Shunyata, "emptiness," a foundational teaching of Mahayana Buddhism, may be one of the most difficult teachings in all of religion, never mind Buddhism. As I've been going on about in the past three posts, some things have to be realized, not conceptualized, and shunyata is one of those things.
It's to be expected that people who have not practiced in one of the Mahayana traditions will misunderstand it. For that matter, plenty of people who have practiced in the Mahayana traditions misunderstand it (see "You Are Not Nothing" for an example and further discussion of shunyata).
As Buddhism becomes more visible in the West, shunyata and other of the more difficult doctrines will be misjudged and mischaracterized by people who have read about these doctrines but don't "get" them. I've recently become aware that one such misunderstanding is making the rounds that casts all of Mahayana in a very ugly light.
For example, Vladimir Tikhonov wrote for Current Intelligence:
As Demiéville makes clear, Buddhism tends to reject the existence of any essential existence of things (svabhāva) as such, and Mahāyāna philosophy accordingly privileges "mind"/"consciousness," the questions of the "relative" existence of matter being hotly debated by a variety of theoretical traditions. Thus, in the matter of killing, it is the intention and not the act in itself that is focused upon. As some of the most influential Mahāyāna sūtras (Ratnakūta Sūtra, Yogācārabhūmi, etc.) suggest, "killing" is simply a meaningless misconception from an "enlightened" viewpoint (since neither the killer nor the killed have any independent existence) and may be undertaken if intended to prevent a worse misfortune, and done with the best objectives in mind.
I've seen Tikhonov's article linked to and cited on several major religion sites as a frank revelation of ugly things about Buddhism those airhead Buddhists refuse to acknowledge. And I can understand how someone might have come to this conclusion from an intellectual assessment of the teachings. But from the perspective of the Two Truths (discussed in the Heart Sutra article) it's an error to say that "'killing' is simply a meaningless misconception from an 'enlightened' viewpoint." A genuinely enlightened viewpoint takes killing very seriously, indeed.
The Ratnakūta, or Jewel Heap, is said to be one of the oldest sutras of Mahayana. I understand it presents some of the foundations of Madhyamika philosophy. And the Yogācārabhūmi is an important text of the Yogacara school. These are extremely difficult philosophies that often take years of a monastic's life to learn. Read literally and superficially, especially outside the context of the whole of Mahayana teaching, I can understand how a great deal of the old scriptures could be misinterpreted. And folks, is it ever being misinterpreted.
In the the Sunday Times Book Review, Katherine Wharton describes a scene from the Ratnakūta that "presents the disciple Manjushri threatening the Buddha with a sword." In utter ignorance of the mystical meaning of Manjusri's sword, Wharton interprets this scene as a teaching that murder is no big deal.
In another passage, she describes a 9th-century Chinese monk raving "Kill everything you encounter, internally as well as externally! Kill the Buddha! Kill your father and mother! Kill your closest friends!" One suspects this "kill" was in the usual sense of "killing the Buddha," meaning to kill ideas, conceptualizations, and even designations, not homicide.
(Good thing Wharton wasn't at the zendo with me today. In her dharma talk my teacher employed the metaphor of jumping off a cliff to describe the direct experience of the dropping away of delusions and whatever we're clinging to. If she'd heard this, no doubt Wharton right now would be writing a blistering warning that Buddhism encourages suicide.)
Buddhism argues that identification with the principle "no-self" is the highest wisdom. Buddhism, therefore, is usually centred on the refusal of any kind of self-assertion, particularly the assertion of the assailant or the assertion of predator over prey. In Mahayana Buddhism, the refusal of assertion is called the "wisdom of emptiness".
Many Zen masters have warned that if your understanding is off by a hair, it's off by miles, or is "mountains and rivers away." Wharton is not even in the same galaxy. Frankly, I'm at a loss to understand what Wharton is thinking here. But in another part of the review, she writes,
Emptiness, therefore, is not emotionally neutral - we will experience it as desolation, even horror. How can identification with "the void", with that which we most fear, make us more peaceful?
All emotions are "empty," so calling emptiness "emotionally neutral," or not, kind of misses what emptiness is. Wharton is making emptiness into an object with attributes, and that's no way to understand it. I'm not sure where she's getting desolation and horror; possibly from a connection she's drawn between emptiness and Freud.
Mahayana teaching is that a true realization of shunyata cannot exist without compassion, and vice versa. That said, it's certainly true that Buddhist history is peopled with those whose understanding fell short and whose view was one-sided. But I take it that from now on Buddhism is to be held responsible for the actions of its most deluded members, in a way that Christianity and other more "familiar" religions are not. This is a point I'd like to address in more detail in another post, however.
Wharton's review is of two books, Buddhist Warfare, edited by academics Michael K. Jerry son and Mark Juergensmeyer, which I discussed in an earlier post.; and The Six Perfections by Dale S. Wright. The Six Perfections, or paramitas, in Mahayana Buddhism are six aspects of character or understanding to be perfected through practice -- generosity, morality, patience, energy, concentration, and wisdom. And, of course, in Mahayana Buddhism, wisdom (prajna) is the realization of shunyata.
Having been persuaded by Jerryson and Juergensmeyer that shunyata is as likely to inspire homicide than not, and erroneously believing that "emptiness" in Buddhism is a nihilistic void, or else something like Freud's idea of the unconscious, Wharton chides Wright for not coming clean with his readers about the Dark Side of the Dharma.
To compare this to a better understood religion, this is a bit like thinking the Last Supper of Christ was a literal consumption of Jesus' flesh and blood, and then scolding a Christian writer for not warning people that Holy Communion might lead to cannibalism.
Wharton also seems to think Wright "abandons" karma, which she assumes to be a cosmic justice system that rewards good and punishes evil. Wright responds to Wharton's review at the Tricycle blog, and he is a great deal more gracious to Wharton than I would have been. I suppose I should work harder on my paramitas.
Both Wharton and Tikhonov draw a great deal of their "knowledge" from the Jerryson and Juergensmeyer book, and here Wharton cites the afterword to that book by Bernard Faure --
In the afterword, Bernard Faure states that the aim of the collection was to press Buddhists and scholars of Buddhism to face up to the worst aberrations and silences within the tradition. Faure accuses many contemporary Buddhist apologists of taking the "high metaphysical or moral ground" rather than recognizing that in Buddhism, as in all the faiths, there is a constant struggle between light and darkness, between the promise of release and "the violence that lies at the heart of reality (and of each individual)".
The most basic of Buddhist teachings, for both Mahayana and Theravada, is that it is ignorance of reality that is the root cause of suffering and the "evil" of the world. In Mahayana teaching, the heart of reality, the ground of being, is not violence but Buddha-nature. Faure basically is saying that all Buddhism is a pile of crap and would be so much better if it gave up on that silly enlightenment thing and just adopted the same views as all the other, more sensible, religions.
The goal of pressing "Buddhists and scholars of Buddhism to face up to the worst aberrations and silences within the tradition" is a fine one, but it needs to be done by someone who actually knows Buddhism, or at least can sort it from carpet lint.