Emptiness is one of the most important concepts in Buddhism. Depending on which Buddhist tradition is defining the word, it has different meanings. Ultimately, however, as we will see, they’re all wrong, and they’re all right. The reputation Buddhism has for self-contradiction is perhaps nowhere better illustrated than by these definitions, but, once you grasp this concept – at least on a basic level – it will make sense why this is so.
In this essay, I’ll explain emptiness primarily from a Mahayana point of view. Mahayana is one of the two major branches of Buddhism. Then I’ll show how the other main school, the Theravada branch, uses the same word in a different context, but with a common underlying meaning. Of course, there are a lot of Buddhists who would disagree, and say that there is little commonality, but it sometimes seems that you can’t say anything in Buddhism without disagreement from someone.
All phenomena have causes and effects. That’s a basic principle. And, as a simple consequence, no phenomenon exists apart from its causes. We say that all phenomena are empty, that they have no intrinsic existence, that they don’t exist apart from their causes. That’s the concept of emptiness, in a nutshell. In practice, it is usually said that all phenomena are “conditioned”, not “caused” by other phenomena. This use of conditions, instead of causes, is more general. For example, vertebrates depend on oxygen as a condition, but not as a cause. If there is no oxygen, then there are no vertebrates, but we cannot say that oxygen causes vertebrates. Among the totality of conditions are the causes, but these conditions don’t act with intention: oxygen doesn’t intend to condition vertebrates, so vertebrates are empty in that there is no design behind them. Vertebrates don’t arise as the consequence of some plan on the part of their conditions; that is, they are devoid of intrinsic nature, empty of inherent attributes. Everything they seem to be, is a result of their conditions.
The emptiness of phenomena is argued logically in various ways, some of which are exhaustive and long-winded, while others are almost cryptically succinct. I’m not going into those arguments here.
The concept of emptiness has profound consequences. Take, for example, the statement that “the sky is blue”. What is “blue”? We can’t even talk about blueness without the conditions of the definition of blueness, and each of the definitions upon which it is based has its own dependencies or conditions. Ideas themselves are phenomena, and are thus empty. In other words, “blue” itself is empty, because blueness depends on other concepts. This goes on forever: there are absolutely no phenomena which have any intrinsic existence, and all phenomena – even mental concepts and definitions – are conditioned by other phenomena.
This does not mean that phenomena don’t exist. It doesn’t mean that there isn’t a colour, blue, or that there is no blueness. It merely means that blue isn’t inherently blue, it doesn’t inherently have blueness, it is only blue in the context of its causes and conditions.
This is the ultimate statement that everything is connected to everything else.
Emptiness also implies that neither you nor I have inherent existence. A person has many conditions: physical, biological, chemical, mental, the union of your parents, and so on. The convergence, if you will, of these conditions results in the person, and without any of them that person doesn’t exist. Buddhists don’t talk of “souls” much, but, to the extent that they do, a soul is simply, more or less, a subset of the conditions. The soul, itself, can be viewed as a condition of the entire organism.
The word karma, meaning “action”, refers to certain of those conditions. You re-incarnate when your karma persists and converges with other conditions to create another living phenomenon. But your personality is defined by separate conditions. Re-incarnation isn’t personal like that. If you were to meet, somehow, one of your reincarnations, you wouldn’t necessarily know each other, but you would likely notice common attributes and similar experiences. The ancient Romans understood that: the word persona is Latin for mask. What we see in a person is merely a mask worn by the soul.
We recognize phenomena because we are taught to see them, or because we recognize patterns of other phenomena repetitiously, or by way of logic. Maybe someone tells us that some phenomenon is a “dog”, or maybe we see lots similar phenomena and take note (without necessarily having a name for the creatures), or maybe we reason that since barks and bites and tails and claws come together they must have a common basis. Regardless, except in the presence of the appropriate conditions, there are no dogs. And those conditions don’t get together in a meeting to plan and to create a dog: dogs just happen. Dogs are empty.
A lot of other concepts depend on emptiness. For example, it’s possible to train one’s mind so that it sees the reality beyond the phenomena; along with some other conditions, this is called “enlightenment”. (This, to see beyond the emptiness, is one of the main reasons that many Buddhists meditate.) As another example, emptiness explains why Buddhists do not consider any phenomena to be permanent or unchanging: the causes are always changing, so the results must change also. Gautama Buddha referred to three marks of phenomenal existence: emptiness, impermanence, and change; the three go together.
The word, emptiness, is often used by Theravadan Buddhists in a different but related way. They say that one of the goals of meditation is to make the mind empty, that it is the mind which can have emptiness. This is perfectly reasonable, since non-emptiness – failure to perceive the causes – is in the mind, too. Thus emptying the mind is just another way of perceiving the emptiness of phenomena, if you look at the situation in a different way. It’s merely a different approach to defining the same enlightenment.
Perhaps the strangest result of the doctrine of emptiness, at least to non-Buddhists, arises from the conclusion that, since emptiness is a phenomenon, it must itself be empty. That’s roughly equivalent to saying that there is no emptiness inherent in emptiness. Don’t let that worry you: logic itself is empty, as are all contradictions.
