Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Shunyata - Emptiness in Buddhist Philosophy Part 1

The teachings on emptyness (Sanskrit sunyata or shunyata) find their most articulate development in the Kadampa branch of Mahayana Buddhism (Madhyamika Prasangika philosophy). To the Kadampa Buddhist nothing exists 'inherently' or 'from its own side'. All phenomena exist in dependence on three things -

(i) their causes,
(ii) their parts, and
(iii) their imputation by the mind of a sentient being.

And the sentient mind is NOT a physical construct or epiphenomenon of matter . The mind is clear and formless and has the power to know phenomena in a qualitative way [KELSANG GYATSO 1992], and hence give meaning to them.\

To Kadampa Buddhists all things are totally empty of any defining essence. Consequently all things have no fixed identity ('inherent existence') and are are in a state of impermanence - change and flux - constantly becoming and decaying. Not only are all things constantly changing, but if we analyse any phenomenon in enough detail we come to the conclusion that it is ultimately unfindable, and exists purely by definitions in terms of other things - and one of those other things is always the mind which generates those definitions.

Kadampa Buddhism regards the persistent delusion of 'inherent existence' as a major obstacle to spiritual development, and the root of many other damaging delusions. One of these delusions is the materialist belief in an objective reality existing independently of mind. By asserting that the universe exists inherently as a brute fact, materialism denies that subjective experience has any relevance to or influence on the universe, or indeed any existence at all.

The delusion of inherent existence is deeply ingrained our our culture. It was embedded into western philosophy by the Greek philosopher Plato, who was born about sixty years after Buddha's death.

Plato's view of reality is that for any class of objects there is a defining ideal form which is fixed, permanent and unchanging. All physical instances of objects tend to be imperfect. For example the wilting, mildewed roses in my garden are imperfect instances of an ideal rose which exists in a perfect realm of eternal forms. It is only by reference to this authoritative 'specification' that my mind is able to identify and name the transient physical phenomena, which 'participate' in the ideal form's attributes.