Yeah, I know… not the catchiest of titles. But, this is an exhausting post, so I figured I’d just lay it all out there.
I’m gonna start with the conclusion by saying that you can just skip all of this if you 1) Wish all beings well, and help out however you can, 2) Don’t dwell on anything, and 3) Just live your life.
But, that’s often so simple that it’s too complicated to actualize. So, we can also make it more complicated so that it’s simpler to actualize. Just keep in mind that everything in this article points to those three tenets of Awakening. That said, here we go…
There are two aspects to emptiness:
- Each thing is procedurally generated by all things.
- Nothing is procedurally generated
- No things, only procedural generation, and/or
- No things and no procedure
“Procedural generation” means that, instead of being created manually, something’s generated using algorithms. One of Buddha’s most innovative teachings was dependent arising, which is, “If this arises, then that arises; if this changes, then that changes; if this ceases, then that ceases. All things are like this. Nothing arises unto itself, but by depending on causes and conditions.”
That’s an algorithm.
Dependent arising elegantly explained how there could be, well, thingsand cause and effect, without some kind of higher power. It also explained how there could be karma and rebirth without a self or soul. It was Buddha’s Middle Way.
It’s astonishingly simple and evident, but it’s also quite subtle, which is why we can go our lives immersed in it/as it without realizing it.
Life involves suffering because everything’s procedural. Picture this: In Scenario A, you want some coffee, and then coffee just magically appears, hot in your cup and ready to drink. You can drink as much of it as you like without any consequences whatsoever.
Now, Scenario B:
You want some coffee, so you have to get up, walk to the kitchen, take out a pitcher, set it in the sink, turn on the water, let it fill, turn off the water, take the pitcher out of the sink, open the coffee maker’s lid, pour the water in, close the lid, walk to a cabinet, take out a filter, walk back to the coffee maker, put the filter in, walk to the cabinet, take out the tub or bag of coffee grounds, take it to the coffee maker, open it, pick up a scooper, reach in and scoop out some grounds, lift the scooper, place it over the filter, pour it in, dip it back in the bag or tub, lift the scooper, place it over the filter, pour it in, put down the scooper, close the bag or tub, walk back to where you got it, put it away, walk back to the coffee maker, close the lid, turn it on, do this and that while it brews, walk back to it, get a cup, take out the pot, pour the coffee into the cup, put the pot back in the coffee maker, walk away, sit down, and finally drink some coffee.
That is why life is suffering. And when we’re in a shitty mood, procedures can seem truly painstaking and arbitrary. The simplest things can seem frustrating, stupid, and overly complicated. And everything, literally everything in the universe, is like this. It makes everything a real pain in the fucking ass.
But procedures don’t cause suffering directly. It’s that first part, that idea of something not being procedurally generated—that appearing instantly from nothing cup of coffee—that causes suffering when it’s compared to procedurally generated life.
Reality can’t meet our on the spot demands, it can’t instantly bend to our desires.
That’s really the main flaw in Descartes’ “I could be a brain in a vat hallucinating all of this” skeptical thought experiment. If everything was Descartes’ mind, then Descartes would’ve been able to bypass procedure once he became aware that it was all in his mind.
If he knew it was all in his mind, but couldn’t bypass procedure, then how the hell could he say, “This is my mind.” If it was his, then he could control it, the silly fucker. Sorry for my vitriol, but in some ways, Descartes ruined everything.
If all this was in his mind, then he would’ve been able to have that instant cup of coffee, the same way that we can use cheat codes in video games to manually create different objects and values.
Dependent arising also pokes a hole in Descartes’ mind/body dualism. The mind and the body are both procedurally generated, which means they’re not-two. So, what I’m really saying is that Descartes was full of shit, and that it’s helpful to disregard most of his ramblings and the implications they’ve had in science and ordinary life.
The “gradualist” approach to practice involves being mindful of this procedurally generated life, and using it to wipe away our afflictions.
Because, just like suffering, freedom from suffering is procedurally generated as well. If we put certain factors in place—like the Four Immeasurables, Six Perfections, or the Seven Factors for Enlightenment—then we’re creating a new if-then procedure that produces joy, well-being, tranquility, and clarity.
As we cultivate those conditions, we’ll have less of a desire for that imaginary “Instant World” we all seem to crave, since we’ll be more at ease in, and accepting of, this procedurally generated life.
So, that’s the first aspect of emptiness. The second aspect is really the first one, but as-lived, rather than as-understood.
The second aspect is, “Since each thing is procedurally generated by all things, nothing is procedurally generated.” That takes some serious unpacking, and it’ll never really make sense until you get into formless meditation methods.
As usual, the wave-ocean analogy works nicely. Waves are procedurally generated. There’s water (the condition), wind (the cause), and when they interact, we get waves (the effect). These waves can also serve as causes and conditions as well.
If we’re on a boat in the ocean (condition), and the waves are choppy (cause), then we might get seasick (effect). It goes on and on like that, all procedure. The first approach is like taking Dramamine.
