Emptiness in Buddhism: Exploring the Concept and Its Paradoxical Nature

emptiness in Buddhism

Emptiness is a core aspect of Buddhist philosophy. This applies to both the Theravada tradition (the oldest existing school of Buddhism) and the Mahayana tradition (the later branch of Buddhism that accepts the teachings of early Buddhism but adds new texts and doctrines, such as the Mahayana Sutras and the emphasis on the bodhisattva path: the path to becoming a Buddha – an enlightened being – in order to liberate all sentient beings from suffering). 

Śūnyatā (Sanskrit) or suññatā (Pali: the language the early Buddhist texts were written in) is the term that is translated as emptiness, vacuity, or voidness. There isn’t really an adequate English word for it, though, as ‘emptiness’ or ‘voidness’ can have negative connotations, whereas śūnyatā is meant to be the positive sort of emptiness that transcends the duality of positive-negative. Nagarjuna, the second-century Indian Buddhist philosopher-saint, said of śūnyatā, “It cannot be called void or not void, or both or neither, but in order to indicate it, it is called the Void.” The concept is just very hard to describe. It is perhaps ineffable – that which cannot be put into words. As it says in the Prajna-Paramita Sutra, “Shunyata is the synonym of that which has no cause, that which is beyond thought or conception, that which is not produced, that which is not born, that which is without measure.”

In the Theravada school, suññatā refers to the non-self nature of the five aggregates or five skandhas (heaps, collections, groupings). These are the five material and mental factors that constitute our sense of self, which lead to craving and clinging and, in turn, dukkha (unsatisfactoriness or suffering). Emptiness applies to the self because Buddhists believe that it is empty of essence. The self is an illusion because there is not, in reality, a core, underlying, and persistent essence of self-identity to be discovered. The emptiness of the self is encapsulated by this concept of non-self (Pali: anattā, Sanskrit: anātman). This tenet stands in opposition to the Hindu belief in atman or the immortal essence of a person. (See my previous post on the illusory nature of the self according to David Hume and the Buddha.)

In the Mahayana tradition, on the other hand, śūnyatā refers to the doctrine that all things are empty of intrinsic nature or essence (known as svabhava in Sanskrit, which literally means “own-being”). So it is not just the five aggregates that lack self-essence but all phenomena. Here it’s crucial to understand that śūnyatā does not mean that nothing exists. It tells us that there is existence but that all phenomena are empty of svabhava

People commonly conclude that Buddhism is a nihilistic philosophy because of the concept of śūnyatā, but this is mistaken. The concept does not mean that existence or values are meaningless and that reality is unknown and unknowable. Compassion is a meaningful and purposeful value for Buddhists, for instance. In fact, as Terry Clifford underscores in Tibetan Buddhist Medicine and Psychiatry, “The absolute compassion of Mahayana arises spontaneously with the realization of emptiness.” Or as Nagarjuna put it, “Emptiness is the womb of compassion.” 

Realising that we all share the nature of emptiness means realising that we are all interconnected. We are not isolated, essential selves. The metaphysical reality of oneness and interdependence leads to the ethic of caring about another’s suffering as our own (because it is). As the Indian Buddhist philosopher Śāntideva states, “Suffering has no ‘possessor,’ / Therefore no distinctions can be made in it. / Since pain is pain, it is to be dispelled. / What use is there in drawing boundaries?” Śūnyatā engenders a universalised ethic in the bodhisattva because suffering is no longer seen as bounded by any one person. And so “the bodhisattva’s vow is to remain in samsara [the cycle of death and rebirth] working for the welfare of all,” writes Barbara Clayton.

To say that something is ‘empty’ is to say that it is ‘dependently originated’ (a concept known in Sanskrit as pratītyasamutpāda), meaning that its existence depends on something else; if it exists, so does this other thing, and if it ceases to exist, so too does that other thing. Objects do not have their own independent existence. Nothing in phenomenal reality is fundamental or irreducible – every phenomenon depends on constituent parts. As well as lacking an essential character, dependently originated things are transient (impermanence here being another key teaching of Buddhism) and unsatisfactory.

