The Emptiness of the Dharma and Practical Life Application

There are two ways we can relate to any philosophy.

We can view it as a book out there that we just relate to, just a collection of words. In a real way, even some very religious people do this. They parrot these ideas full of jargon with a limited understanding of how that might actually relate to anything real.

Or we can try to adopt it as something real. We can try to make it actually guide the behavior we have in our day-to-day lives: At work, with our family, and so forth.

This is not to say all philosophy has to be immediately practicable. Excellent epistemology, for example, may not always be relevant to someone not doing complex science. Exploring truth for its own sake is important for a variety of reasons.

I have heard many times now from Buddhist practitioners that “The dharma is empty”. For example: “A Bodhisattva cognizes all dharmas as empty of own-marks and sees them as not really existing , not totally real – uncreated”, as Buddhist Teachings writes on Twitter.

(The “dharma”, for those not up on their Sanskrit and Pali, is a complex concept, but in this context it refers to the path of Buddhism. It can also refer to the nature of phenomena and reality, which is based in uniquely Indian concepts about reality’s laws, causality and human behavior as being interrelated.)

So, if the dharma’s empty, then why do we follow it?

This is where this different practice comes into play.

When I hear that, I start thinking about what that could possibly mean in a concrete sense. And I do so based on my real, lived experience.

Ideas like this may have multiple equally valid interpretations. It is a hallmark of Buddhist practice, especially Zen koans, to provide ideas that may point to multiple different practical meanings. Truly great ideas can be applied over and over again to different contexts. So what follows is only one interpretation. But it is a practicable one.

See, to say the dharma is “empty” means that it’s not an absolutely solid system.

The inverse square rule for gravity is a very solid one. It’s not empty; it is universal and totally unambiguous. It’s the kind of rule that a computer can easily process.

The dharma isn’t like that. You couldn’t plug the dharma into a computer.

But that doesn’t make it any less real.

In fact, as we are discovering, many of the problems that we face are ones that you can’t fix with any computer as we currently understand it. A lot of problems don’t fall into simple categorizations. They rely on complicated causal models; they involve a lot of variables.

When it comes to individuals, anyone who has actually spent time working with others knows that there’s no silver bullet solution.

There’s no piece of advice that works equally for everyone in all contexts, or even in the same context.

We’re all immensely different.

To me, that means that the dharma adapts. The path in Buddhism can be very detailed and very specific, but each person will relate to it differently.

The dharma’s empty like an urn is empty. It has a shape. You fill your mind into it and the dharma dictates the shape that it takes.

My Buddhism won’t be the same as anyone else’s Buddhism. Indeed, that was rather the point of Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha.

I’ve increasingly come to believe that most of Buddhism is just practical cognitive-behavioral therapy. This isn’t dismissive. It’s an incredible fact. It means that there’s an entire tradition that for millennia explored really practical techniques for actually bringing people happiness.

Mutable, empty, adaptive, individualized… they’re all the same thing, in this context.

It means that no one can teach you your own dharma. They can teach you how theirs worked, and from enough experience know the steps, but it is going to vary totally.

Bruce Lee’s wisdom is helpful here. Lee knew that every martial art for every person was going to be different. He knew that there could be no strict, locked forms.

The dharma is the same way. It’s a technique of not having a technique.

There’s a liberation in this. It means there’s no “wrong” way to do Buddhism, ideological purity of some traditions aside.

For me, the dharma became part of my superhero code. I read the description of the bodhisattva vow by Chogyam Trungpa and I saw vindication of what I was trying to do. It meant I could stop thinking about my work to be heroic and my Buddhism as separate. My dharma is about being the best knight or the best superhero I can be. It means finding a way of living that way in a modern world where people may need a Professor X more than they need a Wolverine.

Until we have a much better understanding of human psychology and social psychology than we currently do, enough to fulfill the dream of psychohistory, this kind of “empty” practice will have to do.


4 thoughts on “The Emptiness of the Dharma and Practical Life Application

    • arekexcelsior says:

      Thanks! I feel Buddhism is at its best when it’s useful and empirical. I think a lot of people end up rejecting the ideas or being intimidated because they hear jargon and there’s no one translating the ideas. People like Pema Chodron and Chogyam Trungpa, on the other hand, can make it really useful and applicable.

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