Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds
Graffiti is typically a collective art form. —Shaun Bartone
Buddhist cosmology, which is concerned with the experience of awakening, must be limited to our universe, which we now know is relative and finite. The discovery of gravitational waves proves that Einstein’s theory of general relativity is right, that space-time is a relative reality that morphs, moves, has shape and sound, and changes impermanently, with respect to the objects within it. There is no absolute state “behind” space-time that could point to an absolute emptiness.
Supposing astrophysicists figured out that there must be an absolute void somewhere in space. They’ve never observed it directly, but they assume that it must be there, based on certain other observations they’ve made (this is how physics usually works). So they construct a mathematical formula that identifies that there is a void in space, it’s approximate location, size, shape and duration. So there you have it. This “nothing” is already defined by several characteristics: a mathematical formula, location, size, shape and duration, all in relation to other points in space-time, or other objects in the universe. So this “nothing” is only known or knowable, or even conceivable, by its referents. It is thus already an “object” that has a location, size, shape and duration, or barring that, it is defined by a mathematical formula, and before that, it is the mere hypothesis of the scientists.
Supposing this absolute ‘nothing’ or ‘emptiness’ exists outside space-time, outside the known universe. How can you experience something that is outside the known universe, outside space-time? It’s not likely that the Buddha could have experienced such a thing, given that he was human. Supposing there is some kind of absolute emptiness outside of space-time, outside of our universe. Well, scientists speculate that there are multiple, and perhaps an infinite number of universes. So what if this absolute voidness or absolute emptiness were between or around these millions of universes? Still, we can only make a speculation about this voidness that lies in between because it is in reference to the universes around it. It is conceivable, even on a purely speculative level, only in reference to something else, the millions of other universes, or our own speculation.
Nothing is without reference, no state or condition, no non-state or non-condition, is without reference. How do we know what “emptiness” is? Because we know what “fullness” is. How do we know what ‘nothing’ is? or ‘non-existence’? Because we know what existence is. And there is a huge difference between ‘nothing’ and ’emptiness.’ Nothing is self-referential, it refers only to itself, and is therefore self-negating. Nothing is nothing after all, meaning it has no effect, leaves no trace in existence. Emptiness, on the other hand, always refers to something else, it is empty of something. Emptiness is the trace, the absence, but the absence leaves a mark, a sign of what is absent, and that trace is emptiness.
The point is that we cannot know or experience anything without a reference. We cannot know or experience ‘nothing’ in the absolute sense because we only know what ‘nothing’ is because it relates to ‘something’, which is existence. The only way that ‘nothing’ could be purely and absolutely ‘nothing’ is if there was no existence of any kind, if existence did not exist. But since we know that existence exists, we only know ‘nothing’ in reference to ‘something,’ to existence. In fact just saying the word ‘nothing’ or ‘void’ or ‘emptiness’ means that it is only conceivable or possible within human experience as a referent to something else: a sense, an intuition, a word or a thought.
So not only physically, in terms of astrophysics, but in terms of pure logic, it is not possible to experience “emptiness”, “voidness” or “nothingness” except as in reference to something else. We cannot experience absolutes of any kind. So it makes no sense to say that “enlightenment” or ultimate awakening should be predicated on something that a human being cannot experience. We can never experience anything in the pure and absolute sense, without references, because human beings are not capable of such experience. Why should our “awakening” be predicated on an impossible condition? How could our awakening be conditioned upon something that is impossible to experience?
We do not experience anything in the absolute. We do not experience absolute blue, absolute green, absolute yellow, absolute red. We do not experience absolute ocean or absolute sky. We are only capable of experiencing phenomena within their relative limits. How could awakening be predicated on experiencing an absolute state?
The point is that our awakening cannot be based on the impossible. Everything exists as a referent, or with reference to something else. That is the nature of existence, and that’s what gravitational waves have proven: that we live in a relative universe, a relational cosmos, where every point in space-time is a reference to something else. There is only one reality and it’s all relative. We need to let go of ‘emptiness’ and ‘nothing’ and experience the relational universe as the true awakening.