Emptiness--Sunyata--& Religious Ideas

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Also on this website:

Toby Johnson's books:

GAY SPIRITUALITY: The Role of Gay Identity in the Transformation of Human Consciousness

GAY PERSPECTIVE: Things Our Homosexuality Tells Us about the Nature of God and the Universe

SECRET MATTER: updated, revised & expanded edition from Lethe Press with Afterword by Mark Jordan

GETTING LIFE IN PERSPECTIVE: A romance novel set in the 1980s and the 1890s.

THE FOURTH QUILL, a novel about attitudinal healing and the problem of evil

TWO SPIRITS: A Story of Life with the Navajo, a collaboration with Walter L. Williams

CHARMED LIVES: Spinning Straw into Gold: Reclaiming Our Queer Spirituality Through Story


About ordering

Books on Gay Spirituality:

White Crane Gay Spirituality Series

  Articles and Excerpts:

Read Toby's review of Samuel Avery's The Dimensional Structure of Consciousness

Funny Coincidence: "Aliens Settle in San Francisco"

The Simple Answer to the Gay Marriage Debate

Why gay people should NOT Marry

Wedding Cake Liberation

Gay Marriage in Texas

What's ironic

Shame on the American People

The "highest form of love"

Second March on Washington

A Bifurcation of Gay Spirituality

 The cause of homosexuality

The origins of homophobia

Q&A about Jungian ideas in gay consciousness

What is homosexuality?

What is Gay Spirituality?

My three messages

What Jesus said about Gay Rights

Queering religion

Common Experiences Unique to Gay Men

The purpose of homosexuality

The Reincarnation of Edward Carpenter

The Gay Succession

Interview on the Nature of Homosexuality

What the Bible Says about Homosexuality

Mesosexual Ideal for Straight Men

Varieties of Gay Spirituality

Waves of Gay Liberation Activity

Why Gay Spirituality: Spirituality as Artistic Medium

Easton Mountain Retreat Center

Andrew Harvey & Spiritual Activism

The Gay Spirituality Summit in May 2004 and the  "Statement of Spirituality"

"It's Always About You"

The myth of the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara

Joseph Campbell's description of Avalokiteshvara

Avalokiteshvara at the Baths.

You're Not A Wave

What is Enlightenment?

What is reincarnation?

How many lifetimes in an ego?

Emptiness & Religious Ideas

Experiencing experiencing experiencing

Going into the Light

Meditations for a Funeral

Meditation Practice

The way to get to heaven

Buddha's father was right

Advice to Travelers to India & Nepal

The Danda Nata & goddess Kalika

Nate Berkus is a bodhisattva

John Boswell was Immanuel Kant

The Two Loves

Curious Bodies

What Toby Johnson Believes

The Joseph Campbell Connection

Campbell & The Pre/Trans Fallacy

The Nature of Religion

What's true about Religion

Being Gay is a Blessing

Drawing Long Straws

Freedom of Religion

The Gay Agenda

Gay Saintliness

Gay Spiritual Functions

The subtle workings of the spirit in gay men's lives.

The Sinfulness of Homosexuality

Proposal for a study of gay nondualism

Priestly Sexuality

 "The Evolution of Gay Identity"

"St. John of the Cross &
the Dark Night of the Soul."

 Eckhart's Eye

Let Me Tell You a Secret

Religious Articulations of the Secret

The Collective Unconscious

Driving as Spiritual Practice


Historicity as Myth


No Stealing

Next Step in Evolution

The New Myth

The Moulting of the Holy Ghost

Gaia is a Bodhisattva

The Hero's Journey as archetype

Marian Doctrines: Immaculate Conception & Assumption

Teenage Prostitution and the Nature of Evil

Allah Hu: "God is present here"
Adam and Steve

The Life is in the Blood

Gay retirement and the "freelance monastery"

Seeing with Different Eyes

The mystical experience at the Servites'  Castle in Riverside

The Great Dance according to C.S.Lewis

The Techniques Of The World Saviors

Part 1: Brer Rabbit and the Tar-Baby
Part 2:
The Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara
Part 3:
Jesus and the Resurrection
Part 4:
A Course in Miracles

The Secret of the Clear Light

Understanding the Clear Light

Mobius Strip

Finding Your Tiger Face

How Gay Souls Get Reincarnated

In honor of Sir Arthur C Clarke

Karellen was a homosexual

About Alien Abduction

What are you looking for in a gay science fiction novel?

