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Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds /Milk Tea Alliance

Emptiness is Emergence

What is it that holds the universe together?

“There is a vast store of energy which is not centered, which is not ego’s energy at all. It is this energy which is the centerless dance of phenomena, the universe interpenetrating and making love to itself. It has two characteristics: a fire quality of warmth and a tendency to flow in a particular pattern, in the same way in which fire contains a spark as well as the air which directs the spark. And this energy is always ongoing, whether or not it is seen through the confused filter of ego. It cannot be destroyed or interrupted at all. It is like the ever burning sun. It consumes everything to the point where it allows no room for doubt or manipulation.”

From “The Myth of Freedom and the Way of Meditation” by Chögyam Trungpa.

In Buddhism, there are numerous questions, lines of analysis, that help us to break down, deconstruct phenomenon into emptiness, that cut through reality until we see that everything is emptiness. There are whole schools of Buddhist thought that help us to see that ‘form is emptiness’, that all phenomenon in the universe, all that we experience, is essentially empty.

But where are the questions, where is the line of analysis, that shows us that ‘emptiness is form?’ The universe is as full of form as it is primordially empty. Emptiness is also form, after all. We have all these questions that show us how the universe comes apart. Where are the questions that show us how the universe hangs together?

A few years ago, as part of my Ph.D. research, I read Joanna Macy’s Mutual Causality in Buddhism and General Systems Theory. The book was her Ph.D. dissertation, and it came out of her study of systems theory with the physicist, Fritjoff Capra. Capra was doing research for his book The Web of Life when she was his student, so she got the benefit of all that research. The Web of Life is Capra’s explanation of systems theory, of planetary ecology, how the whole ecosystem of the planet evolves as a complex web of living systems.

In Mutual Causality Macy says that the Buddha’s understanding of Pratītyasamutpāda, or interdependent co-origination was precisely what he discovered in his awakening, that all phenomenon are empty of self-causation, but are the result of all other causes and conditions. Everything is the result of everything else; therefore nothing has any self-existing quality. Her book is a scholarly treatise on the dharma of Pratītyasamutpāda, of interdependent co-origination. She calls it mutual causality, and she relates it to General Systems Theory, which is the philosophy of the science of ecology.

By reading this book, I awakened to the interconnectedness of all phenomenon on Earth and in the universe. I understood that nothing was self-existing, so everything was empty in that sense. According to Dzogchen Ponlop, this is the Hinayana view of emptiness. Macy’s brilliant rendition of it shows that the Hinayana view is not simplistic or inferior in any way. In fact, no one has come close to explaining Pratītyasamutpāda with the same kind of profound depth of meaning that Macy has, who is a brilliant Hinayanist and Buddhist ecologist.

Furthermore, her explanation of mutual causality awakened the most profound compassion within me for all sentient beings. And that compassion hasn’t left me since then; in fact it has only become deeper with time. By absorbing her teaching on Pratītyasamutpāda, I understood that I was deeply connected to all living things on this planet, deeply connected to the web of life, that I had no existence apart from it. I understood that I was responsible for the well-being of all living beings, that I was connected to both the suffering and the joy of all living beings, indeed even the rocks and water and sky that make up the whole life-giving environment of living things. More than an environmentalist, I became an awakened ecologist.

Macy’s view of Pratītyasamutpāda is one set of questions, and answers, on the subject of how the whole universe hangs together. Her explanation of General Systems Theory explains how complexity arises out the simplest forms and creates the complex ecological and interplanetary systems that exist in our world of forms. They do exist, even though they are simultaneously empty.

But of course, Buddhism, with its emphasis on emptiness, keeps pounding away at my consciousness and directs me to see that form is emptiness. So the question remains for me, how does all this vast complexity arise out of emptiness?

Recently, I began another line of contemplation of buddha nature. In the third turning of the wheel, Buddha said that all phenomena aren’t empty in the ordinary sense, but full of luminous emptiness, the union of luminosity and emptiness. Dzogchen Ponlop, and others, describe it as the union of wisdom/compassion and emptiness—Chogyam Trungpa calls it space.

Dzogchen Ponlop has said that science is on the brink of explaining the universe in a way that is very close to what the Buddha taught; there are no basic forms, not even atoms. Quantum physics is now teaching either string theory, or field theory. Field theory states that there is a ground state of energy, and that what arises from this ground state are quasi-particles. (see Wikipedia.) These quasi-particles don’t exist in the usual sense; they have never been directly observed. They are mathematically imputed; they must exist in order for the physics of molecular structure to work out. They do not consist of matter, but of qualities of matter, such as ‘spin’, ‘wrinkle’ or ‘drop’. In certain cases, quasi-particles are also called low-level collective excitations, that is excitations of space. Quasi-particles are fractals of electrons, photons and other whole particles. Quasi-particles exist along with quarks and other elementary particles, which make up the electrons, neutrons and protons of the nuclear structure of solid matter. Quasi-particles do have some sort of useful existence, because they are considered essential for quantum computing.

