The Emptiness of Emptiness

As an undergraduate, one of the courses I took was in Saussurian linguistics. It was revelatory to my still-forming mind in pointing to the arbitrary relationship between signifiers (the words we use), and the signified (what the words refer to). This, in turn, was a helpful hand-hold when I started to navigate the intricacies of the Diamond Sutra:

‘What do you think, Subhuti, is there any dharma which the Tathagata has taught? Subhuti replied: No indeed, O Lord, there is not. The Lord said: When, Subhuti, you consider the number of particles of dust in this world system of 1,000 million worlds – would they be many? Subhuti replied: Yes, O Lord. Because what was taught as particles of dust by the Tathagata, as no-particles that was taught by the Tathagata. Therefore are they called ‘particles of dust’. And this world-system the Tathagata has taught as no-system. Therefore is it called a “world system.”‘

For a little while I have been thinking I needed to pick up Red Pine’s book on the Diamond Sutra, and so, with the need for a new commute read, I decided that now was the time. At Zen Center, the beautifully poetic Edward Conze translation is used for the Friday morning service; it is helpful for me to read the words in different phrasings, to see the deep understanding of the sutra from different angles (something I frequently say about translations).

As usual, I feel that I grasp some of what is being expressed better, or at least differently, than before. And, as sometimes happens, I experience a moment of clarity around a phrase when I am on the BART, and when I come back to look at the same phrase again to express it here, I am at a loss to know exactly what to say.

One of the notes I made to myself on my journeys this week was to fold in Reb’s words on the Samdinirmocana Sutra, where the emphasis is equally on not getting caught in the imputed character of phenomena. And (an and here always works better than a but) the Diamond Sutra also cautions us not to be caught in denying the reality of phenomena. Yes, the words we put on things are arbitrary, and the things themselves have an existence that is not the existence we think it is (i.e. permanent and independent); stopping at the notion of non-existence is also missing the point.

I am not much of a historical scholar when it comes to the Buddhist sutras, but I understand that, if we accept the usual timeline for the unfolding of the teachings, this is the moment when the Buddha starts to work on a deeper level, encouraging his disciples not to stick to whatever understanding they may have already arrived at:

‘Therefore, Subhuti, fearless bodhisattvas… should not give birth to a thought attached to a dharma, nor should they give birth to a thought attached to no dharma. They should not give birth to a thought attached to anything.’

I see this as the going beyond, but it could also be called the middle way. I see this in the Chinese ancestors’ teachings (recently here), and in Dogen’s ‘leaping clear of the many and the one’. I see this as the accepting of whatever arises in zazen without needing to act on its arising. I see this as our practice.

2 thoughts on “The Emptiness of Emptiness

  1. Historically speaking, the Prajna Sutras were probably written during the time the Abhidharma tradition (around 1 AD, plus or minus a few centuries) was at its height. It was a time of “high philosophy” in Indian Buddhism as they attempted to define and systematize the ideas and instructions in the Nikaya/Agama Sutras is great detail. The texts they wrote were just as sophisticated as philosophy today. That project turned into an exercise of endless debate and quibbling about the meaning of particular words or what categories ideas belong in–just like philosophy today. I personally think that the authors of the Prajna texts were reacting to that type of Buddhism and trying to bring the practice back to something not centered around defining words and ideas. I like your intuition about the Diamond Sutra negating of the connection between signifier and signified. I think that’s the point being made, too.


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