There is a sutra in the canon that tells of a time when the Buddha gathered together his students and said, “You know how I’ve taught you about re-incarnation, enlightenment, karma, the Buddha, and so on? Well, I’m telling you now that these things don’t exist. I only told you those things to get you to think a certain way. They were merely figures of speech.” Collectively, these teachings are called the “Perfection of Wisdom” teachings, or Prajnaparamita. Nevertheless, Buddhists, Yogis, and others insist that emptiness isn’t merely an intellectual concept: it can be perceived directly. Enlightenment isn’t the intellectual apprehension of emptiness, but includes the direct perception of emptiness, as well.
There is a reality beyond phenomena, but it cannot be expressed in words because words are phenomena. The traditional illustration of this is in the story that, if you’ve never seen the Moon, you can’t really know what it’s like. No matter how many poems, photographs, paintings, or descriptions you might encounter, there’s no substitute for seeing it yourself. So Buddhists won’t often attempt to tell you what reality is like. Sometimes they will tell you what it is not like. However, just as I can tell you to go outside on a certain cloudless night and look in a specific direction for a bright object in the sky, Buddhists will tell you what to do to see reality for yourself.
It appears that there is a contraction here. Buddhism doesn’t deny the reality of phenomena, even though they are empty. But it says that there is another reality beyond phenomenal or conventional reality. This principle is called the “two truths doctrine”. But, in its characteristically perverse way, Buddhism doesn’t bother to create words for the other truth, because they would be inadequate anyway. In fact, we can’t even say that the other truth is really true, because the idea of conventional truth is, itself, a phenomenon, and there is no word for absolute truth. There can’t be. So we are reduced to metaphors, to figures of speech.
An alternative way to put this is to say that this other truth, the non-phenomenal world, is “without attributes”. Some religions, which see a God as “inhabiting” or arising from the non-phenomenal world, describe God as being without attributes, as being indescribable. It is not clear if any or some or all of those religions are using the term in the same was as the Buddhists, but there is a core which certainly appears the same.
Sometimes we say that phenomenal things don’t exist, but we don’t mean that in the conventional way. Buddhists explain that non-existence isn’t really non-existence, it’s merely a shorthand way of saying that phenomena are empty. The Buddhist use of the term, “non-existence”, really means “empty”, or “devoid of inherent or intrinsic nature”. Another way to describe phenomena is to say that they are illusory: the phenomenal world – including language and other symbols – is an illusion.
Buddhism isn’t the only philosophy to dealt with the absence of intrinsic attributes, to have grasped this. In some corners of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Vedanta, Yoga, and other philosophies and religions, God is roughly equivalent to this same reality beyond reality, or maybe as “existing within” this super-reality. Of course, in other portions of the religious world, God isn’t viewed this way, and he or she is often imagined as existing, though not necessarily constructed, more along the lines of the human model.
The Tao Te Ching, of course, begins with the lines, “The Reason that can be reasoned is not the eternal Reason. The name that can be named is not the eternal Name. The Unnameable is of heaven and earth the beginning. The Nameable becomes of the ten thousand things the mother.” In other words, once you name a phenomenon, or assigned attributes to it, then you have departed from the absolute, from the Tao, from the reality beyond phenomena.
Rabbinic Judaism forbids speaking the name of God, but this was perverted from the simple assertion that the name of God simply cannot be spoken anyway, where “name” is taken to imply one or more attributes. The Ultimate cannot be described or named by words.
Both the Hebrews and the ancient Greeks, at least some of them anyway, were troubled by the difficulty of connecting a God Without Attributes to a world which very much has attributes, to phenomenal existence. How can a non-physical God act in they physical world? They described various logical intermediaries between the two realities. Parts of Kabbalah elaborate on these things metaphorically. The contradiction arises, in part, from the belief that God “acts” in the world. From the Buddhist point of view, however, the actions are empty, so they represent an “incomplete” point of view, a failure to see the whole of the actions as consequences of other phenomena. So you won’t see Buddhists or Yogis much concerned with God “acting” in the world: it’s an illusion.
Many protocols have been developed to aid the would-be adept to transcend the view of phenomena as non-empty. Some of these are logical arguments, while others are techniques employed by meditators or procedures to be used during other activities. There are also ancillary concepts and practices used to assist one to develop a direct knowledge of emptiness. For instance, the practice of compassion reinforces the idea that individuals are empty, that we are all conditioned by others.
The dual of the space of phenomena is the space of relationships and conditions. Instead of looking at phenomena, we can look instead at the conditions. This second way of viewing things leads naturally to the conclusion that all phenomena are connected. This alternative way of viewing things, by their connectedness, is prominent in some traditions, such as the Native American wisdom teachings. Both views – connectedness and emptiness – lead to the same result.
Now some of those Buddhist riddles, or koans, might make a little more sense. For instance, if you’ve never quite understood what is the sound of one hand clapping, now you have a clue: the conditions for clapping aren’t quite there. Clapping is empty, as are the Buddha and the riddle, themselves.
Friday 2018.06.01 — Initial release.
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