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Suchness and Emptiness

In: Religion Topics

Submitted By bekguy
Words 1842
Pages 8
Tim Hardy
Test Two Essay #3
Hum 342-01
November 5th, 2014
The Relationship of Suchness and Emptiness
Even though the definitions for both words will cause some people trouble (and emptiness is probably the most easily misunderstood term from Buddhism), "emptiness" and "suchness" are very closely related, and are not as different as some might think. You can only find yourself in your suchness if you are first "emptied" of everything and all of your conditioning. Everything in nature is in its suchness; it is the way that it is, and in this suchness its emptiness, and the way that it connects with all other things, can be found in the same way as it can be found in human beings.
In the beginning of The Heart of Understanding, Thich Nhat Hanh gives us the definition for a word, a word not yet in the dictionary. This word is “interbeing”. In his explanation of this word he describes how everything that we see here depends on something else to be what it is. To use his example: without the logger, the sunshine, or clouds, the paper upon which we read would not be able to exist. At the end of this description of the word “interbeing”, Thich Nhat Hanh states that “The Heart Sutra seems to say the opposite. Avalokiteshvara tells us that things are empty.” (p. 4)
Thich Nhat Hanh continues to speaks of the piece of paper, and how if we only look at it from the outside, we are separate from it and we will not fully comprehend how everything is interconnected: “If we only look at the sheet of paper as an observer, standing outside, we cannot understand it completely”. (p. 9) The idea that speaks to me from this is that if we are transcendent to this idea of interbeing then we will not truly understand emptiness or suchness, and along with this we will not truly understand Buddhism or any of its concepts. We need to be immersed in this idea; we must “be a cloud, be the sunshine and be the logger”. (p. 9)
Suchness is a word that speaks about the interconnectedness amongst all beings and things through circumstances and interdependence. This is a tricky idea, though, and one that I’ve struggled with from the beginning. It’s easy for one to say that we’re all interconnected and that we must “be the sunshine”, but how does one become the sunshine? I can feel the sunshine, and I can see how, without the sunshine, I would not exist. But how does that mean that without me the sunshine would not exist?
Everything that is, has to be, otherwise the current moment would not be possible. I am a part of this current moment, so it would follow that I must exist in order for everything else to be possible; but without me, why can there not be a different “current moment” that exists? Why can there not be a “right now” where the sunshine exists without me? The idea that something cannot exist without the sunshine, or the clouds, or the air is an easy one to understand. Clearly, all of those things make such a substantial effect on everything. But me, what do I really add to the current moment of life? Without me, people could still make paper, people could still breathe, people could still live and nature would still go on. If we are all interconnected together with everything else then some parts of the connection are very weak indeed.
However, along with this idea of suchness, and being confused with the idea that there is only one immense being that all of creation is a part of, I find that emptiness is a concept that is slightly easier to deal with. The Western idea of emptiness is a bad thing. Living in the good old U.S. of A, if something is empty there is a problem. Your bank account should be full, your closet should be full, your refrigerator should be full, your mind should be full, etc. This Western idea of emptiness is completely off though; emptiness in Buddhism speaks of a wonderful potential and connection. If something is empty, it is in its suchness, it is what it is and it has the potential to be filled with anything. If something is full it is dying. To use the classic example of the cup: if our cups, as people, are full, what more can we add? We are already full. In order to learn new things we must “empty our cups” and let go of the preexisting notions and conditions that have been ingrained in ourselves. “And if we ask, “Empty of what?” he has to answer. And this is what he said: “They are empty of a separate self.” (p. 7) If we empty ourselves of all that we think that we are, we will be empty of the self that makes us think that we are separate. And in this emptiness, if we look, we will find that therein lies our suchness.
