Explaining the Buddhist viewpoint of Emptiness (Śūnyatā)

‘Insofar as the senses show becoming, passing away, and change, they do not lie. But Heraclitus will remain eternally right with his assertion that being is an empty fiction. The “apparent” world is the only one: the “true” world is merely added by a lie’.

Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols

Sunyata or Emptiness, one of the ideas put forward by the 3rd century Buddhist Mink, Nagarjuna, is considered the most important Buddhist except for the original Buddha. He was a significant thinker at the time, and his ideas helped shape the Mahayana lineage of Buddhist thought found in east Asian, including China, Japan, and Tibet.

The basic message of Emptiness is that all of existence and the objects or things are empty of intrinsic nature or enduring existence.

Some have thought this notion suggests a Nihilism, that nothing exists, but this is a misunderstanding. The idea is more nuanced than this.

To explain, it is a good idea to remember what the Buddha taught. His lesson pointed out there is no Self, Anatman/Anatta; what you think of yourself is an illusion.

The other is that all things all phenomena are dependently arise, that this their existence is the result of other things. As such, all things are a collection of other things. Think of the Metaphor of a net, such as Indras Net, used to describe the interconnected, inter-penetrating cosmos in Buddhism.

‘Imagine a multidimensional spider’s web in the early morning covered with dewdrops. And every dewdrop contains the reflection of all the other dew drops. And, in each reflected dewdrop, the reflections of all the other dew drops in that reflection. And so ad infinitum. That is the Buddhist conception of the universe in an image.’

ALAN WATTS

What’s called the Self is a collection of what Buddhists call Dharmas, which we then label as self or ‘I’, ‘Me’.. Further, the Dharmas are also all empty.

Emptiness is the notion that there is no independent fixed existence of anything or inside of anything. Such a claim is perhaps nonsensical; to exist is to always to change.

Another mistake is thinking Sunyata is some basis of existence or reality. Nagarjuna also rejects this belief seeing it as a misunderstanding. Sunyata is a statement about a fact, but it s pointing out the absence of a substance. It’s not some primordial reality that is the basis of this one.

Another way to understand Sunyata is to look at the other of Nagarjuna’s ideas, that of Two truths.

Two Truths

I see bodhisattvas
Who have perceived the essential character
Of all dharmas to be without duality,
Just like empty space.

Lotus Sutra (Kubo and Yuyama translation)

I first started to understand Emptiness through the Ship of Theseus thought experiment, also known as the Sorites Paradox or the Fallacy of the Heap.

Consider any object or thing; if you keep replacing its parts, at what point does it no longer remain as that same thing?  Say, for example, a car; if all the parts are replaced, there’s nothing left of the original, it’s no longer the same Car. But as the Car is changing, when does that moment take place?

Heap of Sand

Another way to look at it is to ask. Is the car to be found in just its wheels? No, because of a re car more than just its wheels. Same with the chassis, electrics, glass, seta etc. There is no part where we can say this is the essence of the car. It makes the car a heap of stuff, the same with everything else.

A noteworthy point is parts are made up of smaller parts. You can keep drilling down into smaller and smaller pieces, but you’ll never find a part that doesn’t change. It applies to all things even our very thoughts, experiences and ideas.

Two activities are going on here.

  • There is the changing interdependent web of reality we perceive and experience. (Conventional Truth)
  • The other is the maps, models, concepts and ideas we invented to describe and navigate this reality. (Ultimate Truth).

This is the Two Truth Doctrine of Nagarjuna. Our ideas point to reality; they don’t encompass it; think of language and ideas like a signpost or a map. This notion of a static, separate reality, or essence is merely an idea we carry.

We create artificial boundaries through our mental activity for practical use. But it’s wrong to claim the universe itself follows our boundaries and descriptions. That implies the cosmos bends itself to fit our definitions. Such an attitude places human knowledge as authoritatively superior to the cosmos itself.

Boundlessness

‘Empty of intrinsic existence’ doesn’t mean non existent.’

The Ultimate Truth is Sunyata; descriptions are impossible because they use words or imagery. At best we can only point towards reality, never describe it.

Sunyata says there is no fixed, separate existence, no separation between things in reality; it’s all interconnected.

