Spirit Grooves Blogs

Published on October 7, 2014

There are a few key or very important terms in Tibetan Buddhism and the concept of "emptiness" is one of them, but it can be hard to define. In addition, there are several distinct ways the concept of emptiness is used in the teachings, and they can be confusing. Let's just start with how the Buddha defined emptiness and go from there.

In the Pāli canon (Suñña Sutta), Ananda (his attendant) asks the Buddha "In what respect can the world be said to be empty?" The Buddha then said "It is empty insofar as it is empty of a self or of anything pertaining to a self."

The Sanskrit word "Śūnyatā," commonly translated as "emptiness," means "hollowness," making it tempting to think of emptiness as like a hologram. Among other things, the word points out that this world is pretty much empty of anything most people care about, in particular their "Self." For most of us, that would be empty enough.

A common misunderstanding of what the Buddha said is that there is no self. The Buddha did not say that we don't have a self, which of course we all do, but only pointed out that 'self' is empty of any true (as in permanent) independent existence. Even this sounds threatening to many Americans, that the "self" has no true existence, but it is not like anything is taken away from us other than perhaps an illusion, the illusion that the dummy knows more than the ventriloquist.

After all, the self (like the ventriloquist's dummy) is little more than an assemblage we create, the sum total of our likes and dislikes, held together by our attachment to them. In other words, the self is something that we first very carefully assemble, forget that we created it, and then proceed to reify it. Sooner or later we slip into the risky habit of listening to ourselves speak, and finally end up believing most of what we say. Some of us even fall in love with ourselves. Most at least "like" ourselves. Fewer yet have found humor in liking themselves.

When I read that old Bible quote "And then God created Heaven and Earth," I think of the self and how in that department we have done most of the creating, only it took us more than seven days. Unfortunately, the self is only as permanent as our latest enthusiasms or lack thereof. As a kid, a new bike might have obsessed the self, later a first lover, and who knows what today. As the Buddhist's say, no matter, the self has no permanent existence, much less the kind of future we would like to envision for it. This is all part of the mystery of emptiness.

Perhaps the most famous statement on emptiness is that from the Heart Sutra, which is part of the prajnaparamita-sutras, that says:

Form is emptiness,
Emptiness is form.

It points out that not only is form empty, but that the form is actually the emptiness appearing. In other words, it is not that form is empty like a bowl, but rather that form is the emptiness itself appearing, and vice versa. They really mean it when they say "Form IS emptiness." Thus the analogy of an empty hologram is nice, provided we understand what it is empty of, which is permanent or independent existence.

All phenomena are empty of a separate independent existence, i.e. like a permanent self. Things are nothing all by themselves, but rather are interdependent. They do not stand alone. Not only does every cause have an effect, but every cause is itself an effect of a previous cause, yet it is not like dominoes.

Buddhist cosmology has no beginning or first cause and no end or final cessation, therefore no linear line of existence. It is just an infinite mass of endless interwoven interdependence, much like a ball of string, but with no beginning or end we can pick out to unravel it.

Samsara without realizatio is infinite and lasts forever.

[A little graphic I put together along the analogy of emptiness as a hologram.]