Stephen Batchelor on Emptiness

To know emptiness is not just to understand the concept. It is more like stumbling into a clearing in the forest, where suddenly you can move freely and see clearly. To experience emptiness is to experience the shocking absence of what normally determines the sense of who you are and the kind of reality you inhabit. It may last only a moment before the habits of a lifetime reassert themselves and close in once more. But for that moment, we witness ourselves and the world as open and vulnerable.

This calm, free, open, and sensitive space is the very center of dharma practice. It is immediate, imminent, and dynamic. It is a path, a track. It grants an intimation of the invisible point to which the lines of our life converge. It allows unob-structed movement. And it assures us that we are not alone: it implies indebtedness to those who have trodden this path before and responsibility to those who will follow.
''EMPTINESS'' IS A confusingterm.Although used as an abstract noun, it does not in any way denote an abstract thing or state. It is not something we "realize" in a moment of mystical insight that "breaks through" to a transcendent reality concealed behind yet mysteriously underpinning the empirical world. Nor do things "arise" from emptiness and "dissolve" back into it as though it were some kind of form- less, cosmic stuff. These are just some of the ways emptiness has been appropriated as a metaphor of metaphysical andreligious consolation.

"Emptiness" is a starkly unappetizing term used to under-cut yearnings for such consolation. Yet ironically it has beencalled into the service of such longings. Shunyata (emptiness) is rendered into English as "the Void" by translators who overlook the fact that the term is neither prefixed by a definite article ("the") nor exalted with a capital letter, both of which are absent in classical Asian languages. From here it is only a hop, skip, and a jump to equating emptiness with such metaphysical notions as "the Absolute," "the Truth," or even "God." The notion of emptiness falls prey to the very habit of mind it was intended to undermine.

E M PT I N ES S I S A S devoid of intrinsic being as a pot, a banana, or a daffodil. And if there were no pots, bananas, or daffodils, there would be no emptiness either. Emptiness does not deny that such things exist; it merely describes how they are devoid of an intrinsic, separate being. Emptiness is not apart from the world of everyday experience; it only makes sense in the context of making pots, eating banana and growing daffodils. A life centered in awareness ofempti-ness is simply an appropriate way of being in this changing, shocking, painful, joyous, frustrating, awesome, stubborn, and ambiguous reality. Emptiness is the central path that leads not beyond this reality but right into its heart. It is the track on which the centered person moves.

And we too are impressions left by something that used to be here. We have been created, molded, formed by a bewildering matrix of contingencies that have preceded us. From the patterning of the DNA derived from our parents to the firing of the hundred billion neurons in our brains to the cultural and historical conditioning of the twentieth century to the education and upbringing given us to all the experiences we have ever had and choices we have ever made: these we've conspired to configure the unique trajectory that culminates in this present moment. What is here now is the unrepeatable impression left by all of this, which we call me. Yet so vivid and startling is this image that we confuse what is a mere impression for something that exists ndependently of what formed it.

So what are we but the story we keep repeating, editing, censoring, and embellishing in our heads? The self is not like the hero of a B-movie, who remains unaffected by the storms of passion and intrigue that swirl around him fromthe opening credits to the end. The self is more akin to the complex and ambiguous characters who emerge, develop, and suffer across the pages of a novel. There is nothing thinglike about me at all. I am more like an unfolding narrative.

As we become aware of all this, we can begin to assume greater responsibility for the course of our lives. Instead of clinging to habitual behavior and. routines as a means to routines as a means to secure this sense of self, we realize the freedom to create who we are. Instead of being bewitched by impressions, we start to create them. Instead of taking ourselves so seriously, we discover the playful irony of a story that has never been told in quite this way before.