“It is only in the context of ultimate nonexistence 
that actual existence makes any sense at all.”

In the sense that “emptiness is empty,” the world, our universe, does not exist. Although it exists in the conventional sense, our realm of life is only one dimension that is constantly recreated by our thoughts, which are a product of our mind, which is a part of the spectrum of existence that many would argue is real. Although nothing comes from our mind, everything comes from our mind. “Usually we think of our mind as receiving impressions and experiences from outside, but that is not a true understanding of our mind. The true understanding is that the mind includes everything; when you think something comes from outside it means only that something appears in your mind.”

This notion of “big mind” is one that Shunryu Suzuki writes of in his book, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. However, before we can conceive of the otherwise inconceivable, we must think in the all-inclusive state of “big mind;” We must think vertical thoughts as opposed to horizontal ones; thoughts that are a product of our mind and not an outside factor. Only when one is in a state of “big mind,” can he/she fully conceive of the mind itself. Using Garfield’s commentary on Nagarjuna and Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind as a foundation, the following will attempt to unravel and tie back together the Mahayana Buddhist conception of mind, the enlightened mind, the empty mind, the “big mind,” and the “small mind.”

The Mahayana philosophy revolves around the notion of freedom. If our mind cannot experience real freedom, our mind is not free to think “big mind” thoughts; that is, unlimited thoughts. According to this philosophy, the mind not only determines who we are in the past, present and future, it creates our conception of time and existence. Nonetheless, the mind functions in an inevitably conventional sense, a sense in which almost everything in our realm of existence is a creation of our thoughts pertaining to this reality.

This insight can only be gained through reasoning and hence through language and thought. And the truth that is to be grasped can only be indicated through language and thought, which are thoroughly conventional and which can only be interpreted literally at the conventional level. It is important to see here that Nagarjuna is not disparaging the conventional by contrast to the ultimate, but is arguing that understanding the ultimate nature of things is completely dependent upon understanding conventional truth.

This reality is the only truth we have, and therefore the only truth that our mind can perceive and reason with. In Mahayana Buddhism, the mind does not die when one’s heart stops beating; it has no beginning and no end; rather, it is in a state of permanent existence. We, our transient beings, are but a tiny spec in a vast continuum, but the mind is a permanent factor in this continuum, with a limitless potential. With this notion, the mind can achieve things that are perceived as “extraordinary” in conventional thought; the mind can achieve enlightenment.

To reach enlightenment is to emerge from “small mind” to “big mind”; it is to surpass nirvana, rid all suffering, and to be truly empty. The enlightened and unenlightened mind can be clearly described by the two truths. The first truth is the truth of higher value/worth, while the second truth is sunyata (emptiness). This is the difference of the mind existing within a conventional truth and the mind existing within an ultimate truth. However, it is known that these two truths coexist. In Verse 8 and 9 of Chapter XXIV in “The Examination of the Four Noble Truths,” Nagarjuna quotes:

8. The Buddha’s teaching of the Dharma
Is based on two truths
A truth of worldly convention
And an ultimate truth.

9. Those who do not understand
The distinction drawn between these two truths
Do not understand
The Buddha’s profound truth.

Nagarjuna’s simplistic yet complex nature allows us to think of all as one and one as the universe, vertically expanding the boundaries of what is known to our conventional consciousness. When we are in the state of consciousness that often exists within the standard human realm of un-matured minds (as Immanuel Kant would say in An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment? ), “The Buddha’s profound truth” cannot be understood. When we are in this state, we are subjected to thinking within the framework of our thoughts and not within the framework of our minds. This is limiting in nature and suffering within the ultimate truth. However, understanding these small truths is not enough to understand the larger and more profound truth. Absorbing and cultivating them is not enough. They must be lived and experienced. The truth must be produced by the mind, itself, and not by an outer force, translating merely as a perception of the ultimate truth.

