Buddhism 101: Emptiness

Believe it or not folks, this entry was one of the main reasons I started this series, and it will probably be the last post of it for a while. I still might intersperse some Buddhism 101 stuff as I go, but I’m wanting to start posting about other stuff again.

This was a weird post to write, I actually discussed with my teacher if I could write it, and got permission. Technically it’s against a vow I’ve taken, I’m not to discuss Emptiness with people who don’t understand. Seriously. The reason of this vow is a historic one, back when the tantric side of Buddhism was far more secretive than it is now, most people who weren’t Buddhist didn’t know the concept of Emptiness, and even many Buddhists didn’t focus on it (which boggles me). The trouble is, as you’ll see later in this post, if I say “All things are Empty” unless you know what that means in a Buddhist sense, you might misunderstand. In fact, it kind of sounds bleak doesn’t it. It’s all empty, nothing is real…what’s the point? This is why the vow says don’t talk about it, because people will misunderstand it, and it will discourage them. Who wants to practice a religion that says you’re empty and not real?

That said, the secretive nature of tantra is changing, for better or worse, and part of that is the fact that a lot of people are familiar, at least in passing with the idea that Buddhism says all things are empty. This post is actually a response to that.

First things first: Emptiness, also known as Sunnata in Pali, Shunyata in Sanskrit, and Stongpa nyid in Tibetan. It literally translates as Emptiness, it’s not a translation problem like “Suffering.”

While the doctrine of Emptiness is important in my understanding of Buddhism, it seems like it’s something that grew in important. It gets very little treatment in the Pali canon, mostly just interpreted into stuff. By the time of Mahayana it became more important, the understanding being that all things are Empty. Then into Vajrayana not only are all things Empty, but Emptiness is the true nature of reality, and in the quick (dangerous) path to Enlightenment you need to learn to experience it.

It’s most popular expression is from the Prajnaparamita Sutra (The Book of Perfected Wisdom) which states “Form does not differ from emptiness, and emptiness does not differ from the form. Form is emptiness, and emptiness is form.”

Simple enough.

I’m going to discuss it mainly from a tantric position, also, because Tibetan Buddhists are really good at classifying and nitpicking I’ll point out there are literally dozens of types of Emptiness we recognize. I’ll be discussing generalized Emptiness, but there are more specialized forms of it.

It is translated in English alternatively as Emptiness, Nothingness, and more recently Openness. None of these translations do the concept justice. When using the term Emptiness in Buddhism it isn’t a reference to a hollowness or a lack in the way one might say that the bottle is empty. Nothingness is not the same in Buddhism as it is in Western thought, it doesn’t refer to a void or non-existence. Openness has a bit more of a poetic truth to it, but still does not hit the mark.

Unfortunately due to the centrality of Emptiness in Buddhism, and its long history, several classifications and types have been categorized and written about. It is not a concept easily explained, but it can be pointed to and overtime a practitioner can truly experience it and understand what was being acknowledged.

On the simplest level Emptiness refers to being empty of an inherent and distinct individual nature, it is essentially in this form the flipside of Buddhist Interdependence. To borrow and abuse Plato’s classic example of Form take a table. We might all know that a table is a table, but what makes it so? What is the inherent nature of a table? What makes it distinct? Why is it a table and not a footstool? What makes it separate from everything else? Now add in a dash of an abstraction of the sorites paradox. If we have a table and cut it down the centre it is no longer a table, but what happened to its “table-ness?” If the table-ness was real how could a cut undo it? If we cut the table in half through the legs we still have a table, but one half as tall as before, how is this still a table when it is missing half its height? How short could we make the legs before it stopped being a table? Even without human agency if we watch a table over time it will rot, fall apart, and become a pile of rubbish, and that pile of rubbish is not a table, yet we cannot say where the table-ness went nor identify the moment it was a table, and the moment it was not.

From a Buddhist perspective the table is Empty, it is Empty of inherent characteristics, it is made up of a combination of elements; material, a surface, supports, purpose, and understanding, and as those elements change we realize the table is not a table, it is just a unit of temporarily coherent elements we think of and use as a table.

