Rituals and Worship

If "form is emptiness, emptiness is form," as the Heart Sutra said, then, as the great 2nd- century scholar Nagarjuna argued, the categories of existence and non-existence are not meaningful. Furthermore, any boundary or differentiation between nirvana and samsara must be illusory. There is nothing to escape from, and no place to go.

These developments shifted the focus of Buddhism away from escape from the endless time that is samsara, but neither the Heart Sutra nor Nagarjuna produced a concept of sacred time. The Garland Sutras, written over the course of the next several centuries, developed the emptiness argument further by stating that if nothing exists independently of anything else, then all things must be interrelated. Everything that exists must be connected to everything else, in one unified whole. Everything is one.

Because everything is one, these sutras argued, enlightenment is accessible through immediate experience; but the imagery of the Garland Sutras, in describing the experience of this whole, was still of an "other" realm outside of ordinary experience: the Dharma Realm. It was not until Chinese Chan (in Japanese, Zen) Buddhism that the argument that enlightenment exists in the here and now was fully developed. According to Chan, nirvana is within ordinary existence. In a sense, then, all time is sacred time, because to fully experience the present moment is to experience enlightenment.

The journey of Buddhism from the concept of escape from time — from the endless cycle of death and rebirth — to the concept of enlightenment in the present moment was long and complex, and took place over hundreds of centuries of Buddhist thought and practice. In this process, sacred time was transformed from something that was beyond any experience to a characteristic of everyday life, at least for those who are able to experience the true nature of reality.


Study Questions:
1.     How does understanding emptiness help one escape samsara?
2.     Why is it significant that rebirth is not just a human phenomenon?
3.     Does “sacred time” exist within Buddhism? If so, how can one experience it?

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