Buddhism has been called the “teaching of emptiness” since ancient times because emptiness is one of its most important doctrines. Emptiness is also one of the characteristics that distinguishes Buddhism from other religions.
As previously mentioned, when the Buddha attained awakening under the bodhi tree, he awakened to the universal truth of dependent origination. Dependent origination means that everything in the world arises from causes and conditions, and that nothing has an independent self. The characteristic of all phenomena having no independent self is called “emptiness.”
The word “emptiness” is an English translation of the Sanskrit word sunyata or the Chinese character kong (空). In Buddhist terminology, emptiness is used to describe the ultimate nature of reality. However, emptiness is often misinterpreted and instead seen as a justification for pessimism and seclusion. When understood correctly, one will see that emptiness embraces the boundless universe and gives rise to all existence. Emptiness is not negation; it is emptying the mind of the notions of relativity, duality, and distinction. Emptiness is even letting go of our attachment to emptiness itself. With a mind such as this, we will attain the state of ease and liberation, a state with no duality between emptiness and existence.
The True Meaning of Emptiness
The Treatise on the Middle Way says, “Because there is emptiness, all phenomena exist. Without emptiness, all phenomena could not be.” Without emptiness, the phenomenal world could not exist. For example, from the perspective of dependent origination, a piece of cotton cloth is “empty.” Why? The cloth only exists temporarily, for it is conditioned by other things. The cloth is made from cotton yarn, and the yarn is made from cotton fiber. Cotton fiber comes from cottonseeds, and the seeds need soil, air, sunlight, water, and nutrients before they can grow into plants that produce cotton. Therefore, the cotton cloth is the result of the combination of many conditions that span the universe. Looking at all things from this point of view, we can see that the cloth’s nature is empty. This core of emptiness is what allows all phenomena to exist.
Emptiness is a truth that connects the three Dharma seals. For example, nothing in the world is permanent and everything is always changing. This is the first Dharma seal, “all conditioned phenomena are impermanent.” Even the nature of suffering is impermanent. According to the second Dharma seal, “all phenomena are without an independent self,” such that everything relies upon many other things for its existence. No conditioned phenomena in the world is truly concrete, or truly tranquil—everything is like a dream, an illusion, a bubble, or a shadow. The exception is the third Dharma seal, “nirvana is perfect tranquility,” which the Buddha taught to help sentient beings achieve liberation. It demonstrates how true emptiness manifests wondrous existence.
Emptiness is an essential part of a wonderful and profound philosophy, but it is impossible to convey the meaning of emptiness in a single sentence. The Explanation of the Treatise on the Awakening of Faith in Mahayana lists ten different definitions for emptiness, and even though none of the ten definitions nor any definition can describe emptiness fully, these ten definitions can help to point us in the right direction:
Emptiness obstructs nothing. It pervades everything but obstructs nothing.
Emptiness embraces all places. It spreads everywhere and there is nowhere it is not present.
Emptiness is equality. It has no preference for one thing over another.
Emptiness is immense. It is vast, without limits and boundaries.
Emptiness is formless, it has no shape or form.
Emptiness is pure, and is without defilement.
Emptiness is motionless. It is always still. It is not born and does not die, and does not arise nor cease.
Emptiness is unlimited. It completely negates all things that have limits.
Emptiness is empty. It completely negates the substantial existence of all things and destroys all attachments to it.
Emptiness cannot be clung to, caught, or held.
Different Kinds of Emptiness
In Buddhist literature, many kinds of emptiness are discussed. However, emptiness can be classified into three basic kinds.
First, there is emptiness of the self, which is also known as emptiness of sentient beings. Since the life of all sentient beings is interconnected and dependent on causes and conditions, no single part of it can be said to have an independent existence in and of itself.
Second, there is the emptiness of all phenomena. In the same way as stated above, all phenomena are the result of causes and conditions, and thus have no independent existence. These phenomena also lack a “self.”
Third, there is supreme emptiness. This is the emptiness that is beyond the duality of existence and non-existence, and does not abide in either. Supreme emptiness is also called the emptiness of “suchness,” meaning the quality of things simply as they are. This type of emptiness is the same as the perfect tranquility of nirvana.
The Treatise on the Perfection of Great Wisdom says, “In the state of nirvana, there is no form of nirvana. The emptiness of nirvana is supreme emptiness… It leads all phenomena to the ‘emptiness of suchness,’ and is therefore called supreme emptiness.”
How to Recognize Emptiness
Emptiness and existence may seem like opposing concepts: existence seems as if it is anything other than empty, and emptiness seems as though it does not exist. However, from a Buddhist perspective, emptiness and existence are two sides of the same coin: all of existence is empty because it lacks an independent self, but all of existence also arises out of emptiness itself.
How can we come to know emptiness? We can actually recognize emptiness from observing existence. The following are seven such approaches:
Nothing in the world is permanent or unchanging, and as all things fade away they will be replaced by what comes after. The cells of our bodies are an example of this: as cells divide, age, and die, they are replaced by new cells. Everything in the world is like this. There is an old Chinese saying that illustrates this continuous succession quite well, “In the Yangzi River, the waves from the back push the waves in front forward; just as a new generation of people replaces the old.” By observing this continuous succession and impermanence of phenomena, we can understand emptiness.
