Illuminating emptiness in Christianity

By | Emptiness, Faith, True Nature of Reality

What is god

In the last post we broadly looked at the relationship between Buddhism and Jesus and explored whether this spiritual teacher may indeed have been an enlightened being. In this article we will look more specifically at some of the quotes of Jesus and one of the Christian mystics and come to see how the truth of emptiness is being taught through them

For some, maybe if we’re Buddhist for example, we may observe a resistance arising in response to this type of exploration. I would suggest this is a fairly normal reaction (at least it was mine initially), and shouldn’t let it put us off. Maybe like me you were already exposed to the Christian teachings for many years, however it wasn’t until after finding Buddhism that you started to connect with spiritual teachings

However we shouldn’t let that prevent us from being open to discovering the truth of what Buddha taught in other religions. It’s not something we necessarily need to do, however I’ve found it a very beautiful way of relating to other religions and those following them

As we will explore, there are valid reasons for establishing that emptiness was in fact taught and realised in other religions such as Christianity. That’s not to say everyone Christian realised or even understood it, just as is the case amongst practitioners of Buddhism, but for those willing to look we can establish and verify it within Christianity

And after all isn’t that what Buddha would want for living beings? I mean if emptiness is the solution to all our problems, then wouldn’t enlightened beings want these teachings to be discovered to the greatest extent possible?

Also, if emptiness is a universal truth as described, then wouldn’t it make sense that we could find it outside of Buddha’s teachings? After all, most of us can most likely appreciate that the vast majority of people are never going to study Buddhism, so one could only hope there would be other ways to uncover this ultimate truth

Understanding emptiness

rainbow questions what is god

To begin we need to have at least some understanding of what emptiness is and a good starting point could be to refer to this article. As we are going to be exploring how ultimate truth, emptiness illuminates the teachings in Christianity, then we’ll begin by trying to deepen our existing understanding of it

How Buddhism explains emptiness

In Modern Buddhism the author, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, says:

“Emptiness is the way things really are. It is the way things exist as opposed to the way they appear”

From this we can understand that emptiness is the ultimate nature of all things that appear to our mind. In Buddhism emptiness is generally referred to as an ‘absence’. This is indicating that when you take away everything that you normally see and relate to, what’s left is the ultimate essence of phenomena…. its emptiness

This can be a very helpful way to help us move towards a clearer understanding of what emptiness is. We take everything away that we normally see or perceive, and what’s left is its emptiness

The state of non-duality is the very nature of emptiness. Normally we perceive everything through the filter of ‘self’. However when we realise we are all things equally and simultaneously, then the perspective of ‘self; and ‘external phenomena’ dissolves into one

To really know emptiness we need to experience it for ourself. In truth no words can describe it, they can only ever point towards it. It is the truth that lies within all of us. It is our pure essential nature

Emptiness has a special relationship with mind

Although emptiness is the ultimate nature of all things, we can understand that it has a special relationship with mind. Buddhism teaches that mind is the creator of all. This is because everything arises from within mind and everything is dependent on mind for it to exist

To begin to appreciate this connection more deeply we can contemplate the following quote from Modern Buddhism where Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, says:

“All phenomena that appear to my mind are the nature of my mind. My mind is the nature of emptiness”

This is telling us that everything… all objects of knowledge, seen and unseen, are the nature of mind. By understanding that our mind is the nature of emptiness, we simultaneously come to know that all things are also the nature of emptiness

We’ve already established our mind is the creator of all, so now we can incorporate our understanding that the nature of mind is emptiness. This leads us to the realisation that the ultimate creator of all is in fact emptiness itself

Initially this might sound a bit strange. After all, emptiness isn’t mind so how can it be the creator? Although it is not actually mind itself, because it is the ultimate nature of mind and all things come from mind, then if we were to search for the ultimate creator of all things we could logically interpret this to be emptiness

The main reason for interpreting emptiness is this way is because it is beneficial when exploring some of what Jesus said. Also because everything arises from emptiness and in dependence on it, this is another valid reason for interpreting it as the creator of all things

To help us more clearly understand the relationship our mind has with emptiness we can consider the following quote from The New Eight Steps to Happiness in which Geshe-la says:

“We should regard our continuously residing body, our very subtle body, as the real wishfulfilling jewel; this is our Buddha nature through which the wishes of ourself and all other living beings will be fulfilled.”

