Buddhist Emptiness Explained

Emptiness (or śūnyatā in Sanskrit) is one of the deepest, most important, and most life-changing concepts of Buddhist philosophy. Many critics of Buddhism see emptiness as a form of nihilism, contradiction, or plain absurdity. But these accusations are based on shallow understanding.

In fact, throughout its history, Buddhist philosophy has developed at least 5 distinct meanings of śūnyatā. Each of these is profound enough to change one’s entire perception of reality.

In any case, I have to warn you. The great Buddhist philosopher Nāgārjuna wrote that ‘when it is wrongly seen, emptiness destroys the dull-witted, like a snake wrongly grasped’. So, if you don’t want to risk being bitten and poisoned by this insight, you may want to click away from this video.

But… the reward of properly understanding emptiness is equally great. To grasp śūnyatā in all its depth and to embody it in your life constitutes full spiritual awakening.

We can start with more humble ambitions.

In this article, I have divided the complex teaching of emptiness into five sub-teachings. This five-fold division is not part of the Buddhist tradition, but it will help me present śūnyatā in a more organized fashion.

So let’s go through these five one by one and let’s see how much they will deepen our understanding of reality. I hope after you’re done reading this some of your core beliefs about the nature of the world and of yourself will be challenged… In a good way!

So, grab a seat, because we’re going deep with this one. I welcome you into the great Buddhist teaching of śūnyatā.

(You can watch the video version of this essay on YouTube.)

CHAPTER 1: NO SUBJECT

The first Buddhist to use the word śūnyatā was the historical Buddha himself. In the Suñña Sutta, he talks about emptiness like this:

‘It is … because it is empty of self and of what belongs to self that it is said, ‘Empty is the world.’’

Suñña Sutta

The first meaning of emptiness is that in the world of our experience, a self (or anything belonging to a self) is nowhere to be found.

We’ve covered this before, so here we will pause on it only briefly.

For the Buddha, conscious experience is like a musical performance. We can divide a musical performance in three parts:

  • 1) a musician,
  • 2) a musical instrument,
  • 3) and the music itself.

In the same way, conscious experience involves:

  • 1) sense objects,
  • 2) sense organs,
  • 3) and consciousness.

3) music arises is when 1) the musician is playing 2) her instrument. In this same way, 3) consciousness arises when 1) sense objects come in contact with 2) sense organs.

It is in these three components of experience – sense objects, sense organs, and consciousness, that the Buddha says a self cannot be found.

Where Is The Hearer?

Let’s examine the act of hearing as an example.

When a pianist plays the piano, music is produced. This music is 1) a sense object. If you have healthy ears, these are your 2) sense organs for sounds. When the music from the piano reaches your ears, you ‘hear’ it. This experience of ‘hearing’ the music is 3) consciousness.

We instinctively say ‘I hear the music’, but this phenomenon of hearing is the result of an automatic chain of causes and conditions. A completely deterministic domino effect.

Contact between the pianist and the piano causes the music. Contact between the music and the ears causes hearing the music. Without a pianist or a piano, there is no music. Without music or ears, there is no hearing music.

In this chain-reaction, there is nothing to which we can attribute a self. Nor is a self required for all of this to occur.

The Buddha says:

‘The ear is empty of a self or of anything pertaining to a self. Sounds[,] ear-consciousness[, and] ear-contact [are] empty of a self or of anything pertaining to a self.’

Suñña Sutta

He applies this same logic to all six senses, including the mind, which he considers a sixth type of sense. Hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, seeing, and thinking are all automatic processes that occur when the right causes appear in the right conditions.

Liberating Insight

The point here is that, if you investigate it deeply, you would see your personal experience is actually entirely non-personal. There is no you to whom experience is occurring. No experiencer of experience. Only an endless cycle of causes and conditions stretching infinitely back and forward in time.

This cycle, as we saw in the article on the Four Noble Truths, brings us endless suffering and disappointment. And what is the fuel that keeps it running? It is our clinging to what we like and our avoidance of what we don’t like.

It all has to do with what our ‘self’ wants.

To realize our feeling of being a self does not correspond to anything in reality is the insight that brings suffering to an end. To live one’s life in accordance with this insight is what the Buddha called nirvāṇa.

This short summary should do for now. If you want a deeper dive into the no-self teaching, I highly recommend you read my earlier article on it, where we discuss it at length.

With this basic idea of what the Buddha meant by śūnyatā, let’s see how the idea evolved through the work of his disciples. In fact, when we get to the 4th meaning of emptiness, you will hear a teaching that seems to contradict all we’ve just covered. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

For now, we turn to the work of the greatest figure of Buddhist philosophy, second only to the Buddha himself.

Nāgārjuna.

CHAPTER 2: NO OBJECT

As the Buddhist tradition spread across Asia, it took under its wing many of the greatest minds of the time. These great scholars and monks developed the Buddha’s teachings in new directions and ever deeper sophistication.

Perhaps the greatest among these was the 2nd century philosopher Nāgārjuna. It is to him we owe the second meaning of śūnyatā.

If the Buddha said there is no ‘you’ experiencing things, Nāgārjuna added there are also no ‘things’ being experienced.

Let me explain.

I’ll use this article you’re reading right now to illustrate Nāgārjuna’s point.

