong-kha-pa do not affirm anything like this. The congruent Western emptiness teachings do not posit any essential, Atman-like self either.)
Awareness teachings. In the awareness teachings, it is sometimes said that appearances depend on awareness. But it is never said that awareness depends on appearances. Awareness stands on its own, never depending on anything else. Ultimately there IS nothing else. Any dependence is unilateral only.
Emptiness teachings. In the emptiness teachings, dependencies are bilateral. Not only do things depend on emptiness; emptiness depends on things as well. The fact that emptiness depends on things is why emptiness is empty: it is not free-floating or independent. Emptiness depends on its base of designation (such as the cup), as well as upon cognition and verbal convention. It depends on being labelled as such.
Awareness teachings. In the awareness teachings, there are never said to be many global awarenesses. The nondualist slogan says, “Not two.”
Emptiness teachings. In the emptiness teachings, there are many emptinesses, not one large general emptiness. Each thing has its own emptiness, its own absence of inherent existence. The cup is one thing; the saucer is another things. The emptiness of the cup is one thing; the emptiness of the saucer is another thing.
Awareness teachings. In the awareness teachings, awareness is totally beyond time. It is never created and never destroyed.
Emptiness teachings. In the emptiness teachings, each thing’s emptiness lasts only as long as the thing itself. So the emptiness of the cup comes and goes with the cup.
Awareness teachings. In the awareness teachings, nonduality is related to the insight that experience itself, the self and the world are essentially nothing but awareness, and there aren’t two or more awarenesses. Nonduality here has a lot to do with singularity.
Emptiness teachings. In the emptiness teachings, nonduality refers not to singularity but to the lack of dualistic extremes. Emptiness avoids both extremes: essentialism (the claim that things exist inherently) and nihilism (the claim that things are utterly void and without any kind of existence). Whereas awareness teachings say, “One” or “Not two,” the emptiness teachings say, “Not even one,” or “Neither one nor other than one.”
Awareness teachings. In the awareness teachings, realization of the nature of the Self is something that happens once per lifetime. Depending on the teaching, there might be several different stages to this realization, but regardless of the process, it is not something that can be repeated (or needs to be). In fact, it is often said that from the standpoint of “after” realization (note the quotation marks), nothing ever happened. Who could it have happened to? Oftentimes, depending on the particular awareness teaching, there is not a lot to say about the process or the person who undergoes the process.
Emptiness teachings. In the emptiness teachings there is a lot to say. Whether before or after realization, it is not regarded as unwarranted to speak of the conventionally existent person. The conventionally existent person is an informal designation based upon the essenceless, fluctuating assembly of psychophysical parts. In the spirit of this informal designation, the person exists (conventionally). This person is the one who suffers, meditates on emptiness and does other practices, and who realizes the emptiness of the self. It is all conventional, including the Buddhist teachings themselves.
Another difference is that the realization of emptiness can happen many times. Each realization, even a tiny one, promotes lightness, vibrancy and openness of heart. There can be more than one because to realize emptiness is to realize the interdepenence of what one thought was fixed and independent. Since there are many ways for things to depend on each other, there are many different ways these interdependencies can be seen and realized. Each realization strengthens one’s insight.
Some Mahayana Buddhist teachings distinguish between inferential realization of emptiness, which happens through the mediation of a concept, and direct realization of emptiness, which happens unmediated by concepts. One’s first direct realization of emptiness, according to these teachings, eliminates a significant part of one’s afflictive emotions forever. But this direct realization can be repeated many times (even over lifetimes of rebirths according to some Mahayana teachings), so that compassion is increased and the lingering roots of ignorance can be eradicated. The point here is not so much exactly what happens according to certain teachings, but rather that realizing emptiness is something that can happen many times. It even happens after one’s own suffering has come to an end. Why continue if one’s suffering has ceased? This is related to the Bodhisattva ideal, according to which one devotes one’s energies to the eradication of others’ suffering.
What each teaching says about the other
Basically, each teaching disagrees with the core principle of the other.
Awareness teachings. When you study various versions of the awareness teachings, such as traditional Vedanta or the Direct Path, you probably won’t find a discussion of the notion of emptiness. The awareness teachings don’t seek to refute emptiness or the idea of interdependence, pan-relationality. At the same time, the awareness teachings don’t use the notion of emptiness, and wouldn’t agree with it. For example, it a student asks a Direct-Path teacher, “But aren’t things empty, as Madhyamika says? Isn’t awareness empty too?” The teacher wouldn’t say Yes to either question. From the perspective of the awareness teachings, awareness is not empty because it doesn’t depend on anything, even itself. Appearing phenomena are not empty according to the awareness teachings, because they don’t depend on causes and conditions, pieces and parts, or conceptual imputation. For the awareness teachings, the notion of emptiness as interdependence makes no sense.
Emptiness teachings. The situation within the emptiness teachings is similar. The emptiness teachings don’t use a notion like global awareness as deployed by Vedanta or the Direct Path. At the same time, they don’t set out to refute the notion. Not that they agree with it; they don’t. The awareness teachings describe global awareness as Being, Knowledge and Love, as the sum and substance of everything. From the perspective of the emptiness teachings, nothing is like that. Awareness sounds as if it would be very non-empty. And the emptiness teachings don’t posit anything as non-empty. Issues like these are discussed in greater detail in the book I co-authored with Tomas Sander, Emptiness and Joyful Freedom.
Talking about realization
Awareness teachings. In the awareness teachings, it is quite common to talk about one’s own realization or other aspects of one’s spiritual state. Often this is part of a teacher’s teachings. “I did it; you can too.”
Emptiness teachings. In the emptiness teachings, this is rarely heard, if ever. Buddhist teachers may talk about the realization of someone in the past, and you might hear how difficult and earth-shattering this realization is. But people tend not to talk about their own case. At least I have never heard it. In over 15 years of studying these teachings, working with teachers, visiting temples and monasteries, and reading thousands pages of emptiness teachings, I can’t recall even one time that someone said, “Back when I directly realized emptiness….”