Furthermore, emptiness does not necessarily indicate a massive void in reality; my understanding so far is that it speaks to a lack of a specific person. Thich Nhat Hanh says that “Each can only inter-be with all the others. So he tells us that form is empty. Form is empty of a separate self, but it is full of everything in the cosmos”. (p. 8) All people are interconnected, thus we cannot be very different or separate from each other; any separation that we perceive in our minds is due to mistakes of our own. An example of this would be people saying that they are separate and independent from their parents. We are, however, dependent on our parents in both psychology and in our genetics (and even for some of us, lesser things like laundry). I am the genetic offspring of my parents, both of their parents, and everyone who came before them. To say that I am independent of them is very narrow and shallow-minded.
Emptiness is a very important teaching in Buddhism, one of the most essential ideas that need be understood. An incorrect knowledge of what emptiness means can be extremely confusing to a person and can also be harmful to that person if one wishes to follow the path of Buddhism. Thich Nhat Hanh writes, while explaining what emptiness really means, that “to be empty is to be empty of something”. (p. 6) Emptiness does not simply mean nonexistence; that would be a very disheartening outlook. What emptiness does mean is that things do not exist the way that we would normally assume that they do. Emptiness is simply the true state of how things are.
The Heart Sutra says that “all dharmas are marked with emptiness. They are neither produced nor destroyed.” (p. 1) It does not say that “all dharmas are empty.” And the distinction that is being made here is one that should not be lost or go unnoticed. Thich Nhat Hanh says that in this context, the word dharma “means “things.” A human being is a dharma. A tree is a dharma. A cloud is a dharma. The sunshine is a dharma. Everything that can be conceived of is a dharma.” (p. 17) This line of the Heart Sutra means that everything one can think of relies on something else to exist, nothing stands by itself. Thich Nhat Hanh confirms this by asking the question “before you were born, were you already there?” (p. 17) This is an interesting argument, our birth days are the dates that we came out of the womb and into the world. But is that actually the day that we began existing? No, we were existing long before that while we were inside of our mothers, and before that we were a part of both our mothers and our fathers, and on and on it can go.
Thich Nhat Hanh raises an interesting point when he asks, “Can you name one thing that was once a nothing?” (p. 18) The reality of this is no, no you cannot. There was always a something that something else came out of, and even when your body dies you do not really cease to exist. You are eaten by worms, you decay, and eventually you return to the earth. This relates back to emptiness, in that all things are just one, never ending, connected circle. Everything in its suchness or emptiness is connected as one, and this is where Thich Nhat Hanh gets the basis for his word “interbeing.”
To better understand suchness, I thought again about what Thich Nhat Hanh says regarding paper. Paper is separate from an independent existence; it relies on everything else to exist. So what is paper in its suchness? Paper is everything, and everything is paper. Paper in its suchness is everything, and in its suchness it is also empty. It is not separate from anything and it has to inter-be with all other things: the sunshine, the trees, the logger, the parents of the logger, the food that feeds the logger every day, the companies that turn the trees into the paper that we see, everything.
The nature of the mystical experience involving suchness and emptiness seems to be very immanent to me. In its suchness, everything is complete as it is. Each thing must empty itself so that it can return to its suchness. The experience of this suchness must come through intense meditation within yourself. This change happens in yourself and to yourself, there is no transcendence in this experience until you have emptied yourself and attained your suchness. It is possible for the experience to be transcendent after you have attained your suchness because you can go outside of yourself and see how you are a part of everything in a bigger picture. Until this has happened, though, I believe this mystical experience is one of immanence.
Suchness and emptiness seem to be more closely related than I first believed. In my understanding, everything is marked by emptiness. And if we are empty, we are in our suchness. It comes to the point where you cannot talk about one without soon talking about the other. For me, as I was doing research on the subject the two were confusing, not just because the idea of emptiness in this sense was unfamiliar to me, but because the two concepts are so deeply related that it was hard to distinguish the differences between the two in my mind. Suchness seems as though it should be a much easier concept to grasp than it is. How things really are. But how are things really? In today’s world, it is difficult to see things for what they really are, as everything seems to have been so twisted by people, the media, and greed.
Nhat Hanh, T. (2009). The Heart of Understanding: Commentaries on the Prajñaparamita Heart Sutra (p. 49). Parallax Press.

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