Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Question on the Void

One of the major questions that separates those orientated to the spiritual life concerns the ultimate nature of reality. Granted there is a unified ground of existence, what is it? Is it personal, impersonal, something, nothing?  To my way of thinking Buddhists look at this from below up. That is, they have a perspective that is fundamentally human and rooted in the intellect. Their revelation, if that's the right word for it, comes from a man, an extraordinary man but still a man. Their philosophy is human-centric. There is no direct input from the spiritual world as there is considered to be in Christianity or Hinduism or Islam (which, of course, can make it more attractive to the contemporary mindset). Consequently, after they have stripped away the not self in their search for the fundamentals of what is, they are left with what appears to be nothing as the origin of all things. They might prefer to describe this as not something or no-thing but it still comes very close to an impersonal blank absolute that has no characteristics or qualities at all, even in potentia. Can this be true and, if it is, how did anything ever come about?

The following question refers to this idea and asks how it might be possible.

Q. What do you think of those who describe ultimate reality as emptiness or the void as many Buddhists seem to do? I can see the logic behind this but it seems a very unsatisfactory way of looking at things to me. I suppose the idea is that every thing ultimately comes from no thing and nothing has any intrinsic reality, being made up only of ever-changing, interdependent parts none of which have any real substance. Intellectually this idea makes a certain kind of sense but intuitively it just seems wrong.

A. Trust your intuition! Emptiness as an ultimate has become a popular concept but the reason many people in the West today are attracted to notions like ‘emptiness’ and ‘the void’ as descriptions of the absolute is because they desire a spirituality without God. Either they want the benefits of a spiritual consciousness but don't want to accept that there is something greater than themselves to which they owe their being and which is real, not just life in the abstract but actually alive. Or else they regard the idea of a personal God as intellectually inferior to that of an impersonal absolute, not seeing that a truly impersonal reality could never give rise to anything still less individuality and therefore love. The void may be a sincere attempt to describe the state of formlessness beyond form but to conceive of the absolute reality in such terms is just plain wrong because to be empty of form does not mean to be empty per se. It might be claimed that emptiness is just a word that tries to describe the reality behind appearance, but the problem is that it’s a bad word and, as we have discussed, words are important because they create images in the mind. The wrong word will create the wrong image which then results in wrong understanding which, in its turn, is likely to lead to the wrong approach and practice. 

The notion of emptiness is best considered as a provisional concept which might help to wean people off attachment to form and the belief that this phenomenal world has a reality in and for itself. And in that respect it can be useful. But once it is realised that the world is an expression of a formless and living reality then emptiness becomes superfluous and can be seen to be just a halfway house on the road to a fuller understanding. Indeed, at that point it becomes positively misleading for it denies God who is the ultimate cause of all. Truth is certainly beyond expression but words have real meaning and create specific ideas in the mind so they matter. Of course, language cannot express what is inexpressible but there are words that point in the right direction and ones that point in the wrong direction. Emptiness is quite simply the wrong word to describe the state of formlessness which underlies the created world for while the intrinsic nature of things may be empty of form, as in without or beyond form, it is not absence as emptiness would necessarily imply. In fact, to describe it as Presence would be much nearer the mark.

We all fall down when we attempt to describe the reality behind form in words which only relate to the world of form. We may reach for negatives to avoid positive definitions, which must by their very nature limit, forgetting that negative descriptions limit just as much. But there is also a certain type of mind nowadays which does not wish to acknowledge a Creator, and this mind eagerly seeks to dispense with a reality it objects to by framing its metaphysical discourse in language that does precisely that. But this language, the language of emptiness, is ultimately incoherent because it does not take into account the whole. It describes but a limited aspect of it, and it does so only from the point of view of the rational mind which is rather ironic since that is what it is seeking to transcend. What I mean by this is that emptiness may be how the mind perceives the core of reality from its own perspective but it is not how reality truly is. It may be empty of ideation and mental form but all that means is that it exists at a level beyond thought.

As for those who demote the Creator God to a lower level of reality than can be attained by incarnate human beings because they associate him with form, one must ask how can the creator of form only exist in form? This is to demote God to a god. For if Divine Will is not present at the very heart of reality then the world of manifestation could never have come about at all.

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