Identifying Eternalism and Nihilism in Daily Life

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If we want to summarize the Buddhist teachings in one word that would describe what Buddha was trying to impart to us, I think that word would be “realism.” Realism means seeing clearly what is reality, and getting rid of our unawareness and confusion about that. When we are confused about reality and don’t really understand or accept it, we create a tremendous amount of problems for ourselves and for others.

Reality, though, is not very easy to accept, or even to see. The first thing that we need to realize is that life is really difficult. It’s so complicated; there are so many things going on in the world. And, as the world becomes more interconnected with globalization, the internet, social media and the like, it seems that our lives are getting more complex all the time. When we realize that on so many levels we are interconnected and affected by everybody and by everything that’s going on, that makes the reality of our lives even more complicated.

In our Information Age, there is so much information available now, compared to the past, it really does make life more complicated, doesn’t it? For most of us, it’s just overwhelming; it’s too much. We can’t take it all in; we can’t process it all and put it all together.

Being in the Moment Does Not Change the Fact That Life Is Not Simple

Now the natural way in which we perceive things – given the fact that as humans we have this type of body and this type of sense apparatus – is that we can only see what’s in front of us. Our vision, our hearing and so on are quite limited in scope. And although many of us can multitask, there’s a certain limit to how many things we can juggle at the same time.

If we consider the combined effect of the Information Age and our natural biological limitations, it’s no wonder that we find that there’s too much to deal with in life. So mentally, emotionally, we want to simplify things. We don’t want to take into consideration the enormous number of factors that are going on at the same time in our lives and in the world. We want to limit it down to a small number of things that perhaps we can handle – just our family, or just our job, or just whatever’s going on right now at the moment. Because of this desire for things to be simple, we are attracted to such practices as “mindfulness,” which over-simplify things to “just be here in the present moment,” as if that present moment wasn’t being affected by everything else and existed all on its own.

Although simplifying things through mindfulness practice might make life, on the surface, easier to deal with, the danger is that we can get out of touch with reality. That’s because the reality is that everything is interconnected and what’s happening in life is unbelievably complex. So, if our wish to simplify things so that life becomes easier to manage is based on the belief that life itself is simple, then our belief is based on naivety and confusion about reality.

Another aspect of reality, as I mentioned, is that in the present moment we are limited beings. If we look at the word that’s usually translated as “sentient being,” it means someone with a limited mind and limited body compared to a Buddha. So, we have limitations. This is the reality of having this type of body, even if it’s a precious human one, and this type of mind. We get tired; we can’t understand everything; things become too much for us – clearly, we are limited. That’s reality. We can certainly go a little bit beyond the boundaries that we think we have, but with this type of body and mind, there’s a certain limit to how much we can perceive at once, how much we can deal with at once,

The Unawareness of Imagining Simplified Models to Correspond to the Complexity of Life

In our natural drive to simplify things so that we can deal with the complexities of life, that simplified version of reality seems to us to be the extent of what is real. Reality seems to us to be that limited picture that our minds are capable of dealing with at present.

When we speak about ignorance, or unawareness in Buddhism, we’re unaware that how things appear does not correspond to how things exist – they do not correspond to the full reality, the complexity of life. We are confused: we think that it does correspond – “this is it” – our simplification, our little model, our economic model, or whatever model we have is the actual reality. We think that reality actually corresponds to our simplified model, and that’s where we get into trouble, because it doesn’t correspond.

To deal with the complexity of life, we have various concepts, like an economic model. We try to put things into words to explain what’s going on; but conceptual models and words, in fact, are also very limited when we’re talking about the total complexity of all of life, of everybody, in the whole universe. It’s hard to put the complexity of everything in life into just a few words; but we need to, in order to be able to communicate, in order to be able to somehow deal with it, process it. This is necessary, given our limited minds and bodies.

