The Wisdom of Emptiness

Although I was raised Catholic, I have begun expanding my spirituality in adult life. I have felt an increasing pull towards Buddhism as techniques like meditation have grown in popularity over the last few years. This pull has always made me feel undercurrents of religious guilt, partially due to the underlying commitment we make as Catholics to the “one, holy, and apostolic Church,” and in part due to the inherent contradictions between Catholicism and Buddhism. After all, Buddhists do not believe in a “God.” 

Catholic priest and Zen teacher, Fr. Michael O’Halloran, has been credited as saying that “Christianity is long on content, but short on method and technique.” Buddhism gives us certain tools that allow us to deeply explore our interior selves. Many famous Christians have tried to deepen interfaith understanding and dialogue. Thomas Merton, for example, intensely explored Zen Buddhism in his many books and writings. He was not interested in how the two beliefs opposed, but rather wanted to explore how the study of Zen could deepen his mystical relationship to Christianity. Richard Rohr, a well known Franciscan priest, has been heavily influenced by the study of Buddhism and has wrote prolifically about non-dualism, the spiritual idea that encourages us to drop our ego, the “us vs. them” mentality, and the idea that we are somehow separate from everything around us. In non-dualism, we are one with everything. Thich Nat Khan, the world-famous monk and peace activist, calls this way of experiencing the world as “inter-being.” 

This idea of non-dualism and inter-being came up in a recent meditation class that I attended in Washington D.C. It was the first time I had been exposed to Buddhist Wisdom Teachings and in particular, the Wisdom of Emptiness. The instructor explained by pointing to his watch. He asked, “Where is the watch?” Several of us pointed to the watch in his hand. “No, that is simply the glass casing around the watch-hand.” He continued, “If we look closer for ‘the watch,’ what we will see are it’s individual parts.” He pointed out the minute hand, the hour hand. He noted that if you deconstructed the back of the watch, you would find gears and other mechanical parts. “The watch” can not be identified among it’s individual parts. Our teacher explained that the watch is the watch because, well, we say it is a watch. The watch does not exist solely and independently, in and of itself. It exists because of an interconnected system of gears and technology. It exists in dependence to those technologies. It exists because we use language to give it a name and a meaning. 

So, does “the watch” truly exist? To say that the watch does not exist at all would be nihilistic, a hopeless conclusion. The watch is a complicated piece of machinery that exists because of an interconnected system of inventions and human ingenuity. To understand this is to understand emptiness, as it is related to Buddhism. You and I, for example, might like to think that we are independent beings, existing solely based on our own will to exist. I am “Matt,” and that’s who I am. However, upon closer inspection we realize that we are the product of a system of interconnectedness not dissimilar to the existence of a watch:

“things exist in dependence upon causes and conditions. For example, a human being ceases to exist in a vacuum, we would instantly die when all conditions for life are suddenly gone. On another level, a human being needs to come into existence by the combination of a sperm from the father joining an egg from the mother and all the right conditions to grow into an embryo. So, considering ourselves as independently existing, fully autonomous is a mere illusion and does not accord with ultimate reality.”

From A View on Buddhism

This teaching allows us to begin to see the world non-dualistically, as not simply “right or wrong,” or “black or white,” but rather as an indefinitely expanding web of interconnectedness. We as humans are a perfect example of that complicated web. On a more practical level, to understand emptiness is to develop empathy and the ability to forgive. We can begin to entertain the idea that the actions of our fellow humans are not simple things to understand. And, in fact, their decisions are our own decisions. This is evident in a global issue like climate change, where the interconnectedness between humans and the environment are more present than ever. We are not “separate” from the environment, we are intertwined with it:

Thus interdependence is a fundamental law of nature. Not only higher forms of life but also many of the smallest insects are social beings who, without any religion, law, or education, survive by mutual cooperation based on an innate recognition of their interconnectedness…. All phenomena, from the planet we inhabit to the oceans, clouds, forests, and flowers that surround us, arise in dependence upon subtle patterns of energy. Without their proper interaction, they dissolve and decay.”

From A View on Buddhism

Understanding this network of interconnectedness is really important when looking at social issues like homelessness. Society often blames homeless populations (and immigrants, and people of color, etc.) for many of the issues we have. Some say that people experiencing homelessness are a public nuisance, a safety hazard, a drain on government resources, and other generalized and disparaging remarks. But if we look at the individual who is experiencing homelessness with a critical eye, we will most often find somebody who has become homeless due to a number of unfortunate causes and conditions. A person may have mental health issues, coupled with the loss of a job, in a city with limited affordable housing, without a solid network of family and friends. Indeed, the issues of this person are the issues of us all, issues that could very well effect any of us if the right conditions were met. We don’t exist separately from the homeless, but we are the homeless, in a way:

“All events and incidents in life are so intimately linked with the fate of others that a single person on his or her own cannot even begin to act. Many ordinary human activities, both positive and negative, cannot even be conceived of apart from the existence of other people. Even the committing of harmful actions depends on the existence of others.”

His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, from The Compassionate Life

I found this teaching to be remarkably helpful in thinking more critically about the world around me for what it truly is, and what it is not. Catholics, as well as members of other faith traditions, can use these teachings to enhance their own beliefs and doctrines, rather than oppose them.

Featured image by Bradley Ziffer on Unsplash

About Matthew LaBorde

Matthew is the coordinator of a vocational center at a homeless services non-profit in the Washington D.C area. For the last four years, he has worked with a wide range of poor and low-income individuals and families on the goal of finding meaningful employment. He is interested in topics like psychology, feminism, spirituality, and music. Matthew graduated with a communication arts degree from Spring Hill College, where he also served as the Editor of the student newspaper for two years. (Casa Maura Clarke, Los Angeles 2014-2015)