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I read the following article about the fullness of emptiness and this statement stuck out to me:

...when we look at a sheet of paper, the sheet of paper is part of our perception. Your mind is in here and mine is also, so we can say that everything is in here in this sheet of paper.

Now, the question is: prior to my perception of the paper, was it the same sheet of paper?

Based on the article, my answer would be no. I would expound on that with the following thoughts:

  • prior to my perception of it, a paper exists that does not have my perception of it as an aggregate, paper #1
  • after my perception of the paper, a new paper came to exist consisting of all of the aggregates of paper #1 plus my own perception, resulting in paper #2

Conclusion: there are two distinct, co-existing pieces of paper. Thoughts?

  • The Buddha taught about suffering and its escape. Is there a way you might reword this question so that it can be discussed in the context of suffering? For example, we might regard a piece of paper with a neutral feeling, but then the discussion and answer get quite abstract and possibly not useful. The article you mentioned is about emptiness, not really paper. – OyaMist Jan 31 at 18:42
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    In order to escape suffering, one must understand the interconnectness of all things, correct? This question is an attempt to understand the point being made in the article about the aggregates of the paper. This understanding could then extend to my neighbor, my children and countless other things. – Stanley Feb 1 at 1:54
  • A physicist can wave their hands and say the universe is a single huge wave function. That won't help with suffering. Both paper#1 and paper#2 are part of the grasping aggregates. To be done with the grasping aggregates and suffering, just be a good neighbor and father and be gently mindful with the countless other things. – OyaMist Feb 1 at 2:12
  • @Stanley According to the Theravada tradition, interconnectness was not part of the essential teachings of the Buddha, probably because it didn't led to the end of suffering. Remember that the Buddha was not a philosopher, but an errant/renunciant ascetic part of a living tradition of people who sought for practical liberation, not mere intellectual dvelopment. The closest thing to interconnectness related to suffering is Dependent Origination, which is the chain of events that leads to the arising of Dukkha. – Brian Díaz Flores Feb 3 at 8:12
  • Hi @BrianDíazFlores. Interesting. I was under the impression that once one understood interdependence, it would lead to the end of suffering (thought I didn't understand how it practically could). Is it oversimplifying things to say that the Buddha taught that if you understand the chain of events that cause you suffer, you can learn to avoid them? – Stanley Feb 5 at 15:29
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There is no paper ;)

Through knowledge we can see the rain, air, forest, lumberjack, the paper mill and its employees in paper. Through wisdom we can see ourselves in paper, because it is only through the lens of our minds that "paper" can be seen at all. Although it is the case that "paper" does not exist separately from our minds, this does not mean that our minds produce "paper". For paper is emptiness, and emptiness is paper. Paper is none other than emptiness, and emptiness is none other than paper.

The paper that exists in your mind is not the paper that exists on your desk. Just like the nose that exists on your face is not the nose that exists in your mind. These concepts that exist in your mind are loosely linked to objects that exist in the material world, but these concepts and their associations are nothing but emptiness.

Due to causes and conditions "paper" has manifested on your desk. Through those conditions and others, the awareness of paper has arisen in your mind, and from this the discernment "there is paper" arises. But these dharmas are emptiness just as the causes and conditions from which they arose are emptiness. "Arising" is emptiness, and "emptiness" is also empty. None of these things are paper nor any other independent substance.

FYI that article is an excerpt from Thich Nhat Hahn's translation/commentary on the Heart Sutra titled "The Other Shore". Master Hahn's teachings seem to be targeted at a generally materialistic western audience. I still believe that they are excellent and beneficial, but I think that it is also important to be aware that he will blur the lines between the material and immaterial to make it easier for this audience to grasp.

Take care,

Nolan


Could we not also see through knowledge that there is no rain, air, forest, lumberjack, or paper mill and that it is only through the lens of our minds that any of these can be seen? If this is the case, then could we also make the argument that the material world itself is the result of our mind? This changes the whole idea of emptiness for me. I would say, all things are empty without a mind to "make a objects" out of all of the "non-object elements".

In my understanding, when phrased this way, this is a half-truth. It is extremely likely that the material world does exist, and it is the simplest explanation for all of the things that our minds come into contact with over the course of our lives. However, we as human beings are prone to recklessly-and worse, implicitly-assigning meaning to the material world that it does not inherently possess.

We assume permanence where there is impermanence. We assume happiness where there is suffering. We assume a self where there is no self. We assume that there are things that are mine and things that are yours, where there is only matter.

