“We should understand that ultimately nothing is true except emptiness.” ~ Eight Steps to Happiness
Human beings have a deep craving for absolute truth; the idea that we cannot find any such thing may be frightening, but is also liberating, because our tendency to ascribe things too much validity is a very limiting factor. Take for example our relationship to science: we relate to the things we’re taught in school as scientific fact.
“In science, there are no universal truths, just views of the world that have yet to be shown to be false.”
― Brian Cox,
Actual scientists understand that the model of the universe we work with is not an absolute truth: it is simply correct in so far as it works (most of the time, except when quarks mess up the measurements). It functions, and we can use it, that’s all. The problem is when we grasp onto it. For most of us, gravity is a fact: real and fixed and obvious through our own experience. Apparently not – gravity is seriously outdated, it’s all something to do with the curvature of space-time these days. Of course, our feet stay on the ground either way; but if we grasp onto one unassailable fact, there is no longer any room for progress.
I use scientific progress as an example here because it’s quite easy to see, but the same is true of our more metaphysical explorations. There are no facts to hold on to. But again, we want to make things more real than they are, holding onto the one and only correct way of filling an offering bowl and a host of other things. To quote my teacher, Kadam Bridget Heyes, ‘there are many shades of right,’ because there are many different ways of doing things that can have the same function: it all depends upon our mind. I believe in Buddha’s teachings because they function to produce a beneficial result – which they can do only because nothing exists inherently.
“Conventional objects such as people, trees, atoms, and planets have a relative degree of reality that distinguishes them from non-existents such as square circles and unicorns; but only the ultimate nature, or emptiness, of phenomena is true, because it is only emptiness that exists in the way that it appears. Objects exist only in relation to the minds that cognize them. Since an object’s nature and characteristics depend upon the mind that beholds it, we can change the objects we see by changing the way we see them. We can choose to view ourself, other people, and our world in whatever way is most beneficial. By steadfastly maintaining a positive view we gradually come to inhabit a positive world, and eventually a Pure Land.”
Everything is dependent-related: if we see our Spiritual Guide as a Buddha, he functions as a Buddha for us. Does that mean that if you don’t believe in Buddhas they don’t exist for you? No; emptiness doesn’t mean that you can just believe in anything, because a conventional truth must be able to perform its function. Things appear out of emptiness in dependence upon our karma – the state of our mind – and we all have the karma for Buddha to have appeared in this world and function to bestow blessings. Of course, we can’t see that function directly, but establishing emptiness through valid logical reasoning shows us how the existence of Buddhas is possible.
When we meditate on emptiness we let go of everything. Although that emptiness really is a universal truth, it is merely an absence; there is nothing to hold onto. Then we start to understand conventional truth: things can function only because they lack true existence. Everything becomes less real, like a dream; but Buddhas are just as real as anything else. All the Buddhas are just an appearance to my mind, but that doesn’t make them less real than me; from their point of view, I am just an appearance to their mind, after all.