The Emptiness of Emptiness

by L. Ron Gardner

[This is a raw unedited article I just wrote, which will be included in the Zen book I just started writing. I'm also working on a Dzogchen text, which should be published by the end of 2018.The Zen text won't be finished and published until some time in 2019.]

For a three-year period in my life–1974-1976—I was deeply into the Prajnaparamita Sutras. My meditation practice during this period focused on developing a mind that dwelled upon nothing and in seeing all things as empty. But then, thanks to the teachings of Adi Da Samraj (then known as Bubba Free John), I had an epiphany: I realized that my attempts to develop a non-abiding mind and to negate phenomenal reality by imagining it as empty were simply forms of the avoidance of relationship (or whole-body communion with life and the Spirit-current, or Shakti).

After my epiphany I continued for a few years to randomly attend sittings at Zen groups, but I no longer had an interest in Zen philosophy and its apotheosis of emptiness. I basically forgot about the emptiness Dharma until 2003, when a friend introduced me to the teachings of Ayn Rand, which not only enlightened me on emptiness but also inspired me to read academic texts by Buddhism professors on the subject. As I read these texts, which typically explain emptiness philosophy in the context of Nargarjuna’s Madhymaka, I further refined my consideration of the subject, and I knew it was just a matter of time until I wrote on it.

Ayn Rand on Emptiness

According to Ayn Rand’s Objectivist epistemology, emptiness, like nothingness, is a non-existent with no ontological status; and those who grant it such status are guilty of what Rand calls “the reification of zero.” Emptiness is simply a term that describes the absence of something in relation to some thing, meaning an existent. There must first be a thing that can be described as empty before we can speak of emptiness. We can describe a coffee cup or one’s head as empty, but once the cup is filled with coffee or one’s head with knowledge, emptiness, a dependent quality, is vanished.

How about universal empty space? Surely that must be proof that emptiness is all-pervading and exists apart from, and perhaps even prior to, objects. Not true, I say. Although space is universal and formless, it is not empty but teeming with sub-atomic particles and quantum activity. And the fact that scientists cannot create a vacuum devoid of subatomic particles proves that emptiness cannot be created.

What then is space, if not emptiness? I, along with many others, contend that space is actually an ethereal substance, an emanated interface between the Unmanifest and the material world. And the fact that gravity curves space proves that it is substantial rather than empty. When so-called empty space is understood to be the ether, the pranically-charged, subtle-realm medium that lies between and connects the Divine World and the gross world, then a proper theosophical understanding of the “structure” of the All is possible.

The Heart Sutra

The Heart Sutra is without doubt the most revered scripture in the Zen Buddhist canon. Regularly chanted before Zen sittings, it summarizes the fundamental Zennist view of reality. And the epitome of this view is made clear in the first two sentences of the Sutra, which go: “Form is not different from Emptiness, and Emptiness is not different than Form. Form is Emptiness and Emptiness is Form.”

What’s wrong with this Zennist view of reality? First off, if form is not different from emptiness, then why is there a need for an Emptiness doctrine? Why not just have a Form doctrine and reduce everything to form? Instead of seeing everything as empty, as Zennists do, why not see everything as form? If an Emptiness doctrine were central to spiritual life, then why don’t all spiritual traditions have one? Among the Great Spiritual Traditions, only certain Mahayana schools of Buddhism apotheosize the void. If emptiness were ultimate Reality, then Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam would also apotheosize the void; but they don’t.

Real-world experience informs us that form and emptiness are not the same. Try to walk through a wall in your room, and no matter how hard you try to convince yourself that form and emptiness are the same, your experience will tell you otherwise. How then can we make sense of the Heart Sutra? By understanding it as a provisional teaching that, by reducing form to emptiness, fosters non-attachment to the material world. As such, its function is the same as the Hindu Maya doctrine, which enjoins yogis to see the world as unreal.

When singer-mystic Donovan, in his song "There is a Mountain," rhapsodizes: “First there is a mountain then there is no mountain then there is,” he’s telling us that the non-Zennist and the Zen master both see the mountain as a mountain, but that the Zen student, string to become a master, negates the mountain by seeing it as empty. Again, this can be understood as a provisional practice, which the cognoscenti reject in favor of a more direct approach to Awakening.

