The dialog on "Ramana and the Religion of Atman" over at the BY Forum leads me to make a few comments about the essence of Buddhism and its viewpoint on the nature of reality. There's a lot of confusion among western newcomers to Buddhism as to what its essential insights into reality are, and what its aim is. Bozos like us need to be reminded how the core Buddhist message is at once most simple, and yet very difficult to accept without long struggle.
Buddhism is founded in Gotama's observation that the source of all misery in life is craving. All of the illusions and delusions and miseries of this life are founded in our unending craving, which left to itself will perpetuate itself, and its illusions, forever. To end our misery, therefore, craving must end. Having observed this deeply, Gotama set out to find a way to bring an end to craving. He sat down to examine himself and his cravings directly, determined to break through the cycle of misery that craving induces in us all.
What he noticed, first of all, is that all cravings require an object to be craved. It does not matter if the object craved is material and sensual, or spiritual and heavenly, there must be an object to our cravings. Without an object, craving collapses. This had been observed by others before, he noticed. He himself had been raised a prince, and given every earthly pleasure to pursue, but had been miserable anyway. He then left home as a spiritual seeker, and joined up with various spiritual paths, which taught that desire and craving were the enemy to be vanguished, and that the objects of craving were the enemy to be eliminated. Thus, he adopted the mode of an ascetic, and his main practice was the rejection of all sensual objects, because it was thought that by rejecting all sensual objects, craving would go away and bliss would ensue. However, he found that this only created a cycle of craving on a deeper level. It did not end the cycle of craving and misery, but merely created a new cycle of craving for release from sensual objects. He knew there was something missing from his understanding, and he left the ascetic path to find out what it was.
As he sat under the Bodhi tree examining himself and his cravings, he entered into a mode of observation which we now call "phenomenal realism". He began to inspect everything which entered his awareness to see if any of it had any real and permanent "substance" to it. Was there actually a "self" or an "it" to anything which he sensed or experienced? The more he observed of the world, and of his own mind and experience, the more he began to see that everything was impermanent, shifting, changing, and lacking anything which did not appear, shift, change, and disappear. He did not merely analyze phenomena in the materialistic manner, he examined them on every level, gross, subtle, causal, you name it. He examined samadhi states and subtle objects of attention. All of them, he noticed, were devoid of the "it" factor. They were "empty" in other words, of any real substance. They were merely phenomenal appearances, with no "there" there.
How was it possible, he asked, to crave something that was empty, that had no substance to it, that could not be grasped and held and attained? We can only crave that which we think is real, which can we think has real substance to it. We crave the objects and states and pleasures of the material world because we think they are real. We crave spiritual objects and states and pleasures when we think they are real also.
What Gotama noticed was that if we see that there is no such reality to objects, that they are empty of substance and self, the cycle of craving collapses upon itself. So what Buddha did was an exhaustive meditative process of examining his experience, inner and outer, until it became utterly clear that no such "thingness" existed, anywhere, even in himself. Eventually, he discovered that what was important was not even the inspection of any particular phenomena, but the development in himself of what he came to call "right view". In other words, examining phenomena need not be repeated endlessly, re-inventing the wheel over and over again. Instead, he saw that it was possible to simply develop a view which could instantly and naturally see that all phenomena were "empty". The purpose of the inspection of phenomena was to develop this right view, and in developing right view, the cycle of cravings would fall apart. The "fire" of craving would be quenched by the "water" of right view, and it would be extinguished in nirvana.This would bring about the end of misery, which was nothing more than craving and its consequent delusions.
It's important to recognize that Gotama was strictly pragmatic in his evaluation of "right view". He defined "wrong" view as any view that supported or perpetuated craving. "Right view", on the other hand, was any view that did not support or perpetuate craving. So he began to inspect all his views, and he eliminated those which supported craving, and encouraged those which did not support craving. He examined such views as the Vedantic notion of an eternal soul, and found that this view supported craving, so he abandoned it. He found that the view which said that no inner soul exists either in oneself, or in any person or thing, did not support craving, and so he encouraged it. Eventually, he found that all views were themselves "empty", and were to be abandoned, leaving only "nirvana" itself as the default.
Gotama did not set out to glorify any concept of "emptiness", and it's misleading to speak of Buddhist enlightenment as the attainment of some "void" state. These are semantic misnomers that can lead to the reification of voidness or enlightenment itself as a state or thing to be craved and attained. The opposite is the case. The whole point of his understanding of "right view" is a negation of all "content", leading to the abandonment of any and all objects of the mind, senses, and any views which encourage the craving of these, by imparting some sense of metaphysical reality to them. It's a very hard view to come to, precisely because we are so attached to craving, and don't want to give up our cravings. Instead, we seek views which will in some way support our continued craving. We might agree with Buddha to some degree, but then depart for a compromised view that suggests there really is something in us or in objects which is real, which is worthy of pursuit, and which therefore will keep our cycle of craving alive and well.
Much of the evolution of Buddhism over time can be criticized as looking for ways to perpetuate some form of craving, either for ordinary pleasures or for spiritual states, while still accepting many of the basic tenets of Gotama's teaching. As the fellow in my debate over at the Forum demonstrates, people will try to find some way of looking at "voidness", and seeing it as full of wondrous objects, and evolve spiritual theories and dharmas about all that, for the purpose of perpetuating craving. The genuine Buddhist doesn't spend a lot of time analyzing these matters and arguing the fine points, he merely asks himself, does this view support craving, or does it not support it? If the view supports craving, he abandons it, no matter how attractive it might otherwise seem.