We can understand that another name for the emptiness of our mind, or more specifically the emptiness of our very subtle mind, is our buddha nature

How is emptiness referred to in Christianity?

As we begin exploring emptiness as presented within Christianity, it can be helpful to familiarise ourself with the ways in which it is referred to (as clearly the terminology is not the same). This will help to reveal the deeper meaning of what Jesus, and the mystics who followed, were trying to communicate

God is the principal beings, or some might event say concepts, that appears to underpin Christianity. If we think about the label ‘god’ and what it means to us, we may find that it’s not entirely clear. In fact amongst the people of our world the label ‘god’ tends to be quite mystical and is usually interpreted very literally as a divine being or presence

This has led many people to ask and wonder ‘who is god’ or ‘what is god’. Although commonly understood to be an all-powerful and altruistic being, this interpretation doesn’t always seem to make sense when examining the teachings.  After all, if he was all-powerful and had the ability to end everyone’s suffering then wouldn’t he simply do so?

This apparent contradiction might then lead us to question ‘Is god actually even a being, or does this label refer to something else?’ We might ask ‘if god is not a living being, then what is god?’ As many other people have previously suggested, I agree that a much more accurate and beneficial interpretation is to view the label ‘god’ to be synonymous with emptiness. So then, we could say that god is emptiness

Of course that’s not to say this interpretation holds up in all instances. It seems there are many teachings within the bible coming from various sources so this is to be expected. However with reference to the direct quotes from Jesus then we can understand his use of the label ‘god’ to be interchangeable with emptiness

We can also understand ‘the kingdom of god’ to be synonymous with buddha nature and that ‘god’ and ‘Christ’ also hold the same meaning. In this sense we understand that ‘Jesus’ was the man and ‘Christ’ was his realisation of emptiness

Emptiness illuminated in Christianity

Person asks 'what is god'

Emptiness is expressed amongst a wide variety of quotes coming from both Jesus and the Christian mystics, who themselves realised this truth by following his teachings. I’ve chosen to look at two quotes from Jesus and also one from a practitioner called Meister Eckhart, who was alive during the 13th century

As with all the teachings on ultimate truth, we can find a great depth within these quotes, and so only the surface can be scratched in this article. It is my hope that through contemplation you, the reader, will be able to more deeply appreciate and observe this connection. In this way we can both increase our wisdom and deepen our appreciation for teachings in other religions

Exploring emptiness in quotes from Jesus

Below I’ve referred to two quotes of Jesus. In truth I would like to say that I don’t know much about the different interpretations of the bible and so I have no idea which testaments etc they may come from. However having contemplated their deeper meaning, then I have some confidence to suggest that these quotes do demonstrate his realisation of emptiness

In the ‘Gospel of Thomas’ Jesus said:

“I am the light above everything. I am everything. Everything came forth from me, and everything reached me.”

This quote is particularly beautiful and illuminating, and I would even go as far to say that it is the very expression of emptiness itself. In the Buddhist teachings we came to understand that mind is the creator of all and that its nature is emptiness. Therefore we concluded that emptiness is in fact the creator of all because it’s the very nature of our mind

Having realised that he was god, or emptiness, Jesus is expressing himself from the perspective of this realisation of himself as divine being, as the creator of all things…. emptiness. Just as light pervades all things, so too does emptiness pervade the very fabric of all phenomena

When trying to express how we might view things from the perspective of soaring through the non-dual experience of emptiness, self could even be described as being above everything. His essence was, or we could even say is, emptiness and in these words emptiness is expressing itself through him

When he says ‘everything came forth from me, and everything reached me’, Jesus is expressing that he himself is emptiness and so everything arises from him. There is no separation between emptiness and all things, and so because Jesus embodied emptiness, he in turn reached all things

This quote from Jesus clearly reflects all of these truths and helps us understand that Jesus realised his inseparability from this ultimate truth

In the ‘Gospel of Luke’ it says:

“Now having been questioned by the Pharisees as to when the kingdom of God was coming, He answered them and said, ‘The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is.’ or, ‘There it is.’  For behold, the kingdom of God is within you’.”

