Too often, says Judith Simmer-Brown, Buddhism’s principles of emptiness and aloneness lead us into the extreme of nihilism. She looks at the pitfalls of the nihilistic view and recounts her own journey from depression and despair to a more profound aloneness marked by celebration, joy, and an experience of basic goodness.
The lonely child who travels through
The fearful waste and desolate fields,
And listens to their barren tune,
Greets as an unknown and best friend
The terror in him, and he sings
In darkness all the sweetest songs.
—Chögyam Trungpa, from “The Silent Song of Loneliness” in Mudra: Early Poems and Songs
When I was five years old, we moved from a Boston suburb to the Nebraska Panhandle. As we voyaged westward across the country in our ancient black Chevy, I was mesmerized by the change in scenery. We left the winding roads, forests, and hills for miles of farms with fields, streams, and groves of trees. As we crossed the Midwest, the trees became more sparse, the farmhouses more distant from each other. And then it was miles and miles of treeless prairie, with slightly rolling sparse hills, bleached brown in the September light, with limitless sky—the Nebraska Sandhills.
Inexplicably, I became tremendously anxious, thinking that we were about to drive off the edge of the earth. As we settled into our new town, population nine hundred, in the heart of the Sandhills, I wasn’t able to overcome the feeling of foreboding for the terrain: sparse grass, lots of sand, a few stunted trees, abandoned farmhouses, virtually no breaks in the endless expanse. There weren’t any vistas. And in the winter, blizzards raged for days, leaving sculpted wastes that buried even the ranch houses. A few stranded motorists died each winter in this stark landscape. That first winter, my brother and I were lost in a blizzard in our own backyard, rescued by a savvy neighbor who heard our screams. Back then I began to plot my escape.
This landscape became emblematic for me in my teens and twenties, as I grew spiritually. When the religion of my youth did not support my growing questions and doubts, I found myself in that same stark inner landscape. My college and graduate school training in religion and philosophy exposed me to existentialism and modernism, while my inner life became increasingly desolate and lonely. Years later, as a graduate student in Manhattan, I stood before Andrew Wyeth’s painting, Christina’s World, in the Museum of Modern Art. It was the exact portrait of my experience—stranded in a pink dress out in the wasteland, paralyzed, and surrounded by nothing. I had inadvertently discovered an interior landscape of desolation and meaninglessness, monotony and primitive simplicity. There was something terribly true about that terrain that I could not avoid.
Around this time, I first began sitting practice. Sitting placed me directly in this landscape, and I assumed that this was an experience of what the Buddhist texts and teachers called emptiness. Sitting gave me a way to relate to this world. And when I first took Buddhist vows, I took comfort that I had joined a religion that lived in this stark and lonely terrain. As a refugee, I had given up home, friends, family, and hope, and I doubted I would ever be in a genuinely loving relationship. It represented a journey of grim, dramatic resignation. But at least it seemed real.
Later I discovered that this was most definitely not emptiness, for it was full of concepts, emotions, and a new brand of hopes and fears. It was emotionally dark, intellectually sharp and conceptual, and strongly fortified. Eventually, I came to see it as a manifestation of our Western cultural malaise of the late twentieth century, a theological and cultural crisis in the validity of absolutes. As a student of religion, for me it was the world abandoned by our Western god, tinged with bitterness and despair. I was a disillusioned theist, embracing what seemed its opposite. This was the realm of the existentialists who sat in the grim confidence that God was dead and that there was “no exit.” This was the wasteland of T. S. Eliot, who lamented, “The wind crosses the brown land, unheard.” Or as the microbiologist Jacques Monod mourned, we are “alone in the universe’s unfeeling immensity, out of which [we] emerged only by chance. [Our] destiny is nowhere spelled out, nor is [our] duty.” This was nihilism, cowardly and intellectual, the flip side of theism.
For many of my generation who discovered Buddhism, the eternalist absolute was replaced by a nihilistic one. And the nihilistic absolute is difficult to crack open, for it is armored by cynicism and doubt. Nihilism avoids religion or patronizes it, finding it impossibly naive and irrelevant. Buddhism, uprooted from its Asian cultural setting, became acceptable to us insofar as it supported a nihilistic possibility. For many intellectual Buddhists, academia or the lab became the cloister, the classroom the chapel, critical analysis or research the ritual. Buddhism was appealing as long as it remained stripped of religiosity and institutional trappings, and it conformed to scientific principles. It worked as long as it was a “science of mind” rather than a religion.
