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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5. Interdependency with Others

The last point, really the same point, is our interdependent-ness or interconnected-ness with other beings. Look at your life from morning until night. In the morning, you brush your teeth with your toothbrush, made in China. The toothpaste comes from some other state. Your clothes come from Europe. Your car comes from Japan. To be able to brush your teeth, take a shower, get dressed, and eat, you are already dependent upon millions of people. Who grew your food? Some farmers somewhere. And their parents raised them. So you are related to their parents. You depend on their parents to give birth to the children who grow your food. So, you are related to and depend on everybody in the world. We do depend on each other, right? That's what Buddhist compassion is based on. It's based on truth, the fact that we really are related and do depend on each other. That's why we should be compassionate to everyone, be kind to everyone. "Love your enemy" is what Jesus said. Buddha says the same thing.

Love your enemies. Not only should you love your own parents, your family, your friends, but you should love your enemies. Because if you don't love your enemies, how can you help them change? If you hate your enemies, you just reinforce the hatred, you will be fighting hatred with hatred, and you will never be able to change them. The vicious cycle will never end. What happens when your brother makes a mistake? You teach him patiently because he's your brother. That's why you should love your enemies. It's only when you love your enemies that you can hope to change them.

So, who am I? Have I annihilated you? No. When Buddha says "no self," he does not mean that you do not exist. Buddhism is not nihilistic. Emptiness is not nothingness. Emptiness means that everything has no intrinsic identity, that there's no such a thing. Your body is not independent. You depend on water, air, food, a lot of things, and those things in turn depend on everything else in the world. Everybody in the universe is related to everybody else. Interdependence. Our karma is all mixed together. Karma means action. Our actions are all mixed together. Our personalities influence each other. So that's what we mean by emptiness. There's no absolute individuality, no individual existence. That's liberating. Why? Because when you are empty, when you realize that you are empty, then you can be everything. If you work from the right cause, then you can be anything you want. That means we all have infinite potential. Buddha says we all have the Buddha nature, the potential to be fully awakened to Truth, to become Buddhas. That's another thing that fascinates me about Buddhism. Compared to other religions, it's fascinating that everybody can become the perfect being. Buddha achieved "no self." When he became enlightened, did he just poof and disappear? The body is still there—the body is still interdependent with other things. But all the Buddha's actions, and all his speech and thoughts were beneficial to the world, and he was in perfect peace. So it's okay to let go of this illusion of individuality. After all, your individuality is temporary; your personality is also temporary and ephemeral. You can change your personality if you want. Even if you don't change, in this life you have this personality, in the next life you will have another personality. Whether you believe in rebirth or not, that's what happens. So that's what's empty. It's like empty space. Empty space can accommodate anything, can embrace and encompass everything. When your mind is empty, you can be anything.

Along with this understanding comes the realization that we are all like that. We are all infinite, unlimited. That's what we call purity. That's the intrinsic virtue or intrinsic purity that we can achieve. When you are in that state, you cannot do anything to harm anybody, because you become one with all things and all beings. That doesn't mean that somehow our lives merge together. No, you're still you, but "you" are inconceivable and indescribable. That's why Buddha says "no self." Any characteristic that you can use to describe yourself is not intrinsic; it is changeable. But that's okay. By understanding "no self," you haven't lost anything. What is there is still there (albeit ephemerally).

What is already there? … I'm speaking now, can you hear me? Can everyone hear me? (Yes.) You say you can hear me and understand me. You perceive. This "knowing" itself. Do you have it? Yes? Tell me, this knowing, which you all individually possess—is it male or female? You look like a man, you look like a woman, and if you want, you can get a sex change operation. Gender is delusion. But this "knowing" is not. You've always had this knowing. Nobody gave it to you; nobody can take it away. Somebody can take your body away, take your possessions and your sensations away, but nobody can take this knowing away. It existed before Buddha was enlightened, before you were born, and will exist after you die. It cannot go away. This "knowing" is beyond gender, beyond feeling, beyond form. You use it every moment. You are using this knowing to hear me now. That is a fact. That is experience. Try to feel it. This is not theory or philosophy. It is reality. This is your Buddha nature. If you fully manifest it, you are the Buddha. And yet, you cannot describe it. I call it "knowing"; you can call it awareness, you can call it consciousness, soul or spirit, but actually this knowing is consciousness before it acts. This knowing, sentience, awareness, is neither big nor small, neither Chinese nor American, neither Japanese nor Indian, neither black nor white, neither rich nor poor, neither ugly nor beautiful. Do you know what I'm saying? This is it. It is this knowing. That's why we are all fundamentally equal. This knowing is indescribable and that's why there's "no self," no self characteristics. But it could be any self. That's why we are so different. You learn to behave and react in a certain way. But if you want to change, you can change. So emptiness is liberating; "no self" is liberating. You can change any habit that you have. You can quit your addiction to computer games if you want. You can do anything. You can be a Nobel laureate. You can be a monk like me. You can attain perfect wisdom and compassion and be a Buddha. So when you understand "no self," you can be all these. That is freedom; that is liberation.


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