An Introduction to Buddhist Wisdom

We live in a confusion. The world does not exist the way it appears. Sensory appearances give the impression that objects have their own fixed and separate nature. Conceptual language deepens this surface impression, reinforcing the sense of an independent and concrete nature into what it names, including a self.

From an early age, the world is thought to be composed of separate objects. However the way things superficially appear is not their mode of existence. Phenomenal characteristics are indivisibly interdependent, not independent. To conceive of phenomena existing in and of themselves and powered by their own core nature is called inherent existence. This is the target to be refuted on the path of emptiness teachings. The absence of inherent existence is referred to as emptiness and when realized, one sees everything as dependently arisen and relational, rather than as self-established and unitary.

All form, both gross and subtle (as in mental objects such as thought) are interrelational, with everything depending upon everything else. Nothing is created or endures in and of itself. Objects are merely abstractions because nothing can actually be singled out. However, the appearance of phenomena as substantive is a most convincing illusion. The belief in the inherent existence of a self and all other phenomena as grounded in their own independent essence and being, is so ingrained, so automatic and pervasive, that it is difficult to recognize.

For example, people will say my mind and body, as if there exists a separate self. This constructed self is seen as the owner of the mind and body complex, as an underlying, unchanging self-essence. However, there is no such independent self to be found within or apart from the mind and body. The self is a relative and relational concept, an abstraction in a sea of essenceless interdependence that is mistakenly seen to exist separately and in its own right.

Inherent existence is a mental trick, an illusory appearance which is seen as the way things truly exist. The realization of the absence of inherent existence is the realization of interrelated and dependent existence. As nothing exists in and of itself, everything is without its own thingness, dependent upon everything else without attaining independent establishment.

Buddhist emptiness teachings are profoundly nondual. Objects of every kind, apples, cars, planets, as well as people and subtle mental objects such as thoughts, feelings and sensations, etc., cannot ultimately be singled out. For one cannot even perceive or label an object or activity except in relation to other things.

What is taken to exist so fundamentally such as fire, requires fuel, oxygen, etc, as fire does not burn itself. Fire exists depends upon condition and cannot create itself or endure as itself. If you remove these conditions, there is no fire. Despite our recognition that everything changes and depends upon other factors to arise, phenomena, including people, are falsely believed to have their own inborn nature that remains the same.

“When we imagine change, we imagine one thing retaining its identity, but changing its properties.” Jay Garfield

To see through this falseness is critical, because the belief in inherent existence is the root error that leads to suffering. However, one must first clearly identify the target of inherent existence in order to aim the arrow. To then pierce this mental fiction is to unburden a person from believing in and living as if she or he is a truly separate self living in a world of separate people and things. It is to be free of a life of fragmentation and conflict.


Conventional and Dependent Existence

In emptiness teachings, conventional existence refers to our everyday perception and understanding of things. To exist conventionally also means that all phenomena, being dependent upon conditions, cannot substantively exist. To exist conventionally then, is to exist dependently. As there are no entities that can ultimately be singled out, whatever is identified, can only be a conceptual and linguistic designation. This is why conventional existence is also called nominal existence. This does not mean that everything is just a name as in a mental fabrication, but that there are no inherently existent things. Instead everything dependently exists, which is why everything only conventionally and nominally exists.

An apple for instance, is produced in dependence upon clouds, water, sunlight, air, insects, wind, seeds, etc., none of which exist as their own things either. An apple is produced from what is considered to be non-apple elements, and so an apple does not have its own nature. If the conditions that an apple depends upon were removed, there would not be an apple left over. An apple lacks its own being. A cloud or sunlight are not considered to be an apple. So what is an apple really? An apple is a practical and valid description of what can conventionally and dependently but not ultimately be established, because an apple does not independently exist. It is in this sense that it is said to be empty.

"Empty things are born from empty things." - Nagarjuna

Now, an apple is not the same as a rock. However, it is not inherently different either, because an apple also depends upon rock elements. It is not that apples do not exist at all, but it is the notion that they exist in and of themselves that is refuted. Apples exist dependently, interrelatedly, rather than by way of their own essential nature, essence or being. The characteristics and properties of an apple appear to be fused together, owned by appleness. In other words, an apple is assumed to inherently exist with its own nature and power to be an apple. This is a misconception, a superficial appearance and understanding.

The conventional appearance and practical functioning of objects are not negated in emptiness teachings, and are considered to be valid perceptions. If there was no valid perception at all, there could not be a coherent understanding of anything, such as the distinction made between a rope and a snake and we could not function. Conventional existence does not imply a lesser existence as compared to some true, identifiable reality. Nothing can ultimately be identified because everything is indivisibly interrelated. To recognize that things can only dependently and therefore conventionally exist, is to recognize their emptiness.


Emptiness too, does not exist by way of its own being. Emptiness is the realization of an absence. In this case, emptiness is the absence of the inherent existence of phenomena. To say that things are empty is to say that their dependence upon conditions, their dependence upon their relational parts and upon conceptuality, means that nothing can be independently established. In Buddhism then, emptiness is not the content of phenomena, nor a universal essence, nor does it mean nonexistence. When the belief in inherent existence is refuted, the emptiness, the groundlessness of all phenomena is realized.

