“When emptiness is possible
Everything is possible;
Were emptiness impossible,
Nothing would be possible.” – Nagarjuna
When something is described as empty, what is typically meant in colloquial parlance is something containing nothing. So when we look into a jug absent of any apparent matter – no water for example – we simply say its empty and no further questions are asked. This is not what the Buddhists have in mind when they speak of emptiness. Emptiness, also called Sunyata, has a special meaning in Buddhism with its own conceptual system and discourse.
Emptiness… perhaps it sounds mystical and esoteric when put into the context of a philosophy. But it demands an explanation because there’s nothing mystical or esoteric about it – it’s the way things ultimately are! Emptiness states that all phenomena are empty of inherent existence… what does that imply? It implies rejection of objects being made of uncompounded wholes; rejection of a permanent, enduring object and rejection of independent or self-reliant objects. That last point needs elaboration because it’s important: so if there is no independent or self-reliant object or self, then this logically means nothing in this world can stand on its own two legs, everything needs something else to depend on for its conventional existence.
Some notable Buddhists have described emptiness in the following ways: according to Thich Nhat Hanh he says that emptiness means we are all empty of a separate self; and according to Thanissaro Bhikku we have this excerpt:
“Emptiness is a mode of perception, a way of looking at experience. It adds nothing to and takes nothing away from the raw data of physical and mental events. You look at events in the mind and the senses with no thought of whether there’s anything lying behind them.”1
So from this we can deduce that emptiness is both a concept and a method which must be put into practise for it to be realised for ourselves.
Sunyata vs Svabhāva
For now instead of continuing on to elaborate on what emptiness is we’ll next focus on what it’s not, because I find that the best way to get a good start towards understanding any concept is to know what it is not, so let’s start with what is the polar opposite of emptiness.
What’s contrary to emptiness? That would be svabhāva; this meaning ‘own being’ or ‘own becoming’, a permanent unchanging identity that is independent of anything outside itself. So we must remember that whenever Buddhist discourse mentions the word intrinsic, they are referring to the concept of Svabhāva. To give a ready prepared example of svabhāva, when applied to people, would be the perceiving of an individual person as having their own essence, like their soul – something that is pure, whole, indivisible and enduring – we see them as possessing intrinsic nature which is not dependent on anything else other than themselves.
If we go about viewing everything as having own being or intrinsic essence with all of its properties being inseparably it; then we are ignorant of emptiness by adopting this inverse mode of perception that is Svabhāva. This ignorance of emptiness (avijja), is what causes us great suffering by justifying our mental attachments towards believing things as they appear to be as inherently existing and independent phenomena.
The Two truths
The two truths are the Buddhist philosopher’s mode of perceiving the world, he toggles between the two lenses of the conventional and the ultimate truths.
On the conventional level is the realm of worldly social conventions – essences and selves abound here. The conventional level can also be described as our habitual way of seeing phenomena as having Svabhāva, coupled also with the conventional lens of avijja – the ignorance of emptiness. That being our usual everyday way of relating to the world, following rules and conventions, seeing things as having a singular whole essence.
The ultimate level is simply the adoption of emptiness. Our everyday default conventional mode of perceiving things can be toggled to emptiness as our ultimate mode of perception and vice-versa.
The abolishing analysis
So how do we go about applying emptiness? Thusly, the empirical world of appearances is negated by using the abolishing analysis of emptiness. This analysis as our applied method does away with the conventional way of seeing things, our pesky habit of attributing inherent selves or essences by making us question the validity of viewing something as having this solid, enduring, independent essence. From this method anything we see before our eyes are the observable effects which have their basis on particular underlying causes and conditions. If those causes and conditions have not gathered together and assembled, then whatever the phenomenal appearance may be, they can never make an appearance to us because they would not exist. The abolishing analysis dissolves the perceptual apprehension of objects as being solid core entities. It makes on analysis, that which appears independent to reveal dependence, and shows what appears to be constant to be really inconstant.
The method prompts us to ask the question: does the parts of the thing actually belong to the actual thing? Things are effects dependent on underlying causes, which are at the same time extrinsic to it. Think of animals finding food, the proteins and fats did not get inside the belly by themselves, but were appropriated by animal ingestion and digestion. Like us, animals seek things that are of a nature extrinsic to themselves and they are at the same time dependent on them for their continued bodily existence.
If you read Buddhist texts demonstrating emptiness, chariots and carts were the most common objects receiving the applied analysis, not surprising as this teaching is many centuries old! We go on and ask about the relationship between the cart and its parts:
“We would never find a cart separate from its parts. If we were to take the cart completely apart, there would be no cart at all; we would be left with nothing other than the parts that once were the cart.”2
To shift to our modern mode of transportation, the essence of the car is not revealed through any examination of the parts, for each of them are themselves merely a composite of other parts which make them ‘whole’, and these as well in turn, dissolve under closer inspection. If we progressively removed the components of a car, at what point can it be said to be no longer a car?
The junkyard car – with its engines, steering wheels and tyres removed – testifies that parts of a whole are changeable and impermanent because they never were essentially part of the car. Now we ask ourselves, this junkyard car no longer performs its function as a mode of transportation, is this still a car?
Maybe conventionally, but ultimately there never was the essence of ‘car’ to begin with. The car does not exist as car from its side, but only exists as a conceptual designation fabricated by the thinking mind. Our conferring nouns and names onto things is essentially a linguistic act, our perceptions of things are mind made forming conventions.
- Open Door to Emptiness: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Open-Door-to-Emptiness/dp/193157121X