Guest Essay: Buddhism, Emptiness and Nihilism

The most common misconception I’ve seen of Buddhism is that it is a philosophy of nihilism. Nothing is real, nothing exists, and the final goal is to become nothing. While a surface reading of Buddhism lends itself to this misinterpretation, the teachings point to a far more nuanced and subtle perspective of reality.

To address the question of Buddhism and nihilism, I approached a Buddhist friend, Nicholas Lee, to explain the core teachings of the faith. This is what he had to say (edited for clarity):

Emptiness is the general teaching for most of Buddhism, Mahayana and Vajrayana to be specific. There is a whole segment of Buddhist practitioners who are Hinayana/Theravada (only some, not all. Sri Lankans don’t seem to) that completely reject the teachings of Abidharma, and the Mahayana sutras including the Heart Sutra/Prajnaparamita Sutra.

So, what in the Heart Sutra was heard about emptiness? An excerpt from the translation is as follows: “the five aggregates are, in their ultimate nature, completely empty. Form is emptiness, emptiness is form. Form is not other than emptiness, emptiness is not other than form. Just like that, feeling, discernment, mental formations and consciousness are empty. All things empty, without characteristics, without birth, without end.” Suffice to say, Avalokiteshvara, not the Buddha (although the Buddha agrees with Avalokiteshvara), states everything is empty.

To the person who reads this, and then hears that enlightment, the end game of Buddhism, is to be “empty”, it does indeed sound like this is a religion without meaning, purpose or intrinsic value; the definition of nihilism.

However, the Heart Sutra does not spell out the “why” Buddhist want to achieve that. Intention of the act determines the means and therefore the affects the effect of the outcome.

So, what does a Buddhist, least a Mahayana/Vajrayana Buddhist wish to achieve at the end? That end is to be a Buddha that would work towards the happiness of all beings, so that the word “suffering” will have no meaning.

How would this be achieved? Here, the interplay of Karma, the law of cause and effect, and interdependence come into play. The law of Karma is complex. Karma is interweaving circumstances coming together and departing at different points in time. It is also inseparable from the concept of interdependence.

Here is an extremely crude illustration:

If you look at the wild original variety of fruits and vegetables and compare them to the garden variety available in the markets today, you would see a stark difference. Based on this source, it took about 300 years of effort to cultivate a watermelon from its presentation in the wild to what it looks like today, assuming the ancient Egyptians did not start the effort first. Other fruits and vegetables also required the same hard effort of farmers through the ages to achieve the manifestation we have today.

After World War 2, the world’s population started to grow in 1946, an era what we now call the baby boomers. Although the Green Revolution started in circa 1930, the production of food crop in the Baby Boomer years seemed insufficient, so much so that people thought that, as illustrated in the 1973 Soylent Green movie, people in 2022 would experience shortages of food and water, the Earth would not be able to sustain the population, and people will be fed people to stay alive.

However, that does not seem to be a plausible future any more as we, in 2019, still live in a world with a surplus of food production.

While many would say that science and technology saved that day, it is impossible to deny the hard work across the centuries that farmers had put in to increase crop viability. Without that basis to work on, there would be no basis for the agriculture scientist to work on as there would be no genes to move to make a plant more productive.

So how does interdependence help in the understanding of how happiness is achieved? It is said in Buddhist circles that the pursuit of happiness for oneself will lead to a path of suffering. The pursuit of happiness of others brings you towards enlightment. Farmers back in the day, and arguably even now, would have had to practice moral ethics and virtue by ensuring that their crops were safe to eat. If they had not, people would lose trust and faith and farm for themselves. If that happened, all the effort in cultivating these better varieties of crops would have been for naught. Trust back then was the only currency.

If the farmers stuffed up consistently, people generations later would learn to distrust farmers, and no one would have any occupation other than farming. There would be no industrial revolution and no modern society, and everyone suffers.

Therefore, abiding in virtue may seem unprofitable in the beginning, but it will reap rewards in the future by means of building a positive reputation and the community around you.

This is just about the farmer. We can go on about the people in power, the difference it would make if a statesman were lawful and just or slimy and acting only to pad his own pocket, and the effect it will have on the community.

Therefore when we act without self-centred intentions, we create the cause and condition for the happiness of others, and in turn for the self. This is also coupled with true agape love, equanimity and wisdom: to know when and what to do in any given circumstance for the benefit of others.

To do this, we rely on inner wisdom. Some call it intuition, others call it inner self. It’s all the same. The Buddha said that all beings are inherently enlightened. The reason why we are not is because our desires and emotions obscure us from the truth.

Inner wisdom is aroused by self-reflection and contemplation accompanied by meditative practice. Meditation is not to shut everything out, but to still your mind and understand what disturbs you. The reason why meditation is difficult even for advanced practitioners is because you are with yourself and there is no ingenuity possible that will keep your mind calm without injuring yourself other than with compassionate love. This love is described as the love a mother has for her gravely ill and only child without the clinging and wanting for the child to live or to die; but to support the child to feel better, even if the child will eventually die.

With meditation, and learning how to cope with your self and facing yourself without running away, you will become immovable and would not react to things easily. You will be able to see phenomena as it is, like a play of illusion.

Emptiness or enlightment is therefore achieved by recognising the illusion of all phenomena, gaining the merit (power) and wisdom to help beings to escape their suffering. Enlightenment is the destruction of karma, as freedom from karma allows you to help others while simultaneously being unbound to beings or things that preventing you from acting appropriately, be it emotions, pain, or lack of clarity, wisdom or means. One will never truly achieve enlightment unless one makes the wish to help beings.

Buddhism isn’t nihilism. It is a quest to shed delusion, cultivate wisdom and compassion, and achieve enlightenment, for the purpose of helping others attain freedom from suffering. It is a philosophy that demands non-dualistic thinking, clarity of thought, far-reaching vision, and a heart filled with lovingkindness.

Nihilism insists that nothing exists and nothing has value. Buddhism teaches that everything is connected, that everyone is worthy of love and respect, and that to help people, you must see everything exactly as it is. Including Buddhism itself.

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