I wouldn't say that our minds produce the material world, but that our minds produce an immaterial world (full of those erroneous views) that we often implicitly assume is equivalent to the material world. It is this immaterial world that, in my understanding, is empty.

When you realize this emptiness, then you realize that these empty dharmas have no weight. When you recognize their lightness, then you realize that you can brush them round as easily as dust on a table. You can pile up the dharmas that bring joy, and brush away the dharmas that bring suffering.

  • Hi @Nolan Luckett, thanks for the response. could we not also see through knowledge that there is no rain, air, forest, lumberjack, or paper mill and that it is only through the lens of our minds that any of these can be seen? If this is the case, then could we also make the argument that the material world itself is the result of our mind? This changes the whole idea of emptiness for me. I would say, all things are empty without a mind to "make a objects" out of all of the "non-object elements". Thoughts? – Stanley Feb 4 at 14:22
  • Hello @Stanley, I've added my response to my answer. – Nolan Luckett Feb 5 at 16:47
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I guess according to your definition, the "two" are not "co-existing" -- because one is "before" and the other is "after", so they're not at the same time.

I think that, conventionally, people would say that there's one piece of paper -- no matter how many people are thinking about it, nor whether anyone is looking at it and when.

The article says something poetic, about the cloud existing in the paper. Perhaps that implies that the paper-on-the-table and the paper-in-the mind are the same piece of paper too ... or that they "inter-are".


The bit of the article that stands out for me, is ...

If we ask, “Empty of what?” he has to answer. And this is what he said: “They are empty of a separate self.” That means none of these five rivers can exist by itself alone.

I think that the anatta doctrine is something like, "There isn't a 'myself' that's independent of other things, e.g. of the shandhas."

And Thich Nhat Hanh explains that the sunyata doctrine means that, for each skandha, "There isn't an 'itself' that's independent of other skandhas." (I assume that means that pereption depends on form and vice versa, and so on).

Also interesting to note that the paper is composed entirely of non-paper elements (e.g. minerals, human labour, sunlight).

Anyway, he's saying what the sutta means when it says that "form is empty".

Also, which is less clear, "because of emptiness, form exists" (I say "less clear" but perhaps that's a classic example of taoism -- also it quotes Nagarjuna's saying, "Thanks to emptiness, everything is possible", so I suppose Nagarjuna explains that too somehow).

The bit at he end of the article, about the leaf and the tree, is quite nice too: reassuring, tender.

He seems to be taking the opposite strategy towards self-identification than I'd expect -- not saying "I am not" but saying, "I am everything -- mother, cloud, leaf".

May he be well. :-)

  • Hi @ChrisW, would be correct to say: "everything is empty, but the mind seeks to create forms?" After all, without the mind, the physical world cannot be experienced at all. The material world itself is a collection of forms presented to us by the mind. Thoughts? – Stanley Feb 4 at 14:26
  • I think that's the kind of thing that the doctrine of the 12 nidanas tries to describe. I guess it's that things (forms, objects, lights, smells) interact with sense-organs, thus sense-objects, with which the mind makes contact, and which then tries to perceive them e.g. by relating them to previously-stored sankharas (though I think that's an approximation). – ChrisW Feb 4 at 14:34
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The article introduces three types of dependencies.

The first is causal dependency:

Without a cloud, there will be no rain; without rain, the trees cannot grow; and without trees, we cannot make paper. The cloud is essential for the paper to exist. If the cloud is not here, the sheet of paper cannot be here either. We can say that the cloud and the paper inter-are. “Interbeing” is a word that is not in the dictionary yet, but if we combine the prefix “inter-” with the verb “to be,” we have a new verb, “inter-be.”

If we look into this sheet of paper even more deeply, we can see the sunshine in it. If the sunshine is not there, the forest cannot grow. In fact, nothing can grow. Even we cannot grow without sunshine. So we know that the sunshine is also in this sheet of paper. The paper and the sunshine inter-are. And if we continue to look, we can see the logger who cut the tree and brought it to the mill to be transformed into paper. And we see the wheat. We know that the logger cannot exist without his daily bread, and therefore the wheat that became his bread is also in this sheet of paper. And the logger’s father and mother are in it too. When we look in this way, we see that without all of these things, this sheet of paper cannot exist.

