A lot of times when conversing with family and friends, concepts are discussed which can get me thinking about the way we as humans perceive the world and how these perceptions impact the way we live our lives on a daily basis. I had one of these conversations with a friend recently about the meaning of the Daoist phrase,
“We shape clay into a pot, but it’s the emptiness inside that holds whatever we want.”
The conversation meandered along, going into what emptiness really is and how this phrase applies to our lives.
If we look at the famous Yin Yang symbol of the Daoists, we see Yin and Yang eternally revolving around each other. The Yin contains at its centre a dot of Yang and the Yang contains at its centre a dot of Yin. Yang can represent fullness and Yin can represent emptiness. When we look at the centre of emptiness we find the seed of fullness and when we look at the centre of fullness we find the seed of emptiness. This goes to the heart of the Daoist view of a relativistic universe. Everything is what it is in contrast to what it isn’t and vice versa.
Our senses are conditioned to see and register substance and fullness. We have evolved to ignore space and only define a point in space that is not empty. But how can we see fullness if it is not contrasted by emptiness? How can fullness exist if there is no emptiness for it to exist in? The reality is that all things that exist are a balance between emptiness and fullness and as a result of our flawed perception we ignore the emptiness and note only the fullness.
The Dao De Ching goes on to say,
“Therefore, the value comes from what is there, but the use comes from what is absent.”
This may be difficult to understand at first but can become clear when we look at daily examples in our world. When we listen to a piece of music, it is the notes that make it music but it is the silence between notes that make it a melody worth listening to. When we look at an object, we can only see the object in contrast with the emptiness that surrounds it. We can only define the edges of something in contrast with the emptiness it exists in. Zen art and Daoist Calligraphy show this beautifully: a Zen painting might contain a tree or a raft in the corner and this is used to express the emptiness surrounding it.
Fullness alone would be chaos and emptiness alone would be nothing. It is the interplay of fullness and emptiness that creates the universe that we exist in.
This false perception is carried into the way we relate to the world around us, with the average person reasoning in the following way:
“I exist and another person exists, but between me and this other person no connection exists as I do not see a connection.”
This is perceived this way because we as humans feel that the emptiness that exists between others and ourselves implies no connection between the two. This is an illusion of perception because as any scientist will tell you, any object that we view to be solid is just an amalgamation of atoms revolving around emptiness. We just cannot sense this emptiness unless we use specialist instruments. Following this logic, what if we are all like these atoms making up a much larger structure? We are just not able to perceive it from our frame of reference. When we see the world this way then we begin to see the interconnectedness of all things in this universe.
There is so much more I want to write about emptiness especially in relation to creating emptiness in the mind but I will save this for another blog post. If you take away one thing from this post let it be this:
Just like two waves on the sea are not separate from each other, two people in the midst of emptiness are also not separate from one another.
* I do not intend to break any rights by adding these three images, if the images belong to you I am happy to credit you, please let me know.
Most of the world’s major religions put at the top of their hierarchy a concept that they term god. This god is usually a patriarchal figure who is credited with being the creator of all things and passes down rules and ways of living a “good life” to his creation. Through the promise of a reward in the afterlife, usually everlasting happiness and immortality in a utopian paradise, this god encourages his creation to adhere to the rules he sets out. To further dissuade his creation from going against his rules, this god threatens his creation with painful punishment in the afterlife. The most common of these punishments is that the sinner is thrown into fire and burned in a place often referred to as the underworld or hell.
This creates a very similar relationship between god and his creation as exists between a father or mother and his or her young children. Young children have no developed reasoning or understanding and often need to be shown the correct way to behave through the encouragement of reward and the fear of punishment.
I wanted to explore in this post the importance, and even relevance, of god to the spiritual development of the human being. Please note I use the term spiritual development, as I have no better term to use. What I mean by the term is the development of a human being so that they are able to tear away the illusions that they hold onto and face the truth of themselves and the universe around them. I want to explore the idea that a human being’s belief in god may actually be counterproductive to this understanding of truth.
I have spent a lot of my youth talking to people of different faiths and religions because I wanted to understand what draws them to their faith and how much they actually understand their own motivations and the consequences of those motivations.
One question I would start with when talking to a follower of one of the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) is this:
"If your holy scriptures told you that death is the end, that you will not be reborn or resurrected or enter into a heaven or a hell, that believers and non-believers will all just end up dead at the end with no reward for believers and no punishment for unbelievers…. Would you still worship your god and follow all of his rules?"