This is of course the opposite of how we have learned to think and act, even in spiritual circles. It is assumed that if some view, some path, some method, is able to enliven our cravings by giving us positive results, that we should pursue it. To Gotama, however, this was evidence that it's a wrong view, and a sign that we should abandon it. This is because Gotama's goal was the cessation of craving, not the fulfillment of craving as we are all inclined towards. And most people involved in spiritual practices of one kind or another, including Buddhists, are looking for the fulfillment of craving, and not its cessation. So this brings about much conflict within Buddhism, and even within every Buddhist. A part of us is convinced that craving is suffering and wishes it to come to an end, but another part of it feels that the best way for it to come to an end is by having our cravings fulfilled. So even Buddhists look for views which allow them to continue to seek the fulfillment of their cravings, even while disciplining themselves and engaging in all kinds of meditative practices and good conduct and so forth. Many engage these practices with the idea that it will fulfill some deeper craving for enlightenment. But Gotama's teaching is that even these cravings must be abandoned, that any view of enlightenment which supports craving is a false view, no matter how fulfilling it might seem.
Gotama's teaching, therefore, is not very popular even among Buddhists. Not many Buddhists really wish to end the cycle of craving. They do not wish to come to the view that all things and all views are "empty", because they wish to continue the cycle of cravings just a little bit more.
There's a great Zen Buddhist story about a Zen master whose students come to the morning meditation session to find their master sitting on the dias with a large bowl of hot peppers in his lap. As they sit to meditate, the master begins eating the hot peppers, one by one. As he does so, his lips begin to swell up from the peppers. The master's face begins to sweat. One can see that he's in tremendous pain from the hot peppers. Soon his whole face is swollen, his eyes are tearing, his mouth is red and clearly in agony, but he keeps eating the hot peppers. Finally one of his students can stand the sight of his master's suffering no longer and he jumps up and shouts out, "Master, please stop!" But the master ignores him and keeps on eating. Others also start shouting out for him to stop, but he ignores them too. Finally, someone desperately asks, "Master, please tell us, why won't you stop eating these hot peppers?" And the master finally stops for a moment, and nonchalantly replies, "I'm looking for a sweet one."
And that is what all us Bozos are up to in the final analysis. We are looking for a sweet one. We are looking for some view, some practice, some teaching or dharma, which will allow us to keep eating hot peppers because we crave that "sweet one". Gotama's solution is not a description of the real, true, and indisputable "sweet one" that those in the know will recognize as being the real McCoy. It's a rejection of the whole process of craving any sweet one at all. It's an observational approach that sees that there is no "thing" out there or in here, and thus that there is nothing whatsoever to crave. Craving collapses without an object. As Ramana noticed, the 'I'-thought requires an object to latch onto. When it cannot find an object, it collapses upon itself. Gotama's method was similar, in that it denies our cravings a destination, an object, which it can latch onto, and the result is a radical collapse of all craving.
That is of course not the end of anything but craving itself and its illusions. In the absence of craving, the true nature of reality is understood - not as some eternal "thing", but as blissful emptiness in all directions, at all levels, and thus, perfect peace. As Gotama said in one of his discourses:
No sensual pleasure,
No heavenly bliss
Equals one infinitesimal part
Of the bliss of the cessation of craving.
The "bliss of the cessation of craving" is not like the bliss we achieve through sensory pleasure or spiritual seeking. It is uncaused, and uncreated. It has no object, and is not itself an object. And yet, it is infinitely greater than any such bliss or pleasure that comes from objects, high or low. It is the bliss of peace, of the cessation of all struggles and cravings and attainments and experiences and visions and views and so on. It is radical bliss, and it does not support craving, unlike other blisses, which are always a goad to more craving. Because it is not created, it cannot die; because it is not caused, it cannot be ended. Because it has no content, it cannot be emptied. It is already empty. There is not even any self to experience it, because the viewpoint of "self" has been seen as empty also.
The practice of vipassana as Gotama used it and recommended to others was nothing more than this simple approach of examining phenomenal existence on every level, and seeing that it is empty, and that it does not support craving at all, as we have mistakenly assumed. Vipassana is not a way to find justification for one's cravings. It is a way to find freedom from craving, by dispelling the illusion that some inner reality exists in either objects or self which can be craved. It may begin with an inspection of outer objects, but it eventually finds that all phenomena are merely that - images without content. Our presumption is that images exist only because something "real" is behind them. We presume a mirror that reflects from some real object, some real "sun" that provides the light for these images. But Gotama's radical finding was that there is no such reality behind objects, that they are merely empty images, with no causal origin at all, no "self" or "it" in them, behind them, or anywhere else. They merely arise spontaneously, uncaused, and cannot be the basis for craving, therefore. We cannot possibly grasp hold of them, because they are just phenomenal images.
This leads to the Buddha's final admonition, which he gave shortly before his death: "Be a refuge unto oneself". In other words, take this whole approach of "right view" and apply it directly to one's own self, as he did under the Bodhi tree. In doing so, the whole matrix of craving will collapse. If even our own self is empty, how can one crave at all? This leads to perfect, nirvanic peace, the cessation of all craving, and the uncreated bliss of reality. This is the discovery of the Unborn. It's what Buddhism is all about, in essence, for us Bozos.