The D.A.F.O.D.I.L. Alliance

More about Gay Mental Health

Psych Tech Training

The Rainbow Flag

Ideas for gay mythic stories

Kip and Toby, Activists

Toby's friend and nicknamesake Toby Marotta.

Harry Hay, Founder of the gay movement

About Hay and The New Myth

About Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, the first man to really "come out"

About Michael Talbot, gay mystic

About Fr. Bernard Lynch

About Richard Baltzell

About Guy Mannheimer

About David Weyrauch

About Dennis Paddie

About Ask the Fire

About Arthur Evans

About Christopher Larkin

About Sterling Houston

About Michael Stevens

Our friend Tom Nash

Book Reviews

Be Done on Earth by Howard E. Cook

Pay Me What I'm Worth by Souldancer

The Way Out by Christopher L  Nutter
The Gay Disciple by John Henson

Art That Dares by Kittredge Cherry

Coming Out, Coming Home by Kennth A. Burr

Extinguishing the Light by B. Alan Bourgeois

Over Coffee: A conversation For Gay Partnership & Conservative Faith by D.a. Thompson

Dark Knowledge by Kenneth Low

Janet Planet by Eleanor Lerman

The Kairos by Paul E. Hartman

Wrestling with Jesus by D.K.Maylor

Kali Rising by Rudolph Ballentine

The Missing Myth by Gilles Herrada

The Secret of the Second Coming by Howard E. Cook

The Scar Letters: A Novel by Richard Alther

The Future is Queer by Labonte & Schimel

Missing Mary by Charlene Spretnak

Gay Spirituality 101 by Joe Perez

Cut Hand: A Nineteeth Century Love Story on the American Frontier by Mark Wildyr

Radiomen by Eleanor Lerman

Nights at Rizzoli by Felice Picano

The Key to Unlocking the Closet Door by Chelsea Griffo

The Door of the Heart by Diana Finfrock Farrar

Occam’s Razor by David Duncan

Grace and Demion by Mel White

Gay Men and The New Way Forward by Raymond L. Rigoglioso

The Dimensional Stucture of Consciousness by Samuel Avery

The Manly Pursuit of Desire and Love by Perry Brass

Subhuti in the Garden

A gentle breeze blew threough the dawnsky-tinted blossoms of the pink cherry tree, delicating provoking the flowers.

Beneath the tree, rapt in the reverie of the morning light and the whispering coolness of the wind, Subhuti sat and watched the dancing of the blossoms.

Suddenly, the whole tree began to tremble, the blossoms to sway and frolic and then to fall all about the monk seated under the tree, like the flowers strewn in processions before passing holy men or before the images of the Incarnate Wisdom of Buddha.

Subhuti sat up, a little startled, and asked rhetorically of heaven, "What is happening that this tree should shower me with its blossoms that are so pure and perfect?"

To his surprise, the Voice of Heaven spoke and the Gods gave answer, saying, "O noble Subhuti, do not be surprised, we are only manifesting our appreciation of your glorious discourse on emptiness."

"But I was giving no discourse on emptiness," said the bewildered monk.

"You have given no discourse on emptiness," said the Gods, "and we have heard no discourse on emptiness."

And the blossoms continued to fall, glorious in their appreciation, cascading in torrents of beauty and all-surpassing wisdom.

Epistemological Vacuum

In order to decide what to do, one must first know what is true. One must know what truth is. That is the issue of epistemology. And the epistemological stance of most Americans is too simple and too threatened to support an ethic that can deal with the complex questions of the modern world.