This article is a certain phenomenon, is it not? It is an object in your awareness. Certainly, you are reading something, right? This ‘something’ we call ‘article’.

So far so good.

But let’s try to draw the boundaries of this phenomenon. Any object must have boundaries defined, otherwise we can’t say it is an object separate from its environment. So let’s see where this article ends and the rest of the world begins.

This article consists of the words I’ve written. That’s a good low-resolution definition.

But let’s investigate further.

Article?

This article could not appear in your experience without the pixels of the screen you’re viewing it on – or without the paper it might be printed on. These things are necessary parts of the article, even if they don’t appear in it.

This online article could not become an object of your experience without your internet connection either. Or without the people who installed and maintain your internet connection.

As a phenomenon you are experiencing, this article couldn’t exist if you didn’t have the eyes to see it. And these eyes are the product of many causes and conditions, including your mom and dad, evolution, the Big Bang… We must include all these too as causes and conditions for this article being an object of your experience.

Also, the ideas featured here have been produced by a countless number of people. Shouldn’t we credit these people too as causes and conditions of this article? The historical Buddha himself is the major factor in this article’s existence, so we must include him in the credits too.

This list of causes and conditions could go on forever, but I’ll stop here before you get bored.

A Cosmic Web Of (No-)Things

You see, there is no point at which we can exhaust the causes and conditions that have contributed to the existence of this article. What you are experiencing now looks like an individual phenomenon, ‘an article’ only to our everyday, unenlightened mind.

A mind with clear insight would see that the whole world and all of history have conspired for this article to exist. What you call ‘this article’ is but the form in which the entire universe is appearing to you in this moment of experience.

Of course, this article is not a unique example.

Nāgārjuna tells us every seeming object or phenomenon, of whatever kind, is a bundle of causes and conditions. There is nothing in experience that can exist apart from everything else.

An apple cannot exist apart from the tree, the tree apart from the soil, the soil apart from the planet, the planet apart from the solar system and so on…

Things also cannot exist without their opposite. There could be no front without back, no high without low, no good without evil.

You can read my article on Heraclitus to see how this same idea appeared in Ancient Greece.

In fact, Heraclitus was alive at the exact same time when the Buddha was teaching his Dharma in India. Are the similarities in their philosophies just a coincidence? Or does this point to something more about the collective mind of our species, developing similar ideas in different parts of the world? (Ever heard of the Axial Age?)

No Essence

Nāgārjuna’s point is that nothing possesses a svabhāva, an individual essence. All things are a form of dependent origination – their origin is dependent on other things.

The great scholar-saint summarizes this in the following stanza:

There does not exist anything

That is not dependently arisen.

Therefore there does not exist anything

That is not empty.

Here you might ask ‘If every object and phenomenon in the world is empty… wouldn’t that mean the world itself is empty? That nothing exists and nothing is happening? But this is absurd because, after all, I am reading this article! Clearly, something does exist and something is happening!

This is a good question and by the end you will have learned a few possible answers to it.

For now, I’ll say Nāgārjuna explicitly refused the wrong view that nothing exists. But he said the view that things exist is just as wrong. To him, the existence and non-existence of things are two extreme views, neither of which captures the complex and mysterious nature of reality.

To Nāgārjuna, emptiness, understood properly, is a middle way between these two wrong views. That’s why the school of Buddhism he founded is called Madhyamaka, meaning ‘the Middle Way’.

Liberating Insight (Continued)

Nāgārjuna did not treat śūnyatā as some intellectual diversion for philosophers and scholars. No, he maintained how crucial this insight is for liberation. 

To see the interdependence of all things is to see that all suffering in your life is also a dependent phenomenon. An effect originating from causes and conditions. This means that if you understand the causes and conditions for your suffering and remove them, so too would you remove the suffering that springs from them.

Nāgārjuna believed that to cultivate insight into śūnyatā is the essence of walking the Buddhist path. The path leading out from suffering and ignorance.

But the Madhyamakas were not the only Buddhists with a new take on emptiness. The next development of the idea came from a famous Buddhist school known for their mastery of meditation. Since meditation is a form of ‘yoga’, this school became known as the Yogācāra.

It is from this great lineage of Buddhist philosophy that we get the third meaning of śūnyatā.

CHAPTER 3: NO SUBJECT & OBJECT

Okay, let’s summarise what we’ve learned.

An unenlightened mind thinks 1) he is a self, 2) there are objects of the world, and 3) he is experiencing these objects.

The Buddha showed us 1) the sense of self is empty of reality. Nāgārjuna showed us 2) objects too are empty of individual essence.

So, after 1) subject and 2) object have been shown to have no ultimate reality, we are left only with the mysterious fact of 3) experience.

This is a funny position we find ourselves in.

How is experience possible if there is no one who can have an experience – and nothing that can be experienced?

Yet experience is the one thing we can’t deny.

You can question all aspects of your experience, you can even question whether it is ‘your’ experience… But the one thing you can’t deny is that something – rather than nothing – is happening.

What the Yogācārins did was inquire into the nature of that ‘something’ we call ‘experience’.

Let me demonstrate what they discovered.

I will use a colour as an example. Orange will do.

On The Existence Of Orange

Now as you look at this orange, notice the usual way in which we would describe this experience. There is 1) you as the subject, there is 2) the orange colour as the object, and there is 3) your experience of seeing the colour.

