St Peter's Church, Advent 3, 11th December 2005
Philippians 2

A great Zen master asked one of his monks, ‘Can you get hold of emptiness?’ ‘I’ll try’, said the monk and he cupped his hands in the air. ‘That’s not very good’ said the master, ‘you haven’t got anything in there’. ‘Well, master’, said the monk, ‘please show me a better way’. Thereupon the master seized the monk’s nose and gave it a good tweak. ‘Ouch’, said the monk, ‘that hurt!’ ‘That’s the way to get hold of emptiness’, said the master.

Today we continue the Advent theme of studying the great incarnation hymn of Philippians and I want to consider the notion of emptiness, but don’t worry, your noses are safe!

In verses 6 & 7 of Philippians 2 we read, ‘…who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness’. He emptied himself. And later, ‘Therefore God exalted him’. God exalted him.

I am going to say a little about the Buddhist idea of emptiness – and it will be a little because my knowledge falls just this side of ignorance. Then I’ll say something about how I think Jesus manifested this emptiness in his life, and finally how we might do the same.

As I understand it, Buddhists are very wary of the idea of ‘self’. Whereas we in our western culture speak glibly in terms of self-fulfilment and fulfilling our potential, the Buddhist approach is to be very cautious when thinking in terms of ‘self’. The unwitting nourishment of ego, they say, can lead to such a profound distortion of our worldview that it cripples our relationships, both with each other and the greater world around.

Some Buddhist teachers go as far as to promote the idea of ‘no-self’ as something to be attained which to our western ears sounds negative, even nihilistic. What about personality, what about sense of humour? I think it means stripping away the layers of self-appreciation which accumulate so quietly, so unthinkingly, we hardly know they are there. Before long we are enmeshed in our delusions.

For example when we are happy we want to freeze that moment forever. We are then desperate that things around us don’t change, so we put our energy into keeping things constant, when all the evidence is that everything is in flux. The seasons change, people around us die and are born, even our own body is constantly regenerating itself. Yet we yearn for when we were younger, or when so-and-so was still here, or look for that holiday when we really will relax. We cling to the passing moments. We pretend we are not going to die.

And when things do inevitably change our first instinctive reaction is how that change might affect us. Our energy for dealing with that change creatively is dissipated by thoughts like, ‘yes, but how can I try to keep things the same’ or ‘I resent you making me change’. The Buddhist would say that this indicates something wrong with our worldview. It deeply affects the way we deal with others; compassion does not pour our of us if the first thing we think of is ‘how does this affect me?’

In the gospels Jesus is constantly challenging those who are clinging to delusions. The rich young man is sent disappointed away not able to cope with the suggested change. When Jesus told his disciples of what his fate was to be in Jerusalem, Peter told him not to talk like that. He was given the savage rebuke, ‘Get you behind me, Satan’. The disciples were clinging to the idea that Jesus was the promised Jewish messiah and they were savouring the anticipated glory of his earthly victory. So much so that later on they were squabbling about their relative positions when that duly arrived.

The rich young man, the disciples, and others like the scribes and Pharisees all needed awakening from their preconceptions of how the world was. Like the Zen master who tweaked the nose of his pupil Jesus was trying to shock them out of the illusions they had gathered. What use was the young man to him in furthering the kingdom when his first thought was to his own possessions? How much energy was going to be spent in deciding the disciples’ pecking order? They had to be awakened to a truer state of mind.

Like those crowds in the gospels we might wonder where Jesus’ authority came from. The answer lies I think in the wilderness, the quiet places where he spent time alone. He had to, I believe, empty himself continually, to be always on his guard. In the forty days we are told the devil tempted him which means I think that he had to become aware of the delusions that his gifts and inspiration were susceptible to. What better way to impress the crowds and influence people then by flamboyant miracles? Yet this would lead to crowds expecting miracles and a state of mind where he would constantly have to produce them. It then becomes an impediment to compassion and showing them the real kingdom.

In the garden the thought of saving his life occurred to him and troubled him greatly but he still let it go and stayed to face his fate with his friends.

How can we have this sort of self-knowledge? If we are in the grip of self-delusion where do we get this perspective on ourselves? In short, how do we empty ourselves?

For me personally, the answer begins in silence. I must drive myself out into the wilderness, away from the distractions and stimulations of a media-driven society where we are constantly moving on to the next thing to be done. To stop in stillness requires some effort because it really isn’t very easy. For when you sit in quietness you become aware of the chattering monkeys, the many voices in your mind that take your best intentions and sweep them away. It can sometimes be several minutes before you realise what is happening. If indeed you can stay awake that long.

But as we begin to empty ourselves, however painfully, however foolishly, in the words of Philippians, God begins to exalt us. We start to become aware of the layers that we have accrued, to dismantle the delusions that make us look distortedly upon the world. We begin to hear the little voice that diverts us away from what is happening right here, right now, the one that says, ‘but what about me?’. We are filled, if only for a moment.

Insight is given, we begin to become aware and I believe that the Spirit leads us towards holiness. Compassion has a clearer path and can find its way to others. This is where we begin to come near incarnation: that clear-sightedness where the Spirit is free to act and react, where in emptiness we are free to be ourselves in this moment, right now without prejudice, without pre-condition. This is the majesty of God within us.

Not that I can claim enlightenment, far from it, but I begin to understand what it might mean. The illusions however abound. As I was pondering what to say this morning I was influenced by the comfortable old ingrained defensive mechanisms. Would I be thought too clever? Or not clever enough? Would I be going off-message, St Peter’s wise, and thought eccentric? Could I achieve the right entertaining mixture? Would I be boring? Would I look old in these glasses? Yet it is at this apparently petty level we need to experience emptiness.

Emptiness, as the monk learnt from his master, is impossible to grasp. We can only give ourselves up to God, quietly and earnestly longing to be emptied and the miracle is that he does indeed exalt us.: "…who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, becoming no-self… and God exalted him."

Subhuti, a disciple of Buddha, had reached the enlightenment of Great Emptiness, where the Eternal Real and the passing unreal are one. Sitting under a tree in this enlightenment, he found flowers drifting down on him from the tree. And he heard voices. "We are praising your eloquence on Emptiness," said these voices like gods' voices. "But I have not spoken of Emptiness," murmured Subhuti. "You have not spoken of it. We have not heard it. This is true Emptiness," said the voices, and the flowers fell like rain.

Paul Carpenter

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Last revised 17th April 2006