FROM "NO SELF" TO LIBERATION

THE PARADOXICAL WISDOM OF EMPTINESS

Edited from a lecture given by Venerable JianHu

in the "Buddhism In The Modern World" Lecture Series

at Stanford University, November 22, 2004


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Why Buddhism is Fascinating

I am honored and happy to talk at Stanford's "Buddhism in the Modern World” lecture series, and I hope that you will be back for future talks on Buddhism. Since this is the first talk in the series, I think it's appropriate to first say a few words about “Buddhism in the modern world.”

I was trained in computer science. After graduating from college, I worked for the aerospace industry. It was a good job, the salary was good, the work was easy, I was single, what more could one want in life? Well, something was missing. It was not that I lacked friends or I didn’t have fun; there was just a void. I couldn't imagine myself doing this work for the rest of my life. I thought that there must be some deeper meaning in life, so I started searching. And that's how I encountered religion, particularly Buddhism. From the very beginning, Buddhism fascinated me. I knew then that I needed to do something else in life, but wasn’t sure of what to do. When in doubt, go back to school. So I went to grad school to get a degree in Computer Science (on artificial neural networks). But in the meantime I was delving deeper and deeper into the study of Buddhism and I was fascinated by it in many ways.

The Truth of Buddhism is Verifiable

First of all, I was really surprised to find that Buddhism is quite scientific in its approach to spirituality. Why? We know that the scientific methodology is that any theory you come up with should be verifiable and repeatable in experiments. Well, that is also true with the Buddha's teachings. Buddha wanted speak of the truth only. As a Buddhist monk, I certainly believe that what Buddha teaches is the truth, but anybody can say theirs is the truth. What is truth? Truth should be something that can be verified by everyone, and that is indeed true for Buddha's teachings. For example, the Four Noble Truths, the Six Perfections, etc., can be verified. (These are not our topic tonight.) Buddha actually rejected all speculations that could not be verified, speculations about spirituality, of which there were plenty in India 2500 years ago. Indeed, philosophy and religion in India were already very advanced by then. Buddha looked at them, kept what made sense, and then rejected what didn't make sense. He rejected what could not be proved, experienced, or practiced. And I'm confident that if you would take the time to study and to practice—not just to study to gain knowledge, but to practice—you will also find that what Buddha says is true. Buddha was pragmatic. His teaching is useful in our lives. So that is the first thing.

Buddhism is Rational

Buddha tried to understand truth in a very rational way. So the second thing that fascinated me was how sensible and how rational Buddhism is. But the funny thing is, in analyzing phenomena and analyzing the mind, Buddha was able to come to some very surprising and counter-intuitive conclusions. For example, he says that there is "no self." Now, who am I? What are you? You are sitting here. There's "no self." That's about as counter-intuitive as you can get, but it actually makes sense, and I hope by the end of this talk you can get a little sense of why it makes sense.

Buddha also said that "form is emptiness, emptiness is form." "Form", or rupa in Sanskrit, is a Buddhist term that means material things, physical things—and it is actually empty. That's another very counter-intuitive concept. But Buddha says that it is not a concept, it is reality. The advancement of science, especially in chemistry and physics, actually can help us understand this better. In Buddhism, it is also understood that time and space are integral; they are not separable. Einstein made the idea of time-space continuum acceptable to all scientists. So there are many things in Buddhism that were not comprehensible at that time, at least for the less advanced practitioners. But now we can understand them better with science (again, this is another topic.) There's a lot of correlation between Buddha's' teachings and the theory of relativity and quantum physics. It's very surprising. When Einstein said that "time is relative," that shocked everyone. What do you mean by "time is relative"? But it is. Buddha said that also. In quantum mechanics they discovered that in the sub-microscopic world there is no subject and object. The subject and object—the person doing the experiment, the observer, and the observed—cannot be separated. That's surprising because science had always counted on being able to objectively observe the environment in order to make certain conclusions. But since each time you do an experiment, you affect the thing you are experimenting on; how can you ever get totally objective reality? The logical conclusion is, "no, you can't." And that is right in line with Buddha's teachings on the emptiness of what we see, what we experience, what we observe. Now, emptiness is not a denial; it doesn't mean nihilism, or that what you see and hear do not exist. No, it means that things are not what they seem, or even what you experience. There is a whole other aspect to it—an impermanent, non-intrinsic, non-individual aspect to it. We'll explain that more later.

Buddhism is Relevant to Our Lives

The third thing that fascinated me about Buddhism was its relevance to our lives. Buddha started by trying to understand why people suffer. Why is there suffering? Why do people hurt each other? That's a problem we've always had from millenniums ago. It's still a problem. Prince Siddhartha left the palace and tried to find a solution. So he was looking for a way to happiness, lasting happiness. He was enlightened; that means he found the answer. And the answer is right there in his teachings. Yet we don't learn from his lessons. That's why I think it is very important that we have this lecture series on Buddhism in the Modern World. We are seeing that Buddhism is becoming more and more studied and accepted in the western world, and that is a really good thing. But Buddhism is also to be practiced. It's not just a philosophy. If you study it as knowledge, you will only understand it to a certain point beyond which you cannot even comprehend it, because it is not in your experience. What Buddha taught was his own true experience. It's a universal experience. So that's why in the Four Noble Truths, the last one is the Path—the path to nirvana, the path to end suffering and to lasting bliss. The path is what you do, how you practice. So it's more than just a teaching; it's more than just knowledge; it's something that you live. When you live it, it will change your perspective. It will change your life. It will enlighten your path. Even though Buddha lived some 2500 years ago, the teaching is just as relevant now if not more so than before.

So those are some of the reasons why I think Buddhism is very important and why it is fascinating.


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