Emptiness and Impossible Ways of Existing

Voidness, or emptiness, refers to the total absence of any mode of existence in actual reality that corresponds to our simplified version or model of life. That way of existing is totally absent; it never was the case. The simplification made by limiting our consideration to just a few factors in life is like encapsulating in plastic a portion of reality so that we can deal with it; and then we believe that our model is reality. But those plastic boundaries isolating portions of life are merely projections from our limited minds. There is no encapsulation in mental plastic on the part of reality. Voidness, or emptiness, is the total absence of this encapsulation of things. It’s just not the way things are.

However, with our limited minds, things appear simplified. The problem comes when we believe that that simplification corresponds to reality. We need to stop believing that what we project corresponds to reality. Nevertheless, our projections are what appears to us, because of the limitations of our body and mind. In technical terms, that’s an incorrect consideration; we’re considering something false to be true. What we need to realize is that, nevertheless, this is how things appear to us, so it is like an illusion – it appears to be true, but it’s not. But it is what appears.

Now, what’s really interesting is that the way that things appear to me is a little bit different from how things appear to you. You can think of a simple example, like in a family where there’s some conflict going on. Each person in the family simplifies the situation into a model and then perceives anything happening in the family in terms of his or her own simplified model – models such as “you never listen to me” or “you never appreciate me.” The way it appears to the husband, the way it appears to the wife, the way it appears to the child are all quite different. Each one has a limited, simplified view of what’s going on, but that’s how it actually appears to each of them.

An Example of the Extremes of Eternalism and Nihilism in Daily Life

If we want to be able to deal with others, given the fact that things appear differently to different people, we need to avoid two extremes:

The extreme of eternalism is that “the way that it appears to me is the only one that’s correct; everybody else is wrong.” “I don’t care what my wife thinks or what my children think.” “The way that the family problem appears to me, thats true.

The other extreme is nihilism, which means in this example either “the way that it appears to me doesn’t count for anything” or “the way the others perceive it is correct; mine is wrong.” This nihilist position denies even the relative validity of how things appear to us.

If we want to avoid these two extremes, we need to realize that for each person involved in the family, to use this example, each view has its own relative validity. It’s not that one is true and all the others are false, or that “my opinion is false” or that “my opinion doesn’t count.” If we want to deal with a difficult situation in a family, we need to take into consideration the validity of everybody’s experience, how it appears to each member. That’s because life is complex, isn’t it, and given our limitations, we simplify our lives with concepts into models, like “you don’t really love me.”

Even if we just consider the points of view of how things appear to each person within the family, these points of view don’t exist encapsulated in plastic, isolated from and unrelated to what’s going on in society. There could be an economic crisis, there could be a war, there could be all sorts of things going on, not only in our country, but in our globalized world, everywhere – global warming, etc. All these affect each person in one way or another, and may affect different people differently. Family problems don’t exist in a vacuum all by themselves.

Again, the two extremes: eternalism, what we experience in our family is true and none of the other things going on in society has any effect. Or nihilism: what’s going on in our family doesn’t count at all, because our problems are all due to external factors. Again, to see reality we need to avoid the two extremes. At the same time, we need to accept that the way that it appears to each person, that is the reality that we need to deal with – that’s so-called “conventional reality.” But, it’s like an illusion, since it seems to be absolute when, in fact, it is not; it is just relative.

Meditation to Recognize the Two Extremes in Life

This is a simplified version of the topic that we want to look at, but I think that it’s perhaps helpful to give a simplified version first, even though that too is like an illusion – the topic of avoiding the two extremes is not that simple.

I suggest that we take five minutes to think about these points and try to relate them to something that is emotionally charged in our personal lives. I think the easiest is some emotionally charged relationship that we’re in with somebody, whether it’s a family relationship or a loving friendship or even a relationship at work. Try to appreciate the fact that the way the situation appears to us and the way that it appears to the other person are both limited, and neither one corresponds to the full picture of reality. Nevertheless, we need to respect both points of view and try to understand where they came from and how they arose. Both are like an illusion in the sense that neither corresponds to the total reality of the situation – each is a simplified model. But still we need to deal with these varying points of view and take them seriously if we’re going to handle the situation. We need to avoid the two extremes, not thinking just “mine is valid” or “mine is totally irrelevant, stupid” and denying it.

