Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Avoiding the extreme of nihilism

  • Negating true existence doesn’t mean nothing exists
  • Need to still be able to see that cause and effect functions
  • The importance of seeing that dependent arising and emptiness come to the same point

So when we meditate on emptiness and we’re seeing that things don’t exist inherently as they appear to exist, then what we’re doing is getting rid of the extreme of absolutism, of grasping things as inherently existent. And they say, what is one of the most difficult things to do after you have direct perception emptiness like that, is that when you come out of it, is to be able to still affirm the existence of cause of effect and not fall to the extreme of nihilism, saying that “nothing exists” or “there’s no cause and effect. There’s no good or bad.” You know. And so there’s a tendency sometimes to think, when we talk about things existing by being merely labeled, to think that getting rid of all the labels is what realizing emptiness is. Just get rid of all the labels and then anything goes because you can call anything, anything and anything becomes anything because nothing has any inherent essence to make it what it is.

Do you see the kind of “logic?” And, it’s a very nihilistic logic, but it’s very easy to fall into. So, then, we have to stop and think, “Well, does realizing emptiness negate the natural laws of things? What is the realization of emptiness changing? Does it change the external world? Or does it change how we view the external world. Does it change the natural laws of science or does it view of how we look those things?” See what I am getting at? So when you realize emptiness does that mean that gravity no longer functions? You know?

Because, you know, the people who fall into the nihilistic extreme saying “Well, you know, it’s all just conceptions so there is no good and no bad- you can do whatever you want to,” they’re negating a natural law of, you know, how results depend on causes. So, if they’re going to negate that natural law then they might as well negate gravity, too, because that’s also a natural law, and say that things no longer fall down—when you realize emptiness they fall up! You know, if you are going to hold that nihilistic position, then you should also say like that, yes? And then you should also say that eating breakfast doesn’t make you full, because you’re negating all cause and effect; you’re negating all existence, the functioning of things. So that’s a little bit too much, isn’t it?

Ok, so even though the law of cause and effect in all of its ramifications—whether it’s the physical laws that govern gravity or biological laws or karmic laws or whatever—although those things all are dependent arisings and don’t have any inherent existent essence, the fact that they’re empty doesn’t change their functioning. And our perceiving emptiness doesn’t make those things function in different ways. Because remember, things are already empty, we’re not making them empty when we realize emptiness. So they’re not going to change how they function from their side. What’s changing is how we interpret them, how we react to them, how we interface with them. And in fact it’s the very opposite thing, that emptiness actually can help you understand dependent arising and the functioning of karma and the importance of following ethical conduct. Why? Because, either things inherently exist or they don’t—there’s no third choice. If things inherently existed, they would be permanent, because they would have their own essence but didn’t depend on causes and conditions. If they were permanent then any karmic causality is impossible. Okay? So it’s actually the reverse; that if things had inherent existence, then the law of karma couldn’t function. So if people get it upside down and say, “Because things lack inherent existence and they’re empty, then the law of karma can’t function,” then it’s real confusing because it should be the exact opposite. If things are inherently existent, then they’re permanent. Then they can’t function because functionality implies change, implies causes and conditions. So karma still functions, and, you know, destructive actions still produce suffering, constructive actions still produce happiness. This law was not created by the Buddha, you know, so it’s not up to the Buddha to change. Yes?

And then somebody might say, “But, but, but, I hear things about high tantric practitioners and, you know, they can kill people and it’s not negative, yes.” And then they cite this famous story in the Jataka Tales about the Buddha when he was a bodhisattva and he was on a ship with five hundred merchants and he saw that one person was there who was going to kill all five hundred and abscond with the goods. And so the Buddha, having compassion not only for the five hundred who would be killed, but also for the one person who was going to reap the negative karma of killing the five hundred people, he killed that person. And it said that, you know, the Buddha didn’t create any negativity because of that. Now, there are two views on that story. One view says that there was some negativity, but the Buddha didn’t experience the result, because of the power of his compassion—that that kind of karma couldn’t ripen. And, actually the power of his compassion, that he was willing to bear the suffering of experiencing the negative karmic result, that that compassion actually threw him ahead on the Bodhisattva path. So that’s what one group says. Another group says there wasn’t even the creation of any negativity at all because, you know, to create negativity, you need to have, you know, a harmful motivation and all these other kinds of conditions and those conditions were absent.

Now, does that mean that in general the action of killing is not a destructive action? No! It doesn’t mean that. Because, you know, most everybody else, when they kill, has a motivation of either ignorance, clinging attachment or anger. You know. So, the few rare exceptions to that don’t negate the general functioning of that law. Because the rare exceptions, if you look, they are lacking those particular attributes or particular conditions that would make that action of killing a negative action. Because, for example, when the Buddha or high bodhisattva did it, it would lack the condition of the negative motivation, which is the primary thing that makes the action negative to start with. Okay? So, it’s not the case that if people realize emptiness, then anything goes and karma doesn’t function, you know. Those people more than anything respect the law of karma and know how to function in a skillful way within it so that they create only constructive actions.

Venerable Thubten Chodron

Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.