Emptiness, Briefly Put

The first and most important question, when discussing emptiness, is “What are things empty of?” Things are empty of permanence. Although things appear directly to our senses to be inherently existent, in reality all phenomena lack, or are empty of, an inherent, substantive, autonomous existence. This means all phenomena lack a permanent definition, meaning, value, or function. That’s what things are empty of.

How do we know this? Logic and intellectual scrutiny (and Nagarjuna) tell us that all phenomena are characterized as having:

No beginning (birth) and no ending (death)

No permanence and no impermanence

No identity and no difference

No coming and no going

This suggests that we infer all phenomena to be empty, for all eight of these qualities require permanence!

What Is Emptiness?

Emptiness is the unseen, ultimate nature of all things. Emptiness means that things do not have an inherent definition, meaning, function, or value. Emptiness is the false notion of an independently, existing Self. Emptiness is the absence of reification. It is the source of all our problems.

Emptiness Is

It is especially important to understand that “emptiness” is an attribute, a descriptor, like an adjective, not a noun; it is a designation, not a thing, not a place. It is not something permanent that underlies the universe, but rather, and simply, “ultimately” how things really are, which means dependently arisen and ever-changing. 

What It Is Not

Nagarjuna, in Treatise on the Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Wau, 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, such as eternalism and nihilism. Denial of extreme views was seen by Nagarjuna as a process of purifying the mind that resulted in realizing emptiness.

 Radio Analogy

Here is Guy Newland’s analogy from Introduction to Emptiness. If this class has at all whetted your appetite for a more and deeper analysis about emptiness, checkout his book. Here’s an analogy from the book that has been particularly useful for conceptualizing emptiness:

I concocted for my students the analogy of two radio stations. Channel A is “all things considered radio.” This is our regular, conventional channel, and on it we get all kinds of information about the diversity and complexity of the world. Perhaps today they are airing a fierce debate: the proponents of red cars are angry, in a raging controversy with the proponents of blue cars. Normally we listen only to this station, so we take it all at face value and without deeper scrutiny. We are unaware that there is or could be any other channel. But in fact there is a second station, broadcast on channel B, the ultimate perspective. Channel B’s programming is “all emptiness, all the time radio.” Every phenomenon is presented only from the point of view of its ultimate nature. But when we tune into this channel, all of the detailed information from the other channel is unavailable. From the perspective of ultimate reality, red cars and blue cars are equally and exclusively empty [they are not even “cars”].

Channel B, emptiness radio, adds new information and a deeper perspective on what is being discussed on the conventional channel. It shows that the things discussed on channel A definitely do not exist in the way that they are ordinarily presented [as solid, separate, and having an essential nature].

When we come back to channel A after tuning in to B, we now understand just how it is that channel A is merely conventional; it is not the only or final perspective. But this new information does not, of course, prove that red cars are in all ways identical to blue cars. [Nor does channel B tell us of the nonexistence of an essentially existent car, that there are no cars]. We still have to make distinctions and make choices about what, if anything, to drive. Channel B alone does not allow us to make practical distinctions, so we still need the information from channel A.

Each gives correct information about its domain.

Conventional realities are not wiped out by…emptiness. The problem of knowing which car to drive is the general problem of how to choose between possible courses of action. It is the question of how empty persons can make distinctions between right and wrong. [The great 14th century Tibetan lama] Tsong-kha-pa shows that answering this question requires distinguishing between two types of knowledge about persons, as well as cars and other things.

Practicing with Emptiness and the Channels

Most of us live rather exclusively listening to channel A. We see the world as seemingly permanent and separate. When my eyes make contact with the plant in my office, I say to myself, “I see the plant.” Pure channel A–me here, plant there, separate and each solid and existent on its own. When I don’t get what I want, when things don’t go my way, I get mad. Again, pure channel A.

This leads us to unending and unendable problems with everything. As Newland points out, when we listen to channel A we become unaware of channel B. To move significantly along the path toward peacefulness, we must develop an awareness of channel B running in the background, behind the information from channel A that we need to live everyday lives, make distinctions (we need to be able to distinguish between a son and a husband, for example), and we need these distinctions to be of value and benefit to our families, friends, communities, and so on.

And therein lies the practice. Instead of locking into and listening exclusively to channel A, which even when “accurate” is black-and-white, rigid and problematic, say to yourself–whenever you notice there is dukkha, whenever you notice that you are getting upset or angry: “Where is channel B here?”

Whether it is big dukkha: the death of a child or parent, a terminal illness, the loss of a job or house, or little dukkha, noticing a ding on the car door, the moment your body sends you a signal that dukkha is arising (and it is often easier to notice it in the body than the mind), just ask yourself, “Where’s Channel B here?” and you regain your footing on the Middle Path and the dukkha dissolves.

In these examples, the wisdom of emptiness on channel B lets us see beyond our sense of loss to a greater understanding that aging and death are part of every process. This lessons our attachment to “my” loss and allows for grieving rather than self-indulgence. With a terminal illness, channel B redirects our attention from wanting things to be otherwise to being present and doing what is most beneficial, allowing us to see clearly and feel peaceful as we pick wellness strategies. Similarly, a ding, channel B tells us, is simply a chip in the paint on a piece of plastic–I can get it fixed, or not, as is appropriate, without making it personal, without attaching and suffering.

“Where’s channel B here?” That’s the practice. Having the wisdom to keep an awareness of channel B while going about our lives in a channel A world.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. San-Lun Buddhists believe the doctrine of emptiness suggests a way of life.
  3. 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
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. Emptiness is a soteriological device or pedagogic instrument—a tool used to help people obtain enlightenment.
  7. A person of emptiness is a person of compassion who helps all sentient beings obtain nirvana.
  8. Epistemologically, emptiness is wisdom, San-Lun Buddhists see it as an insight without attachment. They see that no truth is absolutely true.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.