When engaged in insight meditation, that is, on the absence of inherent existence, this absence, which is emptiness, comes to be directly perceived. When this occurs, emptiness is seen non-conceptually, non-phenomenally, unlike the way things appear conventionally. However, emptiness teachings resist reification, resist turning this absence back into an independent foundation, nature or entity, which would contradict everything as empty. And so it is said that emptiness too, is empty, dependently existent, and therefore but another way of apprehending conventional phenomena, which is to directly apprehend the absence of their inherent existence.

Emptiness must not be something to attach to, which would defeat its liberating purpose. Emptiness is the realization that inherent existence is a misconception, an illusion. Even the direct, non-inferential recognition of emptiness, is completely dependent upon the conceptual object to then discover its emptiness. If emptiness inherently existed, then the phenomenal world would be totally non-existent and we would land in nihilism. This is not a teaching about a transcendental reality, but about transcending false appearances. Dependent existence is emptiness and this understanding prevents one from falling into the two extremes of absolutism and nihilism.

Because all things are dependently co-arisen and therefore empty of an independent nature, one cannot point to anything as an ultimate existent or non-existent. Everything, including emptiness, can only be conventionally designated, meaning dependently.. Emptiness therefore, is not a proposition about the way things really are. The wisdom of emptiness teachings is to recognize that nothing inherently exists and therefore, that there is no foundation upon which an objective reality or truth can be asserted. In this way the two truths of Buddhism, conventional and ultimate truth, are unified and not dualistic.

Emptiness teachings are called the path of the Middle Way because it avoids the extremes of both conventional essentialism and nonexistence. Additionally, when inherent existence is refuted, it is not about an absolute or ultimate place or truth to land in. For there is no such foundational existence anywhere. Recognizing that everything is dependently arisen, avoids these extremes. A key insight of emptiness teachings is to not mistake appearance for essence. It is to see though the misconception that any object or activity of objects, inherently exist.

No Separate Self

Central to emptiness teachings is the importance of seeing through the myth of an inherently separate self. This fictional self is seen as the unchanging owner of a mind and body complex. The separate self is viewed as having a fixed nature despite the fact that everything that is believed to constitute the self, is always changing. When such a self is thoroughly investigated, it is realized that no such independent existence, ownership and containment can be found.

Seeing through the illusion of the inherently existent self and all phenomena is like being the magician who understands the trick and can’t be fooled by appearances. One comes to realize that the superficial appearance of inherent existence is a deeply conditioned, but illusory troublemaker.

In recognizing that a separate self of persons and things cannot be found, it is realized that there is nothing to fearfully defend or attach to. There is the understanding that the designated self is an abstraction from an unbroken web of dependent relations that cannot be pinned down or located.

And as even emptiness is empty, there is no mountaintop view, no ultimate judgement or truth to be claimed, including a view from nowhere. There is no leaving nonduality, as everything is empty in its dependent interrelatedness. And with the realization that there is no place to stand, arrives the deep conviction that there is no place to fall.



We live in a confusion. The world does not exist the way it appears to. Sensory appearances give the impression that objects stand as separate things.

Learn more about Emptiness →


Without insight, people will be fooled by false appearances. Withdrawing from the world won't do the trick as one inevitably comes back to the world.

Learn more about Insight →


It is usually believed that there is an unchanging core in people called a self and that despite the fact that everything about them changes, this self is seen to remain the same.

Learn more about Selflessness →


In this audio recording, Scott Kiloby and I talk on the subject of emptiness teachings. This Buddhist teaching and philosophy is a comprehensive path to liberation. 

Click here to view Media →

"When it is said that beings are like the moon reflected in limpid water rippled by a gentle breeze, the reflection and its watery support are alike in being, at every moment, impermanent and empty in nature."




A goodbye is already part of a hello. Birth and death dependently arise. The belief in inherent existence creates the appearance that things are fixed and unchanging. However, nothing is a constant and what is, is already what is not. Impermanence is always right here, in each moment. And so death is also life. Every thought, feeling and perception-every moment, is in flux. Where in this understanding can fear be maintained? Beneath superficial appearances, coming and going, birth and death, this and that, cannot be singled out, but are interrelated, empty of their own independent existence.

Empty things, reflections and the like, dependent on conditions, are not imperceptible. And just as empty
forms reflected in a glass create a
consciousness in aspect similar, so too all things, though empty,
strongly manifest within their very
emptiness and since inherent nature
is in neither truth, phenomena are
neither nothing nor unchanging entities".


Emptiness Cafe Blog

Susan Kahn emphasizes that ‘nothing functions independently’ …and offers a clear and concise article explaining how the nondual and psychotherapy work in harmony, just as there is a constant interplay in all of life.–Barbara McRobbie

Yes, that is perfectly expressed in your words, and in those of the Heart Sutra, 'Form is exactly emptiness.' There is no transcending the conventional, only an awakening from our false, deeply held ontological beliefs.–Carroll Izard

I find Susan to be remarkably insightful about the Buddhist school upon which her work is based. I refer people to her who want to dive into seeing the absence of the inherent nature of things and include some therapy in the mix. –Scott kiloby

First there's a poem, then there's a teaching, then there's a poem. These are great! –Jerry Katz

Susan Kahn has brought light and clarification to an area that many nondualists either do not bother to investigate, or do not even know about. She summed up the practicality of it very simply and directly...–Peter Francis Dziuban