The answer I would often end up getting is:
“No I wouldn’t, I worship so I can be one of god’s people and end up in heaven and be kept away from the eternal torment of hell”
This is a very good mental exercise to do yourself if you are a follower of one of the faiths that offers reward for adherence and threatens punishment for disobedience. Ask yourself that same question and answer the question with as much honesty as you can.
So what truth does this little mental exercise teach us? It teaches us that most of the followers of these religions worship god and follow his rules because they want something in return. The relationship between god and human is simply a contract: I will do this for you if you do this for me. I will worship you and follow your rules if you place me in heaven afterwards. So worship and faith in god becomes an insurance policy for the afterlife. Further to this, because worship is often seen as something admirable and worthy, humans can often lie to themselves about the core reason of worship, humans can get high and mighty about noble and spiritual reasons that they worship their god, but in the end and at the core it is because of fear, a fear of not existing after death.
Going back to the main point of the post, if the concept of god is something that exists as a way for the human to ensure its own survival after death, then isn’t the concept of a patriarchal god just a creation of the human ego? An idea created to make humans feel better about what we actually know to be the truth through our own experience of life? I would like to add here that I am strictly speaking about the concept of god as described in the Abrahamic religions as there are different ideas of what god is that doesn’t lead to this conclusion.
As we can see, the concept of god can become a way for the human to further insulate himself or herself from truth. Please also note that I am not questioning whether god exists or doesn’t exist. I am just asking if our belief in a god is necessary, if not counterproductive, to spiritual development or the understanding of truth.
Subscribers to this way of thought, which are most of the believers of Abrahamic religions, often argue that morality and goodness exist because of what their faith teaches. My question is this…..
If you are a good person because your religion tells you to be… Then are you really a good person?
The overriding view of god is of god as the father; this is the view of god that the Abrahamic religions hold. God’s creation is viewed as just that, something created by god and external to him. It is important to be aware that other ideas of god and creation also exist and I would like to explore one of them in this post.
Imagine that in the beginning, a great energy existed and this energy was intelligent. Nothing else existed apart from this energy; it was all there was. This energy for reasons unknown, arrived at a point where it wanted to observe itself, to understand itself. The issue it faced was that it was all that existed so it could not reflect off of anything so as to see it self or understand itself. The only choice it had was to reflect off of itself. When this great energy reflected off of it self it did not stop there, the reflection reflected again and that reflection reflected again and so on and so forth ad infinitum. Each reflection being dependent on the previous one and at the same time leading to the next one. Each reflection being one of infinite states of being or existences that this great energy could experience and understand itself in.
Everything that exists is connected to everything else, as everything is just a reflection of a reflection etc. of this energy that we will call the Great Self. The entirety of the universe is just a great game or theatrical production that the Great Self is playing out so as to gain knowledge of itself. It hides itself behind the illusion that we as humans are small centres of self’s contained within our bodies. For if it didn’t hide then it would not be able to experience the full plethora of experience, because our belief in our own existence as an entity apart from all things is what drives us to experience. If we become aware that our ego experience is an illusion and we are actually the Great Self we will cease to experience.
The work of each person in the many lives that it occupies is not one of attaining a new state or becoming something else. The work of each person is about stripping away the garments and layers that we wear until there is no veil covering the truth about what I and other actually is. Muslim Sufi’s recite beautiful poetry about separation and reuniting with the beloved. This separation isn’t an actual separation; it is only a perceived one when we look through the eyes of self. When we stop looking through the eyes of self and realise the truth about our true nature this is what Sufis mean by Union.
We live in a universe that is constantly in a state of change. Nothing ever is, everything is becoming or ceasing to become. From the moment we are born, we are working our way towards death. Buddhists say human suffering is caused because we view an impermanent universe as if it is permanent. We try to hold onto things that are already in a state of change and we feel a sense of loss when they end up changing, as is their nature to. So imagine opening the kitchen faucet and trying to grab some water as it falls into the sink, and when the water we have tried to grab onto seeps through and disappears we suffer. This is how we live our lives. Something enters into our lives that bring us joy and we believe that this thing will always be here and will continue to bring us the same joy that is does now. But when this changes, as it inevitably will, we suffer.
If we take a few minutes to think about this we can see that the concept of impermanence is an evident truth, but most people do not view the universe this way. They hold on to things as if they will always be there and then suffering ensues when nature takes its natural course and this thing ceases to be what it once was. The illusion of permanence that most people have is a deep seated one, which is rooted in their idea of self, which I will go into later.