Even having just some experience of emptiness, and taking into consideration our new interpretation that ‘the kingdom of god’ refers to our buddha nature, it’s not difficult to appreciate just how clearly and eloquently it is being expressed here.

When Jesus says ‘the kingdom of god is not coming with signs to be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is’ or ‘there it is’ he is trying to convey the ultimate truth, that emptiness pervades all things and so it doesn’t need to arrive or be found somewhere else. It is always present within everything

So Jesus is telling the Pharisees to behold the kingdom of god which is already within them…. that which they were unable to see, but is never-the-less still there because it’s their very nature, their buddha nature

And so this is the experience of many people. Although it’s clear our buddha nature is with us all the time, it’s not easy to establish or recognise the kingdom of god within oneself. This is because it is only found by coming to understand and realise that this self we normally see and relate to does not, in fact exist at all

Exploring emptiness in a quote from a Christian mystic

Meister Eckhart, a 13th century Christian mystic, said:

“The eye through which I see God is the same eye through which God sees me; my eye and God’s eye are one eye, one seeing, one knowing, one love.”

Having already understood that ‘god’ is synonymous with emptiness, we can start to see this is the experience or realisation being communicated. Eckhart is trying to explain what is essentially a non-dual perspective with what appears to be dualistic language, and illuminate it through explaining his relationship with god

Referring to emptiness as ‘the eye’ seems very appropriate as it is emptiness that is both the truth of what is and also that which reveals the truth in and of all things. So in this context it could be said to be the ‘all-seeing eye’ revealing the ultimate nature of both self and other

For me his words give rise to a feeling of wonderment and beauty… ‘my eye and God’s eye are one eye, one seeing, one knowing, one love.’ Here he is expressing his unification with god, with emptiness… self and god have become non-dual. We can also understand that emptiness is ‘all-knowing’ because it is the nature of all things, and so through the very fact of being their nature it clearly knows those things

Emptiness is also the embodiment of love because love is a natural effect of realising non-duality. When one realises they are inseparable from all things, then they love everything equally and with great immensity

To me, this quote clearly demonstrates Eckhart’s realisation of emptiness, and the way he expresses it helps to illuminate, deepen and enrich my own understanding.

 Concluding commentary

Telling us what is god

Having contemplated these descriptions of how emptiness can be found within Christianity, we may find some questions arising for us. To help us potentially start to address these, below I’ve raised what is likely to be a common question

Question: Is it really possible for a person practising another religion to realise emptiness? After all, isn’t this something only Buddha taught?

Response: This is a reasonable question because it might seem like emptiness is in some way exclusive to Buddhism and its teachings. However Buddhism explains itself that emptiness is simply the way things are, and Buddha himself discovered this truth through his own process of exploration. Whether or not he discovered it before other spiritual teachers doesn’t make it inherently ‘Buddhist’, it is simply a manifest truth like gravity

Furthermore, in the last article we came to see how Buddhas, the enlightened beings, appear as teachers of different religions. This helps us to further clarify that there is no contradiction in saying that teachers of other religions teach emptiness. Indeed if we do believe this is true, then we would have to conclude that out of their great compassion, Buddhas appearing as these teachers must be teaching emptiness because it’s the only solution to end all suffering

Lastly, as Buddhists we can understand that to complete the spiritual path we need to bring together three principal conditions: blessings (arising from our faith in those we perceive to be realised or superior beings), undertaking a purification practice, and to be engaging in positive actions which accumulate good karma or merit. If we have assembled these three conditions within our practice, then we are making progress on a spiritual path

Objection: But even if a practitioner has assembled these conditions, how can they complete the spiritual path if they don’t have all the teachings as found within Buddhism?’