But perhaps there is something hauntingly significant about our epistemological vacuum. Perhaps, in order to find a resolution, we need simply to reverse our attitude toward our confusion. Perhaps what seems so to threaten belief is instead the condition in which insight can be achieved. Perhaps the crisis of religion can be the source of spiritual transformation. That has been a progression I have seen in my own life and this is why my story may be of some interest.

From unquestioning belief I moved into confusion and dismay as the religious tenets I held so dear seemed to conflict with the rational, scientific principles I knew to be correct. My effort to be both a holy and virtuous man and an intelligent, clear-minded thinker seemed doomed. That confusion pushed me to grapple with the epistemological issues that founded the problem. I saw that religion is only superficially concerned with doctrine and behavior and much more truly with spiritual awareness. I glimpsed the mystical substratum on which belief rests and saw that the confusion and sense of the emptiness of all truth need be a source less of apostasy than of ecstasy.

And I saw that this awareness of a mystical reality--not unlike the critiques of modern philosophy--points beyond itself and beyond its gods to a deep stratum of consciousness, the experience of which for many has been the fruit of the mystical quest. For even in religious language, this has sometimes been described as an experience of emptiness. Thus, paradoxically, the sense of emptiness and meaninglessness which has resulted from the attenuation of faith brought about by the scientific age appeared to be, with only a slight twist, the goal of religious experience. The twist, I discovered, is that where for modern humankind the experience of emptiness is frightening and demoralizing, for religiouskind it has been metaphorized in ways that make it enlightening and liberating.

Self-referential Statements

The familiar example of the problem of self-referential statements is the sentence: “This statement is false.” If the statement is true, then it’s false. If the statement is false, then it’s true. The only way to make sense of such a statement is to move up a level to a metastatement observing the problem of self-reference. While the example seems mere sophistry, the problem really has profound philosophical implications. And these manifest the problem of modern consciousness’s ability to be conscious of itself.

While this has become a problem of modern times, it’s actually quite an ancient phenomenon. Those Hindu and Buddhist icons and statues of gods and buddhas with multiple heads layered one upon another are depictions of the experience in meditation of watching oneself watching oneself watching oneself ad infinitum. That these depictions show up in such a context indicates the religious implications of such questioning. There was, for example, a time when many of us were satisfied with the argument that the Bible must be the true revealed Word of God since it says so right there in the Bible and the Word of God can’t lie. But as soon as we got sophisticated enough to understand self-referential statements, that polemic might have begun to seem as strong an argument against the literal truth of the Bible as it had previously been in support of it. We were forced up a level to a metaquestion.

A sense of emptiness arises from such questioning of the explanations of reality that we have traditionally held. For they force us to suspect, at least, that the explanations, especially religious explanations, are merely images, fairy tales that satisfy specific needs but that possess of themselves no real truth.

This questioning has been done in the past not only by the opponents of religion but, as well, by religious mystics and visionaries. These were men and women not satisfied with the simple, superficial beliefs of their families and neighbors. Fascinated with what seemed to lie behind conventional religious teaching, they sought some direct experience of Truth and of God instead of mere images. They might have said that God had called to them from behind the stories and images that those around them accepted complacently as Truth.

Some of these seekers then tried to explain how their experiences of God were different from what they had been taught and how the images had both helped and hindered their mystical quest. Some, trying to cut through the use of myths and images altogether, used words like “emptiness,” “nothingness,” and “the Void” to describe their experience of the Ultimate. Thus some of the most famous religious figures sounded very much like modern skeptics who declare that the myths of religion are false, that the gods do not exist, and that Ultimate Truth is empty--if only because it seems to go on forever.

Nagarjuna and Sunyata

In his major work, the Mulamadhyamakarikas (Fundamentals of the Middle Way), the first century Buddhist sage, Nagarjuna cut through the distinction between two conficting theological schools of early Buddhism, the Abhidharma and the Prajnaparamita, by denying that either doctrine had any substantial reality.

