Updated: Sep 22, 2020
There is a thought experiment in Buddhism known as the parable of the chariot. It goes something like this:
What is the essence of a chariot? If we removed the chariot wheels, is it still a chariot? What if we removed the driver’s seat, would it still be a chariot? And if we removed the axel, leaving just the cart – would that still be a chariot? Which part of the chariot is the essential part? You may have your own view on that but the answer we're being directed to is that there is no essential part, no ‘core’ which determines whether or not the object is a chariot or not.
What is the essence of a house? If we removed all the furniture and carpets from the inside would it still be a house? What if we removed all the windows and the doors? Is it still a house? If we took off the roof – is it still a house? And if all the bricks and other materials were taken down leaving just the foundations – is that a house? Or at what point did it stop being a house?
These thought experiments give us in some insight into the Buddhist teaching of sunyata or emptiness. It is the idea that there is no core, no terminal part in being, but that all beings including human beings are more akin to junctions of flux and flow, and this is true even of consciousness itself.
What is the essence of a human? If a person were to lose their arms and their legs would they still be a person? If they were to lose all of their sensory organs – to lose sensation of the outside world – would they still be a person? What about if muscular systems and skeletal systems and circulatory systems were stripped away, leaving perhaps just a central and peripheral nervous system – are we still looking at a person? Perhaps we think the essence of personhood is in the cerebral cortex – but then, which is the essential part of the cerebral cortex that confers personhood? Where is the terminal point of the self? Where is the core of consciousness?
Let’s stay with anatomy. Consider this drawing:
One of the things that has resonated with me when looking an anatomical drawings is that rather than people being a ‘bag’ of organs, instead we can consider the organ systems as one continuous tube that runs throughout the body from which individual organs branch off in performing different functions, like the way all branches emerge from the same trunk. This is most clear in the digestive system – a continuous tube that runs all the way from mouth through the body, channelling solar energy as received through vegetation or animal matter, and animating all parts.
Take a look at this one (Perham, nd):
Yup, it’s a chicken. But note how the organs are recognisable to our own – branching out according to function from a continuous tube running throughout the body.
Here is an anatomy of a whale (Kurzon, n.d.):
Now you may have noted that as mammals we should if anything be closer to whales than to chickens and in any case the same basic architecture applies.
And finally, here is an earthworm (Kollath, n.d.):
The earthworm is a little more exotic – check out those multiple hearts for example, though presumably they work in the same way, pulsating and pushing blood around the body. The earthworm has a brain – which I’m thinking is a central nucleus or bundle of nerves. And the digestive tube runs throughout the body.
So what? Well what I’m angling at is the emptiness of all these animals – they each consume food, digest food, and excrete the waste. They are each tubes for energy. The basic model is the same. The evolution of tongues or teeth, the evolution of particular organs in the digestive system, whether we stand on two feet or on all fours, whether we have fur or feathers or bare skin, whether we dwell on the land or swim in the sea… DNA just fine-tunes the quality of this tube nature.
And this model, this basic architecture, is coded for in the DNA of all creatures. It’s not just the animal kingdom either - photosynthetic creatures likewise receive sunlight, and the basic model is the same despite the huge genetic variations that orient around these architectures. I think that life exists opportunistically to harness free-flowing energy, given entropy in the universe, and if this is the case then all biological architecture is built around the basic forms of harnessing energy.
As with the parable of the chariot, there is no terminal point within the tube – life is the event of flow through the tube, whether we are literally talking about food, or oxygen, or indeed sensory data and ideas that flow into and are circulated around our central nervous system.
However, not all beings receive sensory data in the same way which gives rise to a further consideration which is as to the quality of emptiness. Both a garden bucket and a snare drum will make a percussive noise when struck, however the quality of the noise will be very different depending on the shape. Take also the difference between the emptiness of a snare drum, and the emptiness of a classical guitar. Both of these are basically hollow shapes designed to resonate in certain pleasing ways. What makes them useful instruments is the quality of their emptiness.
Not all instruments are created equally. You may have heard of Stradivarius violins – they are apparently made to an exceptional and world class quality. The quality of a Stradivarius presumably contrasts with the quality of a violin a high school student might take lessons on. The quality of emptiness in the former must be of a superior form, channelling more delicate and graceful resonance.
But just as not all violins are created equally, neither are all violinists. A professional will be able to deliver music which would not simply not be possible to a beginner. Put the same sheet of music in front of them and one will be able to soar to heights of musicality, the other will not be able to get their fingers round the neck as required. The professional has been ‘trained’ neurologically, and in fine motor skills, over the years so that they can gracefully ‘receive’ the input of a piece of sheet music and convert it into something beautiful; the output which resonates out into the concert hall.
So in this sense, all things, including and particularly selves, may be defined according to the quality of their emptiness – what flows through them.