What the Heart Sutra (and the Prajnaparamita Sutras) are really about is crossing to the Other Shore, which means Awakening as the Heart, one’s Buddha-nature. Prajnaparamita (lit. the Perfection of Wisdom) means wisdom (or cognizant citta) that has crossed over, or gone beyond, samsara, and merged with Bodhi, meaning the awakening Light-Energy that “produces,” or unveils, Bodhicitta, or Buddhahood. When one understands what the Heart Sutra is really about, one also understands what the emptiness doctrine is about.

Nagarjuna’s Middle Way

Nagarjuna is probably the most important thinker in Buddhism after Gautama himself. Many Buddhists, including renowned integralist Ken Wilber, consider him a genius for the ages; but I am not one of the many. In fact, I contend that Nagarjuna Madhyamika (or Middle Way) does not represent a Greater Vehicle than Gautama’s, but a lesser one. Nagarjuna’s Madhyamika philosophy can be summarized thus:

Everything—meaning all phenomena in all states—exist conventionally, or nominally, or provisionally, but not inherently. In other words, whatever exists, exists, or co-arises, interdependently with other phenomena. This dependent co-arising, or interconnected origination, is called “emptiness,” because it implies that whatever arises has no independent self-existence or self-nature; therefore its “essence” is emptiness. This further implies that nothing, in and of itself, is born or dies, or produced or annihilated. Hence the “extremes” of existence and non-existence are negated, and what’s left is the non-abiding Middle Way of emptiness, or thusness, the “ultimate reality” of things, according to Nagarjuna.

The point of demonstrating this “emptiness” is to lead one to Nirvana. But Nagarjuna’s Nirvana is not Gautama’s. In his book Nagarjuna’s Seventy Stanzas, author David Ross Komito writes:

“The emptiness of inherent existence of all phenomena is the naturally abiding nirvana which can be seen directly by a person on the Path of Seeing. Thus the term ‘naturally abiding nirvana’ and ‘emptiness’ are synonymous.”

Nagarjuna doesn’t have a clue what Nirvana is. Nirvana is not a matter of seeing all existents as empty, as free from the “extremes” of inherent existence and nihilistic non-existence. Moreover, Nirvana cannot be “seen” because It is not an object. Nirvana, as Gautama defines, it simply the drying up of the outflows, the defilements that perpetuate samsara (or becoming). Nirvana is the end of becoming; therefore it is Being, which, relative to a Bodhisattva, is awakened timeless, spaceless Awareness. The etymological definition of “Buddha” makes this clear. A Buddha is one who has awakened his Buddhi, or “intelligent awareness,” by permanently uniting it with Bodhi, Light-Energy. This union produces Bodhicitta--Buddhahood, or Nirvana. Nirvana is the timeless “State” of being unbrokenly Blessed by this Light-Energy (the Sambhogakaya), hence the Buddha is commonly referred to as “the Blessed One.” Because Nagarjuna was just a pointy-headed philosopher and not an awakened Buddha, he ignorantly reduces Nirvana to “emptiness,” an emptiness or voidness, which, unlike in the case of Zen and Dzogchen masters, is not synonymous with an Absolute, or Mind, or Dharmakaya.

Nagarjuna is right when he says there has never been a single thing, but he is wrong in failing to identify all “pseudo-entities,” or conventional existents, as derivative modifications or permutations of single Great Existent, or all-subsuming Being, or Mind. Nagarjuna’s “emptiness” is not the Ultimate Reality of things; Consciousness-Energy, the Divine Being is. By failing to identify timeless Awareness as the Dharmadhatu, the all-pervading, spaceless Substratum underlying phenomenal existence, Nagarjuna is guilty of “Context-dropping.”

In India, Shankara, figuratively speaking, “kicked Nagarjuna’s butt” in debates by making it clear that Brahman, not emptiness, is the Condition of all conditions, and that true Nirvana is Self-realization. Moreover, Yogacara (or Mind-only) Buddhism in India also rejected Nagarjuna’s metaphysics by emphasizing Consciousness as the Essence of all phenomena.

But today, Nagarjuna’s nonsense lives on, as modern-day, pointy-headed Prasanga-Madhyamika Buddhism professors, such as Jeffrey Hopkins, Guy Newman, and Jay Garfield, continue to push his “Middle Way” as representing the apex of Buddhist thought.

For example, in his book The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way, Professor Garfield, a la Nagarjuna, rejects the importance of essence and identity. According to Garfield, “It is important that objects and their characteristics, personas and their states be unified. But if we introduce essence and entity into our ontology this will be impossible.”