A Yogācārin’s first question would be ‘What is the difference between 2) this orange and 3) your experience of seeing this orange?’

Could you experience seeing this colour if the colour was not here?

Obviously not.

Without the object, you cannot experience said object.

Now how about the reverse question…

Once you scroll past this colour and you’re no longer seeing it – would it exist?

Here the natural answer is ‘Yes, of course orange would still exist if I was not seeing it! Colours don’t just disappear every time I look away from them!’

But wait a minute.

How would this orange exist if you were not seeing it right now? What evidence do you have to support this?

Orange Apologetics

You may answer that there is orange all around the world, in Van Gogh’s paintings, in sand dunes, in the sunset, in… well, oranges. You know that because you’ve seen these, and anyone who’s not convinced can immediately Google countless images containing the colour orange. You can scroll up at any moment and – there – you see orange still exists!

But that’s the point.

You have seen orange in the past. Anyone can Google and see orange images. If I look at the sunset while you look away, I will see orange hasn’t disappeared. Scroll up and you’ll see orange.

In all cases, seeing orange is the proof of its existence. Our experience is the base upon which existence is confirmed.

After all, can you imagine a colour that you are not currently seeing? No, because the moment you imagine it, you see it!

It is tempting to dismiss this as sophistry, as simple slight-of-hand philosophy. But the Yogācārins took it very seriously. Their deep meditative experience, combined with their philosophical genius, discovered that what we call ‘objects of experience’ are really inseparable from what we call ‘experience’.

2) Orange and 3) seeing orange are like the full and empty halves of a glass. One has no meaning without the other. One cannot be said to exist without the other.

The Yogācārins reached the same conclusion about what we call 1) ‘self’ or ‘subject’ of experience.

On The Existence Of You

Think about it. Would you be seeing this orange if you weren’t seeing it? If you had your eyes closed and only I was looking at the orange, would you be seeing it?

I think we can all agree your experience cannot occur if, well, you aren’t experiencing it. To see something, you have to see it. This is natural enough.

But let’s ask the reverse…

Right now (look at the orange), do you exist separately from seeing this orange?

If you did, then your seeing this orange would be in one place and you would be in another. But then you would be experiencing something else and this orange would be seen by nobody. This is obviously absurd.

You see, there is simply no place where we can draw the line between 1) you as an experiencer and 2) your experience. You as an experiencing subject and your experience are completely co-dependent.

This is like the case of the egg and the chicken. A case of paired opposites which mutually create each other and cannot exist apart.

Now let’s see where these findings led the Yogācārins.

Experience

We have seen there is no boundary between 2) this orange and 3) your seeing it. There is also no boundary between 1) you and 3) your seeing this orange. This would mean that 1) you, 2) this orange, and 3) your seeing this orange are different names for one and the same thing observed from different angles.

When the Yogācārins used the term śūnyatā, they meant that the division of experience into subject and object is empty of reality.

Subject and object are like Heads and Tails – two sides of a single coin. But Heads and Tails are only conventional terms. In reality, we never find one without the other. Only the coin itself is real and contains in itself all of itself. Any divisions we may impose on it are artificial labels produced by the duality of conceptual thinking.

This indivisible wholeness of Heads, Tails, and coin is how the Yogācārins understood experience.

In the Yogācāra view, all that exists is experience.

To the unenlightened mind, reality feels like a subject at one end and an object at the other. But an awakened mind sees the unity of all things in the flow of conscious experience.

Reality is the experience of itself. Reality is both that which experiences and that which is being experienced – by itself.

If you’re finding it hard to wrap your head around this, don’t worry. It’s not something you can wrap your head around.

Liberating Insight (Continued)

Remember, Yogācāra philosophy is rooted in insight gained through meditation. The Yogācārins said ultimate reality cannot be conceptualized. It is not a thought you can have. It also cannot be spoken or written down, or represented in any way.

At best, it can be pointed at, like what this article is hopefully doing.

The only true way of understanding ultimate reality is through direct experience. But even here language is misleading. Once you do experience ultimate reality, you are no longer ‘you’ and it is no longer ‘it’.  You experience ultimate reality not as something you are a part of, but as that which you already are – which you always have been.

The coin wakes up from its dream of being Heads and Tails. It declares, like the great Christian mystic, Meister Ekchart:

‘The eye through which I see God is the same eye through which God sees me; my eye and God’s eye are one eye, one seeing, one knowing, one love.’

The Yogācārins went even further. What became their most famous claim is that the world we experience is all produced by the mind. They saw all objects, phenomena, and experiences like dreams – mental projections produced by the psyche. No wonder some call this school the depth psychologists of Buddhism.

We will leave this profound discussion for another time. For now, you can have a look at my earlier article where I compare the Jungian and the Yogācāra views on the unconscious – a fascinating topic. 

But let’s move on as we have two more meanings of śūnyatā to cover!

CHAPTER 4: BUDDHA NATURE

We’ve learned a bunch of Sanskrit words here already. We’ve learned śūnyatā, we’ve met the Madhyamaka school of the Middle Way and also the Yogācārins.

Now for the 4th meaning of emptiness, I will introduce one last Sanskrit term (I promise) and this is a bit of a mouthful.

I mean the tathāgatagarbha

Let me explain what this word means and why it is so important.

Tathāgatagarbha

We can divide tathāgatagarbha into two parts to make sense of it. Tathāgata– and –garbha.

