Buddhism on “Do Humans Exist”?

Buddhism on “Do Humans Exist”?

True emptiness is that which transcends all things
and yet is imminent in all.

Thomas Merton

One of the most controversial ideas in Buddhism is the idea of emptiness. This is the idea that everything is empty of inherent essence. Meaning, there is nothing that is part of who I am that is different than the things that are part of you. There is nothing constant that defines us as individuals. This leads to the next idea, that everything is impermanent and forever changing. This is proven by modern science with things like particle decay and our bodies replacing themselves completely every seven years or so (no cell in our body is the same as seven years ago). So, having an essence would apply to something like the Western idea of soul or spirit, the “us” that inhabits our bodies. The Buddhists believe that there is no such thing.

Thanissaro Bhikkhu over on Tricycle Online, summed it up nicely as far as experience goes: “Emptiness is a mode of perception, a way of looking at experience. It adds nothing to, and takes nothing away from, the raw data of physical and mental events. You look at events in the mind and the senses with no thought of whether there’s anything lying behind them.”

The idea of emptiness necessitates the idea of interdependence, meaning nothing can exist on it’s own. That everything and everyone depends upon everyone else for it’s existence.

How is it, then, that we are reborn? If there is no part of us that carries on after we die, what is reincarnating?

This very idea has birthed many schools of Buddhism over the years, none of which have a perfect answer that can be agreed upon by everyone else. BUT, I will try to break this down for you. Karma is a creative force which has been around since the beginning of all things. It is the cause and effect principle, where every effect had a cause, and every cause had an effect. This also relates to he idea of interdependence.

Now, Shakyamuni Buddha, the Buddha we all know and love, never tried to answer metaphysical questions such as “what was the original cause?” So, we won’t get in to that as we are strictly looking into the present and future. As individuals, we generate karma, and have for many past lives. Every single moment has the potential for everything. We make a decision in every single moment of our lives. Since we know that every cause has an effect, we can understand how many effects have to play out from even just the time we’ve spent reading this! Because it would be impossible for all these effects to play out in one life time they continue to happen for many lifetimes to come. So, the aim of some buddhists is to create as few effects as possible so they don’t have to be reborn. (As being reborn is a continuation of samsara, or cycles of suffering, as all life brings with it suffering…a different topic all together.)

In a perhaps more logical sense, then, it isn’t a soul that is acquiring a new body, but rather a process of causes and effects that are continuing to cycle through all of time on a particular wave length. So, if all we are is a cycle of cause and effect, and there is no essence within us, do we really exist? For that matter, does anything really exist?

I open the floor.


Response to “How Does Samsara develop?” by Ven Geshe Kelsang Gyatso

“How Does Samsara develop?” by Ven Geshe Kelsang Gyatso

First, please take a few minutes to listen to this video. My response is below.

Through sitting in awareness, emptiness, we can see the five aggregates as a construction of our sense of I, or our Self. We can see that these things are necessary for the construct of the self, but that they are hindered by the Self; this idea of mine or ours, rather than accepting something for just what it is. All of our views are biased by our sense of I. It wants to control how we see and experience the world. But the world exists outside of this body, mind, and spirit. It exists outside of the forms, perceptions, sensations, formations, and consciousness. It exists in emptiness, or “merely emptiness” as Ven. Geshe Kelsang Gyatso so eloquently put it.

Emptiness is easy to see, but harder to understand. I get glimpses of it, but rarely does it stay in sight. There is this type of language that is ultimate, where people constantly ask “who is talking?” to try to get people to realize emptiness. But in order to communicate we must use relative language: “I am talking.” In order to share the dharma we must accept that this relative language is necessary. I struggle with it when writing these notes because in my experience of meditation and contemplation, there is no “I” contemplating. The thoughts are just coming and going and Awareness is watching. But, to put that into words, I must use these terms. It is the only way we can learn from each other.

Experiencing life through the five aggregates and the senses is like living through a kaleidoscope. It’s hard to make sense of what is there, and in order to understand our lives and their place in it, our awareness creates these words like “I” “You” “Other” “That” “This”, and makes us see the world as duality. For me, it was very hard to let go of these terms, and now it is very hard to accept their use and importance.

Samsara, to me, is necessary, and expected while we are in these bodies. Ven. Geshe Kelsang Gyatso seemed to be saying that the five aggregates create suffering, but I’m wondering if it isn’t a little give and take. The cycle of samsara happens, always. It happens whether we are here to experience it or not. The fact that we see it as suffering is what causes us to suffer. Perhaps the five aggregates are not merely to blame, though they make us seem separate from it, and therefore as though it is happening *to us*, rather than around, through, and within us. It is happening *as well as* us. How we perceive it is what changes it from just an experience to something external and offensive.

I think what Ven. Geshe Kelsang Gyatso was trying to say was that when we realize emptiness, when we can step back out of our sense of I and see the world as a process rather than a fixed entity, samsara starts to break down and becomes merely a part of that process, which is soon to change.

Meditations on Non-duality

First, please watch the video below. It’s 12:46 so you can do this in a short time.


Does everything exist as non-dual? Everything has a mere appearance, but does any of it have essence? Nothing has individual essence, therefore everything is non-dual as we perceive it as mere appearance of essence, when it is in fact empty.
Geshe-la mentions form as body, but form is everything. Body is made up of mountains and rivers, goats and birds, air and fire. Form is everything we perceive in a dual nature, which is really non-dual. Form is ever changing, flowing, shifting, walking like mountains walk. Stillness and emptiness are non-dual. Stillness is perceived, when really nothing is ever still. Even in physics we see that atoms are constantly vibrating, gravity is working on our atoms making them move around each other like planets and suns. Stillness exists only in the present moment, only to our perception, but really, form is empty of stillness. Form is empty of form.
If the world exists as non-dual, why do we perceive it as dual? Our attachment to ignorance and self-grasping. By recognizing the non-dual nature of things we can be released from attachment, grasping, avidya.
A quote came to mind: “When the wave forgets that it is the ocean, that forgetting process is Avidya.” We are each waves in the vast ocean of non-dual existence, and we have forgotten that we are part of the ocean.
Further reading:
Avidya Tree

Emptiness and Impermanence Notes

At 11amSLT I’m hosting a discussion on Emptiness and Impermanence at Sedona’s Playground. Come join us!


