The Emptiness of the Vase

When is a door not a door? When it’s a jar… Get it? a jar… ajar – oh never mind. I think that joke could have been written by Chih-i.

Emptiness is one of the hardest things I’ve ever tried to get my head around. Even at the most mundane level, trying to grasp its ramifications in our daily life is a struggle to comprehend, let alone explain to anyone.

While working the other day I came across a customer’s website that caught my attention. It made me consider what a vase is, exactly. More to the point, it made me question the validity of my conception of what a vase is.

Emptiness theory suggests that the vase’s existence cannot be truly independent of the rest of the universe. This existence also extends to our conception, and labelling of things, be they material (such as the vase) or metaphysical (concepts and opinions).

When does the vase become a bowl

When does the vase become a bowl - Courtesy the wonderful Eliza Bott

Terms such as best, foremost, worst, superior are all relative truths. They have to be, because we came up with them. The ultimate truth of the vase is simply that it is a collection of minerals, and will gradually degrade to dust (impermanence). The relative truth might range from it being the vessel to contain beautiful flowers, or it might be the weapon that gives someone concussion, or even a doorstop (no offence to the artist!) – these are all conceptions. If it was given to us by an ancestor we might cherish it dearly (attachment and clinging), but if it was seen on a landfill site would se rush over to capture it? There simply is no vase – there is only what we make of it.

Nichiren taught that desires are enlightenment, which is a step away from “sufferings are nirvana”. After all sufferings are the result of our ignorant desires. Perhaps what he was getting at is that desires are essentially the manifestation of attachment and clinging – of our ignorance of emptiness. Therefore to ensure that any desires we generate are based on the compassion and wisdom of the Bodhisattva way, we must awaken our Buddhastate. We cannot be a Buddha 24/7 – but by awakening it during Gongyo, we are allowed enough clarity to practice as Bodhisattvas of the earth in daily life.

If all this is starting to sound like the child acolyte in the film Matrix, who bends the spoon, and then says the secret is to realise there is no spoon – then hopefully you realise how tricky this can all be 🙂

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One Response to The Emptiness of the Vase

  1. David May 25, 2012 at 8:25 am #

    From the perspective of the Middle Way philosophy of Nagarjuna (whose name Nichiren engraved on many of his Gohonzons), the child acolyte is only half right when he says, “there is no spoon, only yourself.” There is no self either. No-self refers to the non-duality of subject and object. Because they are non-dual, they are both empty. Emptiness pertains not only to the non-duality of subject and object but also to their non-substantiality. Subject and objects only exist conventionally, because neither exists in and of itself, nor do they exist independently, both, in fact, everything exists in a state of interrelationship with everything else.

    Another way to put it is that conventionally subject and object are two, but ultimately they are not two. As the Buddha said in one of the early sutras, “In seeing, there is only seeing . . . When you understand there is only the seen in reference to the seen . . . only the cognized in reference to the cognized, then . . . there is no you there. When there is no you there, you are neither here nor beyond nor between the two. And that is the ending of suffering.”

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