The first part, Tathāgata, is a fascinating compound word itself. It can have three very different meanings, each of which have been interpreted for centuries. Tathāgata can mean

  • ‘one who has thus come’,
  • ‘one who has thus gone’, and
  • ‘one who has thus not gone’.
  • (some even understand it as ‘one who has thus come and gone’)

You don’t have to remember these. But know that Tathāgata is how the Buddha most often referred to himself. Whatever the deep meaning of the word is, it is what the Buddha understood himself to be.

The second part of Tathāgata-garbha is more straightforward. Garbha means ‘womb’, ‘embryo’, and ‘core’.

So, tathāgatagarbha literally means ‘Buddha-womb’. Most often, it’s translated as ‘Buddha nature’.

Reality Itself

Now why are we discussing this in the middle of a video on emptiness?

Well, because the tathāgatagarbha is one of the most important and revolutionary ideas which evolved out of śūnyatā.

Remember, Nāgārjuna showed us how objects of experience are empty of an independent essence. Coupled with the Buddha’s teaching of no-self, this leaves our picture of reality as both lacking real objects and lacking real subjects.

And yet Nāgārjuna maintained reality is not empty of reality. In other words, there is something, even if it can’t be defined in subjective or objective terms.

The Yogācārins continued this line of reasoning. For them, what our unenlightened minds understand by the term ‘experience’ is the closest we can get to a concept of reality.

Deep insight reveals you are experience experiencing and being experienced by experience.

Buddha Nature

The tathāgatagarbha doctrine is the next step in this line of reasoning. At the same time, it is also a radical break from everything we’ve covered. Many even call it a heresy.

Let me explain.

The tathāgatagarbha teaching tells us ultimate reality can be talked about as it does possess qualities. What’s even more… get this…  ultimate reality possesses the qualities of a self. And not just any self, but the capital ‘S’ Self of the Tathāgata.

Ultimate reality is the Buddha.

Okay, this sounds way too out there, so let’s take a step back.

Like most Buddhist teachings, the tathāgatagarbha is rooted in direct experience. So, let’s test this teaching against our own concrete experience. Let me ask you a question.

You & Me

What is the difference between you and me?

I mean this literally – what makes you one thing and me another?

Perhaps we can start with the fact I’ve written this article and you’re reading it. That’s one difference.

My name is Simeon and your name, in all probability, is not Simeon.

I am also located in Sofia, Bulgaria, whereas you might be anywhere else in the world.

We can have differences in age, sex, height, weight, skin colour, eye colour, education, and so on.

We may have different opinions, beliefs, and temperaments.

These are some of the things that make us different. Because of these we can’t say you and I are one and the same thing.

But… here comes the tathāgatagarbha twist.

Writing this article is an experience in my conscious awareness. Reading this article is an experience in your conscious awareness. Being a twenty-five-year-old male Bulgarian is an experience in my conscious awareness. Your age, sex, and nationality are experiences in yours.

You see, all the differences we can list are differences in the content of our awareness. Differences in what we experience, not differences in who or what we are.

Let me explain this with a metaphor I learned from the great Rupert Spira.

The Screen Metaphor

You’re probably reading this on some sort of screen right now. Think of all the things you can see on this screen. You can watch something funny like Rick and Morty. Or you can read something tragic like news about the war in Gaza. You can receive spiritual guidance from Rupert Spira. You can watch porn.

These are all different types of content that can appear on your screen. Each of these would provide an entirely different experience, and yet through all of them, the screen will remain the same.

Watching a Dharma talk will not make this screen a good screen. Reading Mein Kampf will not make it a bad screen. In other words, the screen can display any content, but it is not itself affected by what appears on it.

Maybe you can see where this is heading.

But there’s one more point.

The screen on which this video is appearing is not a part of the video. At the same time, this video could not appear without the screen. The whole time you have been watching this video, you have been watching the screen, even though the screen itself has never been the subject of the video.

Until now.

Now this video is referring to the screen on which it is appearing because I want you to refer to the screen on which you are appearing.

I want you to investigate your conscious awareness.

Our age, sex, nationality, height, weight, skin colour, eye colour, education… – these appear one way on the screen that is my awareness and another way on the screen that is yours.

But what is the difference between your screen and mine?

Conscious Awareness

Let’s try to define some key qualities of your conscious awareness.

First, your conscious awareness is luminous. In other words, it shines light on things. Whatever appears in it is instantaneously perceived. Like how an object is immediately reflected when it appears in front of a mirror.

Could my conscious awareness lack this quality? No. Because then it wouldn’t be conscious awareness.

Second, your conscious awareness has no preferences. It lacks resistance and attachment. When something pleasant appears, like the taste of Nutella, it is fully perceived and then released. When something unpleasant appears, like the pain of a broken leg, it is fully perceived and then released.

Could my conscious awareness lack this detached quality? No, because then I would be only experiencing the pleasant things in life. And let me tell you – that’s not the case…

Now, don’t mistake conscious awareness with the will or the intellect. Your will and intellect may resist or become attached to experiences. But your conscious awareness is that which experiences these resistances and attachments. It is the field in which they appear as objects.

Thirdly, your conscious awareness is empty. It can hold any thought, emotion, feeling, and experience because it is itself empty of thoughts, emotions, feelings, and experiences. It is like the space of an empty room which can be filled with furniture, because it is itself empty of furniture.

