The Buddhist Notion of Emptiness and Its Potential Contribution


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The Buddhist Notion of Emptiness and its Potential Contribution to Psychology and Psychotherapy José M. Tirado Saybrook Graduate School Hafnarfjordur, Iceland A growing number of psychologists now have their practices and theories informed by Buddhist meditation practices. These practices, however, are themselves deeply informed by the Buddhist notion of emptiness (śūnyatā). This Buddhist concept offers a rich vein of possibilities in informing psychology and psychotherapy. The present paper exa
  International Journal of Transpersonal Studies  74 Te Buddhist Notion of Emptinessand its Potential Contribution to Psychology and Psychotherapy   José M. Tirado Saybrook Graduate SchoolHanarordur, Iceland A growing number o psychologists now have their practices and theories inormed by Bud-dhist meditation practices. Tese practices, however, are themselves deeply inormed by theBuddhist notion o  emptiness  ( śūnyatā  ). Tis Buddhist concept oers a rich vein o possibili-ties in inorming psychology and psychotherapy. Te present paper examines the develop-ment and potential o this concept or inuencing these and other areas. I n his rst book, Toughts Without a Tinker: Psycho-therapy rom a Buddhist Perspective  , Epstein (1995)beautiully encapsulated within the title´s rstclause a potentially innovative contribution to modernpsychology. Within this intriguing statement are hints o the Buddhist concept o  emptiness  , including its possiblebenets, prospective applications, and impact on psycho-therapy. For i there really is no thinker, who precisely is caught up in the snares o psychological illnesses?Elaborating on this question, Epstein has said that “thisemphasis on the lack o a particular, substantive agentis the most distinctive aspect o traditional Buddhistpsychological thought” (p. 41). He also suggested,correctly, that this Buddhist notion o a lack o “sel”may point us toward a new understanding o conscious-ness.Te Buddhist answer to this question o whosuers might be posited as ollows: the attachment to the sense o a thinker is the ultimate source o our illness  , andthereore, upon release rom this conning xation, ourillness will subside. Yet to whom does this attachment orxation occur? Our very use o a language that requiressubjects and objects, reerring to essential entities andthings, becomes problematic rom a Buddhist standpointbecause what is being pointed at is said to be insubstantial,possessed o an ineable nature. Te potential contribu-tions this notion might oer to the world o psychology and psychotherapy are thereore signicant. While the accumulation o material goods andthe ever-increasing lling up o our lives with moreinvasive orms o entertainment and communicationaccelerates at seemingly breakneck speed, ew wouldsuggest that our collective lives have become more whole.Even with an abundance o easily available psychothera-peutic modalities, hardly any would say we have becomehappier or less neurotic. Who can dismiss entirely thetongue-in-cheek title o a book co-penned by Jungiananalyst James Hillman (Hillman & Ventura, 1993), We’ve Had a Hundred Years o Psychotherapy and the World’s Getting Worse  ?Since Buddhism argues that grasping onto thenotion o a sel is at the root o the most essential existen-tial human problem, Buddhist critiques o this notion o the sel might helpully address the narcissistic emphaseso psychology. Tese critiques are salient because, asEpstein (1995) stated, the overwhelming dis-ease o the human condition is narcissism, which he dened inpart as “the inability to tolerate unpleasant truths aboutonesel” (p. 48). According to Epstein, “the Buddha wasarticulating a vision o a psyche reed rom narcissism”(p. 41), adding that, “all the insults to our narcissism canbe overcome, the Buddha proclaimed, not by escaping them but by uprooting the conviction in a ‘sel’ thatneeds protecting” (p. 45). Few concepts seem as eminently suited or such a task as the central Buddhist concepto emptiness. Tis concept directly challenges the very notion o an independent, inherently existent sel andthereore oers an initially uncomortable but possibly groundbreaking palliative to some o the most pressing psychological diculties in the human condition. Tepositive interpretation o emptiness allows or a philo-sophically deconstructed yet healthily adaptive sel thatresponds to psychological challenges with neither narcis-sistic myopia nor dissociative ragmentation.    