Question: "Buddhist ideas like emptiness, no soul, and Nirvana sound cold, threatening, and more like dying than like a better way of life."

Buddhism, and Zen Buddhism in particular, are examples of what is called in Western theology "negative way mysticism." The idea here is that you can try to say what God is (the usual route), or you can try to define what you’re talking about by describing what God is not (the negative way). For example, the Heart Sutra, which is chanted on just about every occasion in Zen, is a concise series of statements denying the independent reality of all of the traditionally accepted elements of the Buddhist philosophical description of the universe and the beings in it.

When we read or hear denials of the reality of a "self," or our "soul," we can’t help but feel threatened, but there are at least two good reasons for this approach. First, although we try to remember, we always forget that all language, even mathematics, is metaphorical. So if someone says, "God is like a Heavenly Father," we hear this and go around telling others, "God is an old man who lives in the sky." Worse yet, we may say, "You can’t be a priest because God is a man and you’re a woman." So maybe it is safer to just shoot down people’s false ideas and hope that the persistent ones will finally see for themselves what you want them to see.

The second reason is that it is philosophically more accurate, and more elegant, to convey the idea of the interdependent ("empty") nature of reality by undercutting our naive tendency to believe that everything we can name is a "thing" with an existence of its own which doesn’t need the support of other "things" or causes. The "soul" is a perfect example of our giving a name to a dynamic process (our life) and then declaring it to be an eternally existing "thing."

We spend years building up our idea of who we are. We fear that, if our awareness of our "self" were to disappear, we would die, or be unconscious, or helpless and unable to function. Of course, our self awareness does disappear when we lose consciousness, and we are helpless and unable to function in that condition. The message of the saints and Zen masters is that you can drop your self awareness and still be a conscious, fully functional person. Your self consciousness is replaced by a direct experience of being completely "at one" with everyone and everything. The experience is clear, completely still, and peaceful. This is becoming "like a little child" and "entering the kingdom of Heaven," to use the metaphors Jesus used.

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