Could my conscious awareness lack this empty, spacious nature? No, because then it would be an object of awareness and not awareness itself.

Finally, your conscious awareness is outside time and space. Time and space appear in it as objects, but it itself cannot be located anywhere within time or space.

Could my conscious awareness belong to time or space? No, because then it would have form and duration. But at all times and in all places, my conscious awareness is always present here and now.

Well, it appears what we call ‘your’ conscious awareness possesses no quality different from what we call ‘my’ conscious awareness. When we are comparing two entities and we discover not a single difference between them, we must conclude they are one and the same entity. This ‘entity’ we here call conscious awareness.

Some Buddhists came to call it tathāgatagarbha.

The Self Of The Buddha

The Buddha Nature doctrine teaches that even though we lack a personal self, at our core lies the fully awakened, detached, and liberated Self of the Tathāgata. The reason why we ourselves lack these enlightened qualities is that our Buddha Nature is obscured by layers of defilements.

When this article reminded you that you are reading it on a screen, it did not produce the screen. The screen was already there the whole time. Unchanging, fully detached from its content, outside the dimensions of the article, the screen was always there.

The same goes for the tathāgatagarbha.

Like all the various content you can watch on one and the same screen, so too all selves are appearances in one and the same conscious awareness. Your self, my self, the self of Thich Nhat Hanh, the self of Donald Trump, and yes, even the self of Barni, my dog… these are all appearances in the luminous mind of the tathāgatagarbha.

As the Buddha says in the Mahāyāna Tathāgatagarbha Sūtra,

Hidden within the defilements of greed, desire, anger, and stupidity there is seated … the Tathāgata’s wisdom, the Tathāgata’s vision, and the Tathāgata’s body… [A]ll beings, though they find themselves with all sorts of defilements, have a tathāgatagarbha that is eternally unsullied, and that is replete with virtues no different from my own.’

Liberating Insight (Continued)

Now, the screen metaphor is just a metaphor and it can only go so far.

This article can talk all day long about your screen, but it cannot actually display your screen. In the same way, the tathāgatagarbha can be talked about but, ultimately, it is outside the dimensions of experience.

So how can we talk about something we can never experience?

Well, because you and I already are that thing.

This is an argument also used by the proponents of the tathāgatagarbha. They say the only reason why you can understand the Buddha’s teaching and reach enlightenment, is because the essence of the Buddha is already within you.

Nirvāṇa is not something we can produce or find outside of us. If it was, it would be just another conditioned, empty object of experience. Nirvāṇa is rather an ever-present reality we must uncover by removing our defilements.

Like a mirror covered with dust, our Buddha nature is always there within us. The goal of Buddhist practice then is seen as wiping the dust off the mirror.

The Simile Of The Honey

There are many beautiful images of our Buddha nature in the Tathāgatagarbha Sūtra. My favourite is the simile of the honey. It goes like this:

‘[The Tathāgatagarbha] is like pure honey in a cave or a tree, surrounded and protected by a countless swarm of bees.

It may happen that a person comes along who knows some clever techniques.

He first gets rid of the bees and takes the honey, and then does as he will with it, eating it or giving it away…’

Like the honey surrounded by bees, we all have the Buddha nature inside us surrounded by defilements. But if we learn the right ‘techniques’, we can get rid of those defilements and reach the tathāgatagarbha.

Now, again, what has all this got to do with emptiness?

Arguments Against The Tathāgatagarbha

Well, some Buddhists believe the tathāgatagarbha is the natural completion of śūnyatā. Others believe it is a perversion of the Dharma and a heresy.

Both sides have strong arguments.

Without getting too much into it, I should say Nāgārjuna specifically warned against taking emptiness to be some sort of ‘Ultimate Reality’. To him, even the term ‘emptiness’ is ultimately empty; it only means something relative to our unenlightened, everyday views on reality. So, some criticise the tathāgatagarbha doctrine as a mistaken interpretation of Nāgārjuna’s emptiness.

Others point to the clear contradiction between the tathāgatagarbha and the Buddha’s original no-self teaching. To them, the tathāgatagarbha is an alien concept smuggled into Buddhism from other traditions like Hinduism.

Also, the scriptures that talk about the tathāgatagarbha, like the one I quoted, were written centuries after the death of the historical Buddha. This does not mean they don’t contain authentic spiritual insight. But I wouldn’t bet on them being records of what the historical Buddha actually said.

Arguments For The Tathāgatagarbha

In their defence, the proponents of the tathāgatagarbha point out the Self of the Tathāgata is an entirely different kind of self from what the Buddha attacked. The tathāgatagarbha is impersonal and is in no way identical with what we take to be our everyday self.

To use the screen metaphor again, the Buddha warned us against believing this article is the screen you’re reading it on or that the screen can be found within the article. The tathāgatagarbha doctrine simply tells us the screen exists and that the article is only an appearance on it.

The Jungians among you might detect here the archetype of the Self in which the ego appears as a complex. We will return to this fascinating comparison in the future.

Another argument for the tathāgatagarbha is that if reality is empty all the way down, then why would the Buddha waste 45 years of his life teaching the Dharma to empty people living in an empty world? Yes, the Buddha said the everyday world of saṃsāra is

  • 1) impermanent,
  • 2) full of suffering, and
  • 3) without a self

These are his famous Three Marks of Existence.