From another angle, there aren’t any waves—there’s only the ocean. From that point-of-view, if we said, “These waves are making me seasick,” someone could reply, “There aren’t any waves, so why are you sick?” That’d be a good time to puke all over them.
On the “gradual” path, the practice revolves around stilling the waves until the ocean is perfectly calm. When the waves are gone, our seasickness goes with it. The problem with that is we can’t keep the ocean calm forever.
Procedures change, that’s why everything changes. It doesn’t matter how many years or lifetimes we meditate, or how many Perfections or Factors we generate, we’re eventually gonna lose it.
Because we’re not the only ones making wind. Everything we come across in life is carried along by breezes as well, and sooner or later, one of those jet streams is gonna make its way to our body of water and turn up waves.
The so-called “sudden” approach solves this problem by seeing waves as no-waves. One uncovers stillness in motion, silence in sound, light in darkness. Instead of cultivating the Immeasurables and Perfections to still the waves, the student turns around and sees through the waves to the water.
With that, it doesn’t matter whether the seas are choppy or not because you’ve got your sea-legs. When we move with the waves, then we’re not moved by the waves. We can carry on naturally without hindrance.
Of course that’s all a rough metaphor. Really, there’s no boat and no one in the ocean. “We” are the waves.
So, what’s the ocean then?
In Advaita Vedanta, Zen’s Hindu cousin, it’s God. It’s the timeless fabric of reality that neither comes nor goes, that’s neither created or destroyed, and that’s present in and as all things. The Advaitan path involves either gradually, or suddenly, seeing this directly by letting go of our procedurally generated illusions like time and ego.
In Zen, it’s a little different since there’s no soul or God. In Zen, the ocean isn’t an essence, it’s the Way, and the Way is emptiness. That can mean a few different things depending on your interpretation.
It can mean that the procedurally generated nature of things isn’t procedurally generated, it’s unconditional and absolute. That’s like saying, “There are no waves, only the ocean. The ocean is the waves.”
Or it can mean that, “There is no ocean and no waves. The ocean is the waves, the waves are the ocean.” This a bit more subtle and difficult to grok. Generally, people who settle with the first interpretation are considered halfway there. They’ve had an awakening, but they’re still trying to interpret it and understand it intellectually.
There’s an old expression: Before practice, mountains are mountains. During practice, mountains are no mountains. After practice, mountains are mountains again.
Students with the first interpretation are kinda stuck in the no mountains phase, and they, “Stink of Zen,” as one teacher put it.
So, I like to say, “No form, no emptiness.” Really, we can just “no” everything, including no, and the space that it leaves behind. That brings us around to a giant YES. There’s no ignorance or awakening. Nothing’s generated, procedurally or otherwise. And nothing’s ungenerated either.
This is the deep mystery that’s always in plain sight. It’s the realm of poetry, not prose.
It’s a silent gaze, and the electric contact of skin on skin, lips on lips, hand in hand. It’s the crackling fire that doesn’t burn. It’s the moon that lights the sun, and the child that gives birth to the mother. “Interdependence” doesn’t cut it, not even close, set it aside with Descartes.
There’s a whole universe in a single blade of grass, and a thousand lifetimes in each heartbeat. Words like these bring us to the spirit of it, they call the mind back to itself, to a place without words, to a mood without boundary.
This might not satisfy more logical, practical practitioners, but frankly, you’re just gonna have to suck it up and deal with it. You’re not gonna Wake Up if you stubbornly insist that the world is either logical or illogical, that you can work it out by analyzing it to death, and go on rejecting the bits of your experience that don’t fit with your worldviews.
If you can’t move through that immediately, then start with procedurally generating the Perfections and Factors and work your way back from there.
Because we’d have to be very foolish to assert that Buddhism isn’t mysticism. It doesn’t start off mystical, but all Buddhist schools make their way there, to the ineffable and unreachable. To that smooth curve where mystical and mundane aren’t different, and aren’t the same. Where logic and absurdity intertwine to the extent that they lose themselves in each other.
Alright, now I’ll put my street clothes back on and wrap this up. To get our feet wet, it’s alright to go with the, “Everything’s procedurally generated,” aspect of emptiness. We can see it in action, it isn’t too tough to understand, and we can use it in practical ways.
But the magic happens with the, “Nothing’s generated,” aspect of it. That’s the aspect that starts to open up as we practice. And if we keep at it, we’ll get to the second interpretation of it that can’t be conveyed with words and letters.
I’m a fan of just getting right to it, myself. No fucking about, no mind games. But, that’s easier said than done, er, non-done in this case.
Everything we’ve talked about today corresponds with the Yogacarin “Three Natures” model. There’s conceptual nature (waves are waves, the ocean is the ocean), dependent nature (waves are the ocean), and perfect nature (the ocean is the waves). Really, the perfect nature is just dependent nature without attachment.
Since most of us are caught up in the conceptual, we wish everyone well, and do what we can to help. We do that, because really we’re all the ocean. Since we’re all the ocean, there’s nothing to dwell on. But, the ocean is also the waves. That being the case, we can just live our lives as the waving ocean, living authentically and without fear.