The term emptiness acquires its meaning in dependence on the circumstances of its use. Here is a variety of different “takes” on emptiness in the hope that the reader will be able to infer from these various perspectives what emptiness is. Note that, grammatically (and philosophically!) speaking, emptiness is an adjective, not a noun; it is an absence, not a presence. Very simply put, emptiness is a lack of permanence, not a thing or place. Grappling with the concept of emptiness is a critical pathway to liberation. A more extensive explanation can be found in the introduction to our commentary on Middle Way Philosophy.
Excerpted, with edits, from Hsueh-li Cheng’s introduction to Nagarjuna’s Twelve Gate Treatise:
- Metaphysically, emptiness means that all things are devoid of nature, character, and function. It teaches that an ontological entity given by metaphysicists is not real.
- San-Lun Buddhists believe the doctrine of emptiness suggests a way of life.
- San-Lun Buddhists often use emptiness to mean the absence of something. San-Lun Buddhists may claim that all things are empty in the sense that things are devoid of definite nature, characteristic, definition, and function
- San-Lun Buddhists also use the term to discount and discredit things or concepts. People tend to employ conceptual schemes to describe the nature of things. To say that all things are empty is to suggest that concepts or categories through which one constructs experience are unintelligible.
- San-Lun Buddhists sometimes use the term emptiness to devalue things and to designate weakness. Empty things they believe are worthless and should be discarded. As a result, to realize emptiness is to eliminate disaster. The essence of the Buddha’s teaching (emptiness) is the elimination of disaster.
- Emptiness is a soteriological device or pedagogic instrument—a tool used to help people obtain enlightenment.
- A person of emptiness is a person of compassion who helps all sentient beings obtain nirvana.
- Epistemologically, emptiness is wisdom, San-Lun Buddhists see it as an insight without attachment. They see that no truth is absolutely true.
- For Madhyamika Buddhists, hedonism is one extreme and asceticism is the other. The doctrine of emptiness is given to “empty” a person of these (and all other) extreme or wrong views and prepare them to live the middle way. Hence, emptiness is the middle way.
- For San-Lun Buddhists, emptiness is meant to “empty” us of the concepts of is and is not, of the sense of a permanent existence or non-existence.
Nagarjuna, in Middle Way Philosophy, describes emptiness in terms of what it is not. This is known as the eightfold negation:
The cessation of all conceptual games, meaning the true nature of an event, is marked by
- No origination (no beginning, no birth), no extinction (no ending, no death);
- No permanence, no impermanence;
- No identity, no difference;
- No coming, no going.
This is meant not only to deny these four sets of extremes, but all extreme and wrong views. Denial of extreme views was seen by Nagarjuna as a process of purifying the mind that resulted in the perfecting of the six perfections