Emptiness and Loneliness

Do mind and matter genuinely exist? If we were to analyze them thoroughly, we would see that their existence is only temporary. But does this mean that mind and matter do not actually exist? If we were to break time down into all its separate moments, we would see that actually time does not exist. This is also true of space. If we kept cutting it up into smaller and smaller parts, we would not find the actual existence of space. But on the other hand, the connection between different moments in time does exist and spatial relationships between objects also exist.

If, seeking to avoid the attachment to existence, you fall into the trap of the false views of emptiness, then that is like being afraid of getting drowned and jumping into the fire.

Therefore, people who do not understand Buddhadharma may have one of two false ideas about emptiness. The first, emptiness from a temporal point of view, is called “the emptiness of termination and extinction.” Those who hold this view think that things just arise and vanish spontaneously, without events in the past causing results in the present and without events in the present causing results in the future. This is emptiness of temporal relationship. The other kind of false idea of emptiness can be called “the weird sense of emptiness.” This is emptiness from a spatial point of view: one sees the phenomena as completely illusory, therefore not to be taken seriously. It is very likely that people who hold either of these two false conceptions will have moral or ethical problems, and may lack a central focus in their lives.

From the point of view of Buddhadharma, emptiness is much different. Buddhism believes that whatever was done in the past caused a result in the present, and whatever is done in the present will cause a result in the future. But if we split time into its many segments, then existence can only be true for that segment. It is not real in that sense. And since time is constantly changing, causes are changing, and the effects are also changing. There isn’t any certain unchanging consequence, nor is there any certain unchanging cause. Therefore it is void, but cause and effect are still there.

Question: In Buddhist works they say that nirvana is not an effect that can be attained through some kind of cause. If nirvana is supposed to be the state of true reality, it seems that someone who reaches this state is exempt from cause and effect. Is this so?

Sheng Yen: Nirvana is not a thing; nirvana is when you personally experience, and understand, and recognize that everything is void, or empty. Through the practice, you gradually come to experience that there is no real space or time that you can hold on to. So you can say that nirvana is the result of practice, but it is not a result of something changing into something else. If certain things happen, we cannot say that these things didn’t happen. If we simply ignore the fact that these things happened, then we fall into the view called “the weird sense of emptiness.” But on the other hand we also realize that whatever happens is not something eternal or unchanging. So there is no need to take it too seriously or to be attached to it. If we are attached to it, that is a vexation.

If you hold on to the false views of emptiness and if you deny the law of cause and effect (karma), then you are in a very dangerous position. You may think that all phenomena are unreal and you don’t have to practice morality. With this lack of responsibility, you will create a lot of evil karma and you will suffer the consequences. Being attached to existence will give you vexations, but being attached to the false views of emptiness will give you even greater problems. If, seeking to avoid the attachment to existence, you fall into the trap of the false views of emptiness, then that is like being afraid of getting drowned and jumping into the fire. From the Buddhist point of view, we take the Middle Way, that is, in emptiness there is existence and existence itself is empty.

Question: Does a practitioner necessarily have to go through times when he has the two false conceptions of emptiness?

Sheng Yen: Not necessarily. It depends on whether he or she gets proper guidance. It may happen, especially to people without a good foundation in Buddhism. One student, after returning home after her first retreat, felt that life was very gloomy and meaningless. She felt like giving away everything, breaking all contacts with the world, and just practice by herself. Later, she borrowed and read many books from the Center, and by the third retreat, her attitude changed and she really opened up to life and the world. Others have gone through a similar stage. The reason is that through hard practice these people experienced a deep feeling of emptiness without, however, having enough understanding of Buddhism as a basis.

Question: Where does the feeling of a deep sense of loneliness come from?

Sheng Yen: People who cannot connect themselves with the outside world in terms of space and time, who do not understand cause and effect, and causes and conditions, will feel lonely. When I was in solitary retreat, I knew that I was together with all sentient beings in innumerable worlds. Even though I seemed to be alone in a small, enclosed room, actually I was in company with many ants who found their way inside, and insects outside of the hut created all kinds of sounds in the evening. When I opened the sutras, people thousands of years in the past were talking to me. How could I feel lonely? Some people think that I must feel lonely being a monk without any wife or children. Not at all. I have the five precepts and the ten virtuous deeds as my wife and my children are all the people with whom I have developed a karmic affinity, and who call me Shifu (Teacher). It is only people who isolate themselves and cannot establish a relationship with the outside world who feel lonely. If you keep yourself enclosed, even if you live among thousands of people you will still feel very lonely. However, if you keep yourself open, then even if you are living alone, you will still have a very full life. So, open your mind and treat everyone you meet as your intimate, virtuous friend.

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