When I learned of this more universal conception of emptiness during a class on Buddhism at a meditation centre, I wondered whether this means that emptiness, therefore, applies to the concept of emptiness itself. Is śūnyatā not, by definition, also empty of essence? And if so, how can we then meaningfully apply the concept? What can a concept mean if it has no essence? It seemed like there was an issue of self-contradiction, with the universal scope of the concept of śūnyatā refuting the concept itself.

I asked the teacher about this at the end of the class and he mentioned that there are different types of śūnyatā, one of which is emptiness of emptiness or śūnyatā-śūnyatā. Indeed, to the Mahayanists, not only ordinary objects, but the Buddha, nirvana, and emptiness itself are all empty of inherent essence. This teaching attempts to eradicate mental attachment and the perception of duality – the aversion to bondage in birth-and-death (samsara) and desire for nirvana (liberation from samsara and suffering) – as this can obstruct the bodhisattva path of saving all beings before entering nirvana oneself.

The doctrines of Buddhism, including that of emptiness, are concepts that arise in phenomenal reality – as constructs of the mind – and so they would appear, by definition then, to be empty of inherent existence or essence. While this seems paradoxical, since these are meant to be essential teachings and refer to what is fundamental about reality, we could say that what they do is point to what is fundamental, which can only be experienced and realised first-hand through meditation – a practice that requires concentration (samadhi). As it says in the Samyutta Nikaya, an early Buddhist text, “A bhikkhu [monk] who is concentrated understands things as they really are.” Just as a well-sharpened blade can easily cut through a solid object, so too must the mind be sharply concentrated so that it can penetrate reality. It is by experiencing śūnyatā in this way – rather than simply thinking about it – that one realises its truth. And this realisation, this intimate knowledge (or prajñāpāramitā: “the perfection of wisdom”, as it is known in Mahayana Buddhism) is said to be the door to enlightenment.

The emptiness of emptiness is just one paradoxical aspect of śūnyatā. We also find a paradox in the following phrase from the Heart Sutra, an important sutra (text) of Mahayana Buddhism: “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.” This defines what is there by what is not there and, conversely, what is not there by what is there. Emptiness does not differ from form (phenomena, objects) and form does not differ from emptiness. The paradox is not a play on words; it is meant to be a pure statement of the Mahayanist teaching. Elsewhere in the sutra, Avalokiteshvara –  the Bodhisattva of Compassion – says to the monk Sariputra, “Body is nothing more than emptiness, emptiness is nothing more than body. The body is exactly empty, and emptiness is exactly body.”

In addition, śūnyatā is a paradoxical concept because emptiness is non-existence but not nothingness. It is not non-reality. Lastly, the Tibetan Buddhist meditation teacher Chögyam Trungpa notes in The Bodhisattva Path of Wisdom and Compassion that there are three types of emptiness:

The shunyata state of meditation is described as externally empty, internally empty, and absolutely empty. Externally empty means that the phenomenal world and sensory perceptions are seen as equally empty, although they may be vivid and colorful. Internally empty means that the internal world of emotions is also seen as empty, vivid maybe, but still empty. Absolutely empty means that there is nothing particularly to do. There is nothing to work on, no one to make a reference point, nothing whatsoever. 

This absolute emptiness likewise seems paradoxical; if it means there is nothing to do, nothing to work on, and no reference point, then how does one make any progress as a Buddhist? Buddhism sets out a path to follow, but if that path is characterised by śūnyatā, why follow it?

The paradoxical nature of emptiness in Buddhism leads to various conceptual difficulties and philosophical disagreements. But a paradox is not by definition untrue; it is a seemingly contradictory proposition that may be true, which is difficult to understand because it contains two opposing characteristics. (Nonetheless, as the philosopher Graham Priest points out, contradictions are accepted and even endorsed in Buddhism: there is the possibility of a statement being both true and false.) 

As in other Eastern traditions, the way to properly understand the truth of a paradox is not through the intellect but through direct experience. Interestingly, ineffable, paradoxical experiences themselves are a common feature of mystical states; many people in these states have the experience of being nothing and everything at the same time, for instance. Perhaps, then, this applies to the paradox of śūnyatā as well – one can only understand what it truly means if one experiences it first-hand.

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