Contemptible Emptiness

Shortly after his enlightenment, Gautama Buddha gave his first public talk. He spoke of the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. The First Noble Truth is that all human life has dukkha. The Second Noble Truth is the cause of dukkha is our ignorance. This Pali word, dukkha, has been the source of great misunderstanding as Buddhism has traveled from Asia to Europe and America.

After his passing, the teachings of the Buddha continued to spread through oral recitations. These teachings, known as sutras, were later put into written form using Pali, the language of the time. In the late 19th Century, European scholars began translating the original Buddhist texts. Unfortunately, English does not have the words to express the subtle meaning of many ideas from other cultures. Because of this, “suffering” became the most common translation of dukkha.

Most people think of suffering as a physical condition. War, famine and natural disasters bring about suffering. We suffer from illness and injuries occurring through no fault of our own. How could our ignorance possibly be the cause of this suffering? The problems lie not in the idea of dukkha, but rather in its translation.

Recently, at our temple, a guest minister spoke about dukkha and this translation problem. He explained that dukkha came from two Pali words. The first, du, expressed the idea of something negative. Despicable, abhorrent, contemptible are suitable translations. The second word, kha, means emptiness. Therefore, dukkha is “contemptible emptiness.” What is contemptible emptiness?

We fill our lives with “if onlys.” If only I had more money. If only I had a better job, looks, spouse, boss, and on and on, my life would be better. The feeling that if only we could obtain whatever we think we are lacking then our life would be better, is contemptible emptiness. We are ignorant to the fact that this goal is unobtainable. Our ego stops us from realizing that everything we need is already available to us. To overcome this contemptible emptiness we must break free of our self-centered view of life.

The idea of contemptible emptiness is not limited to Buddhism. Adam and Eve lived in a paradise, yet, when confronted by temptation they succumbed to the desire to have more. Even paradise was not enough. All the world religions have stories of people who let their greed, lust and desire lead to their downfall. Buddhism focuses on our present life. Rather than salvation, the Buddhist path is one of liberation from our ego desires. Our actions determine whether we can change the cycle of suffering. Other religions speak of the eternal, and seek salvation through a God or savior. Regardless of the beliefs, one idea is universal. Until we move beyond a life of ego driven illusion, dukkha will continue to fill our lives. Choose your path. Fill your emptiness.

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