Emptiness: For Real
I was at a planning / organizational meeting for a young adult group I participate in. It is a group that is a part of an Episcopal Church. Yes, it’s a bit of an odd story. I am a Vajrayana Buddhist with some connections to a Christian Church. Then again, I digress. So at this meeting, there was a question posed about how this community of people, as a “Christian community” differed from just being a “community of friends”. The question irked me a little bit, not in the angry way, but just a bit of a “brain stopper” moment. My immediate response was: “is there a difference?”
This little question provoked a stretch of contemplation that has continued until now, even as I’m writing this piece. I posted on Facebook: “Is there any difference between genuine community and a Christian community?” The reply was an interesting one. One person said: “Yes, Christian community points to something greater than itself-the life we have together in Jesus.” This prompted even more contemplation and reflection. It prompted me to ask: don’t all genuine acts or expressions of community point to something greater than itself?
At one time, I might have been a more conventional “Christian” voice, but here, I’m going to speak in a much less conventional voice, because I think there’s something important to be learned here. Genuine community, meaning a place where true friendship is found, where there is acceptance, common growth, and common experience, points to something greater than itself. What that something is, is inexpressible, and inexplicable. And that is where things get interesting. Human beings have lots of fun with the inexpressible. Being the curious animals that we are, we like to define things, to label, identify, and set things apart. This game of naming, unfortunately, has created a lot of division. It’s at the root of many of our deepest religious rivalries. And this is where we get into trouble.
I’ve been a part of many religious and spiritual communities throughout my spiritual journey. I can say that in each of them, I have found the same inexpressible quality of genuine community that Christians claim only for themselves. That quality is what I find nourishing and what I find propels me towards spiritual growth. So, it’s definitely not something that is confined to a particular religious or spiritual community’s experience.
We get ourselves into trouble when we start claiming the experience of the divine or whatever else you want to call it (I call it Emptiness, or in Sanskrit: Shunyata) for ourselves of a particular religious community of our choosing. When we do this, we begin to create walls, more specifically dualities. When we create dualities like these, we begin to create enemies. These enemies don’t come from the outside to attack our city on the hill. By simply creating the notion of other, we create an enemy with our own minds. When we separate and exclude the experience of others in other communities as qualitatively different than our own experience, those others become enemies.
Let me also make note here: there is nothing wrong with expressing our experience in the context of the language of our spiritual traditions. As a Buddhist, I relate with the experience of divinity as Emptiness, the absence of inherent existence. That Emptiness, in the Buddhist tradition, is expressed as spaciousness, the expanse of nowness, everything as it is. A Christian might see this as God. What’s important here is that no matter what you call it, you are still trying to express the inexpressible.
Community is only a part of the rich fabric of human experience that is common to all human beings. Whether Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Spiritual but not Religious, or just plain Secular, community is an experience that points to something greater. Whether we call it our humanity, God, or Emptiness, the fact is that it is an experience that is shared by all. So, it’s not necessarily a problem if we want to talk about it in the spiritual, religious, philosophical or sociological language of our choice. Indeed, that’s part of how we make sense of the world. But, we need to understand that there are other ways of making sense of the world.
I really feel that when we start naming it “Christian community”, “Buddhist community”, or whatever else, we begin to erode the power of that “something greater” that is pointed to by a genuine experience of community. Indeed, it’s divisive and detrimental when we start to piece out the divine and carving out our part of it.