emptiness in buddhism

Emptiness is an important idea in Buddhism, especially in Mahayana Buddhism. Thich Nhat Hanh’s commentaries in The Heart of Understanding and in The Dalai Lama’s descriptions follow the same basic idea and concepts of the emptiness doctrine. Another important idea in Buddhism is dependent origination. Emptiness has a very detailed meaning within Buddhist culture. Emptiness in western cultures is different than what some other cultures may believe in.

Our culture sees emptiness as having nothing. As dictionary.com says emptiness is: “1. containing nothing; having none of the usual or appropriate contents: an empty bottle. 2. vacant; unoccupied: an empty house. 3. without cargo or load: an empty wagon. 4. destitute of people or human activity: We walked along the empty streets of the city at night. 5. destitute of some quality or qualities; devoid (usually followed by of ): Theirs is a life now empty of happiness.” Emptiness in western cultures is seen as a negative thing or unwanted things. Emptiness is seen in our culture as void of things. In other cultures, it stands for a whole different meaning. Emptiness is not the idea of having nothing as one may think in our culture. Emptiness is being full of everything. The idea of emptiness is the lack of a single, separate, determinant identity or self. There is no single self. The idea of being a separate entity creates the illusion of a self. This concretizes the self, which is against the Buddhist’s teachings. There is a disparity of how we perceive things. The disparity is based on a separate namable or labeled thing. In our culture, we see one as our own thing.

That we are independent of all other things, while we all interest. We are results of the surrounding culture and our past lives. Emptiness in this setting means no permanent and unchangeable presence. The body is formed by numerous contributing aspects which in turn were shaped by many factors and so the processes can be traced back indefinitely. These features are codependent. The assembly of the body is interdependent origination. Like any phenomenon the body is changing endlessly every second. It has no permanent, unchangeable and independent existence. In this sense the body is empty of independent existence. This is the truth of nature which is a continuous process. We cannot imagine when the body suddenly stops changing – the billions of elements that make up the body go on strike. Everything interexists or “inter-be’s as phrased by Hanh. In our Dalai Lama book emptiness is described as “The meaning of emptiness is the interdependent nature of reality” (Forsthoefel 62). Emptiness is congenital misperceptions of self or independence. The reality is we are dependent upon others. An example of this comes from Hanh’s Heart of Understanding, about a single piece of paper. In this sheet of paper exists a cloud. The piece of paper could not exist without a cloud. The cloud forms the water which rains on the soil where the seed will grow.

The grown seed, the tree, is then cut down by the lumberjacks who take it to a factory to make the paper, which the school buys for a student to write an essay on. Without the need created for the paper and the cloud to help produce the paper, the paper could not exist. So within this piece of paper, exists the cloud, rain, soil, nutrients, seed, tree, lumberjack, factory, workers, school, and student proving the inter-being of all these things. The paper could not exist otherwise without all these other things Therefore, everything exists within each other. In Mahayana Buddhism, they believe that people are empty but so are the dharmas and the five aggregates. The dharmas are elementary factors of existence. Everything is characterized by emptiness. The five aggregates are the five elements that make up a human being. They are form, sensation, perceptions, karmic constructions, and consciousness. Form is the body and sensations are the feelings. Perceptions or conceptualizations are the concept of constructs. Karmic constructions are all the psychological emotions, propensities, and faculties of the individual. Consciousness arises from the interconnection of the others.

These are empty of a separate self. They coexist and are empty of a separate, independent existence. The idea of being interconnected leads to life examples of people who have done wrong doing. An example in Hanh’s Heart of Understanding is about a prostitute. This prostitute became one because she had no other choice to support her family and she felt impure and had a great deal of suffering. As Hanh states, “The wealth of one society is made of the poverty of the other” (pg 29). Not one of us can claim that it is not our responsibility since we all are interconnected. Things do not arise independently but rather dependent upon each other. It is a shared responsibility and guilt because society allows prostitutes to be and put that job upon another human being. Society is dependent on all people. Everyone shares responsibility because all beings are interconnected.

Another part of emptiness is things do not come into existence on their own terms. Things do not result out of nothing, rather everything comes into existence from something else. Things are absent of an intrinsic entity. An example of this is how you are born and your “birthday”. You are born from your mother. You do not just appear one day inside of your mother but are a product from your mother and father. Your mother and father existed in their mother and father, as you did in your grandparents because you come from your parents who came from them. This chain continues on. This shows how you did not come into existence on your own terms but through continuation of previous people. The cause and effect principle shown above requires dependency.

If a thing is independent of other things it rejects the cause and effect, which destabilizes continuation. This results in the idea of how we came from nothing which is untrue because one comes from their parents. We are continuations of our past lives and come from other beings, our ancestors, which means we are causally connected. This explanation relates directly to dependent origination.

Dependent origination is how things come into existence, dependent on causes and conditions. As Kevin Trainor in Buddhism: The Illustrated Guide, explains “This notion of Emptiness thus reflects a renewed understanding of the basic Buddhist doctrine of Dependent Origination, which concludes that all known realities are constructed realities whose identities are merely intellectual conveniences used to order the world so that it can be understood” (Trainor pg 140). The idea of dependent origination things emerging under causes and is made up of the twelve fold chain. It begins with the part that refers to one’s previous lifetime. This includes ignorance leading to karmic constructions. Next is the portion that is comprised of this lifetime. These are a result of karmic constructions which leads to consciousness leading to body and mind leading to six sensing faculties leading to contact leading to sensation leading to thirst leading to grasping leading to becoming or continuing to be. The last portion is referring to the next life time which is off of becoming leading to birth, old age, sickness and death. The karmic constructions are from causal connections. The karmic energies shape the rebirth and shape another life.