In diametrical opposition to Professor Garfield, I say that unless we introduce Essence (timeless Awareness) and Entity (the Divine Being, or Ati-Buddha Samantabhadra, or Trikaya, or Godhead, or Great Void, or Sat-Cit-Ananda, or the Unborn and Unmade of Gautama) into our ontology, this unification, and a consequent integral philosophy, is impossible, because contrary to what Nagarjuna and Garfield preach, all dharmas are not empty; rather they are temporary non-binding modifications or permutations of Mind-Energy, the Radiant Transcendental Light-Consciousness; hence, in agreement with modern physics, and in contradistinction to Nagarjuna, all things are not reducible to emptiness; they are reducible to Energy, which itself is irreducible. Ultimate reality is not dependent origination and the emptiness or essenceless of all phenomena; it is Self-Existing, Self-Radiant Self-Awareness. And this is Self-evident to an Awakened, or En-Light-ened, One.

If you read Garfield’s book, you will find that Nagarjuna cannot write clearly, that he specializes in cryptic passages that are difficult are decipher. You will also find that he makes ridiculous statements. For example, even Garfield has to reject his absurd statement, “The identity of mover and motion; the agent and action are identical.” Here are a few more examples of his defective thinking:

“Compound phenomena are all deceptive. Therefore they are false. Whatever is deceptive is false.”

Unbeknownst to Nagarjuna, phenomena are neither true nor false, nor deceptive nor non-deceptive; they just are. The categories that Nagarjuna superimposes on phenomena are simply his own biased and deluded concepts.

“Whatever is dependently arisen, such a thing is essentially peaceful. Therefore, that which is arising itself are [sic] themselves peaceful.”

Again, Nagarjuna is guilty of superimposing his own vale-judgments on phenomena. According to his “logic,” even Hiroshima was “peaceful.”

“It is not tenable for that which depends on something else to be different from it.”

In other words, if you depend on food stamps, you’re not different from them. If you depend on the sun’s light, you’re not different from the sun.

What Nagarjuna attempts to do in this discourse is to demonstrate the emptiness of all phenomenal existents, including conditions, effects, elements, aggregates, et al. The end result, in Garfield’s words, is: “As far as analysis, one finds only dependence, relativity, and emptiness, and their dependence, relativity, and emptiness.” Beyond informing us ad nauseum that everything under the sun is dependently originated, and thereby, necessarily, essenceless or empty, Nagarjuna, the epitome of a circumscribed philosopher, has virtually nothing to say.

The Buddha didn’t find what Nagarjuna found, mere emptiness. He found the “Uncompounded, the Unmade, the Unborn.” And rest in this Unmanifest, timeless, spaceless Domain, the Dharmakaya, is Nirvana, the end of becoming, or entanglement of one’s consciousness with phenomenal flux. But Nagarjuna, a pointy-headed philosopher just like Jay Garfield (birds of a feather flock together), never moves beyond analysis of phenomena to what underlies and transcends them. Whereas Nagarjuna and Garfield repeatedly encounter infinite regresses, the great sages encounter real Emptiness, the Great Void--formless, timeless, spaceless Awareness or Mind, the hypercosmic Substratum that eludes Nagarjuna, who can’t fathom a Supreme Source prior to and beyond phenomena.

If you are interested in Nagarjuna’s disintegral “fishbowl” philosophy, with lengthy Indo-Tibetan interpretations by a hyper-intellectual academic seemingly incapable of moving beyond the confines of Prasangika-Madhyamika and into real Spirituality—Mind (the Dharmakaya) and Energy (the Sambhogakaya) and the direct means (trekcho and togal) to realize them--then Garfield’s book could be for you.

If, on the other hand, you are interested in an impressive, inexpensive text by an author who, like me, finds Nagarjuna an affront to Aristotelian logic, then you might want to get philosophy professor Avi Sion’s “Buddhist Illogic: A Critical Analysis of Nagarjuna’s Arguments. Here is a description of the text:

“Sion identifies the many sophistries involved in Nagarjuna’s arguments. Nagarjuna uses double standards, applying or ignoring the Laws of thought and other norms as convenient to his goals; he manipulates his readers, by giving seemingly logical forms (like the dilemma) to his discourse, while in fact engaged in non-sequitars or appealing to doubtful premises; he plays with words, relying on unclear terminology,
misleading equivocations, and unfair fixations of meaning; and he ‘steals concept” using them to deny the very percepts on which they are based.”