International Journal of Transpersonal Studies  , 27  , 2008, pp. 74-79  International Journal of Transpersonal Studies  75 Buddhist Notion of Emptiness in Psychotherapy  It is the purpose o this paper to briey deneand describe the ramications o adopting this Buddhistidea into the realm o psychology and thereby hopeully contribute a bit to its understanding and possible use. Emptiness Te English word, emptiness, is universally agreed upon as a proper translation o the Sanskrit word, śūnyatā  . Śūnyatā  has been dened as, “the ultimate natureo reality which is the total absence o inherent existence and sel-identity with respect to all phenomena  ” (Coleman,1993, p. 304 [emphasis added]). It is urther character-ized more specically as “empty and void o Perma-nency, o true Happiness, Personality, and Pleasantness”(Nyanatiloka, 1952, p. 132). Tus, “being devoid o any phenomenal characteristics, ‘void’ or ‘the indescribable’is the real nature o things” (Grimes, 1989, p. 354).Te word śūnyatā  is made o two parts: śūnya   or “empty” (its root –svi  reers to being swollen, as ina belly, and this lends itsel to the image o a swollenbelly, presently devoid o any contents, but laden withpossibilities) and –tā  , describing the quality o being ascribed to the ormer part o speech (i.e., equivalent tothe English sux  –ness  ): thus, empty-ness. Since withinmost Western languages this writer is amiliar with thenotion o emptiness is understood as pejoratively negative,describing the absence o  any thing  ( nihilism in Buddhistterms), it might be less misleading and more helpul toollow the broader Buddhist development o this idea asBuddhism moved rom India to ibet, China, Japan,and Korea.It should be noted at the outset that the Buddha made clear his determination to keep the interpretationo his teachings away rom the two extremes o whathe called nihilism and eternalism . Te ormer position,nihilism, would argue that nothingness is the naturalconclusion derived rom analyzing the nature o sel asempty. Tis lent itsel to the rejection o any UltimateReality and denial o the possibility o apprehending anything beyond our senses. It had potentially disastrousconsequences morally as well, or i no ultimate standardor moral behavior exists, it could be argued that norestraints on moral behavior are necessary.Te latter concept o eternalism was akin toVedantic belies in (1) the soul, an eternal, transmigrating entity possessed o an inherent identity, and (2) God, theUltimate substratum o Reality representing Reality inits truest sense. With regard to this sense o a personalsel, “it seems that human dispositions…tend to move…in two dierent directions….the rst is in the directiono absolute negation….the other is in the direction o making it a permanent and eternal reality” (Kalupahana,1987, p. 40). Neither position was correct according tothe Buddha, and both represented distortions o his own“Middle Way.” Tis said, it should be noted that, “bothMadhyamaka and Advaita Vedanta deny that ultimatereality can be understood in a dualistic manner  ” (King,1995, p. 135 [emphasis added]).Te eort to translate religious or spiritualterms rom one language to another is always raught with diculty. It was no dierent in the transition romthe literary, spiritual languages o the Indian subconti-nent, Pali and Sanskrit, to East Asia, where many o thelanguages adopted the Chinese ideographs (known in Japanese as kanji) as the whole or part o their own writing systems. Tese ideographs were able to visually contain a  wealth o inormation, deposited as it were within eachsub-section (called a  radical  ) o the character, rom whichliterally tens o thousands o compounds with multiplemeanings could then be made. Te languages themselves(Chinese in particular, certainly Japanese as well) werequite comortable with ambiguities and subtleties, dier-entiating them rom the precision and denitive clarity o, say, Sanskrit. Te ideograph adopted to represent this word, śūnyatā  , is ku   [空] , which means, “sky, [to] make/be unoccupied, empty” (Hadamitzky & Spahn, 1997, p.92). Its signicance in this discussion lies in the tradi-tionally  dual  expositions o its value as a synonymousreading or śūnyatā  .Te reasoning o the rst reading went as ollows:as the sky is not a thing but rather, a space, it can besaid to be without solidity, empty o  things  and thingness  .It only hosts, so to speak, all passing phenomena,remaining without inherent identity or substance (a bird,or example, in the literal sky image, and thoughts, orits application to objects o consciousness). So too with śūnyatā  . Tis was the negative     ormulation . “It does notmean that things do not exist but rather that they are nothing but appearances  ” (Schuhmacher & Woerner, 1989,pp. 330-331 [emphasis added]). raditional Zen imagery,the moon’s reection in a dew drop or example, capturesomewhat the essence o what mistaking the image orthe reality might be like.Tere remained however another  positive ormu-lation most emphasized by various ibetan schools, whichasserted that, while the sky itsel is empty o substance,  International Journal of Transpersonal Studies  76 irado it might also be characterized as a sel-luminous back-ground to all phenomena, mental or physical, andpregnant with innite possibilities. “While emptinessis indicated in traditional Madhyamaka by saying whatit is not, in