When we approach the dharma in this way, how do we come to an authentic experience of the spiritual riches of the tradition? How can we experience the genuine emptiness? This requires that we know what is meant by the Sanskrit word shunyata, usually translated as “emptiness.” Shunyata is a pedagogical term that points to the futility of concept to accurately express the true nature of reality. Humans are conventionally ensnared by a conceptual approach, and these concepts blind us to the unfettered, brilliant qualities of experience. It is conventionally unimaginable to move beyond these concepts, for they condition every moment of our lives and shape our sense of identity, our relationships, our emotions, our sense perceptions, our very dreams. Most attempts to point out the binding nature of our conceptual landscape merely intensify our concepts as we grope to fit even spiritual teachings in our previously devised categories. This is how existentialism and post-modernism are chained to their philosophic predecessors, with allegiance to truth, beauty, rationality, or pragmatism. All are based on conceptual models of reality, all of which must be ultimately shed in Buddhist practice.
Nilhilism is said to be particularly challenging on the path. The most dangerous kind of nihilism is the one that conceptualizes emptiness, and the great acharyas of the tradition always targeted this as problematic. As Nagarjuna said, “Emptiness will liberate one from all conceptual views. But those who conceptualize emptiness will fail to realize liberation.” In other words, emptiness is merely a designating word. It is not itself any thing, any thought, or any phenomenon that can be conceptualized. And insofar as we conceptualize emptiness, we will find only painful dead ends. Affirming phenomena is to hold the eternalist point of view; negating phenomena is nihilism. Nagarjuna said, “Skillful meditators should neither affirm nor negate phenomena.”
In the Mahayana sutras, the Buddha manifested his skillful means to point out our clinging to conceptuality, and to introduce directly, mind to mind, the true nature of reality. What the Buddha taught cannot be accurately expressed in words, but he used specific pedagogical terms, like shunyata, to point to that inexpressible realization. Yet the core of these teachings cannot be directly accessed through even the most revered of sacred texts. It cannot be uncovered by the precision of the finest “middle way” (Madhyamaka) logics, or the most beautiful of empowerments or rituals. The inexpressible realization of the Buddha can only be discovered through the kindness of a living teacher.
Through my first years of study and practice, I thought I understood all of this. I was drawn to the work of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, because he wrote about loneliness and desolation. He emphasized the experience of hopelessness, and he wrote poetry about the stark landscape in which I lived. He spoke a language I thought I understood, and I was eager to meet him. But that first summer of Naropa University, I was unprepared for the actual experience of encountering him face to face. In our first conversation, he reached into my mind, knowing the question behind my question, and he answered it before I could even ask. He recognized my inner desolation, and yet to him it was not tragic. There was no boundary between us, and he neither confirmed nor denied anything in my experience. He had not lost heart, and his joy and celebration were apparent in everything he did. I was shocked, afraid, and magnetized.
Still, the ramparts of my desolation endured for years to come. I relaxed in Rinpoche’s presence, but the joy and humor were his, not mine. I rode his charisma and basked in his warmth. I practiced and studied and soaked up everything I could of his teachings, determined to fulfill his wishes. When he taught on hopelessness, I resonated, feeling vindicated. Yes, I felt hopeless—I must have been a good student of his! But one day he strode into my desolation, eyes flashing with humor, and called my bluff. My desolation became anger and disappointment. The secret hope at the heart of my hopelessness was exposed. Nihilism was a brand of theism. I couldn’t look anyone in the eyes, my disappointment was so sharp. But that was the turning point. No concept could capture the true nature of reality or the mind. My mind was pulled inside out, like a sock. And the inner desolation began to melt, like ice in the sun. I glimpsed the basic goodness at the heart of the world, and I was included within it. I can never repay Rinpoche’s kindness.
In the Buddhist scriptures of India and Tibet, the dangers of the nihilistic stance are described and addressed in the teachings of Maitreya and Asanga. Those who mistake the teachings of emptiness are said to fall into any of five traps. First, we may fall into depression and discouragement, convinced that while the buddhas of the past or the teachers of the present became enlightened, this is not something possible for us. Hence, there is no reason to strive in our practice, for enlightenment is simply not possible for ordinary sentient beings like us. This attitude defeats the very ground of our practice and yields a depressed and hopeless attitude in our daily activities as well. Without trust in our own basic goodness, life becomes a shadow of a life, filled with resignation. This perspective is one that the great acharya Shantideva called a brand of laziness, becoming hooked on a dark, sinking, and denigrating state of mind.
Second, nihilism is a kind of arrogance, thinking our own understanding of the nature of reality, while discouraged, is superior to others in scope and realization. We believe that our own perspective is the only true and correct one. The Tibetan example of this is that we become like a solid sphere, a ball, rather than a vessel. When something is poured on us, it rolls right off, and so we are closed to learning anything new and our arrogance has stymied any opportunity we may have for spiritual growth. As a result, it is difficult for us to be students or seekers, because we have already figured out the journey. Our arrogance has sealed us in our wretchedness.