But then it is logical that nirvāṇa, being the opposite of saṃsāra, should have the opposite qualities. Namely, it should be

  • 1) permanent,
  • 2) lacking suffering, and
  • 3) possessing a self.

The self of the fully awakened, fully liberated Tathāgata.

The Debate Continues

So, which is it? Is there a capital ‘S’ Self or no-self?

This has remained an open debate for centuries. I invite you to approach it with curiosity and not settle too quickly on any final opinion. I know all of us, at different stops on our path, espouse different (sometimes conflicting) views.

The Buddha himself, when asked if the self exists, remained silent.

Then he was asked if the self doesn’t exist.

He remained silent still.

In the end, I return to what Niels Bohr said: ‘The opposite of a great truth is another truth’. Such is the paradox of life and no single view can capture it.

CHAPTER 5: NO VIEWS

Okay, we’ve covered lots of ground here. We’ve seen how śūnyatā, the doctrine of emptiness, challenges our understanding of 1) ourselves, 2) the objects of our experience, of 3) experience itself, and 4) the ultimate nature of reality.

But there is another meaning of emptiness, which points in an entirely different direction.

This fifth aspect of emptiness is perhaps the most dangerous of them all. But like everything we’ve covered so far, it also holds the potential to free our minds from ignorance and suffering.

I am talking about the emptiness of views.

This teaching was first given by the historical Buddha and it was developed at much greater length by the Mahāyāna philosophers, Nāgārjuna key among them. Yet, strictly speaking, the emptiness of views is not a Buddhist teaching. You might even say it is an anti-Buddhist teaching. In fact, it is not even a teaching at all, but an anti-teaching.

Let me explain.

Two Kinds Of Truth

From the outset, Buddhist philosophy recognizes two kinds of truth: 1) conventional truth and 2) ultimate truth. Let me demonstrate the difference.

It is 1) conventional truth that my name is Simeon and I’ve written this article. It is 1) conventional truth you are reading this video.

Of course, we have seen that things are much more complicated than that. Ultimately there is no ‘me’, no ‘you’, and no ‘article’. This is 2) the ultimate truth of emptiness.

Pay attention here, the Buddhists did not say conventional truth is false, they still considered it a kind of truth. For example, if I say my name is Kanye West and I’ve painted the Mona Lisa, this is both ultimately and conventionally untrue!

Buddhist philosophy recognizes and respects conventional truth. After all, we are conventional beings. We can’t function on the level of the ultimate or we can’t do it most of the time. Most of the time we have jobs to do, kids to feed, and taxes to pay. You can’t do this as the tathāgatagarbha.

So, conventional truth is important.  It is also a bridge to the ultimate. After all, what are parables, symbols, and myths if not ways of using conventional truth in a way that points to something beyond it – something ultimate?

As Nāgārjuna writes:

Without depending on the conventional truth

The meaning of the ultimate cannot be taught.

Without understanding the meaning of the ultimate,

Nirvāṇa is not achieved.

Ultimately No Ultimate Truth

Now, everything we’ve covered so far in this video, the last four meanings of emptiness, it’s all ultimate truth. But the emptiness of views is not ultimate truth. It is not conventional truth either. But it is also not untruth. We can either call it hyper-ultimate truth… or anti-truth.

You see, the emptiness of views tells us all teachings and all kinds of truth are ultimately untrue.

It tells us even the most perfect of teachings, like those delivered by the Buddha, are a compromise. An imperfect translation of reality into ideas. Translations can be good, they can be a piece of art in themselves… but they are never the original.

This idea is as profound as it is simple. All theory, all teachings, all opinions – in short, all views depend on language. Whether they are expressed in Sanskrit, sign language, C++, or equations, all statements about the world come in the form of language.

Language takes the infinite complexity of the world and compresses it into semantic units. It thus ends up being a low-resolution map of reality.

The emptiness of views is simply a warning not to mistake the map with the terrain it is mapping.

It is a reminder that no matter how deep and complete, our theories are always a pale reflection of the true complexity of reality.

You could say this is a special case of Nāgārjuna’s emptiness of objects. Like how objects lack a svabhāva, an independent essence, so too concepts are artificial divisions of reality. The idea of wisdom is inseparable from the idea of ignorance. The notion of purity is inseparable from the notion of defilement.

In other words, language is a conventional division of reality into ideas small enough for the human mind to understand. Even the very words of the Buddha, spoken during his deepest sermons are ultimately conventions.

Ultimately untrue.

Controversial?

Yes, this is controversial. But what’s even more surprising is that this is a mainstream Mahāyāna doctrine. In the Mahāprajñāpāramitā Sūtra (or the Large Perfection of Wisdom Sutra), we read:

‘There is no ignorance and no cessation of ignorance… no suffering and no knowledge of suffering, no cause [of suffering], and no abandoning of the cause, no cessation [of suffering], and no realization of cessation, and no path and no development of the path…’

If you are familiar with the Four Noble Truths, you will recognize this passage refers to them and refutes them. And this is a passage from a major Mahāyāna text!

Is this an extreme form of nihilism? Is this telling us we shouldn’t bother learning the Buddha’s Dharma since even it, like everything else in life, is meaningless? Did the disciples of the Buddha turn their backs on his teaching?

