One of the aspects of Buddhist teachings that I have been learning about lately, particularly from various Mahayana perspectives, is that of “emptiness”. The idea behind this is that everything in existence is comprised of so many different factors and variables that are coming together to create it that when you peel apart each one of these, nothing is left. Essentially there is no essence, to anything. Everything is contingent upon so many other things also coming about that nothing is left on its own.
Recently I have come across a few different things that have illuminated this perspective further for me. I have realized that I have been operating with an on-going assumption that people who are associated with various labels are, will do, or believe certain things. For example, I have often assumed that to be an “anarchist” one wants to have there be a global anarchist social revolution (the “GASR”, I suppose you can call it). I have also assumed that to be an environmentalist one wants to stop global warming, stop global species extinction, etc. “before it’s too late”. Then I read a booklet entitled “Desert: can active disillusionment be liberatory?” which argues that an anarchist social revolution will not happen and that there will not be a global anarchist society. It also says that there has never been a monolithic authoritarian society either, that there have been, are now and will be in the future various shifting pockets and tendencies of both throughout the world. Whatever assumptions there are that to be an anarchist is to be a revolutionary, to essentially be working for a global revolution of sorts, is not necessarily the case.
Likewise, “Desert” argues that it is now “too late” to stop global warming, species extinction, etc., that the changes that are coming about because of this need to be taken into consideration for planning for the future, and that one can still do things to protect what is left of surviving wild nature. “Environmentalism” is not one thing, it is not something that we do or don’t do, the environment itself is not something that is either “saved” or is “destroyed”. It’s a dynamic inter-connected global system that is in flux, and we can work with that, wherever the changes may lead us.
With Buddhism I have until recently carried with me an assumption that to consider oneself to be a “Buddhist” one automatically is then a believer in and adherent to “nonviolence”. Then I met some self-identified Buddhists recently who vehemently rejected that notion. I’ve also come across some work that is being done within the U.S. military to integrate Buddhism and Buddhist meditation practice amongst the soldiers. So that idea of “Buddhism = nonviolence” has gone out the window.
Likewise, with those folks who do identify themselves as being into “nonviolence”, I have often assumed that them doing so automatically makes them people who are interested in Nonviolent Communication, and subsequently are interested in things like transforming “enemy images”, listening to people empathically, doing away with blame, moralistic judgments, etc. I have also assumed that those people who idolize and are very much into the work of Mohandas Gandhi would be into the various things that he was into and advocated himself, such as strict vegetarianism, living in an intentional community, simple living with minimal material possessions and a life of devotion to religion. Throughout my interactions with these folks I have discovered this to not be the case.
Then, with the adherents of “Nonviolent Communication” per se, especially folks who have made an explicit commitment to the principles and practices that NVC speaks of, I have assumed that there would be a real effort made to resolving conflicts peacefully, holding an empathic understanding of one-another and having a real sense of care for each-other. Until recently I have been a part of a group of committed NVC practitioners that I witnessed fall apart in the midst acrimonious conflict, judgments and counter-judgments. Talk and promises of peace, love and harmony does not necessarily have to mean anything in practice.
One part of my experience here in Minneapolis has been my meeting a bunch of different folks who identify as “gender-queer”, that is, considering themselves to be neither “male” nor “female”. I have found this interesting because doing this essentially “empties out” the whole concept and identity around “gender”, leaving no essential characteristics or assumptions that one can put upon a person because of that. The person then becomes, as far as gender is concerned, a blank slate. These people are not whatever you might assume because of them being a “man” or a “woman”. They are more obviously who they are because of whatever factors and forces are working on them and their lives, and whatever choices they are making to respond to that.
To me, all of this illustrates the Buddhist concept of “emptiness” – that is, people do not necessarily do something or become something simply because they align themselves with a particular label or belief system. Philosophy x does not mean that an “essence” of y will be included or come along as a result of x. There are simply too many factors at play, too many different variables running around, to reduce it to that. Subscribing to a particular philosophy is just one variable among many that create a particular outcome.
This perspective has been very captivating for me, I find it utterly fascinating. I find hope through looking at things in this way, which of course I can tease apart and realize that I am left with no hope at all, I am just content. One thing that has been helping me get this is my recently exploring and learning about Zen Buddhism and Zen meditation. This particular brand of Buddhism puts a particular focus on meditation, and this particular kind of meditation involves recognizing all of the different variables and factors that pop up in our attention, setting them aside, and ultimately focusing on no thing in particular - just holding your attention. I’ve been finding this very refreshing, and very basic.
I see the kind of “emptiness” that is being talked about here as not being the same thing as “it’s all meaningless” or “we are doomed”. I see it as more being about putting aside all of the noise and the chatter and the things that are being thrown at you, and realizing that when everything is set aside, nothing is left. Saying that this, that, or the other thing is all So Incredibly Important is then, actually, “much ado about nothing”. Without all of the different people, places, things and ideas that are coming together to create that Very Important Thing, it would not exist. The same goes for the things that create those things, and on and on and on.
I am thinking now that to call oneself something does not mean that one will think or will do anything in particular. The label is itself an empty signifier. The whole world of context and contingency will determine where one goes with a particular label. Probably more important than slapping labels on things and trying to predict the future, is being present and attentive. For when everything else falls away at least you can observe it happening.