1. Buddhist

Emptiness – What Does It Mean?

It is an oft expressed maxim in Buddhism that all things … objects,  feelings, perceptions … are empty.  The concept of emptiness causes confusion for many who are trying to walk the path and so causes a barrier to their progress.  Yet there is no cause for confusion if there is no misunderstanding.

The confusion comes because people think the concept of emptiness means that the object doesn’t exist.  But that is an incorrect understanding of emptiness.

Buddhism definitely credits the palpable world as being real.  All the things and the people you see exist; they are real.

The concept of emptiness does not refer to the reality of the objects themselves, but on one level to the way in which we perceive those objects … namely through the five skandhas: appearance of form, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, consciousness-ego.  And how we perceive things are empty of intrinsic (or inherent) existence.  NOTE: This wording of the five skandhas is my wording, based on my translation of the Heart Sutra (see the article on the Heart Sutra on this website).

This is the most meaningful aspect of emptiness to us because it has the potential to impact us in a very practical way.  If the way we think about things and ourselves, our thoughts, are the cause our suffering, and yet are empty of intrinsic existence, what does that tell us?

All the emotions and perceptions we have of things are all a product of our mind; they are in our head.  Thus we suffer not because of the actual things we experience, but the way in which our ego-mind reacts to those experiences.   Whether it’s someone treating us poorly, whether it’s a government policy we think is wrong, the facts are the facts, but we suffer because of the way we react to them.  There is a different way of responding to the facts, dispassionately, that will not cause suffering.

“OK,” the reader may say, “but why do we say that our emotions and perceptions are empty of intrinsic existence?”  Because those feelings and perceptions are dependent on our learned experience.  They don’t exist in the object or on their own.  Different people with different experiences thus have different feelings and perceptions about the same thing.  They are certainly real in the sense that they without question exist, but they are nevertheless empty of intrinsic existence.  The awareness of their just being a product of our mind is what empowers us to say, “Not me!” and end our suffering.  (See my post, “Not Me – Peeling Off the Layers of Our Ego Mind.”)

So when Buddhist teaching says that our thoughts and feelings are empty of intrinsic existence, it means that our perception is dependent on our life experience, how we have been taught, how our science defines colors, etc.  And because our power of perception is thus limited, we cannot perceive the real world as it is through the faculty of our mind.

The reason why we have the goal of freeing ourselves from the control of our ego-mind may be to end our suffering, but that happens because we are then able to see ourselves and all things as they “really” are.  For when we are able to see things directly, with dispassion, free of labels, free of the intervention of our mind, things are the way they are because it’s just the way it is.   

And so our mind rests undisturbed.  And when our mind rests undisturbed, nothing in the world offends, and when no thing can give offense, all obstructions (to seeing reality), all objects of thought cease to be.  At this point true faith pervades the mind, we know we have everything insides ourselves to be at peace and happy, all’s self-revealing and clear without exerting power of mind.

The concept of emptiness, of dependent origination, however, goes beyond how we feel about ourselves or things, which is why I put the word “really” above in quotes.  It affects the status of all things.  To take a classic example, the cup you hold in your hand definitely exists.  We experience the cup as a solid, firm article; that is the appearance of form.  That is the limit of our unaided senses.  We know, however, through modern science and technology that the cup is actually a combination of molecules that are constantly in motion.  The cup’s form is dependent on the interaction of these molecules as a result of the kiln process.  The cup as we perceive it has no intrinsic existence.  Reality is not what it seems.

On a deeper level, truly all things on this earth and in the universe are of dependent origination.  All things are dependent on something else.  And nothing remains constant.  This can most easily be seen when looking at the weather.  We may experience a heat wave because a distant ocean current has warmed up and that has warmed up because …  the connections go on and on reaching into the universe.  Likewise, the rock you sit on is the product of many actions across the geologic ages.  It may look permanent, but not only has it changed over the ages, it will continue to change because of the things that will impact it.  Again, it has no intrinsic existence.

In this sense, truly nothing has inherent existence.  Again, that does not mean that these things are not real, that they don’t exist.  It just means that they don’t have any inherent existence; everything is dependent on something else.  And all things change.

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