Well… I told you the emptiness of views is dangerous. Like with a poisonous snake, one should be very careful with how one grasps it. But also like the snake’s poison, this anti-truth can be used as medicine.

Liberating Insight (Continued)

The emptiness of views, like all Buddhist doctrine, is aimed at freeing us from suffering. This anti-teaching springs from the insight that much of our suffering in life comes from our views, expectations, and prejudices.

In our ignorance, we jump to conclusions far too quickly. Our ideas and opinions give us unearned self-assurance and we build a sense of self around them. This robs us of the humility we need to continue learning and growing. Rigid views take away our spontaneity, our ability to face life as it is rather than as we imagine it to be. They close our eyes to the paradoxes of life, which are the wellsprings of true wisdom.

One look at the state of the world shows us another danger of growing attached to views. Division, oppression, scapegoating, censorship, war… All these can result from the simple fact that I hold one strong view and you hold another.

The emptiness of views is a safety measure. It is a reminder left by the greatest Buddhist teachers, the Buddha first among them, to take the Dharma seriously, really seriously… but not too seriously. To take all teachings, theories, models, philosophies, and concepts seriously – but not as seriously as we take life.

It is a reminder that human thinking is simply too linear, too dualistic and naïve to capture ultimate truth.

Perhaps this same idea drove the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein to conclude:

‘[W]hereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.’

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus

Emptiness FOR Truth?

In later Buddhist tradition there is the image of a finger pointing at the moon. A reasonable person will know the moon is what the finger is pointing at. An ignorant one will think the finger is the moon.

The emptiness of views is not nihilism. It does not tell us there is no truth in life. It is simply a warning not to mistake the moon with the finger pointing at it. Not to mistake life with our ideas about it.

Like the Yogācārin śūnyatā, the emptiness of views tells us ultimate truth cannot be communicated. To reach ultimate truth, one has to experience it for oneself. In this sense, ultimate truth is the most private of things.

Shortly before dying, the Buddha encouraged his disciples with the following words:

‘Monks, be islands unto yourselves, be your own refuge, having no other; let the Dharma be an island and a refuge to you, having no other.’

Attadiipaa Sutta

I believe the Buddha was not telling his disciples what they should be, but what they already are. What we all already are.

The seeker of truth walks a lonely path. He can have companions, enemies, teachers, disciples… but in the end, he encounters truth alone in the wilderness of his heart.

But truth requires space. It fills you only to the degree that you are empty of falsehood and half-truths.

Even the idea that there is some great, final, ultimate truth must be surrendered if indeed you wish to be filled by the great, final, and ultimate truth.

CONCLUSION

Okay, this is our longest article and I hope you feel your patience was worth it. I hope I’ve given you a taste of just how deep, complex, and beautiful the Buddhist teaching of śūnyatā is.

Before I end, I want to mention a few ways in which śūnyatā is relevant today outside the boundaries of Buddhism.

First and foremost, by now you’ve seen emptiness is really a teaching about the interconnectedness of things. It is not a denial that anything exists, but a denial that anything exists on its own. Nāgārjuna writes:

‘I praise that perfect Buddha, / The Supreme Philosopher, / Who taught us relativity…’

Prajñamulamadhyamakakarika

Śūnyatā shows us the world and we ourselves are a web of interdependence. Any division between us and them, conservative and liberal, civilization and nature, self and world… all these are only conventional partitions of reality. A deeper perspective on the world sees the interconnectedness and necessity of all objects and phenomena.

Emptiness, when grasped correctly, is the ultimate form of environmentalism. It shows how our every thought, word, and action echoes out into the world and bears fruit. It also reminds us of the opposite, that we are part of the whole and our every thought, word, and action is a fruit of the world we live in.

As Bulgaria’s national hero, Vasil Levski, wrote:

‘Time is within us and we are within time. It changes us and we change it.’

In this sense, emptiness is the exact opposite of nihilism. It gives us a perspective of just how great our responsibility is and how our thoughts, words, and actions are the living fabric out of which the world is woven.

This has a psychological significance too.

The Shadow

To see the interconnectedness of things within you is to reunite the fragments of your own soul. It is to reconnect with all you would rather suppress and all you’ve exiled within yourself. It is to see that what is high within you is held up by what is low. And that your light is born in the womb of your darkness. It is to see yourself as an ecosystem which is nowhere divided, but everywhere whole.

Then you understand what Carl Jung meant when he wrote that:

‘No tree… can grow to heaven unless its roots reach down to hell’.

C.G. Jung, Aion – Researches into the Phenomenology of the Self

Interdependence

I have to stress, interdependence is not the same thing as identity.

To see the interdependence of war and peace, man and woman, right and wrong, ignorance and wisdom – is not to think they are one and the same. In fact, it is the opposite. Ying and yang are interdependent because one is black and the other white. It is in their difference that they are the same, and you cannot stress the one without the other.

It is in the conflict of opposites that are the same, but also not the same that the world is created. You can ask Heraclitus, he will confirm this.

Liberating Insight (Continued)

Last, but not least, the Tathāgatagarbha, that mystery of conscious awareness within us, is the one true base of love and compassion. After all what, does love mean if not taking another to be as real as you?