The consciousness is conditioned by karma. The dependent origination is applied to moral situations. It is when this case happens then the next case happens which is cause and effect. An example is if ignorance is the case, proactive wrong, then karmic constructions arise leading to consciousness. The principle causal determinant of this chain and desire is the self and selfishness. This is a permanent construct. Selfishness is typically hurtful and harmful because it leads to a form of competition. This is problematic because there is no permanent self. The self is a philosophical presupposition. Metaphysically it is the most complete understanding of reality. Ethically it’s the moral actions and an expression and logical follow through of metaphysics emergent entity, consciousness. The primary ethical responsibility is to cultivate wholesome mental states of mind. A story discussing dependent origination would be in John Strong’s book The Experience of Buddhism. This is the story of “Milinda and The Chariot”. Within this story King Milinda questions Nagasena about the essence of things, what makes something what it is.

He asks what makes up Nagasena. Is it his teeth, skin, blood, feelings perceptions, karmic constituents, consciousness, etc.? All the answers to these questions is no. They result in asking who is Nagasena overall and that there is no Nagasena. He asks the same thing about the chariot he rode around in. Is the chariot the wheel or the frame? The chariot is made up of all these things not the individual thing. The conclusion of their discussion is, “In the way, your majesty, in my case, the word Nagasena comes into existence, dependent on the hair of the head, dependent on the hair of the body,… dependent on the brain, dependent on physical form, on feelings, on perceptions, on karmic constituents, on consciousness. It is a designation, a description, an appellation, nothing but a name. But in the final analysis, the ultimate sense, there is not Person to be found herein…” (Strong pg 101-104). The basis of this story is dependent origination. Everything that makes up the so called person all interdepend on each other rather than just being on their own or being independent. All things depend upon each other not just in the case of a chariot or one person but rather everything all depend on each other and do not come into terms on their own. Everything is interdependent. Another evident theme in emptiness is there are no absolutes and everything is equal. An example of this idea is, in Hanh’s book, is with the story of roses and garbage. We conceptualize these items into categories. Garbage, we see as dirty and gross while roses are pure and clean.

But seeing these items as this is a false identity. This is because the roses with time rot and turns into garbage. The rose and garbage are equal. The changing of the roses show that there are no absolutes and things are impermanent. Impermanence is another big theme in Buddhism. Everything changes and nothing is permanent in life. In cultures that Buddhism is a more prominent religion the significance of emptiness is different than a culture where it is less prominent. A good example of this may be a zero. A zero in Western cultures signifies lack of anything, void of any entity or being. Zero stands for nothing. In other cultures, the zero stands for lack of separate self. It is symbolic of a whole entity. It stands for the exact principle of emptiness in Buddhism of the idea of inter-being and interconnectedness of all things. The idea of emptiness has an impact of this philosophy in the real world. It brings up how change is inevitable. Everything in our lifetimes change, things age and become completely different. The emptiness doctrine destabilizes the concretized blame and judgment.

This means that society is somewhat to blame for a person’s actions because society partially shapes who we are today. There is a notion of cause and effect in emptiness, which is tied to dependent origination. All beings are interconnected and these destabilize fixed judgments, such as stereotypes, since we all are interconnected and are entities of each other. The idea of emptiness rejects conceptualization and names. When you name something it because “real” and a concretized thing. Language is a problem because it concretizes things and makes things become fixed items. These things lead to object of attachment. Concepts are empty. All words are empty and an arbitrary use for social discourse. These words become opinions, bias, and afflictive states due to self-centeredness because of the conceptualization of the words. The emptiness doctrine helps us to perceive how the world truly how it is, not through our interpretations, judgments and ordinary perceptions. The idea of everyone being interconnected is reasoning for why everyone should be compassionate, like the Buddhists say, because we all are one and dependent upon others. Being hurtful to others is harming oneself because we all are interconnected. The Buddhist form of emptiness is often seen in Western cultures as nihilism, “The only thing that nihilism and the teaching of emptiness can be said to have in common is a skeptical outset. While nihilism concludes that reality is unknowable, that nothing exists, that nothing meaningful can be communicated about the world, the Buddhist notion of emptiness arrives at just the opposite, namely that ultimate reality is knowable, that there is a clear-cut ontological basis for phenomena, and that we can communicate and derive useful knowledge from it about the world.

Emptiness (Sunyata) must not be confused with nothingness. Emptiness is not non-existence and it is not non-reality” (Emptiness is form). Our culture needs to be more sensitive and understanding of others beliefs. It may not be one’s belief in our culture about the same things but we need to be open to understanding and sensitive to others beliefs. Emptiness in itself is empty. The fourteenth Dalia Lama describes this idea, “As your insight into the ultimate nature of reality is deepened and enhanced, you will develop a perception of reality from which you will perceive phenomena and events as sort of illusory, illusion-like, and this mode of perceiving reality will permeate all your interactions with reality. […] Even emptiness itself, which is seen as the ultimate nature of reality, is not absolute, nor does it exist independently. We cannot conceive of emptiness as independent of a basis of phenomena, because when we examine the nature of reality, we find that it is empty of inherent existence. Then if we are to take that emptiness itself is an object and look for its essence, again we will find that it is empty of inherent existence. Therefore the Buddha taught the emptiness of emptiness.” (Emptiness is form). Everything in our world, according to Buddhist teachings is empty of its own independent self, therefore emptiness itself is empty.

Emptiness is an important theme throughout Buddhism. It is the idea that everything exists within each other and there is no separate self. It is also that things do not come into existence on its own terms. Emptiness is being full of everything. Everything contains everything else which is the principle of interpretation. Emptiness is a condition to possibility of everything.

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