Nagarjuna taught the principle of sunyata. Sunyata is usually translated “emptiness,” or “nothingness.” Perhaps a more intelligible way of translating sunyata would be “contentlessness.” For in Nagarjuna’s thought it meant that the metaphysical and religious notions of Buddhism are only temporarily useful concepts that have no content and that refer to no objective existence--in the contemporary lingo of Marshall McLuhan: no message, only medium.

Nagarjuna taught that all ideas, philosophies, and beliefs are empty because everything is relative. According to his principle of “mutual co-origination,” no experiences are more basic than any others because all are intelligible only in terms of each other. He maintained that, since the very existence of the world itself arises from the mutual interaction of the relations within the world, enlightened consciousness should not focus on individual objects and experiences. Thus Nagarjuna’s reality shifted from the world of nouns to a world of verbs or, even more properly, to a world of adverbs, devoid of substantives.

What was significant about Nagarjuna’s teaching was not his elaborate and convoluted refutations of Buddhist thinking. These seem merely like clever sophistry. But the implication of this teaching was that what is important about religious doctrine is not what it teaches about the universe, but how it works to bring about release from illusion. Nagarjuna taught that the distinction between nirvana and the world of suffering exists only in the mind. He maintained that nirvana--the state of not clinging to anything, including belief in the Buddha and in nirvana--was achieved when one realized that there is not the slightest difference between samsara (the world of flux) and nirvana (the state of release), between time and eternity. This was the transforming vision of the bodhisattva. Indeed, in the end, the bodhisattva would discover the emptiness on which his whole sensibility was based and would see that there had never been any suffering beings, nor any bodhisattva to save them.

Nagarjuna concluded that the aim of Buddhism was not the achievement of some holy ideal but the destruction of all viewpoints. From there, enlightenment would follow of its own accord. This is the kind of thinking responsible for such curious Buddhist ideas as that if one meets the Buddha on the road, one should kill the Buddha, and that sitting in meditation can no more make one enlightened than polishing a floor tile can make it a mirror--and this in a religion the major practice of which is sitting meditation. A Zen drawing depicts a bullfrog sitting on a lily pad, with the caption: “If sitting could make a Buddha, I, foolish old frog, would have been enlightened long before now.”

According to Nagarjuna, enlightenment comes from seeing that all views and opinions are just views and opinions and have no real substance. They are empty. Truth is empty. It is appreciation of this emptiness that brings release.

A Course in Miracles

The first aphorism of the Workbook -- the meditation practices taught by A Course in Miracles--is: "Nothing means anything."

The second is: "I give everything all the meaning that it has for me."

That is what "Emptiness" means. This is what creative intentionality is about: Human beings create in their own experience of consciousness what their lives mean. We are responsible for our own experience. There is no god to blame.

That is why the Gods rain down blossoms of pink cherry upon Subhuti for saying nothing about God and simply being present in the moment.

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Toby Johnson, PhD is author of eight books: three non-fiction books that apply the wisdom of his teacher and "wise old man," Joseph Campbell to modern-day social and religious problems, three gay genre novels that dramatize spiritual issues at the heart of gay identity, and two books on gay men's spiritualities and the mystical experience of homosexuality. In addition to the novels featured elsewhere in this web site, Johnson is author of IN SEARCH OF GOD IN THE SEXUAL UNDERWORLD and THE MYTH OF THE GREAT SECRET (Revised edition): AN APPRECIATION OF JOSEPH CAMPBELL.

Johnson's Lammy Award winning book GAY SPIRITUALITY: The Role of Gay Identity in the Transformation of Human Consciousness was published in 2000. His Lammy-nominated book  GAY PERSPECTIVE: Things Our Homosexuality Tells Us about the Nature of God and the Universe was published by Alyson in 2003. Both books are available now from Lethe Press.

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