Emptiness and Fullness: A Story about Stories

by Vincent Horn

“The stories that make sense of the world are part of the world. It is not by transcending this world that we are transformed but by storying it in a new way.” – David Loy

“Wisdom tells me that I’m nothing. Love tells me that I’m everything. Between these two my life flows.” – Sri Nisargadatta

Buddhism is a system with many different beliefs, stories, and practices. When these systems are embodied they reveal certain truths about reality. And Buddhism isn’t singular, it’s plural—there are many different systems of Buddhist thought and practice and they don’t all agree with one another. All the same there’s a certain style or flavor that I’ve noticed with many Buddhist systems—even those claiming to be “non-dual”—and it has to do with the freedom that comes from not being caught in personal stories. This is sometimes called non-attachment or selflessness or just seeing through certain identities and beliefs. It’s about letting go of what is changing and opening up to something bigger. But whatever that bigger something is, we are constantly reminded, that too is changing. “Today’s enlightenment is tomorrow’s mistake,” so really, again, there’s no place we can stand.

The challenge I have with this view is that it’s only looking at one side of a multi-sided process. Imagine a three dimensional sphere. Everything within that sphere is what we’re aware of—our bodies, emotions, thoughts, each other, cultural beliefs, etc. Everything outside of that sphere is what we’re unaware of, but which is still arising. What’s outside that sphere is what we are identified with—it’s what is operating without our knowledge of it. Buddhist practice happens at the intersection of the inside and outside of this sphere.

The Expanding Boundary of Freedom

When we take what we previously held as “I” or “me” or “mine” as an object, then we become free of the claustrophobic bondage that’s associated with the clinging or attachment to those sensations. They reveal their ephemeral nature and made-up nature and we find a deeper freedom on the other side of this attachment—the bliss of non-attachment. But here’s the catch: the sense of a subject doesn’t just disappear (although it may appear to temporarily) and our stories don’t all vanish. Instead, we form new, more subtle, and harder to perceive ones! Essentially the sphere of self expands and becomes more subtle. We become bigger, more inclusive, and once again harder to see.

In response to this ever-shifting and expanding sense of subject-object boundary, Buddhism has a tendency to constantly double down on the freedom of non-attachment, of never being satisfied with a new identity because everything changes. That dissatisfaction—or suffering—is what then drives the next layer of investigation and further freedom. But does the self ever really vanish and is there any end—not to mention beginning—to this process?

We can fixate on the notion that there is something which exists outside of this process, which has never been touched or impacted by it. Sometimes it’s called the “deathless,” sometimes it’s called the end of suffering. But this understanding is one that dawns with and through time, and it’s one that also—like everything else mentioned so far—changes! As practitioners we often fall prey to the very thing we preach against: solidifying reality and finding a new solid sense of self in the certainty of our realization. Even if that realization is cloaked in the language of not knowing and going beyond belief altogether! Is it avoidable to do so? I’m doing it right now myself.

Emptiness and Fullness

If this is so, if there really is no end to the dropping away of self and the further expansion of what we take ourselves to be, then why are we so focused on the dropping away part? What would happen if we were to include the expansion of identity and the profound opening of awareness as an equally valid way of understanding this process?

What I’ve found in experimenting with this view is that it cuts through the dissociative dangers of selflessness. It cuts through depression and hopelessness. And it brings about a greater appreciation for joy and love. It gets us in touch with the creative process of life, unfolding through us, and opening us up into something which is increasingly magical and mysterious.

When held alongside the recognition of the emptiness of all things it gives us an opportunity to start to understand that certain paradoxes have a faulty premise. Self and no-self. Being and becoming. Knowing and not knowing. Birth and death. All of these paradoxes melt in the face of an oscillating awareness of emptiness and fullness. We are constantly challenging what we think we know by opening up to more profound knowledge!

Finding A New Story

When we can oscillate and flow between these two perspectives, we see that neither is ultimately right.  Indeed, the idea of ultimate truth can’t withstand oscillation, because no matter where we stand we find ourselves shifting in the very next moment.  And sometimes where we shift to is absolutely trustworthy.  We have to trust it, because it’s where we are. And then it changes.  And then we find a new story in this groundless play that makes more sense of what we know.  Or as David Loy put it, “It is not by transcending this world that we are transformed, but by storying it in a new way.”

What story are you telling?

 

Vincent Horn is part of a new generation of teachers translating age-old wisdom into 21st century code. A computer engineering dropout turned modern monk, Vincent spent his 20s co-founding the ground-breaking Buddhist Geeks project while doing a full year of silent meditation practice on retreat. He lives in the mountains of Asheville, North Carolina with his teaching & life partner Emily and their son Zander.

