In a few weeks, my second semester of studying madhyamaka, the middle way at RYI, will soon come to an end. As a listeners of teachings on emptiness, although I haven’t experienced any “eyes filled with tears and hairs on body stand up” moments, fortunately, there were few moments where I could relate to the teachings. In those moments, I felt like I received a valuable “gift” which has no price and can’t expire.
I learned that our suffering and happiness doesn’t actually come from the outer objects. The madhyamka argues that if people and things are inherently the causes of our experiences, then either you have to always find them pleasant or unpleasant or everyone should feel the same towards them. On the contrary, we experience otherwise; a friend can turn into enemy and an enemy into a friend, a person that you dearly love can be hated by someone else, your favorite food might not taste so well if you eat it all the time and so on. All these ordinary experiences wouldn’t be evident if things were truly established.
Then, where do they come from?
Madhyamaka teaches that, due to our strong habitual tendencies that we have accumulated from the beginning-less time, our defiled, conditioned mind cannot think beyond the appearances and often end up grasping to sense objects as true. Based on that grasping, we experience happiness from getting what we like and suffering in meeting what we find unpleasant. Thus, it is not the outer appearances that cause happiness or suffering, but our grasping to those. As Tilopa said;
You are not bound by appearances
But by your clinging,
Therefore, cut your clinging Naropa!
However, it is equally crucial to understand that although all phenomena are inherently empty, they undeniably appear to us due to coming together of certain causes and conditions. Otherwise, only seeing the empty nature of things-being nihilistic- is very dangerous. Reflecting on the futility and meaningless of all our worldly pursuits, we may turn our back on people, relationships, work, mundane achievements, even buddhist practices and so on. We may fall into depression and have various anxieties. In worse case, we might even end up taking our own lives. From the perspective of middle way, all these outcomes happens due to not understanding appearances and emptiness as a unity. We cannot reject the conventional appearances nor their empty nature by the mere fact that they are the “truths”. No power in the world can completely eliminate people and things from appearing nor change their inherent qualities. Anyone who attempts to do such will only end up in dismay. Nevertheless, we can choose to engage in both the mundane or spiritual activities while also being aware of the ultimate nature. In this way, the middle way attitude can truly free us from suffering and bring happiness.