This essay is a personal reflection on the ontology of my life as an architect from a Mahayana Buddhist perspective. As an extension, it is an investigation into the architecture of all human existence— The form and texture of our lives, our feelings, our aspirations, our relationships with ourselves and with the world — To explore the questions of where these exist and how these exist.
As a disclaimer, I must clarify that this is put together from teachings one has gathered over the years from Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, Geshe Dorji Damdul, HH Dalai Lama, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, and other Buddhist masters. I am grateful to them for their Wisdom, kindness and patience. Some of these ideas may be too astounding and difficult to digest, but nevertheless I have found them not only intellectually compelling but also practically useful in daily life.
Architects are trained at manipulating Form, and through that, evoke–feeling. We strive to make order out of chaos. We meticulously arrange materials and systems that resist the disorder that surround us. We endeavour to make Sense and Meaning out of ambiguity and meaninglessness. It seems like a constant uphill struggle, like the Greek mythological figure Sisyphus who was condemned forever to roll a huge boulder uphill only to have it roll down all the way again. It seems that the extent of our control over the forces of chaos and entropy is hopelessly limited and we hang on to that control for dear life.
As architects, we draw plot boundaries, mark areas of interventions, and colour strategic corridors on drawings while vast swathes of disorderly wilderness push relentlessly against those tenuous boundaries. They appear to have a life of their own, and constantly resist our feeble attempts at any definition, intervention or control. We associate design with ‘figure’ against a shifting ‘ground’ which forms the backdrop. Some urban problems, like slums and ‘favelas’, are too complex even to define. Are they problems at all? Or are they solutions to a deeper problem? As we shift perspectives, solutions become problems and problems become solutions.
In our work, we value Form- which represents solidity, separateness, clarity, permanence, completeness, control, continuity, definition, and order, while firmly resisting their opposites. We try to make our built environment ‘maintenance free’ so they hide the passage of time. We look down on the process of ageing, weathering, and decay as something ugly- to be rendered and Photoshopped over in the websites and glossy magazines. This obsession with an ‘unchanging perfect image’ reflects our narcissistic ‘selfie’ culture where all moles and warts which make us unique and human, are eliminated. It is no wonder that while browsing the media, all architectural projects eventually begin to look the same. Can we graciously accept and celebrate change, impermanence, transience, ageing, death, and re-birth in Life, as well as in Architecture?
Our personal lives and architectural practices too resemble tiny islands of order in a sea of chaos. We struggle to balance our home-life with our busy professional lives and while some things seem to work, many things fall apart. We feel heart broken when our most lovingly and vividly conceived projects end up being stillborn. We feel anxious over financial uncertainties — balancing the ledgers with client payments that come in few and far between against recurring expenses and overheads of sustaining an office.
There are exciting bursts of frenetic action in the studio followed by periods of waiting, boredom and limbo when nothing seems to move. We go through the feeling of pride, elation and fulfilment — to see our projects built, occupied, praised, published, or awarded. The euphoria and the triumph of success is often followed strangely by a hollow feeling of Emptiness. We ask ourselves “Is this all, now what?”
Many of us suffer a feeling of inadequacy and self-doubt because we are yet to make a ‘mark’ on the architectural landscape or gain public recognition as years slip by. We feel dejection and disappointment when we are side-lined, superseded, and things don’t materialize as we had imagined. We feel envious about our more successful peers and are secretively dismissive of their abilities. We feel doubtful whether they truly deserve all their popularity or publicity.
Some of us venture into academics looking for financial security and intellectual freedom but face personal or ideological conflicts with our colleagues, students, superiors, and feel angry and disillusioned. Just when we think we have found the right professional sanctuary that could nurture us, the situation turns hostile. There’s a feeling of apprehension and uncertainty of having to start life all over again from square one. There is also excitement of the unknown. To sum up — Life, both professional, and personal, seems to be a constant struggle to maintain Form and certainty which make us feel secure, while resisting Emptiness, and uncertainty which makes us feel insecure. Our constant efforts to secure ourselves only leads to more and more disappointments and un-satisfactoriness — what Buddhists call ‘Dukha’ or Suffering.
One might wonder: “So where’s the problem with all this? Isn’t this true of ALL professions and careers? Doesn’t this describe the existential angst of all humanity? Is there really a universal panacea to all our problems? A magic wand that changes all situations that cause us endless anxiety ? A Path or insight that Liberates from all suffering?”
According to the Buddha, all phenomena, including suffering, arise due to causes — internal and external. When they come together like two clapping hands, the ‘sound’ of suffering is produced. While we cannot possibly eliminate all external causes of suffering, if we eliminate the ‘internal’ causes, the sound of the clap will not be produced. Buddhists call the internal cause of suffering ‘ignorance’ or ‘not-knowing’. Fundamentally, ignorance involves mental separation of Form and Emptiness- in short, Dualism of Subject and Object.
According to the central text of Mahayana “The Heart Sutra”, “Form is Emptiness, Emptiness is Form, Form is none other than Emptiness, Emptiness none other than Form…”! In plain language, things are there, and simultaneously they are not ‘really’ there. The two aspects are non-dual.
In Life we tend to associate Emptiness with discontinuity, disarray, death, dis-order, dis-integration, ambiguity, and ambivalence. But one need not be afraid of Emptiness as it is not ‘Nothingness’. In fact, Emptiness can be understood as ‘No-Thing-Ness’. It is an infinitely fertile and full state of potentiality. It is the mother of all creativity.
