Purpose Statement

Exploration -> Experience -> Feeling -> Transformation -> Understanding

Saturday, July 25, 2009

On Emptiness

“Shariputra, all things are essentially empty” – The Great Prajna Paramita Heart Sutra

“In the beginning was Logos” – John 1:1

The monsoon had blown itself out in the afternoon. A cool damp breeze carried the smell of wet desert and the sound of celebratory bird songs across my back porch. I settled into my lawn chair, a tall glass of lemonade at my side. The sun dropped below the mountains (or did the mountains rise above the sun?) and the bottoms of the clouds began to glow an intense orange and then a soft pink. My body still, my mind at peace, my heart rate slowed and I slipped into an accidental meditation. The colors that I saw across the sky; where did they come from - the sun, the clouds, my retinas?

Venus, the evening star, which is no star at all, appeared between the clouds and slowly glowed brighter (or did the sky slowly darken?). Stars twinkled, dusk settled into night, water condensed and dripped down the side of my glass making a puddle on the porch, and the fatigue of the day settled into my bones. Too tired to get up and go to bed, I rested in my lawn chair, eyes open but no longer seeing, mind conscious but no longer thinking.

A scream jolted me from my peace. A child! The neighbor’s child! The neighbor’s little girl is screaming! I bolted from my chair. She’s in the wash! She’s hurt! She’s been bitten by a snake! A mountain lion or a dog has attacked her! I fumbled with the lock on the gate. Keys. My keys are in the house. I turned back to the house, but picked up a shovel to beat off the mountain lion and turned again to hop the fence. But the screaming had stopped. What? Is? Happening? I noticed I was breathing, and my heart was pounding.

First I heard a solitary coyote yelping, but then the jamboree started. It sounded like 50 coyotes, but it was probably half a dozen. It was a celebration. They had killed a rabbit and would live another day. Their riotous yelping said, “Thanks be to God for the abundance of this life!”

I leaned the shovel against the gate and walked back to my lawn chair. The rabbit scream had been terrifying. It sounded just like a human child. The scream had said, “Oh my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Now full of adrenaline and energy, I sat down again and sipped my lemonade, the glass dripping moisture into my lap, and contemplated what I had just experienced. The coyote ate the rabbit; great for the coyote, but it sucks to be the rabbit. I thought esoteric thoughts about how life is simultaneously beautiful and horrible, about natural selection and the cycle of life and how a species transforms over countless generations, each generation making a seemingly insignificant contribution that somehow ultimately totals up to evolution.

And then it occurred to me that what had happened – the coyote ate the rabbit – was essentially empty of any meaning or significance. The coyote, the rabbit and I had all experienced the same event, but the meaning and significance of the event were very different for the three of us. I realized that meaning and significance are not universal and are projected onto events by the individuals who experience the events.

I remembered that 2500 years ago the Buddha told Shariputra that “all things are essentially empty” and 500 years later, St. John wrote that it all begins with Logos. Perhaps, I thought, Logos is the projector within me that projects meaning and significance onto the events of my life. The sun burns, the earth spins, clouds turn vibrant colors, and I have no control of these events - they are “in the hands of God” we might say. But it was clear to me that as I watched a monsoon sunset, I was creating my experience of those events.

The lemonade gone and my heart rate returned to normal, I got up to head off to bed, but one last question arose within me: If I am creating the meaning and significance of my life, am I creating something beautiful and life affirming, or am I creating something tragic, life avoiding, full of fear and anxiety?

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