Buddhist philosophy is an uncommon topic for me, but I always find myself looking into it. I’ll probably get to more detailed writings on the three marks of existence, for example (dukkha, anicca and anatta, look them up if curious), but for now, I thought I’d confront what is a deal-breaker of sorts for many looking into Buddhism or something they hear from many people’s initial judgments. What I refer to is the claim that Buddhism is nihilistic or pessimistic in its outlook on life, since it claims life is suffering and more explicitly, empty. I won’t get into much detail on the claim that Buddhists believe all life is suffering, since the translation of that first of three basic truths is not as accurate as unsatisfactoriness, for instance. But emptiness is another example of the difficulty that exists for translating Buddhist ideas into the more Western oriented English language. The word translated is sunyata, which speaks not to nonexistence or negation, but more like the Daoist notion of void; like an empty glass full of potential or any empty space that can be filled with something. Even an alternative translation of voidness has problems of people’s initial interpretations. Void seems to a Western mind illustrative of a black hole or something that is utterly destructive. But void in an Eastern context doesn’t suggest something being eliminated, but instead things having potential to be added onto. When you think about the number 0, it isn’t necessarily an indicator of lack of things, though in Buddhism that has relevance with things not being permanent and thus empty of a certain kind of persistence we desire. 0 can also mean the start of something, 1 and beyond. And similarly, with emptiness, it is not saying life is meaningless or without tangibility, but merely that is must be recognized to be transient in nature, always in flux, always in motion, changing forms sometimes before our naked eyes.
A pertinent way to clarify how sunyata is not any sort of nihilism or negative view of the world would be to say that Buddhism doesn’t believe so much in nothingness; that everything is without any existence whatsoever, purely illusory; but instead believes in no-thingness; that everything exists, but it is not completely self sufficient or permanent, but dependent on people appropriating a meaning upon it and will eventually pass away as such.
Nothingness is a term I’d assert strongly doesn’t reflect anything in Buddhism except as people misunderstand teachings from it. The notion of impermanence, for example, doesn’t imply Buddhists don’t believe anything exists, nor does the teaching that the world has the quality of illusion, translated from “maya” mean that Buddhists don’t believe things actually exist. Buddhists don’t believe things have complete and self sufficient existence apart from our minds. True, trees and other physical objects will still exist even if we don’t think about them. But their identity as trees or animals is relative to each human identifying them as such. There is a sort of dependence and interdependence of all things upon each other in one sense. Trees need water and sunlight, while water and sunlight are also dependent on things to subsist, particular situations or other physical elements such as an atmosphere. If things didn’t actually exist, Buddhists would encounter more problems than they could solve, since the idea of mindfulness is not just internal, but external. Things are recognized to pass away, but also bring forth other things in their wake, so that things never truly disappear, but subsume into more basic constituents, such as a desk becoming wood and kindling. The desk only ceases to exist because it has become unusable, but the identity of desk can be appropriated to another similar object without losing the function it serves of categorizing objects relative to human use.
There is a strong difference of opinion between Buddhists and theists on metaphysics, since the notion of an absolute creator completely separate from the creation in an ontological sense, not able to be classified in any way except unto itself, being so ultimately unique, clashes starkly with the Buddhist idea that everything originates from something else that permeates things on every level of life. Even our very beliefs about the world are based on prior beliefs we take for granted, such as the dependability of our senses and the tangible existence of objects outside our perception of them. The no-thingness of objects as well as our own experiential selves only means that they will naturally change over time and not maintain any sort of essence that can be pinpointed without reference to other equally “essential” qualities. I am not just me because of my family, but also my friends. I am shaped by culture, by education, by various relationships as mentioned before and all of these things constitute me as a whole of parts instead of a whole lumped together without individual considerations. The problem people may see is that the lack of a persistent essence of even our selves means that there is no soul that many religions believe in. When we die, the belief that our consciousness and identity will survive beyond our ceasing to live physically is not something Buddhism believes in, and this understandably perturbs people. Of course, there is also the mischaracterization of karma in relation to Buddhism for an example I will visit in the future that claims Buddhism is somehow dehumanizing to people. But I feel like I can further affirm my humanity as a Buddhist, since I am unique and yet also recognize that I am not so unique to lord it over other humans, equally unique as they are.
The fact that things will eventually end in one way or another is not the same as annihilation of all things in some ultimate sense. If we take scientific perspectives on the state of matter and energy, even billions of years from now, matter and energy’s sum total will still exist, but more spread out as they equalize over time. The cessation of one thing leads to the beginning of another thing, in a sort of circle of life, or more realistically, a web of life. Me dying does not mean I absolutely disappear, nor does it mean I absolutely must survive somehow as a soul. I will survive through memories in virtual immortality, but not in actual immortality as a consciousness still perceiving things. My dependence on physical senses means that when I no longer have a functioning body, I do not exist as a conscious entity, but only as memories of my friends and family.
It should be emphasized again that me believing that things are transient and impermanent, not possessing any sort of thingness or essence to them does not make me a nihilist. In fact, I can further appreciate things because I know they will not persist in some form after they pass, especially people. When things are gone I can adjust without having to mourn. As heartless as that may sound, it’s a development towards accepting things as they are and not how we expect them to happen. Until next time, Namaste and aloha.