We as humans live with the illusion that we are permanent and fixed and our loved ones are also permanent and fixed. We understand, intellectually that everything is constantly changing, but we do not perceive things in that way. We perceive ourselves as being the same person continuing from birth to death and some believe that even beyond that our soul is a continuation of us. The Buddha describes a person’s life as that of a river. The river is constantly flowing and no bit of the river is the same as the last moment or as the next moment. A person exists now, the person that existed a moment ago has gone and the person that will exist in the next moment is yet to come. Science also agrees with this concept as it is acknowledged that in every moment old cells die and new cells are born and no person is physically identical to what they were a moment ago and what they will be in the next moment. Yet we hold on to the image of ourselves that we like and think we will always look and feel this way. As we naturally age and our looks change and our health changes we suffer as we feel a loss for something that we feel we should still have. When our loved ones die we suffer, as we are attached to the idea that they will be around forever.
The concept of impermanence is also an important one when looking at our views and opinions of ourselves and things external to us. What my view on something is today may not be the view that I have tomorrow, as everything is always changing. A person who tells others their opinions or views are wrong is a person who has not understood this concept of impermanence and is seeing the world through the illusion of permanence. What may seem like the truth today may not be the truth tomorrow and what may seem wrong today may be right tomorrow as everything is in a constant state of change.
The word illusion is used a lot in mystical circles, as it is important to discern the truth from the projection. The underlying illusion that all other illusions stem from is the illusion that ‘I am’. We all believe that the real us exists locked up somewhere in our bodies controlling our actions, thoughts, emotions etc. We say things like I have a body; I have a soul, my heart, and my mind. The deeper we go the further this “I” runs away from us.
According to the Buddha, self is not truth. He declared,
“Where self is, truth is not. Where truth is, self is not. Self is the fleeting error of Samsara; it is individual separateness and that egotism which begets envy and hatred”
What the Buddha means by this is that the idea we have, that I, as an entity exist apart from all other things is the cause of all human suffering. All of our actions, thoughts, and deeds are done in accordance with our view of ourselves. We steal so we can possess something that we want that we did not have before, we get angry when we feel we have been wronged, we give charity when we want to feel good about ourselves. While we live with the illusion of self all things we do are to further solidify this illusion.
We believe that we exist as an entity apart from all other things. We exist, and everything else that exists is alien and external to us. We go about our lives placing value on things that magnifies our sense of self and disregarding things that diminish it. We desire things that we want and suffer when we do not get it. We ignore the universal law of impermanence and believe that the things in our lives that we have attached to will always remain that way. When it inevitably changes, we try hard to hold on to it and suffer when it is no longer that way.
The self that we think we are is very insecure and constantly needs to reaffirm itself through attaching to identities such as name, occupation, gender, nationality etc. It builds systems so as to make us firmly believe we are that self. When we are praised, this affirms the self and we enjoy it, when we are criticised this threatens the self and we suffer. This illusion is deep set in our minds and we can’t see the real truth, which is that a compliment and a criticism are both the same thing, an opinion of the truth from a flawed perspective. Because the person doing the complimenting or criticising is also acting in accordance with their illusion of self, so their view is also skewed.
As soon as we acknowledge anything that we perceive to be external to us, we create a subject and object relationship. We name it, we position it in relation to us and we place a value on it. The "I" needs to possess and it does this by breaking phenomena down into concepts that it can understand and pigeon hole into a controllable idea. This means that, all we perceive in this world is seen through the tinted glasses of this "I".
Our sense of self is nothing but a narrative, a long train of thoughts that hurries along jumping from one idea to another. Nothing exists that really stays the same from birth to death, except this train of thought that constantly comments and passes judgement on all things that it perceives, which as mentioned above is a way to control and this leads to solidifying this "I".
So here is the question we need to ask ourselves. If we are able to still this train of thought and be internally silent. What remains?
Every true seeker on the path of self discovery and growth aspires to understand the true nature of themselves and the true nature of everything else around them. This blog is me sharing the ideas that I have developed over the years on my own journey. My hope is that readers can learn a different way of looking at the world and through your feedback I can learn just as much. Please see the about page for a more detailed description of this blog.
Please feel free to comment on blog postings and to contact me through the contacts page.
Shkar Sharif is the head instructor at Tiger Crane Kung Fu in London. Any other questions, ask!