Try to understand how we want to avoid the two extremes here. One way of formulating the extremes is that “the way it appears to me, that’s the only way that is real, that counts, and yours doesn’t count for anything” – we deny your side. Or we could do it the other way around, that “only your side is valid and mine doesn’t count at all.” We need to respect both, while realizing the limitations of each.

In other words, we need to deal with the illusion-like truth, the superficial truth, the conventional truth, the relative truth of each point of view – however you want to translate it. Remember, life is not the same as an illusion – it’s merely like an illusion: the way things appear seems to be true, but that’s deceptive. What is an illusion is a true reality that corresponds to the way things appear – that’s an illusion.

Let’s spend about five minutes trying to relate this to our own experience, particularly in an emotionally charged relationship, then we will get a feeling for what we’re talking about and for the relevance of it.


The Order of the Steps in Meditating on the Emptiness of How Things Appear to Us

The order in which we meditate on this is first we need to clear out the misconception that we have about how things appear to us. We need to refute that how it appears to me is truly how things exist and then we need to cut off completely not only our belief that it corresponds to reality, but the deceptive appearance that it does. This is the meditation on “space-like voidness,” the explicit understanding that there is no such thing as a reality corresponding to how my limited mind makes things appear.

After this, focus on “no such thing.” Then, when the deceptive appearance arises again, focus on it with the understanding that how things appears to me and how they appear to you are just relatively true. Technically, we focus on “illusion-like voidness” – we perceive things to appear as if encapsulated in plastic, but implicitly we understand that they are devoid of actually existing in the way they appear. In this sense, they are like an illusion. Only then can we properly go on to understand how each of these ways of appearing is arising dependently on innumerable causes and circumstances and then go on to analyze what those causes and circumstances may be.

The Necessity to Meditate on Space-like Voidness before Illusion-like Voidness

A common mistake is to think that we can meditate on illusion-like voidness first, without clearing out our misunderstanding beforehand with the correct understanding of space-like voidness. What is the mistake here?

If we meditate on these two steps in reverse order, we would be starting the meditation focusing first on the two points of view as if each were encapsulated in plastic, or each were like a ping-pong ball. The danger here is that, without explicitly refuting that things cannot possibly exist like ping-pong balls, we would just understand that neither ping-pong ball is absolute and that the illusion is that only one of them is absolute. We would then be focusing on the two ping-pong balls as interacting in conflict with each other simply because each is relative to its own causes and conditions. But, because we haven’t explicitly cleared out first the misconception that there actually is a corresponding reality in which these two points of view exist like ping-pong balls, we would be analyzing how two ping-pong balls dependently arise, when there is no such thing as ping-pong balls.

We need to first understand that there are no such things as ping-pong balls and then, when things appear like ping-pong balls and we analyze how they dependently arise, our analysis will not be infected with the belief in ping-pong balls. It’s like if we’re moving into a new apartment, first we need to clean out all the garbage that’s there. We can’t just move all our things into a garbage-filled apartment and then, when everything is all set up, clean out the old garbage.

Thinking about How a Situation Appears to Someone Else

It’s not easy to think about it how the relationship we have with someone appears to that person. I’m not limiting “relationship” here to refer only to an intimate physical relationship with someone, but to include any relationship – family, friendship or work.

Actually, it’s very hard to conceive of what it’s like to look at us all the time during interactions. I think very few of us really have a clear mental image of what we look like. In any relationship, I only see the other person; I don’t see myself. So, it’s a simplification of what is occurring. It appears as though what the other person looks like is all that’s happening, as if the reality were a movie shot by me. It’s hard to conceive of what it looks like visually from the other person’s perspective or what it looks like from someone else’s perspective seeing the two of us together. These are the limitation that I was referring to that occur with the type of bodies and minds we have.

Imagining things from the other person’s perspective – not just visually, but emotionally as well – is extremely important. Shantideva teaches this extensively in the eighth chapter of Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior. There he says that if we have a great deal of arrogance or jealousy toward others, try to look at ourselves acting that way from the point of view of the person who’s the object of our negative emotion.

Shantideva presents this as a provisional method for overcoming disturbing emotions in the chapter before his ninth one on voidness, emptiness. This is very skillful, since by applying provisional methods for overcoming disturbing emotions first, we weaken them. Then, by applying ultimate methods to overcome ignorance, we can rid ourselves of them completely. But, we can also apply Shantideva’s method of exchanging our viewpoint with someone else’s to help us understand relativity in our meditation on voidness and dependent arising and avoid the extremes of eternalism and nihilism. We would apply it after clearing out our misconceptions first with meditation on space-like and illusion-like voidness.

Shantideva’s method of exchanging our viewpoint with that of others is based first on equalizing self with others. The principle behind this equalizing is that my point of view and your point of view are both equally valid. Your opinion might be completely crazy, but still it appears that way to you, so we need to deal with it. Just as we need to take my suffering and your suffering equally seriously – the principle of equalizing self with others – likewise, we need to take the way that things appear to me and the way they appear to you equally seriously. Even though it might be very difficult to even conceive of what it looks like from the other person’s point of view looking at us all day long, we can’t deny that such a thing exists – to deny it is the nihilist extreme.

With this approach of equalizing and exchanging self with others, we can go much deeper. We can analyze to understand that what’s behind my limited view is grasping for a solid “me.” It’s as if we think I’m the only one that’s real; you’re not real. “Only my feelings count; yours don’t.” All the disturbing emotions come from thinking like that. We’re attached to our own position. We argue angrily, “Your position is wrong”; or we’re totally naive, we don’t even accept the reality of someone else’s viewpoint. We can be very aggressive, not even wanting to hear about it, and we just criticize, criticize, criticize with sarcasm. We feel, “Mine is right,” so we have attachment. The three poisonous disturbing emotions all come from this misconception, because we unconsciously think, “I’m the only one that’s real; you’re not real.”

Fitting This In with The Four Immeasurables, Tong-len and the Six Perfections

Then we can connect our analysis with all the rest of the teachings – it’s beautiful. Here we have the four immeasurables, very clearly. Immeasurable equanimity: freedom from attachment, repulsion, and indifference. We’re not going to be attached, thinking, “My viewpoint is the only one that’s right” and repulsion: “I’m going to argue against yours” or indifference: “I don’t care what you say.”

When the Seven Point Mind Training teaches tong-len, giving and taking, it says take from others attraction, repulsion and indifference, and give them freedom from those three. As for the order, start with yourself. This is what comes first, you take it from yourself first.

Then, on the basis of “I’m taking you seriously,” comes immeasurable love: “May you be happy,” immeasurable compassion: “May you be free from suffering,” and immeasurable joy: “May you attain not just freedom from ordinary suffering, but may you attain the unending joy of enlightenment.” With these four immeasurable attitudes, we have the proper motivation and, on top of that, we deal with the other person’s viewpoint with the six far-reaching attitudes, the six perfections.

Everything fits together. Taking both sides seriously, not denying one or the other, and being generous and having ethical self-discipline, patience, perseverance, mental stability (which is not only concentration, but also emotional stability) and discriminating awareness (to see what is actually going on – what’s helpful, what’s harmful.)


I think it’s important to get the general principle of the topic of dependent arising, like this, before going into a tremendous amount of detail of levels of dependent arising. The point we will learn is how, with a correct understanding of voidness and dependent arising, we will avoid the two extremes of eternalism and nihilism, and then be best able to deal with the complexities of life.