Is Nothing Sacred? The Truth about Emptiness
In his latest book, The Jewel Tree Of Tibet, Robert Thurman gives a complete explanation of the Path to Enlightenment, following the famous text Guru Puja: Devotion to the Mentor (Lama Chöpa) By the Fourth (or First, depending on how one counts) Panchen Lama.
Thurman’s way of explaining the text, with plenty of elements of Western culture, and in a language totally devoid of Buddhist technical terms, will give Western Buddhist practitioners a different view of the Path. It is very valuable for the beginner, and also for more expert students of Dharma, who will be able to compare Thurman’s insightful interpretation with the traditional commentaries. His pragmatic clean-clear style is so reminiscent of the way the late Lama Yeshe would get his students’ attention.
In the following excerpt Thurman debunks some common misunderstandings about Buddhism: that voidness is nothingness, and that meditation is just an altered state of the mind
Too many people think that all Buddha realized under the bodhi tree was that the world sucks, that everything is horrible, life is horrible. People, myself included, feel frightened of all the pains and sufferings of life. Yet we can get even more fearful of our future when we go beyond the modern materialistic view that we suffer only in this one life and then become nothing, and we realize that our awareness has an infinite continuity, and we can never get away from our awareness. Therefore, there’s the danger that we’ll suffer in infinite future lives. We become so frightened of that idea on a deep, subliminal level that we long for obliteration, we long for oblivion.
Selfishly, we think there’s nothing we can really do for others except just mention the appeal of oblivion to them – “Hey, why don’t you get oblivion, too, because we’re just all going to suffer together. There’s nothing we can do for you. So let’s jump into the oblivion; it’s good enough for us, and we’ll just be gone.” We meditate, or we do this or that practice, and basically we think that Buddhism is some kind of marvelous yogic meditative technology for achieving an altered state. We can call it awakening, we can call it enlightenment, or many other grand things, but we basically are waiting for the day when we will be obliterated. We talk about vast empty space, and we think we’re going to leave the problems of life, of interconnection, of bumping into beings and things and stubbing our toes, and having obligations and complications, and we think, “Wow! Wham! I go into infinite space! I reach infinite solitude, infinite quiet. Nobody bugs me forever. What a great thing.”
I tease people in some Dharma schools when they tell me they had a great meditation session. I say, “You really were into it, and you stopped your mind and you stopped your body, and then the only big letdown was the end, when … darn it, you were still here.” You had to get up and wash the dishes, change your underwear. So you felt you hadn’t made it, you hadn’t succeeded. You hadn’t achieved that enlightenment you view as an absolute obliteration, freedom, or minimalist Nirvana.
This view of enlightenment as oblivion is completely wrong. It is foolish. It is breaking the basic law of the Buddhist worldview of interconnectedness, which was Buddha’s great revelation. This interconnection is freeing; it can free us from suffering. There is no noninterconnected thing. There is no nothing. That is the simple hub of his teaching. There is no such thing as nothing…
From The Jewel Tree of Tibet by Robert Thurman. © 2005 Bob Thurman, Inc. Reprinted with permission of Free Press, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc, New York.