Has anyone ever asked you what you do and you tilted your head to the side and had no idea how to respond? I do that all the time. I teach meditation, I write, I run a non-profit, and do many other things but this sense of “me,” “Lodro” is not wrapped up in what I do, whose son I am, or whether I’m dating someone. Through meditation I’ve realized I’m a bit more fluid than one categorization can define.
I was raised in a Buddhist household and was introduced to the notion of emptiness pretty early on. Sometimes when I talk about emptiness people leap to the conclusion that I’m talking about a conventional type of emptiness, such as “the glass is half empty.” Emptiness in the Buddhist world is a pretty meaty concept, but if understood can help you take yourself and all the things around you a little less seriously.
There’s a story about the Buddha, where he called his followers together, sat back, and meditated while two of his finest disciples talked about the nature of reality. The full text is a stunning analysis of how the world works. In it, the open-hearted being, Avalokiteshvara, says, “Form is emptiness; emptiness also is form. Emptiness is no other than form; form is no other than emptiness.”
In other words, all of the various things we have in our world—our iPhones, our cars, everything—are without everlasting form. They look pretty fully formed, but in fact they are empty of an existent nature. The iPhone was assembled from many, many parts. When we drop the iPhone and the screen breaks we see that it can be popped off and a new one put on. The phone is a composite of many individual aspects.
The same is true for us. We are made of skin and bones and blood and muscle and those are made up of cells and cells are made up of molecules and molecules are made up of atoms and…it goes on. Both everyday objects and our own being appear to be a form, but when we break them up a bit, we see they are actually quite empty and not one solid thing.
Yet Avalokiteshvara goes on to say that emptiness also is form. So while on an absolute level your iPhone is made up of many parts, on a relative level it’s a device you can use to call your mother. It appears as a functional device and we use that form. So emptiness manifests in a way we perceive as form.
The story goes on to reveal that everything we perceive is emptiness yet arising as form. It’s said that those with expansive minds and hearts heard this truth and attained great realization. Those individuals who were more narrow-minded were so surprised to hear things were without inherent form, they died of heart attacks.
We often go through life thinking things are solid and everlasting. When we get into a new relationship we think it is somehow beyond the reality of change and impermanence; surely this new love will be around for all time. When we get a new electronic toy we think it will bring us true happiness. When we make a new friend we think they will forever be in our life. Not so.
You know you are not the same person you were 10 years ago, right? So we can extrapolate and say that 10 years from now you will also be very different. That’s fine. You can probably swallow the fact that you’re not a solid being. A writer. A meditation teacher. A son. A boyfriend. You’re more than any one label. You’re constantly changing and that’s just the way things are.
But everything else changes too. That new love of your life will shift and change over time. Either you will slide deeper in love, and maybe even spend a lifetime together, but then one of you will die (I’m sorry). Or they will change and you will change and like two dancers moving out of sync you will trip over one another until one of you leaves the relationship (I’m sorry). Your new electronic gadget will dissolve into its many parts the moment you drop it on concrete (I’m sorry). Or it will gradually become outdated and you will change and yearn for the new version (I’m sorry).
So what can we do if everything is fluid, changing, and without solid nature? Avalokiteshvara advises us to see the world with transcendent wisdom, or “prajñåpåramitå.” The Buddha came out of his deep meditative state at the end of this story and praised Avalokiteshvara for his insight, saying, “One should practice the profound prajñåpåramitå just as you have taught.” Prajñåpåramitå is a fancy way of saying, “wisdom that slices to the heart of reality.” It’s not book knowledge or fixed opinions we come up with in conversation with friends. It’s looking directly at reality and seeing what is going on. In other words, we should always look to the nature of what is going on and let that wisdom guide our activity.
This transcendent wisdom is based in knowing that things are not as solid as they appear. There are a thousand ways to talk about the Buddhist concept of emptiness but they all boil down to this: You are not as solid and permanent a being as you may think. And neither is anyone or anything else. Do all those labels of writer and teacher and founder of a non-profit apply? Sure. But am I a permanent being defined by those labels? Definitely not.
Whatever labels we currently might consider to be important to forming a “me” at this time do not determine who you are. The more you meditate, the more you will be able to see reality, just as the Buddha and Avalokiteshvara did. When we are not so lost in our concepts about how things should be permanent and solid, we can enjoy the friends, lovers, even new technological gadgets, because we know either it or we will change—and that is okay. Everything around us is more fluid than the initial way it appears. We can embrace that and, when those self-imposed labels such as what you do for a living fall apart, chuckle. It’s just the way things are.