“Emptiness could be appreciated as vastness, humour, serendipity, non-directionality, relaxation, opportunity, inspiration, and wonderment. Form can only exist because of Emptiness.” — aro.buddhism.org
Why is this seemingly abstract and paradoxical philosophy useful to all of us, especially architects? I think architects, thanks to their unique training, have an instinctual understanding of the inter-dependence of Form and Emptiness that can help them gain better perspective of their work as well as their lives.
We know that Form is defined by Space and Space is defined by Form. The built is defined by the unbuilt and vice-versa. But space permeates every object just like the sky permeates clouds. What we see as ‘Form’ slowly dissolves when we zoom in through a microscope. When we zoom out, Form re-emerges. All Forms seem to arise out of one’s subjective perception. The designers Charles and Ray Eames made a thought-provoking short film “The powers of Ten” that demonstrates this.
Nolli’s Plan of the city of Rome (1736) shows the inter-penetration of public ‘unbuilt’ spaces (streets, squares, gardens) into the ‘built’ spaces (churches, palaces). The city can clearly be seen as an interplay of Form and Emptiness.
Interestingly, whether at building level, or urban level, it is not the ‘Form’ but the ‘Voids’ that support and nurture life.
Buddhists talk about the nature of Reality as a perfectly formed rainbow. When the conditions such as atmospheric moisture, sun angle, distance from the viewer, and the eye instrument with its capacity to see form and colour, etc. all come together, the rainbow magically and vividly appears. But while it appears, it is Empty and while it is Empty, it appears.
Likewise, all phenomena are ‘dependently originated’ and do not have any objective, independent, or inherent existence whatsoever. They are Empty of Objective Existence. It is interesting how the most recent developments in quantum physics seem to corroborate Buddha’s discovery 2500 years ago.
While it is good to enjoy the rainbow fully knowing its Empty nature, if we run towards it, and try to grasp at it, it disappears. It’s the same with the Reality of our ‘selves’, ‘egos’ and identities, our careers, our titles, our designations, our partners, our relationships, our feelings, and our emotions. They are all a Union of Appearance-Emptiness. The more we mentally grasp and cling to concepts, definitions, and labels (Form) the more we suffer when they change or collapse.
Does this mean that we dismiss everything around as illusory, run off the mountains, just sit around and meditate? On the contrary. Buddhists believe that while everything is illusion-like, they are subject to cause and effect like the precise workings of a clock-work mechanism of cosmic scale. The appearance in the mirror doesn’t truly exist but that doesn’t mean it is in any way disorderly or random.
The same is true for all phenomena. Everything reflects and affects everything else. It is just that we lack the vast perspective needed to see this Truth of Inter-dependence. One’s mental intentions, thoughts, speech, and actions from our past and present come back to us eventually and shape the quality of our future perceptions and life experiences.
This responsive, bounce-back quality of Existence gives one tremendous Agency and ability to alter situations, as well as our own reactions and attitudes towards them. It is as if we are immersed in a four-dimensional — interactive- holographic –game — projection called life. Everything is ultimately a projected imputation of one’s own mind, and is subject to change. One can tame and train the mind so one’s projections resemble pleasant dreams, rather than recurrent nightmares. With this Insight, one can engage with the world confidently, fearlessly, creatively, lightly, and without inhibitions or heavy handedness.
Change is possible because we (and our world) are not solid, substantial, permanent, fixed, unitary, and unchanging. All tangible things are like putty — impermanent, changeable, dependently originated, workable, malleable. This realization also gives a great sense of relief and equanimity towards external circumstances. We don’t have to feel elated when the going is good — or deflated when things fall apart. We can remind ourselves again and again to regard life as a dream, like a magic show, like a movie — of which we are simultaneously the writer, producer, director, protagonist, projectionist, and audience.
As architects, we could begin by appreciating the positive aspects of Emptiness rather than constantly grasp only at Form aspects. We can invite and celebrate ambiguity, impermanence, discontinuity, indefiniteness, and unpredictability in our design processes, as well as in our personal lives. We can acknowledge that we, as people, and our projects come into being as ‘projections’ by dependence on countless other causes and conditions, beings and phenomena.
Our artificial sense of independence, individual authorship and territoriality begins to dissolve and we become more and more appreciative of the countless small, seemingly insignificant beings and phenomena that actually make things around us happen. We can let go of our delusions of grandeur and afford to be relaxed, natural and ordinary. We are but a small part of how architecture manifests in time and space. Once it is born it has its own life and its own endless consequences on the environment and living beings. With a greater appreciation of cause and effect, and of inter-dependence, we can tread more lightly and mindfully on the Earth, and our collective resources.
The vicissitudes of our practices and personal Lives are like being totally immersed and absorbed by the projection in a movie hall. We tend to completely identify with characters and situations in the movie and feel their hopes and their fears. But if we are aware we are watching a movie, we could still appreciate their emotions but not get swept away by them. With such a detached and objective view, we might also start to notice and appreciate how the intricate scene was meticulously conceived and constructed by the director.
We could also be confident while watching the movie, that there is a sane, sober, wakeful state, that is beyond the madness. Maybe one day some of us might tire of the emotional roller-coaster rides of Life and want to step out of the hall for a breath of fresh air? In other words, we might tire of addiction to the constant emotional distraction, and long for Liberation.
Once feeling fresh, and relieved outside, one might feel compassion for those still stuck inside and return to remind them that they are not condemned to live inside the movie hall forever. One can urge them to wake up from being all worked up and caught up in the drama. Apparently, Buddha did precisely this. He taught that we alone are the Architects of our Lives. We construct our own prison cells and we ourselves hold the key to the door of Liberation.
(A version of this article was first published in VERANDA: an interdisciplinary journal published by Sushant School of Art and Architecture, Vol. 2, Issue 1, 2020.)