Emptiness and Impermanence

This idea of things being empty and impermanent is a very well known Buddhist thought. The basic idea is that everything is ever-changing, and therefore empty. It is considered common knowledge that the Diamond Sutra, one of the main Buddhist texts, deals with impermanence. But, some say this is a misperception. One of the main issues with any Buddhist texts is the fact that they are translated for those of us who don’t speak Sanskrit, Pali, or any of the other ancient languages they were written in (which is most of us). Because of these translations, we have to be careful about the way we interpret the words. We take emptiness and impermanence as meaning that Buddhists don’t believe anything actually exists. But this may not be the case.

Emptiness really means ’empty of inherent existence’. (Sean Robsville) “The teachings on emptiness are concerned with HOW things exist, not IF and WHETHER things exist (UFO’s Unicorns and Yetis) or WHY things exist (because God, The Devil or the Spaghetti Monster made them). … We don’t normally say that an explosion exists or existed (though there’s no logical reason not to say so). And we don’t normally say that the universe occurs. Yet an explosion and the expanding universe are similar entities, just operating on different timescales.” So, it seems that the way we use the terms “exist,” “existence,” and “existed,” are all relative to our notion of time. “So to say that something exists is ultimately an arbitrary statement. All we are saying is that its rate of disintegration is negligible on the timescale of our lifetime. In reality, all functioning phenomena are impermanent – it’s just that some are more impermanent than others.”

Let’s look at an example. Oftentimes you’ll hear people refer to the senses as our way of experiencing the world. What if you take a closer look at your senses? Your ears hear because of the many parts that make them up. But what if you took that ear apart and separated the many pieces? You would no longer be able to hear. Same with your eyes – they only work because of the various parts and the fact that the brain has a way to communicate with these parts. But we see how easy that can break down if one piece of this sense organ doesn’t work, or deteriorates over time. So, everything we experience is based on these very delicate organs, that themselves are reliant on time and consequence.

The Buddha points to a chariot and says, “Where is the essence of the chariot?” Is it in the wheels? The seat? The axle? The cart? No – none of these contain any “essence” of the chariot. And if each of these is broken down into their smaller parts, there is no essence within them either. The chariot, as a whole, is simply a particular arrangement of parts, each of which themselves are also a particular arrangement of smaller parts. The chariot is a thing that exists interdependently

The Buddha teaches that we want things to be permanent, because we love them or desire them to be ours forever. This creates suffering. The whole idea of Buddhism is to recognize that suffering is constant in the world, but to try to leave it behind. So the teachings of emptiness and impermanence seem not to be saying that nothing exists, but that nothing exists permanently, or eternally.

The Sanskrit term for emptiness, “sunyata,” is translated to english as: “Buddhist concept denying the existence of lonely properties, in other words those intrinsic properties of a thing that could survive it having no relations with other things, or being the only thing in its universe.” –http://www.answers.com/topic/sunyata#ixzz2E0zEBrRO

So you can see that the translation to “emptiness” is a lacking one. We just don’t have a better word for it. “Sunyata” could also be taken as meaning that nothing has an independent origin – that “the present state of all things is the result of a previous state.” (http://buddhismteacher.com/emptiness.php)

The idea that we see here is that nothing has a permanent essence that allows it to stay constant or exactly how it is forever. Even the universe is in a constant flux – growing, expanding, collapsing. There is nothing we’ve come to know that is permanent, and therefore nothing that has an essence that is eternal.

But Buddha isn’t the only one who has touched on this idea of emptiness and impermanence. Plato also developed a theory, which we call Plato’s Theory of Forms, which actually looks at the other end of the spectrum. In this theory he states that Forms are properties or essences of things that are eternal and changeless. Some examples of this would be beauty, car, notebook, lamp, love, hate, chariot, etc. In other words, Plato is saying that everything is referred by using a general notion(s) or idea(s) that are eternal and changeless. For instance, if I was to say, “Look at this beautiful table.” You know automatically, without further explanation, that I think the table (the object with four legs that acts as a hard surface, usually for eating on) has exceptional qualities that I find attractive. Of course, all this depends on the fact that we speak the same language.

To expand on this, imagine all the tables you’ve ever seen. No matter if they have two legs and are supported by a wall, or three legs and are triangular in shape, or four legs and tall, they are all tables. So the “idea” of table stays the same, regardless of which table you’re speaking of. A box is a box is a box, until you take away the sides and it’s a tray. A human is a human unless you look closer and see two arms, two legs, a torso and a head (which can then break down into smaller, more descriptive characteristics that determine WHO or WHAT a human actually is). So these Forms are in themselves not necessarily ideas, or mental objects, but an essence that is “changeless”.

“Time is the substance I am made of. Time is a river which sweeps me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger that devours me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire that consumes me, but I am the fire.” – Jorge Luis Borges

There are a few questions this makes us have to ask. The main question is: where is an objects separate, independent, defining and lasting essence? Can one say that a Form is completely changeless and eternal, or does the Form change as society grasps at better understandings of what things are? And, if things are empty and impermanent, what effect does that have on our consciousness or way of thinking (i.e. happiness, fear of death, our notion of souls, God(s), etc.)?

I open the floor.

Some links for further reading: