I'm happy to see that things for you are moving in happy, constructive directions. [Are Buddhists allowed to be constructive? I think we are, right?]Are we?
I think so too. But I wonder where Tom's doubt came from. The clichéd image of the Buddhist who sits on his zafu all day and does nothing? Or perhaps some Buddhist's mantra of shunyata. I knew a teacher whose favourite stock phrase in times of trouble was shunyata - it's all empty. The implication being if the whole world was empty of self, or even illusory, it was only our minds causing trouble, so why worry?
The concept of 'emptyness' has caused a lot of trouble.In her chapter in Pruning the Bodhi Tree Sallie King writes that the doctrine of emptiness lead to a kind of moribundity in Buddhism in ancient China. The philosophy became a kind of nihilism, if everything is ultimately empty of self, and of existence, why do anything at all?
I've seen similar questions asked of Buddhism today, both by practising Buddhists and those on the outside looking in.
"Emptiness" in this context can be seen as short hand for something like; each thing is the sum of its parts and each part is the sum of its parts...a kind of endless deferral of existence. For example 'mind' is just a collection of habits and thoughts, they in turn come out of a process of my experience of the world, the world is made up of things which are made up of other things...on and on and on. There is no real essence of anything to be located anywhere. Hence: everything is empty.
Contemporary writers have found parallels with Derrida's idea of Différance: meaning is always postponed, we only understand a word in language, or a thing in the world, in relation to other words, or things. Thus when I write about my Fiancée this only makes sense if we also understand ideas about marriage, love, and so on. Nothing exists in its own right. There is no real essence. Hence everything is empty.
There are two ways of reading emptiness. One in which the whole world becomes illusory and almost disappears, this is the extreme of the endless deferral position. The teacher who used to tell me, in times of trouble, "Don't worry it's all empty." was of this tradition. He always seemed to deny my actual experience of the world; that sometimes things really do hurt.
The other reading, which I prefer, accepts the existence of things. It accepts the specific real instances of our experiences and our relation to real others, with all the joy and sorrow that brings with it. It stresses how we are constantly relating to other beings, but not that these relationships don't exist.
The ancient Indian philosopher Nagarjuna, who wrote extensively about this, used the example of a father and son. In the action of being born, not only is the son created but the father also, his identity as 'father' is dependent on the existence of his son. To me both the father and son are real. Both have real lives and histories and yes, both identities are dependent upon the existence of the other - but this doesn't deny their reality.
If we accept this reading then of course we can be constructive, emptiness tells us about our enmeshment in the world, it tells us about how our identities are created - but it needn't deny the world
There are many ideals in Buddhism, the absolute ideal for each of us is to become enlightened, and that means embodying wisdom (understanding this web of relationships) and compassion. We are compelled to make a difference. To love. In constructive ways. To move in happy constructive directions.