The second is compositional dependency:

In our bodies we have lungs, heart, kidneys, stomach, and blood. None of these can exist independently. They can only coexist with the others. Your lungs and your blood are two things, but neither can exist separately. The lungs take in air and enrich the blood, and, in turn, the blood nourishes the lungs. Without the blood, the lungs cannot be alive, and without the lungs, the blood cannot be cleansed. Lungs and blood inter-are. The same is true with kidneys and blood, kidneys and stomach, lungs and heart, blood and heart, and so on.

The third is conceptual dependency:

Looking even more deeply, we can see we are in it too. This is not difficult to see, because when we look at a sheet of paper, the sheet of paper is part of our perception.

The concept of the paper in our minds depends on our perception of the paper through our senses. In this way, the mental concept of the paper depends on the perception of the paper.

Next, the article introduces the Mahayana concept of emptiness and self:

If we ask, “Empty of what?” he has to answer. And this is what he said: “They are empty of a separate self.” That means none of these five rivers can exist by itself alone. Each of the five rivers has to be made by the other four. It has to coexist; it has to inter-be with all the others.

In our bodies we have lungs, heart, kidneys, stomach, and blood. None of these can exist independently. They can only coexist with the others. Your lungs and your blood are two things, but neither can exist separately. The lungs take in air and enrich the blood, and, in turn, the blood nourishes the lungs. Without the blood, the lungs cannot be alive, and without the lungs, the blood cannot be cleansed. Lungs and blood inter-are. The same is true with kidneys and blood, kidneys and stomach, lungs and heart, blood and heart, and so on.

When Avalokita says that our sheet of paper is empty, he means it is empty of a separate, independent existence. It cannot just be by itself. It has to inter-be with the sunshine, the cloud, the forest, the logger, the mind, and everything else. It is empty of a separate self.

The Mahayana self refers to the self of things, not self of persons. That means, the separate existence of a thing. And the Mahayana emptiness means everything is empty of a self, meaning everything is empty of a separate existence of a thing. And why is this the case? This is because everything is subject to the three types of dependencies - causal, compositional and conceptual dependencies. Nothing can exist independent of each other.

How did things come to have a self? That is, how did things come to have separate existence? How did a single piece of paper become objectified and classified into a single piece of paper?

That happened in our mind. It's called reification or objectification-classification or papanca in Pali or prapanca in Sanskrit. We objectify and classify things relative to our self i.e. into things which are self and non-self, things which are related or unrelated to our self, things which are a threat or which profit ourselves etc. A single piece of paper is a single piece of paper because a human observer said so.

If a tiny ant walks on a piece of paper, it might classify the paper differently compared to how a human does it. A snail might look at a piece of paper and classify it as a type of food it can eat.

So, how many pieces of paper are there? Well, that depends on you.

You might also find this question interesting, where I try to link Mahayana emptiness to Theravada emptiness, through papanca.

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Your question seems to be rather scientific than spiritual which reminds me the "Observer effect" in Quantum mechanics. Since this is a forum about Buddhism, we should find an answer for your question from the doctrine.

The author of the article discussed a deep concept of emptiness in simplified words. In the article it has mentioned that how Ven. Thích Nhất Hạnh explains the emptiness in a different perspective, by seeing fullness in every dhamma. The author may not be aware of the questions you've raised but rather added the quoted part to emphasize the idea of fullness which can be seen in the paper.

Your conclusion,

There are two distinct, co-existing pieces of paper. Thoughts?

may be correct according to the Sarvāstivāda school of buddhism. Sarvāstivādin hold the idea of all exists (sarvām asti). According to Sarvāstivāda, there are unlimited number of co-existing papers of past, present and future.

If I answer your questions from a Theravāda perspectve:

Prior to my perception of the paper, was it the same sheet of paper?

The answer is NO.

By seeing my answer you may ask,

Then, was it another paper prior to my perception?

The answer for that question is also NO.

Let me explain this. There's no paper we can find in reality. Paper is a conventional thing which is known to our consciousness. In ultimate truth, we can only find 8 basic elements of matter (Rūpa) in the paper. There's no such thing called "paper" other than these 8 rūpa (Pathavi, Apo, Tejo, Vayo, Vanna, Gandha, Rasa, Oja). These are called "Suddhastaka".

These bundle of rūpa arise (uppada), exist (titi), and then cease (bhanga) rapidly. Then new bundle of rūpa similar to previous bundle of rūpa arise, exist, and cease at the same place or nearby. Speaking conventionally, we can say paper arise, exist, and cease rapidly. By considering the continuance we can say, the new paper belongs to the same stream of rūpa. But it's not the same paper which has already ceased.

Note: This is what I understood. I may be wrong but not Dhamma.

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