Mahamudra and Dzogchen it is viewed inpositive terms. Śūnyatā  here becomes ‘openness’ that isinseparable rom clarity (luminosity)” (Schuhmacher & Woerner, 1989, p. 331).Tis positive aspect might be o most interest inmodern consciousness studies and its practical applications within the realm o psychotherapy. By way o example,the patient who is oered a positive, open-ended visiono their ull potentialities, beyond any and all aspects o their presenting conditions, will be empowered ar morethan the one oered a more constricted sense o sel by the therapist. As well, changes in consciousness associ-ated with positive mental states have been examined quitea bit o late, including promising research involving theDalai Lama whose interest in these matters has provenhelpul to scientists studying their relationship. Emptiness, Language, and a Psychology of Self  Western psychology is rooted in an understand-ably Western view o individuality: a separate sel, relating to a world o separate entities  . Tis view might also bealternatively described as a Judeo-Christian model withregards to soul  and a Cartesian-Newtonian model withregards to matter  . All o which together represent theoundation o most o what is characterized as Westernthought. Te interaction o these separate entities ormsdynamic relationships, which, through those interactions,can positively or negatively aect each o the entities inrelationship. For example, when internal views about theentities outside or the internal components o the indi-vidual become distorted or inappropriately ocused upon,then psychological diculties may occur.By contrast, Eastern psychologies (i we may usethat word in this context) are thoroughly inormed by ideas predisposed towards a more collective  view o whatconstitutes an individual and the world around one. “A sharp distinction between individualism and collec-tivism…characterizes important analyses o Westernversus Asian approaches [to psychology]” (Rao, 2002, p.265). A brie examination o the Japanese understanding o individuals might be helpul here.Kasulis (1981), in  Zen Action, Zen Person ,expounded on denitions o sel in Japanese Zen andtheir relationships to related Western ideas. In Japanese,several words are used in speaking o a person: the terms kojin , ningen , and hito are all used in dierent contexts.However, as this is a great deal due to Buddhist inu-ences upon the language and society he noted that, when the Japanese see someone as an “individual”( kojin ), they see him or her as one object among many, but when they see someone as a “human being”( ningen ), they see that person in a context  ….Whilethe ‘individual’ ( kojin ) is a real entity, one most ully becomes a ´human being’ ( ningen ) when one is inrelationship….Te individual becomes meaningulinsoar as he or she is an outgrowth o the relation-ships established by the operative context, not viceversa (pp. 6, 9; emphasis added).We should note that this notion o emptiness, orat least a set o analogous concepts or positions, has beentested or touched upon and essentially rejected by Westernthought: Heraclitus, with his image that everything owsand that you cannot step in the same river twice (Russell,1984), is one example. Hume, with his empirical observa-tion that sel, other, cause, eect, and more are all merely habits o mind and concepts overlaid on the bare world o experience, is another. Daniel Dennett, with his notiono the mind as having no continuity or unchanging sel (see Rao, 2002) would be a third. So why has the Westrun screaming rom this idea? How is it that Buddhismapproaches non-sel in such a way that is less terriying in the East than in the West? In act, what the Buddha posited was that instead o a solid, inherent sel, there wasonly “a changing stream o becoming…constantly ed by perceptions,” which “does not represent a static entity to which everything belongs” (Kalupahana, 1987, p. 38). We may urther understand the importanceo emptiness by looking at its relationship to anotherimportant Buddhist idea, dependent srcination , or  pratīitya samutpāda  . Tis notion, described by some as interconnectedness  , was sometimes utilized to justiy thenascent inux o emptiness into later Buddhist thought.Since interconnectedness was regarded as an early Buddhist teaching and thereore considered authorita-tive, its general thrust contained seeds or a new way o viewing sel. By saying that there exists no thing  whoseull identity, arising, sustenance, and eventual passing, was not due to elaborately intertwined matrices o rela-tionships to other things similarly entangled, it impliedthat nothing thereore existed as an inherently inde-pendent unit. “Pratitya samutpada is…the principle  International Journal of Transpersonal Studies  77 Buddhist Notion of Emptiness in Psychotherapy  o…the essential dependence  o things on each other,i.e., the unreality o separate elements” (Murti, 1980,p. 7 [emphasis in srcinal]). Tis concept could then beextrapolated to characterize the nature o all existence asemptiness—empty o substance, o properties that suggestsolidity in identity, and o denitive characterization.It was Nāgārjuna, writing in the 2nd/3rdcent. CE (Murti, 1980), with his collected aphorismsand dialectic analyses, who ingeniously revived a then-moribund Buddhist movement by putting orth hismiddle path, or  Madhyamaka  . “Te unction o theMadhyamika dialectic is not to bring about a change inthings but in our mentality” (p. 233). Nāgārjuna did notdeny the existence o things as phenomena, but declaredtheir absence o essence  . “Tus it is alse to say that thingsexist or that they do not exist. Te truth lies in the middle,in emptiness” (Schuhmacher & Woerner, 1989, p. 238).  “Nāgārjuna endeavored to undermine Indian(non-Buddhist as well as abhidharmic) arguments aboutcausality by proving the relationship between cause andeect to be neither absolute nor unparadoxical” (Kasulis,1981, p. 20). For Nagarjuna, “concepts are samvriti  ; they literally ‘cover’ or ‘obstruct’ the way things are actually experienced” (p. 23). Releasing ourselves rom thepropensity to conceptualize, and thereore, to reiy theobjects o our experience, we liberate ourselves rom themost ensnaring o human propensities associated withour minds. Tis is the inevitable and invariant grasping ater the objects o experience, traditionally delineated as1) the desire to get those things we want, 2) to avoid thethings we do not wish to be near to, and 3) to cling to thememory o things lost.One can easily see the areas in which such a perspective might be put to use in psychology. It is possibleto suggest that most psychotherapy clients, at least thosein non-psychotic or extreme dissociative conditions, areinvolved in one way or another with some xation o atleast one o these three conditions. A person aected by compulsive gambling, obsessively avoiding cracks in thesidewalk, or grieving inconsolably rom the traumaticmemory o parental loss might all respectively be specicexamples o these three afictions.Aside rom Buddhism, most other Indianschools o thought still accept the notion o a deepersubstratum o individuality, one that is more sel   thanthe provisionally understood individual “sel.” When welook at Sāmkhya or Vedanta, two dominant philosoph-ical trends still surviving within the various strands o Hinduism, then we see the utter reliance upon this notiono a deeper substratum o existence. Tis substratum may also be described as the sense that beneath, or, better put,beyond the phenomenal world we experience lies a  more real  Reality. However, emptiness according to Buddhismundercuts this notion as well, arguing that any imputa-tion we ascribe to existence remains an imputation andlittle else. Tus, the intellectual and linguistic precisionnormally used in stripping language o its propensities toreiy concepts is here brought to bear on considerationso religious import. Tis process may be subsequently applied to a psychological context and in so doing,might illuminate a new angle or addressing other age-old problems. Tese problems are related to the ontology,epistemology, and phenomenology o being, o conscious-ness and human lie itsel.Kasulis (1981) has written, “since language cannever leave its own constructs and internal rules, it cannotserve as a vehicle or philosophical truth ” (p. 22 [emphasisin srcinal]). One might add as well that languagepresents no vehicle or psychological truth, or the samelimiting reasons Nāgārjuna has so amply demonstrated(Murti, 1980). But the search or philosophical ruthis not generally considered the driving motivation inpsychological practice. Insights, cures, solutions, reasons,suggestions, therapies, counsel, answers, and directionsare more along the line o what is sought. Here again we are presented with emptiness’s unusual utility, or itsquarely conronts the ultimate inadequacies o all theseand directs the pursuer back to the uidity o experienceitsel. In so doing it begins to peel away, layer ater layer,the errant presumptions in all our questioning, leading toward a state o unknowing. While one might initially approach anxiously, with context and guidance thisunknowing can prove as liberating as realizing the sky’simmeasurable potentiality versus its insubstantiality. We have already suggested that the Buddhistnotion o emptiness can provide an excellent series o ideas that may inorm the therapeutic encounter. “Tesuering o the alse sel derives rom attachment tothe two extremes o sel-suciency and emptiness. By bringing awareness to those very attachments, they canbe released” (Epstein, 1995, p. 67). It is not too hardto imagine (and Epstein provides concrete examples o such) psychotherapists utilizing insights derived rommeditation or the contemplation o emptiness in order toassist clients in loosening the seemingly intractable graspmany have on their problems. Tis eort, in act, has
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