Author Topic: Emptiness: The Most Misunderstood Word in Buddhism  (Read 3839 times)


  • Hero Member
  • *****
  • Posts: 4124
    • Email
Emptiness: The Most Misunderstood Word in Buddhism
« on: March 07, 2013, 06:16:49 AM »
I found this interesting essay about emptiness that i feel compelled to share here:


Emptiness: The Most Misunderstood Word in Buddhism
Posted: 03/06/2013 5:14 am

"Emptiness" is a central teaching of all Buddhism, but its true meaning is often misunderstood. If we are ever to embrace Buddhism properly into the West, we need to be clear about emptiness, since a wrong understanding of its meaning can be confusing, even harmful. The third century Indian Buddhist master Nagarjuna taught, "Emptiness wrongly grasped is like picking up a poisonous snake by the wrong end." In other words, we will be bitten!

Emptiness is not complete nothingness; it doesn't mean that nothing exists at all. This would be a nihilistic view contrary to common sense. What it does mean is that things do not exist the way our grasping self supposes they do. In his book on the Heart Sutra the Dalai Lama calls emptiness "the true nature of things and events," but in the same passage he warns us "to avoid the misapprehension that emptiness is an absolute reality or an independent truth." In other words, emptiness is not some kind of heaven or separate realm apart from this world and its woes.

The Heart Sutra says, "all phenomena in their own-being are empty." It doesn't say "all phenomena are empty." This distinction is vital. "Own-being" means separate independent existence. The passage means that nothing we see or hear (or are) stands alone; everything is a tentative expression of one seamless, ever-changing landscape. So though no individual person or thing has any permanent, fixed identity, everything taken together is what Thich Nhat Hanh calls "interbeing." This term embraces the positive aspect of emptiness as it is lived and acted by a person of wisdom -- with its sense of connection, compassion and love. Think of the Dalai Lama himself and the kind of person he is -- generous, humble, smiling and laughing -- and we can see that a mere intellectual reading of emptiness fails to get at its practical joyous quality in spiritual life. So emptiness has two aspects, one negative and the other quite positive.

Ari Goldfield, a Buddhist teacher at Wisdom Sun and translator of Stars of Wisdom , summarizes these two aspects as follows:
The first meaning of emptiness is called "emptiness of essence," which means that phenomena [that we experience] have no inherent nature by themselves." The second is called "emptiness in the context of Buddha Nature," which sees emptiness as endowed with qualities of awakened mind like wisdom, bliss, compassion, clarity, and courage. Ultimate reality is the union of both emptinesses.

With all of this in mind, I would like to highlight three common misunderstandings of emptiness: emotional, ethical and meditative.

When we say "I feel empty," we mean we are feeling sad or depressed. Emotionally speaking, "emptiness" is not a happy word in English, and no matter how often we remind ourselves that Buddhist emptiness does not mean loneliness or separateness, that emotional undertow remains. At various times I have looked for a substitute translation for the Sanskrit sunyata -- I have tried "fullness," "spaciousness," "connectedness," and "boundlessness" -- but as Ari Goldfield points out, "emptiness" is the most exact translation. "Emptiness" is also the term that my own teacher Shunryu Suzuki used, though he usually added context. Once, speaking of emptiness he said, "I do not mean voidness. There is something, but that something is something which is always prepared for taking some particular form." Another time, speaking of the feeling tone of emptiness, he said, "Emptiness is like being at your mother's bosom and she will take care of you."


Some Buddhist students rationalize or excuse bad behavior of their teacher by asserting that through his understanding of emptiness the teacher is exempt from the usual rules of conduct. One student said, "Roshi lives in the absolute so his behavior can't be judged by ordinary standards." While it is true that Buddhist teachers sometimes use unusual methods to awaken their students, their motivation must come from compassion, not selfishness. No behavior that causes harm is acceptable for a Buddhist practitioner, teacher or otherwise.


Some Buddhist students think that a meditative state without thought or activity is the realization of emptiness. While such a state is well described in Buddhist meditation texts, it is treated like all mental states -- temporary and not ultimately conducive to liberation. Actually emptiness is not a state of mind at all; it is, as the Dalai Lama says, simply "the true nature of things and events." This includes the mind. Whether the mind of the meditator is full of thoughts or empty of them, this true nature holds.


Finally, since emptiness seems so difficult to understand, why did the Buddha teach it at all? It is because of his profound insight into why we suffer. Ultimately we suffer because we grasp after things thinking they are fixed, substantial, real and capable of being possessed by ego. It is only when we can see through this illusion and open ourselves, in Ari Goldfield's words, "to the reality of flux and fluidity that is ultimately ungraspable and inconceivable" that we can relax into clarity, compassion and courage. That lofty goal is what makes the effort to understand emptiness so worthwhile.


  • Hero Member
  • *****
  • Posts: 733
    • Email
Re: Emptiness: The Most Misunderstood Word in Buddhism
« Reply #1 on: March 07, 2013, 10:36:08 AM »
To me the reality of Emptiness cannot be seen by one unless one has achieved the level of the first ground boddhisattvahood on the path of seeing. The reason it is called the path of seeing is that it cannot be mental understood but only can be seen by beings on that path and beyond.

However, from the temporal point of view we can understand emptiness and apply it benefit ourselves and others. Below are a few points:

1) Emptiness can be applied to mean that things are in constant flux and are changing. We can even say things are changing every moment. How we can benefit from this is that, since that is the case, then what we perceive as "good" can change for the better or worse and what we perceive as "bad" also has the same nature. So if we are attached to something "good", we must understand that it can also turn into something bad and we should not expect this "good" to stay the same. Sometimes, it is also our mind and opinion towards this something "good" that changes. So we should not be attached. In the same way, something that is "bad" can also change into something good, so we can be steadfast and be positive. Similarly, we should not be attached or adversed to it.
2) When will view something, the view happens from our point of our angle physically and mentally. Know that others view it differently. If we check with others and even though they agree with your view, thrust that even between this "common" view, there are subtle differences. We are all part of Emptiness including our feelings and perceptions and hence things will change. What is a subtle difference today can be a huge difference overtime. Respect others because of this, even your enemy. Because of this know that even your enemies has people who love them. Renounce in that way.
3) Know that things and events arises because of cause and conditions. It is the law of cause and effect. From our point of view emptiness is practically viewed as potentiality of things arising base on cause and conditions. Hence we need to mind our actions for we are bound to reap what we sowed.