In the third case, nihilism clings tenaciously to its views. Our concepts are rooted in a school of thought that erases every alternative. Notions of desolation substitute for the dharma, and we become conceptual Buddhists, holding our concepts of emptiness to be absolute. We find ourselves in a darkened room, mistaking a coiled rope on the floor for a snake, and we are paralyzed with fear, afraid to move, because we are so convinced of our perceptions. And then we become unwilling to risk giving up these views, to check whether the rope is a snake or a rope. We are intellectually stranded in nihilism.
Fourth, having decided what is real, we deny the very avenues available to us to overcome our false views of the nature of reality. We insist on a “glass-half-empty” view of spirituality, and deny ourselves the very time-tested methods that might liberate us from our desolation. Every teacher we meet seems lacking in some way, and so we decline commitment. We refuse to practice, we will not associate with a sangha. We cling to a nihilistic view of Buddhism, and doubt any teaching that offers an authentic journey. This is considered the most dangerous pitfall of mistaking emptiness, because it carries the intention of sabotage for our spiritual development or happiness.
Probably the most stunting pitfall is the last. Nihilism becomes a kind of narcissism as we isolate ourselves from others and cannot experience genuine compassion. We cling to personal happiness (or misery), forgetting that all beings desire this. As we cut ourselves off from all beings in this way, it becomes impossible for us to generate the awakened heart of bodhicitta. The irony of this is that bodhicitta is the genuine experience of emptiness accompanied by limitless compassion for all beings. Insight into emptiness is the insight of the interdependence of all beings, and we feel their pain as our pain, their joy as ours. According to my lineage, the true experience of emptiness is confirmed by the arising of unbearable compassion for others. When we sequester ourselves from others, we close off the possibility of the experience for which we yearn.
In sum, nihilism is a spiritual cul-de-sac masking itself as the goal. This can be overcome by coming to know the emptiness, compassion, and basic goodness of our own humanity. We must see that the fundamental nature of the buddhas and great teachers of the three times differs not one iota from our own fundamental nature. This must become an actual experience and conviction, not an intellectual tenet. And we must see that this nature is not ours alone—it is shared with all other sentient beings, whether they know it or not.
The first method to abandon nihilism is through the practice of meditation. While sitting may place us first in the desolate landscape, its method points beyond it. We are instructed to begin with posture, erect with a straight back and an open heart. We place our attention on the breath, not too tight and not too loose. We are asked to notice our thinking, and to let it go, and this sets up the possibility of a paradigm shift in our relationship with thoughts. This change in relationship is crucial for the nihilist, who is held hostage by subtle thoughts. Previously, we have identified with thoughts and believed their content. Sitting practice allows us to entertain a thought without identifying with it. Instead, we rest in the space in which thoughts arise, pass, and go like clouds in a vast blue sky. Frankly, no amount of study, contemplation, or ritual practice can have the effect of this simple method, especially for the nihilist.
Even with a sitting practice, the solidity and isolation of nihilism is best punctured through the kindness of a personal teacher or meditation instructor. We need direct contact with someone who sees both our basic goodness and understands our confusion. When I first met Trungpa Rinpoche, I asked him why we needed a teacher. Looking into my eyes, he answered, “Because we are so hard on ourselves.” Stranded in nihilism, we need someone to help us open our hearts, soften our concepts, and abandon our secret hideouts. It helps to meet someone who sees and experiences our fundamental nature, the empty and luminous qualities of our basic goodness. Then, as we emerge from our cocoons, we have the possibility of trusting something besides our concepts. The direct meeting, mind to mind, with a teacher is a pivotal moment in the shedding of nihilistic armor.
I still experience the dark shadows of nihilism, but as a visitor. As I pulled up my stakes from that terrain, I asked myself, am I prepared to be happy? Can I allow myself to emerge from the self-imposed exile of my nihilistic patterns into the true open space of my humanity? Can I abandon the constant dilemmas perpetuated by a mind escaping from eternalism into nihilism? And then I think of my teacher, how he sat constantly in the nakedness of the present moment, enjoying himself, doing nothing. He asked us to make friends with our desolation, and to come to know our terror, and to sing. I sing with him whenever I can.
Today when I look at the vast wastes of the Nebraska Sandhills, I realize that they are very much like Tibet. They are open and vast, with great simplicity. Monotony is not a problem for the practitioner. Rinpoche loved those landscapes—the unfettered qualities of the slightly rolling hills, the uninterrupted horizon, and the huge sky. The landscape has not changed at all—but my mind has.