Thursday, May 6, 2010

Introduction to Emptiness

What is Emptiness?

Emptiness is always the emptiness of a particular phenomenon. One of the problems that the earliest translations of Buddhist texts created (which is still extant today) was translating emptiness as Void, making it seem like emptiness is some thing that is “out there”. The truth is, however, that emptiness and phenomena are inseparable: as it says in the Heart Sutra, a pithy summary of the Prajnaparamita scriptures (which, for all its centrality in Mahayana Buddhism, has been left largely untranslated), “form is emptiness, emptiness is form, form does not differ from emptiness, emptiness does not differ from form”, and so on with all the other skandhas. So when one speaks of emptiness it is always the emptiness of this or that phenomenon, not some “cosmic emptiness” that is external to things.

As such, it must also be said that emptiness is inseparable from a mind that perceives emptiness, or, put in more Heideggerian terms, a mind for whom phenomena can appear. Apart from the apprehension of phenomena, there can be no apprehension of emptiness, so this requires a mind. It should be said that, for Buddhism, “mind” is understood more loosely than in Western thought as it includes both a conceptual and a non-conceptual element, the latter being more fundamental than the latter. If you read texts on Buddha-nature or “basic goodness”, you will find many strong similarities with transcendental accounts with a particular emphasis on the spacious and open nature of mind, which seems to connect well with Heidegger’s concept of the open space within which phenomena can enter (as in On the Essence of Truth). I hope this connection will become clearer as I further analyze emptiness.

To say that a phenomenon is empty is not the same thing as saying that it doesn’t exist (another common misconception), but that it doesn’t exist in a particular way. At the lexical level, this is because the denial of inherent existence is an “external negation”: it does not assert anything positive, much like saying that I’m not drinking Sprite doesn’t entail or deny that I am drinking chocolate milk, so that denying a particular type of existence (“inherent existence”) does not necessarily imply or deny another kind of existence. Most of the arguments for emptiness are external negations: they show that it is inconsistent to claim that phenomena exist inherently and because the phenomena examined are exhaustive, we are left with emptiness. These arguments are applied to four different conditions of existence (existence from oneself, from another, from both, and from neither, which exhausts all possible modes of inherent existence) and to every phenomenon that one finds in the exhaustive lists that many find unappealing in Buddhist philosophy, but for which you can now find at least one raison d’ĂȘtre: unless one is thoroughly convinced of the emptiness of all phenomena (which, most texts agree, begins conceptually), one cannot fully escape suffering, become enlightened, and, ultimately, be of best service to mankind.

Within Western metaphysics there is a common conception that undergirding every phenomenon is a substance: a concretely existing thing that makes the object what it is. This is the ground of identity, which is understood as the existence of necessary and sufficient properties that endure through a period of time, which can be either instantiated in a real being or exist in some realm of possibility. Furthermore, from Plato on, this substance is claimed to be findable through philosophical analysis. At a more everyday level, we see things as enduring stably through time: my cat, whom I’ve had for almost 2 years now, is the same cat as he was two years ago, just as I am the same person as I was a year ago. Similarly, but also more fluidly, we understand ourselves in terms of habitual patterns or styles of relating to things, such that we often say, “I’m just not myself today”, or, “That’s so you,” or even “You’re not the same person that I married.” Even this narrative approach to identity still can lend itself to a wrong conception of existence: we can still assert that there is some thing that is enduring through these particular changes, even if our focus is on more fluid aspects of narrative or personality. This, however, is a mistake, which can be both demonstrated and directly experienced, meaning it has both a conceptual and an experiential reality.

Here’s one useful analogy to help you understand what is being said. Imagine that you had pizza last night and you’ve been thinking about the last few pieces all day at work. As you drive home you imagine how much you’ll enjoy eating it, how it will taste, and how it will satiate this particular desire for it. Upon getting home you open up the pizza box and...find nothing. This is what it is like when we analyze phenomena: we expect to find something enduring, something that adheres to our preconceptions, beliefs, and fantasies, but when analyzed deeply we find nothing, an emptiness amidst the phenomena (skandhas) of which the thing is composed. All analogies have limits, of course: there is such a thing as pizza and pizza boxes, but if we examine them very closely and thoroughly, we will not find such a concrete, enduring thing as pizza or pizza boxes, but an interdependent coming together of causes and conditions with the manifestation of pizzas and pizza boxes.