 

photo by Jakub Jankiewicz

Comments

  1. Why is it that when people face the impermanence and death of individual consciousness, they go back to Atman? Has anyone figured out a way that ‘awakening consciousness’ continues beyond the life and death of the individual?

    Thinking about this overnight, I came up with my own answer.

    What continues on after the death of the individual and the cessation of its consciousness is the potential for conscious awakening to arise again in another form, in another being. I wrote in several articles that shunyata or ’emptiness’ is the potential for something to come into being. From what we know of evolution thus far, life on this planet always evolves towards more complex and powerful forms of consciousness. If this is true for the planet, then it must also be true for the Universe that contains it. When the conscious-awakening of an individual ceases, the potential for conscious awakening continues on in new forms and species. This conscious-awakening transcends the death of the individual, yet it is not impermanent and unchanging—it is not the Atman. It is impermanent because it varies from potential to actualized conscious awakening. It is not unchanging because it evolves towards ever more complex and powerful forms of consciousness. It has no ‘self’, craving, or dissatisfaction. However, what is permanent, unchanging and neither is born nor dies is the unconditioned potential for conscious awakening to arise in some form. (See the Upadana Sutta). This is shunyata, not-self, karma, death and rebirth, awakening, nibbana, all in one.

    If there is no ‘self’, what is it that awakens? Hint: it’s not ‘you.’ What awakens, and what is always awake, is the unconditioned potential for awakening to arise in a new being.

    1. Sorry, this should read “However, “that which neither is born nor dies” is the unconditioned potential for conscious awakening to arise in some form. (See the Upadana Sutta).

    2. Author

      To be fair, I think Vince is suggesting a “both atman-and-anatman” approach in the post.

  2. I think you’re right that he intended a “both atman-and-anatman” but I’m offering a different theory for what might persist beyond the individual life. It is not ‘my consciousness’ or even ‘my awakening’, but it is the potential for conscious awareness and awakening to arise in any living form.

    Furthermore:
    “What I’ve found in experimenting with this [Atman] view is that it cuts through the dissociative dangers of selflessness. It cuts through depression and hopelessness. And it brings about a greater appreciation for joy and love. It gets us in touch with the creative process of life, unfolding through us, and opening us up into something which is increasingly magical and mysterious.”

    I don’t find this true for me. Actually, I find the Atman doctrine of “It’s All Self” extremely anxiety provoking. Because now I’m not just ‘me and my actions’. Now I’m also war and death and disease and racism and sexism, and all that bad ugly stuff as well. Now I have to be GOD because now it’s all “my Self” and so now I’m responsible for every awful thing that happens. People never talk about that side of it when they posit that ‘Self is ALL’. It’s always about cosmic love and sunsets and sandy beaches. I find no evidence that “I am ALL”. I find lots of empirical evidence that there is no continuous, cohesive ‘self’ in our neurological makeup. There may be fleeting experiences of a “self” that has certain social functions, that facilitates social position and interaction.

  3. Another error, it’s the Udana Sutta, not the Upadana Sutta. The Udana Sutta is the Third Discourse on Nibana:
    Then the Gracious One, having understood the significance of it, on that occasion uttered this exalted utterance:

    “There is, monks, an unborn, unbecome, unmade, unconditioned. If, monks there were not that unborn, unbecome, unmade, unconditioned, you could not know an escape here from the born, become, made, and conditioned. But because there is an unborn, unbecome, unmade, unconditioned, therefore you do know an escape from the born, become, made, and conditioned.”

    And again, I claim that the UN*… is ‘potential conscious awakening’ that is always present and exceeds the individual.

  4. Hi Shaun, et al.

    After reading the comments and reflecting on it I’m still having a hard time seeing the connection between what I wrote and the metaphysical back-and-forth about Self & No-Self. Why is this important?

    I think we story reality in both these ways, and in many other metaphysical ways. If we know them as stories, then we don’t need to reconcile or argue about them. That’s the experience of emptiness. It’s the storying mind which needs different stories to make sense in relation to each other, or for others to agree with our stories, or to put forth new and better stories. The storying mind is the meaning-making mind. No God nor lack of God necessary in that way of understanding, so far as I can tell. At least not in the traditional way.

    What is primary then? Is it the individual’s storying mind? The net of stories/memes moving between and amongst us? The physical universe, which so far as we can tell gave rise to all of this?

    Yes and No.

  5. The oscillation perspective has its merits in terms of expericing both aspects independently for initial clarity but it seems in vajrayana the coemergent perspective is stressed. Experientialy maybe found in resting in a “place” of neither oscillation or non-oscillation. Not meaning to play silly word games here but trying to point out a different way of working with emptiness and fullness.

Let us know what you think