Everything in the universe is subject to cause and effect, which often manifests in the form of natural cycles. Consider the example of a fruit seed. If the seed is properly planted in the earth and receives sufficient sunlight, air, water, and other nutrients, it will grow into a plant, produce flowers, and then bear fruit. The seed is the cause, and the fruit is the effect. When the seed from this fruit is exposed to the necessary external conditions and once again grows into a plant bearing fruit, the fruit that was originally the effect becomes the cause of a new life. Causes lead to effects, and effects become causes. By observing these cycles we can understand emptiness.
Compounding of Elements
All phenomena are formed through the union of causes and conditions. For example, our body is composed of flesh, blood, sinew, and many other parts. If we separate all the constituent parts, the human body would no longer exist. By seeing how different components combine and come together we can understand emptiness.
All things are defined by their relationship to other things. For example, in a three-story building, when a person walks from the first floor to the second floor, the second floor is “upstairs,” the first floor is “downstairs.” When that person walks from the third floor to the second floor, the second floor now becomes “downstairs.” What is “upstairs” and “downstairs,” “above” and “below” is not absolute. All things exist only in relation to one another. This is another way to understand emptiness.
No Absolute Standards
No phenomena has any “absolute standard” to which it can be compared. For example, consider light. Light can be produced from many sources: from a candle, from a gas lamp, or from an electric lamp, but there is no absolute standard for brightness. If we light a candle in the dark, we may consider the light from the candle to be bright. Yet, compared to the light from a lamp, the candlelight is no longer so bright. “Brightness” thus has no absolute standard. Observing the lack of absolute standards can help us to understand emptiness.
Any given worldly phenomena has many different names or labels. Consider for a moment a piece of cloth: if it is worn over the upper body, we call it a shirt. If it is worn over the legs, we call it a skirt or a pair of pants. If it is worn over the feet, we call it socks, and if it is worn on the head, we call it a hat. In any instance, it is still a piece of cloth, but it is called by different names. When we see that each of these names is temporary, it can help us to understand emptiness.
Perception is not fixed, and is easily altered by our differing perspectives. On a snowy evening, a poet sitting by the window may be inspired by the beauty of the scene. He exclaims, “If it snows a few more feet, it will be even more beautiful!” At the same time, a homeless person huddled and shivering under an awning may lament, “If it snows a few more feet, how will I be able to make it through the night?” Although they face the same scene, due to their difference in perspectives, they have different perceptions. Seeing how much our perspectives affect our perceptions can help us to understand emptiness.
Emptiness and Existence
The Mahayana Esoteric Adornment Sutra says, “Without emptiness, there is no form. Without form, there is no emptiness. The two are like the moon and moonlight: from beginning to end, they are always together.” It is only because phenomena are empty that they can manifest, and it is only because they are impermanent that they reveal their empty nature. Existence could not be outside of emptiness, and emptiness is not truly empty outside of existence. Emptiness and existence always work hand in hand.
The teaching of emptiness is like an X-ray. With an X-ray, we can see into the hidden depths of the body. Through the truth of emptiness, we can see into the reality of all phenomena.
Emptiness is like the digit zero. The nature of zero is nothingness, but if we place a zero after a one, we get ten. If we add another zero, we get one hundred, and another gives us one thousand. From this, we can see that although zero may seem useless, it can become very useful. Emptiness is the same. Although some may say that emptiness is nothingness, emptiness can embrace everything in the universe.
We can experience emptiness in our everyday lives. For example, a “baby girl” gradually grows up and is called a “little girl.” When she gets into her teens, she is known as a “young woman.” After she reaches her twenties or thirties, she is called a “Miss,” and if she marries, she is known as “Mrs. So-and-so.” Having children, she becomes a “mother.” When her children grow up and get married, she will gain more roles such as “mother-in-law” and even “grandmother.” From the shift and changes in these titles, we can understand the truth of emptiness.
Beautiful and ugly, old and young, big and small are all relative terms and have no absolute standards. They are but temporary labels. The Diamond Sutra says, “There is no standard Dharma.” It also says, “True reality is not reality.” Only emptiness describes things as they are, for it is the unchanging Dharma. Only when we realize emptiness, will we truly understand the world. By understanding emptiness we can transcend duality and enter a world that is more open and profound.
Many may hear the Buddhist teaching on emptiness and think that it is negative, or that it encourages us to get rid of everything. In fact, the Buddhist concept of emptiness is not negative at all. On the contrary, emptiness is the basis of the arising of all existence. It is not a void, it is creation. Without an empty plot, we would not be able to build a house. If a bag were not empty, it could not contain anything. Without emptiness in the universe, human beings would not be able to survive. Hence, there must be emptiness before there can be existence. All phenomena in the universe are built upon emptiness; it is the essence which allows for the existence and function of all phenomena. Without emptiness, nothing would come to be through the coming together of conditions, nothing would arise, and nothing would cease.
Emptiness does not mean pessimism and nihilism. Rather, emptiness is creative and constructive. By understanding emptiness we can let go of the attachments that we cling to, and see the world from a different perspective. When we have experienced and directly realized emptiness, we will be in harmony with the entire universe.