Now take yourself as a person. What is your inherent distinct individual nature? You know you are you, but what makes you you? If you were to suffer a brain injury and lose your memories or mental faculties, would you still be you? Some would say yes, and some would say no, but if you had a true inherent existence, then there could be no disagreement. If there was a “real” you, there would be no question. Look back at the person you were a year ago, five years, ten years, are they still you? But how many things have changed? How can that person and you be the same? On a physical level in the last decade every cell and particle in your body has been recycled, destroyed, and built a new, there is not a particle in your body that was there ten years ago, yet you say you are the same person despite having not a single particle in common with 2006 you. When you were a child you a fraction of your height and weight, but if that child was you what were they missing, or what do you have now since you’re twice their size? If you lost a finger in an accident, would there be less you? If you forgot a vacation you went on, or got over a temper problem, would you still be you? It is hard, or arguably impossible to point to what you really are.

Going back to the table, it’s not just a matter of the form of the table, but its composition that make it empty. The wood from the table used to be a living tree, but now it isn’t, when did it cease being a tree and begin being a table? Both tree and a table are empty, but you can see how they are connected. The tree did not become a table by a miracle, a person cut down the tree (either by hand or through a mechanical device), so that person is as much a part of the table as the tree is. The sun’s light nurtured that tree, so the table is composed of sunlight as well.

When you look at the particles in the tree it might contain carbon that was once in the lungs of Caesar Augustus, or part of the body of a forest animal, those are all part of the tree, and the table, and those all show how the table and the tree are empty. The table could not exist without all of those things, and an infinite chain more. The table is empty of its own nature but instead is an aggregate of everything. Your table is not a table, but your table is also the saw blade that cut it, the mountain that metal was mined from, and the person who dug it out. Your table is the person who crafted it into a table, it’s the carbon distilled from the air as it grew, the water used to transport material inside the tree, the sunlight, the star that exploded over four million years ago to produce the particles that would be recycled into the earth, and thus the tree, and thus the table. All of this, and many many more things make up your table. Your table is empty of an inherent being, but through that it is connected to everything.

All things are Empty. They are always Empty, it is merely a matter of being aware of it, and accessing it.
Emptiness could be described both as Empty, but also Full, filled with everything. It is an undifferentiated potentia.

It is common in many Buddhist practices to “dissolve into emptiness” or to “rest in emptiness.” This does not mean Nothingness, but that state of infinite potential and connection. When you see yourself as empty it does not mean to be hollow like a tube, or to cease to exist. Instead it means to recognize that you do not exist independent of anything, but infinitely connected to, and not separate from anything else. You are connected to everything and anything. When you dissolve into Emptiness you still exist, but you enter a state of understanding that you do not exist in any inherent or independent way, you exist in relationship to every element of everything else.

By accessing Emptiness, that infinitely connected and undifferentiated reality as the basis of all things, you can also create anything. When you dissolve into Emptiness, you can then reform yourself in any way, looking the same, but being composed of the stuff of the gods or divine archetypes. You dissolve into Emptiness, so that you can arise and reform yourself into anything.

Emptiness is also very important to the understanding of Compassion in Buddhism. After all, how can you not express and experience Compassion for other people when you realize that both you and them are Empty, and thus connected, even the same. You are them, they are you. Put poetically: The heart of Compassion is Emptiness.

If you’re curious for a bit more detailed of a look, I recommend The Heart of Understanding: Commentaries on the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra by Thich Nhat Hanh

This is just a very basic explanation of Emptiness. Considering it’s broken down into over twenty categories, and is still a huge part of Vajrayana debates you can tell it’s a complicated topic. Hopefully though my middling explanation of it though will help you understand that when Buddhists say something is Empty/Void it isn’t a nihilistic thing, but an infinitely connected perspective, one meant not to instill a sense of nihilism or depression, but connection and compassion.

One Response to Buddhism 101: Emptiness

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