Dependent Arising

The most intuitive and non-techincal way to understand emptiness is through dependent arising. As Lama Tsong Khapa puts it, “The ultimate mode of existence of things is nothing but their emptiness of essence—that is, their being dependently originated” (Ocean of Reasoning, 13). Its basic meaning is that all composite phenomena essentially depend for their existence on causes and conditions and thus cannot exist inherently, or “from their own side” entirely independent of other phenomena. Consider one example: my apartment is composed of various parts that can, in imagination, be seen independently of other things, like the apartments underneath it (I’m on the third floor), the earth on which it stands, etc. However, the apartment understood concretely, apart from the disconnect that is possible in imagination and thought, essentially depends on such factors, continually expanding to also include environmental and even cosmic factors. For example, if the Earth were just a little closer to the Sun then it could not sustain life, which is the basis of having contractors, builders, and a reason to build apartments (i.e., tenants). If it were even closer then any building like my apartment would combust immediately, just as the presence of a fire in my apartment is a sufficient condition (if unchecked) to bring about the dissolution of my apartment. These conditions, both local and cosmic, are essential for the existence of my apartment and apart from them my apartment could not exist. As such, we cannot say that my apartment inherently exists, or exists of its own accord; such can only be claimed about thoughts about my apartment in some sort of conceptual space, but not the apartment itself.

I said earlier that “emptiness is inseparable from a mind”, which is in a sense more important than (though inextricably connected to) the analysis of the dependence of external things on other phenomenon. This relates to the contingent relationship between things and suffering and happiness. Consider two examples: the very first bite of a peaches and cream tart is exquisite and brings us much satisfaction. However, the sixth piece (without any milk in between pieces) is almost unbearable, causing us sharp pain and suffering (because we are averse to taking even one more bite). We tend to say that peaches and cream tarts are delicious or are sweet, but even this depends on factors like the particular taste of the person eating it, what it is being eaten with (like drinking orange juice immediately after brushing your teeth with spearmint toothpaste), and how many pieces one has had. Thus, peaches and cream tarts are empty of inherent existence: even the most commonplace things we could say about it, e.g., that they are sweet, is not in the tart itself, but in its relationship to a particular body and mind in a concrete situation with its own history.

Similarly, when you finally get that job or that raise that gives you a good amount of extra spending money, you are elated, you enjoy the restaurants, the new toys, etc. But eventually this gets old: what was once new and different becomes commonplace, expected. What was once the (supposed) cause of our happiness begins to be the cause of our indifference and then, ultimately, of our suffering. This is not because the thing has changed, but because the way we approach it has changed. This amounts to the claim that we are mistaken in thinking that things are inherently what give us happiness or misery, meaning that they are “good for happiness” or “good for misery” from their own sides. Put one more way, things are empty of being causes of wholesome of unwholesome effects, so our grasping towards or aversion from them is misplaced, based on a deluded understanding of their nature. Depending on the conditions present, things may cause pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral feelings, but they do not cause happiness or misery. Both of these point to the fact that it is because we are dependently originated that we can have these experiences in the first place: it is because we are essentially open to things that we are able to have them as objects of a consciousness. If we were inherently self contained, there would be no openness to things or affectivity; we would simply continue to exist in ourselves and be continually untouched or unaffected by other things.


This is just a surface level analysis and the very beginning point of the analysis of the emptiness of phenomena. There are more technical, intricate, and exhaustive modes of analysis, which I will hopefully get into later. There are arguments from conditions, from causes, from the three times (past, present, and future), from fruition/coming into being, from ceasing, etc. These all rest on just a handful of arguments that are applied to these various phenomenon, but in order to thoroughly eradicate even a subtle trace of the deluded acceptance of inherent existence, they must be applied to every phenomenon. It must be said that fully realizing (i.e. not just affirming mentally) even this cursory analysis of emptiness and dependent origination, even though not exhaustive, can eradicate a good amount of the unnecessary suffering in our lives. It is a vast topic, but even a small glimpse is enough to do us enormous good.

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