So according to the current science of field theory, we go from the ground state of primordial energy to the quasi-particle to whole particles to the nuclear atomic structure of solid matter, to form. In this sense, I don’t doubt that science is coming close to explaining reality in a way that is similar to the Buddha’s teaching on emptiness. But there is a way in which science has not even begun to understand or explain buddha nature. Buddha nature goes beyond mere emptiness. Science has not explained how this primordial energy is not just inert energy, but wise and loving. This energy is an intelligent, knowing energy. It is mind energy.

The closest science has come to this is the quantum theory of non-locality or entanglement: two particles can be connected at the quantum level such that when we do something to provoke a change in one particle, the other particle responds simultaneously in an equivalent fashion, even if these two particles are on opposite sides of the universe. This would imply some form of connection or communication between the particles, communication that would have to proceed faster than the speed of light. In that sense, these particles know about each other; they are intelligent.

The physicist David Bohm, who was deeply influenced by Hindu cosmology, said that reality was tripartite: it is the union of energy/matter and information, or meaning. Einstein said that energy and matter are equivalent, E=MC2. Bohm said that energy/matter and information are equivalent. Energy/matter signifies its existence, therefore it is significant, it has meaning. Other physicists explain that energy is arranged in particular patterns; those patterns are information. Thus information, or meaning, is a fundamental structure of the universe.

Western science has always had a problem with viewing the subjects of its research as “dumb” objects, as having no intelligence or sense of their own. The feminist philosopher of science, biologist Donna Haraway, has critiqued western science extensively for failing to perceive the inherent intelligence of the subjects that it studies. Likewise, Aboriginal philosophers have critiqued western science for treating the subjects of study as dumb objects, beginning with Aboriginals themselves, but including all living species and matter. Western science has yet to understand the buddha nature inherent in both the primordial ground state and the forms that arise from it.

So I have continued to pursue this line of inquiry: how is it that the universe is wise and loving? How is it that the primordial energy is a knowing and intelligent energy? How is it that this reality is a compassionate reality? And how does this whole universe hang together?

I began to think that primordial energy is an attractive energy, like gravity. It is “sticky”, it connects one form to another and holds it all together by some primordial gravitational force. Conventional science tells us that three forces hold together subatomic particles: the strong force, the weak  force, and the electro-magnetic force. Furthermore, this primordial force is intelligent and knowing; it communicates as it connects, like the quantum theory of entanglement. This stickiness, this force that holds things together is essentially, love in its primordial form; this connection and communication is compassion in its primordial form. It is a wise and intelligent relatedness. Furthermore, it is self-conscious, self-aware and aware of everything. It knows about itself and everything else in the universe.

Then I read Chogyma Trungpa’s article, “Love Story,” which is taken from his collection of lectures, The Myth of Freedom and the Way of Meditation. The first paragraph in the selection (which appeared in Tricycle magazine) says:

There is a vast store of energy which is not centered, which is not ego’s energy at all. It is this energy which is the centerless dance of phenomena, the universe interpenetrating and making love to itself. It has two characteristics: a fire quality of warmth and a tendency to flow in a particular pattern, in the same way in which fire contains a spark as well as the air which directs the spark. And this energy is always ongoing, whether or not it is seen through the confused filter of ego. (Trungpa, The Myth of Freedom).

This passage speaks to me that the primordial energy of the universe is warm and loving, self-loving in particular. Energy is heat, it has fire, warmth. It is light, thus it is luminous. It is aware of itself and all phenomenon, thus it is conscious. It is directed towards and connects with other phenomenon, thus it is compassionate. It is a self-aware, as it “makes love to itself”, and thus has subjectivity, even though it is an egoless and centerless interplay of energy. It has a pattern, thus it signifies; it is essentially meaningful and thus communicates.

It has the fire, the spark of compassion, that burns within the air that directs the spark, which is wisdom: the unity of luminosity and space, compassion and wisdom. Space is emptiness is wisdom; and luminosity is fire is compassion, that connects and communicates; the unity of the two is buddhanature, which gives rise to all forms. It gives rise to a world that we are intrinsically part of, a world worth caring about.

Thus, primordial energy is a wise and loving energy. It is this aware, patterned, directed, interplay of energy that connects phenomenon, that communicates with all phenomena in a conscious and compassionate way. Thus, luminous wisdom and compassion are inherently part of the fundamental structure of the universe. Finally, it is this primordially warm, attractive, connecting, communicating, loving quality that holds the universe together.

I believe that science has come close to understanding that all phenomenon are empty; what it has yet to discover is that all phenomenon are luminous wisdom and compassion inseparable from emptiness/space, or buddhanature, and it is this buddhanature that holds the universe together.

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This entry was posted on 2014/06/14 by and tagged .

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I do Tai Chi with Paul Read, the Teapot Monk, @ 21st Century Tai Chi Academy https://www.21stcenturytaichi.com/academy/89szm

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