The quality of emptiness also occurs on an environmental level. You may remember that exercise in high school where you’d go down to some local river or waterway to collect samples of water. You were learning amongst other things that different creatures thrive in different levels of pollution. Some creatures thrive in dirty water – like bloodworm – other species are only found in cleaner waters, such as stonefly. These are then called indicator species because their presence indicates something about the relative cleanliness of the water they are found in.
I was surprised to learn some time ago that a managed woodland e.g. with planned removal of timber, can be more biodiverse than a wild woodland, which might sound counter-intuitive. The reason I learned was that wild woods can develop a thick canopy of leaves that prevents sunlight from reaching the ground. A managed woodland, which allows for gaps to appear in the canopy allows for more plants and therefore animal life to thrive in the undergrowth. In this instance the managed woodland had a higher quality emptiness than the wild woods because of what it gave rise to.
In No Death, No Fear, Thich Nhat Hanh observed that ‘This is what the Buddha taught. When conditions are sufficient things manifest. When conditions are no longer sufficient things withdraw. They wait until the moment is right for them to manifest again.’ Biological life too requires the right conditions in order to emerge – much as we would struggle to deliver a violin concerto through a garden bucket, so we would not expect the emergence of certain life forms in very polluted or resource-starved conditions.
As conscious beings we cultivate these conditions purposefully, even faithfully, so that desired life emerges through them. Consider the way we might shape our gardens so that they will be welcoming to lots of different species – bees, butterflies, songbirds, hedgehogs… We delight in these but we need to court nature to bring these species out.
But I also think we strive to cultivate in ourselves a greater quality of emptiness – so that when we see or hear something we can appreciate its richness and depth. Decisions about whether or not we have on the radio, or listen to the birds singing outside, or read a book. About whether to have that glass of wine or not – these decisions alter the stream of consciousness – we steer through consciousness in moments like these, we do not create the objects of consciousness. Much of it is about removing noise or obstructions: not over-eating. Keeping physically fit. Correcting posture – you can feel more energetic, more attuned, not squashing your internal organs and your solar plexus, watching your breathing. Your body as a fine-tuned instrument, resonating at more delicate frequencies. A more facilitative household environment: A tidy space rather than a cluttered space.
In all this I am reminded of W.B. Yeats (writing through the Countess Cathleen): The world is full of magical things patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.
Thinking in this way shed a bit of light for me on something I found perplexing about mindfulness-type meditations, which always seem prioritise immediate sensory data, very much the present seconds and minutes, even if these are seemingly inconsequential or, even, boring. Really taking in this moment in its fullness may, somewhat paradoxically, mean cultivating a state of mind over time, which then becomes more receptive to spontaneous moments of higher consciousness and sensibility. I would suggest that this more closely reflects people’s higher spiritual experiences.
Cultivation of consciousness, like a gardener cultivating a garden. Minute by minute, day by day, year by year…
I noticed an example of this recently. I woke up one morning and it felt really hot; humid and close. I thought about some reading I’d been doing recently on meteorology. As I was still waking up I thought about the warm front coming in from the tropical regions. As it meets with the much denser, cold front from the arctic, it’s pushed up and over as over a wedge, and as that more humid Southern air is compressed it forces rain. And surely enough within 15 minutes or so it began to rain heavily. I have absolutely no idea whether the hypothesis in my head reflected what was actually going on in the atmosphere over Bramham at that time, and to be honest the rain was probably just coincidence, but what I do know is that reading about meteorology sharpened my senses towards those conditions and what they felt like – I was more attuned.
So how can we be more fine tuned? What are the blockages to our fine-tuned experience? And what are we becoming fine-tuned to? Whilst we have health and time these are questions that open up without end. If anything, asking the question itself is more important than the answer. We are open to the world to the extent that we are fine-tuned to the world.
Saul Bellow, in his novel Humbolt’s Gift, gave a far more eloquent description of this emptiness as I’m current imagining it, so in turn I offer it here as a concluding thought:
Once in a while, I get shocked into upper wakefulness, I turn a corner, see the ocean, and my heart tips over with happiness – it feels so free! Then I have the idea that, as well as beholding, I can also be beheld from yonder and am not a discrete object but incorporated with the rest, with universal sapphire, purplish blue. For what is this sea, this atmosphere, doing within the eight-inch diameter of your skull? (I say nothing of the sun and the galaxy which are also there). At the centre of the beholder there must be a space for the whole, and this nothing-space is not an empty nothing but a nothing reserved for everything.
Kollath, R. (n.d.) Earthworm Internal Anatomy, available from vermicompostingtoilets.net/why-worms under a Creative Commons 4.0 attribution
Kurzon (n.d.). Internal Anatomy of a Female Orca by Kurzon, available from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Orca_internal_anatomy.svg under a Creative Commons 3 attribution
Perham (n.d.). General Parts of Chicken, available from the Anatomy and Physiology of Poultry, under a Creative Commons 4.0 attribution