The Womb is an Empty Space
Dr. Stephen Fulder
We take it for granted that there is a pure soul within us. Woven into all the great spiritual traditions, is the confidence that we are somehow made of the same material as the divine, or at least we carry some element of the divine within us. The Judeo-Christian tradition enshrines it in the statement in Genesis that the human being is made ‘BeTselem Elohim’, in the image of God. To be more precise, the word indicates that we are somehow a metaphor for the Divine. What or where this is, is left to us as a mystery. In the later kabbalistic tradition, it is more clearly expressed as Divine Sparks, fragments of the infinite light after it shattered into millions of pieces which lodged in the world; that is, we carry within us a minute element of the original infinite light. In the Jewish context it is recognised within us as the capacity to study Torah, to pray and cleave to God, the divine element returning to the Divine. In the Indian spiritual tradition, the pure soul is described as Atman, an inner Self which mirrors the ultimate Self of existence, enclosed within the shells of the body. Transformation through the multitude of spiritual practices and yogas is the release of the inner Self and its merging with the Atman. The word yoga itself, means union or joining, and implies this process.
But if we do not frame all this in a religious language or context, in the Judeo-Christian language of God and divinity, or the Hinduistic language of the Atman, can we still entertain such an understanding? Is there a more secular version? The word spirit itself is a common form of secular language and concept in use in today’s culture, although it does have roots in Greek, Christian and alchemical traditions. This spirit is somehow connected with consciousness, the uniquely human powers of awareness. The problem for most of us is that this concept is very vague. It is a kind of belief or assumption, collected together out of general East-West, psychological and New Age spirituality. What is this pure spirit within us? How do we know it? How do we recognise it? Do we know when we are in touch with it? Do we know when we are ignoring it? Can it even be said to belong to us? Perhaps we belong to it? The inquiry into the what, where, how and why of the spirit leaves us with a stunned silence. This is probably a good thing, otherwise it too would become a subject for cerebral analysis and scientific research.
In our search for a language of the spirit that fits secular culture, Buddhism can be an immense help. This is because it contains such a sophisticated and refined knowledge of inner space, developed continuously over thousands of years, and further, it describes our spiritual life more as a quest for truth, for liberation, rather than for God’s blessings. Indeed Buddhism itself arose as an agnostic inquiry into existential reality in contrast to the prevailing Brahministic and priestly cults of Atman that prevailed in India 2500 years ago. Therefore it would be a good place to look for some clarity on the subject of the pure being within us. So if we look at the words of the Buddha what does he say about pure being? Surprisingly, the teachings are crystal clear. There is no such thing. More than that, the longing for a transcendental reality which is somehow connected to us, somehow ours, is a major stumbling block in our development. It arises as a form of longing for something other than life as it is, with all its attendant unsatisfactoriness. It implies that life in the body is somehow inadequate, unspiritual and contracted, and a pure soul, like a better future in some other life, or a Messianic being, is something beyond, perfect. This splitting is itself a form of suffering, and a hindrance on the path. It is a primary human delusion. Early Buddhism turns this all on its head. There is no need to look for a pure being within us, or infinity above. If we open our eyes, strip away the veils of delusion, then this very living experience itself is infinite. All reality is ultimate if we learn to see it as it really is. As the poet William Blake writes: ‘If we cleanse the doors of perception, everything appears as it is: infinite’.
Later developments in Buddhism however, especially the Mahayana traditions in Tibet and China brought back the concept of a pure soul within us, but in a highly interesting language of consciousness, rather than the language of Gods or Atman. This inherent ‘Buddhanature’ is a power within us to partake of the freedom and liberation of the Buddhas. More specifically, this is described as ‘garbh’, meaning womb. This is a very powerful and fleshly image. It is an image of an empty space that is ready to be impregnated. It is an image of an emptiness inside that is ready to receive the wisdom of liberation. This turns on its head the idea that we ‘have’ something pure within us. We do not. There is no spirit as such, there is just a potential for release. It is the empty space within us that is the purity. It is the mystery, the existential question, the space in which we do not exist, the space in which there is no ‘me and mine’ which is the Buddhanature. It is our ability to question the unknown, it is the power that man has to reflect on the uncomfortable experience of embodiment into this life, that is the womb within which awakening is nurtured.
This image definitely helps us. Because for centuries people have battled with the problem, if we are made ‘in the image of God’, how can man be so foolish, helpless, aggressive, and sometimes downright evil? Here is another way of looking at it. The divine within us is a potential. And the place to look for the potential is not within the usual domain of ‘what I want, what I don’t want, what makes me feel good, who I am, how spiritual I am, …’ .all of which gives rise to the problematic and small human being, circling around his desires and dislikes from birth to death. It is in the absence of all this self-importance that the first whisper of the divine is heard.