“Sunyata” is not just a concept; it is a way of seeing. It is something one must feel and experience from within. It means “emptiness,” which is the absence of permanence. As Garfield states in his commentary: “But, Nagarjuna continues in XXIV: 14, the interpretation of the entire Madhyamika system depends directly on how one understands the concept of emptiness. If that is understood correctly, everything else falls into place. If it is misunderstood, nothing in the system makes any sense.” Simply put, it is a way of being. It is to exist and to not exist. Shakespeare’s famous line, “To be or not to be,” is famous for a profound reason. It speaks to the ultimate truth of our existence, the truth of our minds’ existence, and the truth of the very purpose of our life. As Garfield explains below, if we live as though we are empty, transient objects, we have the potential to live in the most fulfilling manner desired:

We are driven to reify ourselves, the objects in the world around us, and—in more abstract philosophical moods—theoretical constructs, values, and so on because of an instinctual feeling that without an intrinsically real self, an intrinsically real world, and intrinsically real values, life has no real meaning and is utterly hopeless. Nagarjuna emphasizes at the close of this chapter that this gets things exactly backward: If we seriously and carefully examine what such a reified world would be like, it would indeed be hopeless. But if instead we treat ourselves, others, and our values as empty, there is hope and a purpose to life. For then, in then, in the context of impermanence and dependence, human action and knowledge make sense, and moral and spiritual progress become possible. It is only in the context of ultimate nonexistence that actual existence makes any sense at all.

For the duration of our existence, we tirelessly attempt to unlock the secret to our existence, while simultaneously attempting to fulfill our desire to ground ourselves in some sort of reality. But, what if reality is just a pigment of our imagination? What if it is solely a creation of our minds? In the greater spectrum of things, there might be no spectrum. Time and space might only exist to facilitate our thoughts, but it is possible that the incomprehensible does not need time and space to function; all it needs is it. If time and space do not exist, they still exist because they exist to us, having created the very notion of existence. Therefore, Sunyata exists because “a nonempty thing does not exist.” At the same time, “If the world were not empty, then action would be without profit. The act of ending suffering and abandoning misery and defilement would not exist.” These are notions that the human race has manifested and will continue to manifest until they make our reality complete, until we are satisfied. However, in order to be satisfied, one must posses the feeling of desire (which leads to suffering), a feeling that is not possessed by an enlightened individual. If the notion of Nirvana and Enlightenment did not exist, “not only would an inherently existent phenomenal world be devoid of change, dependency, and so forth, but inherently existent emptiness would render the phenomenal world completely nonexistent.” Therefore, true existence is true emptiness, which is to accept that existence is nothing.

To do this, one must posses a beginner’s mind or be in a state of “big mind.” In this state of being, one detaches from all things that are influenced by perceived things, which is a state of being that is defined as “small mind.” As Suzuki puts it: “If your mind is related to something outside itself, that mind is a small mind, a limited mind. If your mind is not related to anything else, then there is no dualistic understanding in the activity of your mind. You understand activity as just waves of your mind.” This is contrary to understanding an activity where thinking gets in the way (and severely limits you), such as: dance, music, or anything improvisational. This thinking that distracts us is often our ego. In order to rid this and allow for a state of “big mind,” one must free him/her mind of attachments. This includes clinging on to past memories; we should internalize lessons learned from the past, but never dwell on them or allow them to hinder our current and future growth.

“Big mind” thinking is interchangeable with “beginner’s mind” because “beginner’s mind” is to always accept things as though they are completely new. If we do this, we do not react habitually, but genuinely while harnessing the potential to simultaneously learn and grow sincerely from our actions (instead of growing from our perceptions of our actions and thoughts). Likewise, we even come to accept the waves in our ocean as beneficial to our well-being. Instead of serving as a distraction to our flow, these waves are nourishment to our well-being.

In a world so recently driven by “movers and shakers,” social entrepreneurs, and change-makers, Garfield’s thoughts on Nagarjuna’s Verse 37 and “taking action” on page 317 are intriguing and pertinent: “Without viewing the world as empty, we can make no sense of any human activity. Action would have to have been eternal, and anyone who is an agent would be so independently of any action since agency would be an essential attribute.” Combining this thought with a reflection on Nagarjuna’s other verses on emptiness reminds us that life is a humbling experience. Sooner or later, we come to realize the banality of it all: the trivial commotion of all the trifling details that tend to comprise our busy days.

Some who engage in this fleeting lifestyle might argue that the opposite of emptiness is contentment. In Mahayana Buddhism, emptiness is contentment. We must constantly remind ourselves to adhere to Nagarjuna and Suzuki’s teachings and rid ourselves of all detachments. Only then, will we be able to love fully and feel fulfilled beyond measure. We must consider viewing life through an empty lens; one detached from intellectual bias or any thought at all, one that is solely attached to our “beginners mind” and allows us to feel contentment from emptiness and from the understanding that conventional existence might not conventionally exist. “It is only in the context of ultimate nonexistence that actual existence makes any sense at all.”


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