By maintaining awareness of feelings and perceptions, we can do without excessive and harmful reflections and obsessions. In particular, Buddha was concerned with the ways we obsess about ourselves, attempting to fix a permanent, perfect self, and the ways we obsess about our world, attempting to fix the ways of things and our understandings of them. As we become aware of our obsessions, we become aware of how they blind us to seeing the complexity of the situation, how things are interconnected and complex. Buddha called this pratityasamutpada, Codependent Arising, which sounds like a terrible movie about therapists aboard a submarine, also known in English translation as dependent origination and conditioned genesis.
Each thing is what it is because of how it interacts with every other thing, not because of anything that it is completely in itself. Things that are opposite and opposed to each other, such as self and other, friend and enemy, good and bad, hot and cold, are what they are because of their opposites and in spite of them. Buddha referred to the self, the world and each part of each thing as a pile (skanda), a bundle of many things intertwined. This is similar to Wittgenstein’s idea that thinking and meaning are like a thread, a tangle of many things without one single strand running throughout the length of the whole.
Because things are impermanent and dependent on other things to be what they are, Buddha taught that all things are empty (shunya). While this seems depressing or frightening to many, it should be understood as a kind of openness, not being closed off in themselves as it first appears but being connected to and dependent on everything else. In an early text, the Buddha says that abiding in emptiness is abiding in fullness. What first appears to be nihilism, belief in nothing, should rather be understood as belief in everything as an interconnected whole, as a rich abundance that means far too much to mean any one specific thing in particular.
In a set of talks by the Dalai Lama called Compassion in Emptiness, he speaks about Nagarjuna, who we will soon study, and connects emptiness, openness, and compassion as the goal of Buddhist teaching and practice. Being empty of self is not just lacking self-determination, but lacking selfishness and possessiveness. An absence of selfishness or division of things does not mean one has nothing. Rather one is not attached to the things one finds one has. Later in this talk the Dalai Lama giggles about Jains showing up to conferences naked.