In summary, I contend that Nagarjuna’s Middle Way is a perversion of original Buddhism, and that Nagajuna was to Gautama what Joseph Smith and John Calvin were to Jesus--a perverter of the religion’s original Teaching. I contend that his “Middle Way is not a middle way at all, but rather an extreme way that, egregiously, reduces Ultimate Reality (the Divine Existent) to a non-existent emptiness.



























{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

FEDERICO OLIVER VEGA January 5, 2018 at 8:24 pm

Dear Ron

Very interesting, sharp and well documented your last article, it reads with much pleasure and interest. However, I would like to complete your comments and act as devil’s advocate, is you let me.

I agree with you in your assessment that Nagarjuna’s work is not of excessive interest to the current mystics and seekers. To reduce the phenomenal world to a pure mass of emptiness, irreducible in itself, is to fall into an absurd nihilism that leads us to ignore the sustaining presence of the the Divine Breath (Holy Spirit) that, as an eternal substrate, sustains the world with its Timeless Presence and Energy of Love.

However, going beyond the limits of Nagarjuna’s work, which are obvious, what is underlying here, if you allow me, is the old dilemma or issue of considering the Buddha as a continuator more or less disguised from the Upanishadic tradition , the reincarnation of Vishnu, – an Avatar of the classical Hindu pantheon – or rather, as a full-fledged reformer, a spiritual revolutionary master, I would say. He, contrary to the conjectures of Brahmanic conclusions, discovered a new and powerful Dhamma. This is affirmed by the genuine Buddhists, especially the Theravadines, not so much the Mahayana. It is true that the Buddha did not speak directly of emptiness but he did speak of Anatta, that could not be assimilated conceptually and experientially in terms of Sat or Chit, and proposed a new path whose goal was to reach Nirvana, not to take root in the Being. Like it or not, let’s not forget that Nirvana can also be translated as the extinction of the false and the suffering and there is no aspiration here to attain union with the Absolute.

Being both very powerful traditions of salvation, the optics of the Shankarian Non-Dual Vedanta and the Buddhism of the Pali Canon, for example, differ absolutely in their soteriological propositions. Philosophically, spiritually and energetically speaking, the impersonal nirvanic liberation of a Burmese monk, let´s say, is not the same as the self-realization through the knowledge of supreme Brahman carried out by a sage or a rishi.
Personally I do not position myself in favor or against one or the other, but I do have the conviction that the historical Buddha would not subscribe to your appreciation that, what he called “the Unborn and Unconditioned”, is equivalent to Brahman Saguna, just as the Vedantist masters expounded … if anything it would be more like Brahman Nirguna, as Supra Being, or supreme ineffable reality beyond all forms.

The perfume of the Buddha’s orientation, whether admired or not, is genuine and unique and we can not equate it with the realization of philosophers and commentators such as Shankara, Ramanuja, and other great masters throughout history, like Ramana. If you allow me, it is dangerous to try to fit our own intimate and legitimate convictions, deduced from our personal and respectable experiences, into molds that are not made to hold certain “difficult” comparisons.

(Sorry if there is any mistake, my English is not perfect).

Reply

FEDERICO OLIVER VEGA January 5, 2018 at 8:25 pm

Dear Ron
Very interesting, sharp and well documented your last article, it reads with much pleasure and interest. However, I would like to complete your comments and act as devil’s advocate, is you let me.

I agree with you in your assessment that Nagarjuna’s work is not of excessive interest to the current mystics and seekers. To reduce the phenomenal world to a pure mass of emptiness, irreducible in itself, is to fall into an absurd nihilism that leads us to ignore the sustaining presence of the the Divine Breath (Holy Spirit) that, as an eternal substrate, sustains the world with its Timeless Presence and Energy of Love.

However, going beyond the limits of Nagarjuna’s work, which are obvious, what is underlying here, if you allow me, is the old dilemma or issue of considering the Buddha as a continuator more or less disguised from the Upanishadic tradition , the reincarnation of Vishnu, – an Avatar of the classical Hindu pantheon – or rather, as a full-fledged reformer, a spiritual revolutionary master, I would say. He, contrary to the conjectures of Brahmanic conclusions, discovered a new and powerful Dhamma. This is affirmed by the genuine Buddhists, especially the Theravadines, not so much the Mahayana. It is true that the Buddha did not speak directly of emptiness but he did speak of Anatta, that could not be assimilated conceptually and experientially in terms of Sat or Chit, and proposed a new path whose goal was to reach Nirvana, not to take root in the Being. Like it or not, let’s not forget that Nirvana can also be translated as the extinction of the false and the suffering and there is no aspiration here to attain union with the Absolute.