Kazuaki Tanahashi translates Sunyata as ‘boundlessness’, which I feel is a better term because it helps avoids misunderstanding Sunyata as nihilism.

In Tanahashi’s words, ‘Nothing really has any boundaries; nothing is actually separate from all that is.’

Such understanding in Japanese Buddhism is called Kensho, the insight into the true nature of the Self.

Language of the Void

‘The language is hard to grasp because it’s pointing to is not graspable.’

The idea of Anatman and Sunyata is challenging because it’s hard to grasp with the intellect.

But that’s the point being made; you can’t grasp with the intellect. There is always more to reality than the ideas our minds conjure up. Remember our ideas are abstractions of reality not reality itself.

Western philosophical thought is based upon essences; you might call it the Atomos, from the Greek meaning Uncuttable or undivided. There is the personal Atomos, the Soul, the essence of objects, and the Cosmic Atomos, A supreme God. Then, of course, there is the scientific Atom.

It’s all the same, the idea of a stable, individual bedrock to existence. It’s Essentialism, categorising people and things according to their essential nature. Buddhism is, therefore, Anti-Essentialist; there is no permanent basis to existence: to exist is to change.

It’s hard to understand because it uses the language of absence, a statement that explains what’s not there, void, a lack of existence.

We usually denote what is there, and our minds grasp for what exists. But Sunyata is explaining the absence of a fixed Self.

Working with the notion of absence seems odd, but we talk about it in many areas.

Sunyata is like the Free From section of your supermarket; it’s free of gluten, dairy, peanuts, and everything, including a self or essence. It’s the ultimate non-allergenic existence.

We denote a lack with words like—Asymptomatic, Amoral, Atheism and Anatman. It’s like the hole in a doughnut. ‘The doughnut has a hole’, but how can a doughnut have something that’s not there? Instead is the absence of a doughnut.

The Japanese term Mu, has many meanings but also denotes an absence. (The Chinese use Wu). Mujō (無常) means ‘impermanence’. Mushin means ‘No mind’.

There’s ‘white space’ in graphic and web design, the absence of page elements. Japanese ink art considers space to be vital for composition.

Another way to put it is to try and describe birdsong. Simple chirps are easy to vocalise because the word sounds like the birdsong. But what of other birds?

‘Conceptual truths can never be the ultimate Truth because they’re constructed by ourselves. Sunyata as a word points to whatever is unconstructed, or fashioned by us.’

Odd buzzes, whirring? What’s the right word here? It’s impossible to convey the same birdsong with words; you have to hear to understand.

Buddhism says this linguistic and conceptual inadequacy is applied not just to birdsong but also everything. 

The point of this negative, privation language is to undercut our reflex activity of clinging, which leads to suffering.

Closing thoughts

Reality can’t be grasped, only experienced.

Emptiness or Śūnyatā is critical to understanding the Mahayana Buddhist view of existence.

All things, phenomena, and objects are empty of a fixed, separate self-nature.

This view contradicts the western historical beliefs of Classical Philosophy/Theology of ancient Greece that eventually became dominant in the west.

Sunyata is a paradox, a concept that’s not a concept. It’s the mystery that’s always there, yet we rarely notice. 

Sunyata says there is no essence, defining features, or elements that make things what they are. Existence is an interconnected process of change.

Shunyata is often compared to void, space, the sky, a complete openness, or ‘unobstructedness’, a boundlessness.

This emptiness is the true nature of reality.

The purpose of Sunyata is to alter our behaviour. It’s not an answer to be grasp but a response to stop you from grasping, by telling you there nothing to grasp.

To Summarise

  • Reality is changing and interconnected.
  • It can’t be understand by any conceptual or linguistic means because such complexity and change undermines any ideas we have.
  • Sunyata says there is no essence, to be be grasped. There are ‘no things’, Even Emptiness itself.
  • To reduce suffering is to recognise there’s nothing to attain, to grasp; instead. Buddhism teaches it’s more refraining from our habit of grasping.
  • Sunyata reminds us life will always be a mystery. So we learn not by thinking but by doing. 

For more on Buddhist ideas sign up to my newsletter.