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The Integrity of Emptiness
For all the subtlety of his teachings, the Buddha had a simple test for measuring wisdom. You’re wise, he said, to the extent that you can get yourself to do things you don’t like doing but know will result in happiness, and to refrain from things you like doing but know will result in pain and harm.
He derived this standard for wisdom from his insight into the radical importance of intentional action in shaping our experience of happiness and sorrow, pleasure and pain. With action so important and yet so frequently misguided, wisdom has to be tactical, strategic, in fostering actions that are truly beneficial. It has to outwit short-sighted preferences to yield a happiness that lasts.
Because the Buddha viewed all issues of experience, from the gross to the subtle, in terms of intentional actions and their results, his tactical 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 difference in what you do and the happiness that results. And 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 mistake again.
What’s striking about this standard for wisdom is how direct and down to earth it is. This might come as a surprise, for most of us don’t think of Buddhist wisdom as so commonsensical and straightforward. Instead, the phrase “Buddhist wisdom” conjures up teachings more abstract and paradoxical, flying in the face of common sense — emptiness being a prime example. Emptiness, we’re told, means that nothing has any inherent 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 separate 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 obvious 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 calculation, the immediate pleasure derived from the alcohol outweighs the long-term damage it’s doing to your life. This is a general principle: attachment and addiction are not metaphysical problems. They’re tactical ones. 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 underestimating 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 happiness you can achieve. This means learning to become more honest and sensitive to your actions and their consequences, at the same time allowing yourself to imagine and master alternative routes to greater happiness with fewer drawbacks. Metaphysical views may sometimes enter into the equation, but at most they’re only 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. Sometimes ideas of metaphysical emptiness can actually 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 emptiness. 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 experience 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 commonsensical test for measuring how wise you are.
The Buddha’s teachings on emptiness — contained 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 concentration. Although these forms of emptiness differ in their definitions, they ultimately converge on the same route to release from suffering. To see how this happens, we will need to examine the three meanings of emptiness one by one. In doing so, we’ll find that each of them applies the Buddha’s commonsensical test for wisdom to subtle actions of the mind. But to understand how this test applies to this subtle level, we first have to see how it applies to actions on a more obvious level. For that, there’s no better introduction than the Buddha’s advice to his son, Rahula, on how to cultivate wisdom while engaging in the activities of everyday life.
Observing Everyday Actions
The Buddha told Rahula to use his thoughts, words, and deeds as a mirror. In other words, just as you would use a mirror to check for any dirt on your face, Rahula was to use his actions as a means of learning where there was still anything impure in his mind. Before he acted, he should try to anticipate the results of the action. If he saw that they’d be harmful to himself or to others, he shouldn’t follow through with the action. If he foresaw no harm, he could go ahead and act. If, in the course of doing the action, he saw it causing unexpected harm, he should stop the action. If he didn’t see any harm, he could continue with it.
If, after he was done, he saw any long-term harm resulting from the action, he should consult with another person on the path to get some perspective on what he had done — and on how not to do it again — and then resolve not to repeat that mistake. In other words, he should not feel embarrassed or ashamed to reveal his mistakes to people he respected, for if he started hiding his mistakes from them, he would soon start hiding them from himself. If, on the other hand, he saw no harm resulting from the action, he should rejoice in his progress in the practice and continue with his training.
The right name for this reflection is not “self-purification.” It’s “action-purification.” You deflect judgments of good and bad away from your sense of self, where they can tie you down with conceit and guilt. Instead, you focus directly on the actions themselves, where the judgments can allow you to learn from your mistakes and to find a healthy joy in what you did right.
When you keep reflecting in this way, it serves many purposes. First and foremost, it forces you to be honest about your intentions and about the effects of your actions. Honesty here is a simple principle: you don’t add any after-the-fact rationalizations to cover up what you actually did, nor do you try to subtract from the actual facts through denial. Because you’re applying this honesty to areas where the normal reaction is to be embarrassed about or afraid of the truth, it’s more than a simple registering of the facts. It also requires moral integrity. This is why the Buddha stressed morality as a precondition for wisdom, and declared the highest moral principle to be the precept against lying. If you don’t make a habit of admitting uncomfortable truths, the truth as a whole will elude you.
The second purpose of this reflection is to emphasize the power of your actions. You see that your actions do make the difference between pleasure and pain. Third, you gain practice in learning from your mistakes without shame or remorse. Fourth, you realize that the more honest you are in evaluating your actions, the more power you have to change your ways in a positive direction. And finally, you develop good will and compassion, in that you resolve to act only on intentions that mean no harm to anyone, and you continually focus on developing the skill of harmlessness as your top priority.
All of these lessons are necessary to develop the kind of wisdom measured by the Buddha’s test for wisdom; and, as it turns out, they’re directly related to the first meaning of emptiness, as an approach to meditation. In fact, this sort of emptiness simply takes the instructions Rahula received for observing everyday actions and extends them to the act of perception within the mind. (Next week: Emptiness Approach to Meditation)