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Buddhism: Between Desire and Emptiness

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The path of the Buddha is called the middle path because, as well as avoiding extremes of behavior, it avoids two extreme views. One view holds that somewhere in this world of appearance and presentation, this glittering world of sense pleasure, of fleeting phenomena, there is something, somewhere that we can find that will not change, that we can always count on to be stable. Somewhere there is something that is substantial, that is solid, that can be relied upon always. When we hold that view, we look for that one thing constantly. At times we think that finally we have it. Then we hold on tightly. Eventually we confront change or we experience loss, and we suffer.

I was in Toronto not too long ago and at one point passed a giant billboard that had a picture of a car and one phrase: "Lust conquers all." I never got to go by it again to investigate further. But despite the prevalence of that kind of message, on visible and invisible billboards everywhere, counting on the fervor of our lust to conquer the exigencies of change, the flow of time, or the avoidance of death, is clearly folly.

Yet if that view permeates our belief systems and our motivations, we will continually act from that place and be disappointed again and again. This doesn't mean that we can't enjoy anything, but the clinging and grasping and fruitless attachment can well go, and we would be happier people, living more in accord with how things actually are.

The other extreme view holds that our lives are chaos. Here, everything is empty so it doesn't matter what we do, what we care about, what we think about. It's all kind of blank or void. It's from that point of view that people will say: "Well, if effort to improve my life or make this a better world is an empty phenomenon, what difference does it make if I put forth effort or not? Why bother?" It is then that a Zen master would usually take a stick and hit somebody over the head. "If everything is empty, why did that hurt?"

From the Buddhist point of view, it is true that emptiness is a characteristic of all of life - if we look carefully at any experience we will find transparency, insubstantiality, with no solid, unchanging core to our experience. But that does not mean that nothing matters. Things don't just happen in this world of arising and passing away. We don't live in some kind of crazy, accidental universe. Things happen according to certain laws, laws of nature. Laws such as the law of karma, which teaches us that as a certain seed gets planted, so will that fruit be. If we plant an apple seed, we can beg and plead and implore to have a mango, but we aren't going to get it. There is a way to get a mango, because we live in a lawful universe, and that is to plant a mango seed.

It is very important that we be able to hold both these truths at the same time - the ultimate emptiness of our experience, its constant changing nature, and, at the same time, to understand that it is lawful. It's not crazy, and it's not haphazard, and we can, and must direct our lives according to these laws.

When the Dalai Lama was here some years ago, he was asked by somebody giving a talk about these two aspects of the teachings, understanding emptiness and the ultimate nature of all experience, and then understanding the law of karma in the relative world, the world of relationship. He was asked if he had to make a choice between these two approaches and could only teach one, which one would he teach? He said he would teach the law of karma because, in each and every moment, if we understand that law, we have the possibility of really transforming our lives.

The middle way is a view of life that avoids the extreme of misguided grasping born of believing there is something we can find, or buy, or cling to that will not change. And it avoids the despair and nihilism born from the mistaken belief that nothing matters, that all is meaningless. It avoids these extremes by offering us a vision that is empowered by its alliance with the truth of how things are: that everything arises, but also passes; that what we do matters, though we won't find anything that does not change; that totems against impermanence won't keep us safe, but we can, in accordance with laws of nature such as karma, create a life filled with wisdom and love.