Response: This is a good question and there are a couple of lines of reasoning we can use to approach it. The first is that it’s conceivable that a person following a spiritual path other than taught in Buddhism may in fact be able to complete it due to previous imprints and by deeply contemplating their own experience

For example, they may navigate their way through the various levels of delusion, naturally becoming more aware of more subtle negativity in their mind as more manifest levels have been stripped away. In this way the individual may be to work through deeper levels of delusion as they observe its cause and effect relationship with their mind

Secondly we shouldn’t underestimate how extensive the emanations of enlightened beings are, which arise spontaneously from their great compassion. Even if someone isn’t a practising Buddhist, if they are sincere then emanations of Buddha will eventually appear to them, no matter what religion they are practising. These emanations of enlightened beings will guide them on the spiritual path to liberation according to their individual needs and their capacity

Conclusion…

Adopting these lines of reasoning helps us to understand that the teachings on emptiness appear and are practised in other religions such as Christianity. When we understand that emptiness is simply the way things are and nothing more, then how this is possible starts to become much clearer

This way of contemplating also helps us understand that a buddha is mere name. In truth Buddhas exist and function to benefit all living beings. Anyone who has a sincere wish to follow and practise spiritual paths will inevitably meet and be guided by enlightened beings

Out of great compassion these holy beings will reveal the true nature of reality to them, so that they can finally be free from all suffering. The main concern of Buddhas is to free living beings from suffering, and this applies equally to practitioners of Buddhism and everybody else

One Response to " Illuminating emptiness in Christianity "

  1. Joseph Ultimo says:

    I was hoping your first topic might relate the compassion of Jesus to Buddhist compassion, and felt trying to relate emptiness to him was a difficult task that was not accomplished. It is necessary to offer our inferred translations between words used in the bible to express meaning from Dharma topics, but when we do this we cannot change the fundamentals of our teachings. Mind is the creator of all things, not emptiness. Mind is the creator of all things, which appear and function because they are empty. Emptiness does not create anything, nor is it anything. When a being achieves the non-duality of self-liberation, emptiness, they are not a Buddha and do not necessarily help or love anyone. God is not emptiness The mind of bliss, the clear light mind that knows and is one with emptiness, is empty but is not the emptiness you speak of. If god were to be compared to something, it would be this, which is then validated by Tantra where we learn god, buddha, us, are really the Tantric Deity. Not emptiness, but the emptiness of all things manifests in a being completely free of ignorance.
    “It is I who am the light which is above them all. It is I who am the all. From me did the all come forth, and unto me did the all extend. Split a piece of wood, and I am there. Lift up the stone, and you will find me there.” This quote if anything is the clear light mind of bliss, or a person who begins to personify the clear light mind through generation and completion stage mindsets. That is the light, the clear light at our hearts, which is above them all, even the solitary realizers who have been liberated through understanding emptiness. Emptiness is merely how things exist and is not at all who god or anyone else is. God is empty and so is everyone, it’s just their nature not a creator. Emptiness creates nothing.
    The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is.’ or, ‘There it is.’ For behold, the kingdom of God is within you’.” This makes sense from a sutra perspective where compassion and emptiness are internal attainments, but as the person changes internally they appear renewed outward efforts in the world. And, from a Tantric perspective, where we hold the Varjayogini in our hearts through body Mandala, which is the quickest way to bring heaven to earth. I don’t see how you can infer emptiness on much of what Jesus says, and certainly you can’t say his persona, or appearance, was meant to teach emptiness, can you?
    Forget about what we need to infer Jesus meant, aren’t there very direct and easy to see, undebatable lessons of compassion, love, faith, and spiritual power that will do more good, than linking emptiness to him? With the compassion Jesus taught, will come the karma, the good fortune, necessary to understand emptiness. Jesus personifies compassion and love, and spiritual power. Think about the inner mind of a person who, while being tortured, genuinely prays for them because he knows they will experience negative karmic ripening from their actions. That is a mindset that we can grow towards, and through it, the correct view of emptiness will unfold for us. Emptiness ill not bring us love or compassion, but out of our increased love and compassion we will seek emptiness and bliss with every moment of our minds.
    I appreciate your effort and intentions.

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