In the Gospel of Mathew, Christ sums up His teaching thus: ‘[I]n everything, do to others what you would have them do to you’. But further on, He adds to this. He says something that could have come straight from the Tathāgatagarbha Sūtra:

‘[W]hatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me… Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

I believe Christ did not mean we have to imagine ourselves in place of others. Nor that we have to imagine that how we treat others we treat also Him.

I think he was pointing to a profound fact of reality.

The fact that you, me, Chirst, the Tathāgata – that we are all one and the same timeless, unlimited, inconceivable thing.

Only the temporary appearances of the world conceal this ‘thing’. Thus, it appears as the impermanent, limited, and concrete individuals we believe ourselves to be.

But who knows… In the end, even this concealment of ultimate truth, even this confusion of the eternal with the temporary, the unlimited with the limited, wisdom with ignorance, the self with the world… Perhaps even this is nothing other than the pure, direct experience of ultimate truth.

As the Heart Sutra says.

all phenomena bear the mark of Emptiness;

their true nature is the nature of

no Birth no Death,

no Being no Non-being,

no Defilement no Purity,

no Increasing no Decreasing.

Watch the film version of this essay.

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2 comments / Add your comment below

  1. first, if accepting the cause and effect argument, what was the first cause and what caused it?

    second, my comments on the Four Noble Truths (i am definitely interested on your comments regarding my comments … you free to use my comments in any way you chose):

    The Four Noble Truths in detail

    The First Noble Truth – dukkha
    The First Noble Truth is the idea that everyone suffers and that suffering is part of the world. Buddhists believe in the cycle of samsara, which is the cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth. This means that people will experience suffering many times over. All of the things a person goes through in life cause suffering and they cannot do anything about it. Instead, they have to accept that it is there. People may use temporary solutions to end suffering, such as doing something they enjoy. However, this does not last forever and the suffering can come back when the enjoyment ends. Buddhists want to work to try to stop suffering. However, the first step is to acknowledge that there is suffering – it happens and it exists.

    my comments: dukkha is also temporary … during one’s life he/she experiences both satisfaction/enjoyment/pleasure and dissatisfaction/suffering/pain … craving for food and other needs/desires can be satisfied … everything is temporary … also the desire/craving for enlightenment is also just a craving

    The Second Noble Truth – samudaya
    The Second Noble Truth is the concept that something causes suffering to happen. For example, when a person is ill, they can only end the illness by understanding the cause. To do this, they may go to see a doctor, who may be able to diagnose the problem. This enables them to begin to understand the cause of their suffering.

    my comments: something also causes satisfaction to happen so how does it differ from dukkha

    Similarly, the Buddha taught that people need to understand the cause of suffering in order to move forward and leave it behind. The Buddha believed that most suffering is caused by a tendency to crave or desire things. A person might crave something nice to eat or desire to go on a nice holiday or earn lots of money. Buddhism teaches that through being dissatisfied with their lives and craving things, people suffer.

    my comments: without craving for food, one would not eat and would die .. without craving for sex, the human race would cease to exist… without craving for enlightenment, one would not spiritually advance without craving for knowledge. we would just have remained as the most ancient homo sapiens … did not the Buddha have a craving/desire to teach/share what he had discovered?

    The image of the Wheel of Life contains images of three animals – a pig, a cockerel and a snake. These are known as the Three Poisons because they represent the ways in which humans behave. The pig represents ignorance, the cockerel represents cravings and greed, and the snake represents anger and hate.

    my comments: interesting symbols but do they have any more meaning than the words “ignorance”, “cravings”, and “anger and hate”?

    If a Buddhist wants to end suffering, they should search for ways to avoid ignorance, hatred and cravings. If they can do this then they will become free from samsara and reach enlightenment.

    my comments: is not the search itself a craving for something. i.e., enlightenment? apparently there seem to be “good” and “bad” cravings or maybe just productive and non-productive cravings

    The Third Noble Truth – nirodha
    The Third Noble Truth is knowing that suffering can end. Buddhists must recognize that there is a way to stop suffering and move away from it, because by doing this they can get closer to reaching enlightenment. Buddhism teaches that people should not be too focused on wanting many different things as the enjoyment won’t last. Buddhists must try to stop craving as much as they can in order to work to end suffering.

    my comments: enlightenment is simply being satisfied with what is … even the craving for enlightenment must end but that does not mean one has to be stagnant … one can continue to search for knowledge and be content in even knowing that one will never know everything … one can desire/want for many things and be content knowing that not all cravings, if any, will be satisfied

    The Fourth Noble Truth – magga
    The Fourth Noble Truth is that there is a way to end suffering. Buddhists can do many things to end suffering, such as following the Buddha’s teachings and meditating. The Buddha also taught that people should live the Middle Way. This is the path that falls between the two extremes of luxury and poverty. Another term for the Middle Way is the Noble Eightfold Path, which consists of eight steps that Buddhists can follow to end suffering.

    my comments: in my opinion, during one’s lifetime achieving enlightenment is just reaching a state of contentment … the eight-fold path is or should just be “common sense” (actually probably not so common) … regarding death and rebirth the following summarizes my basic attitude:

    1 if there is some form of existence after death of the physical body with some sort of remembrance – i look forward to the experience

    2 if there is some form of existence after death of the physical body without some sort of remembrance – i would be unable care about it

    3 if there is no form of existence after death of the physical body – i would just cease to exist and it would not matter to me anymore

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