Being both very powerful traditions of salvation, the optics of the Shankarian Non-Dual Vedanta and the Buddhism of the Pali Canon, for example, differ absolutely in their soteriological propositions. Philosophically, spiritually and energetically speaking, the impersonal nirvanic liberation of a Burmese monk, let´s say, is not the same as the self-realization through the knowledge of supreme Brahman carried out by a sage or a rishi.
Personally I do not position myself in favor or against one or the other, but I do have the conviction that the historical Buddha would not subscribe to your appreciation that, what he called “the Unborn and Unconditioned”, is equivalent to Brahman Saguna, just as the Vedantist masters expounded … if anything it would be more like Brahman Nirguna, as Supra Being, or supreme ineffable reality beyond all forms.

The perfume of the Buddha’s orientation, whether admired or not, is genuine and unique and we can not equate it with the realization of philosophers and commentators such as Shankara, Ramanuja, and other great masters throughout history, like Ramana. If you allow me, it is dangerous to try to fit our own intimate and legitimate convictions, deduced from our personal and respectable experiences, into molds that are not made to hold certain “difficult” comparisons.
(Sorry if there is any mistake, my English is not perfect).

Reply

L. Ron Gardner January 6, 2018 at 6:24 pm

Nirvana = the end of becoming = Being (Consciousness-Bliss), which is Sat-Cit-Ananda. Being is nirguna, not saguna. Being is the Unconditioned Realm, or Divine Domain. Because it is acausal, it should nor be equated with a creator God. The Anatta teaching of the Buddha did not deny the existence of a Self; it simply denied the existence of a self in the five skandhas.

Reply

Buddy January 11, 2018 at 11:09 am

This essay is merely a temporary non binding modification of universal mind energy.

Reply

IJ January 13, 2018 at 1:24 pm

Mr. Gardner,

Very nice article I will say. Since the focus is on emptiness are you not happy now of the sheer emptiness of spam from that obnoxious troll of a cockroach ca_cicero aka Matt Geigerhausten ? I strongly suspect that this human cockroach ca_cicero is dead. Otherwise he would have started posting his spam all over again in your reviews at Amazon. Unless he was banned by Amazon and has wisely stopped posting his utterly useless empty headed neo -advaita comments in your reviews.

IJ.

Reply

L. Ron Gardner January 13, 2018 at 5:02 pm

IJ, I doubt that he’s dead. My guess is that he’s just temporarily dormant–perhaps stuck in a pile of encrusted shit under the floorboards. As soon as another cockroach frees him, he’ll probably become active again. But thankfully, cockroaches aren’t much more helpful to their own kind than they are to humans, so it could be a while before he again rears his ugly butt in our world.

Reply

IJ January 15, 2018 at 11:44 am

Mr. Gardner,

That is an absolutely superb comment from you. I fully agree because it is so true. Lol! Hahahahaha! Thanks for the laugh. I really hope this imbecilic nincompoop ( a k a “ca_cicero” or Matt Geigerhausen or whatever other ridiculous names he called himself as) reads your hilarious comment. But I would not in the least bit mind or regret if he were actually DEAD. Lol!

IJ.

Reply

IJ January 26, 2018 at 12:45 pm

Mr. Gardner,

I suspect the Cockroach Man a k a ca_cicero is reading the comments in your Electrical Spirituality website as well. The “peeper-pooper” must have read the comments here as he has redeposited his usual “cockroach poop” in your Amazon book review of Robert Saltzman’s book “Ten thousand things”. He has even posted two mediocre reviews of his. LOL! Hahahaha!!!

By the way where is Green? Why has she stopped commenting in your Amazon reviews? Do you know why she stopped posting her insightful comments? I trust all is well with her. I miss her humorous comments in your Amazon reviews. She had completely made a laughing stock of the buffoon Cockroach Man at your Amazon reviews. He was so embarrassed that he deleted all of his comments. Green, if you happen to read this comment best wishes to you.

IJ.

Reply

L. Ron Gardner January 26, 2018 at 4:20 pm

Yes, the Cockroach Man is back. He posted one his signature worthless comments in response to my one-star Amazon review of “The Ten Thousand Things. I don’t know what happened with Green.

Reply

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