Consciousness Is Empty (and so is love)
From the perspective of emptiness teachings, to say that something is empty means that it is empty of an inherent or independent existence. Instead, everything depends upon conditions like fire depends upon fuel and as it does not burn itself. What is dependently arisen therefore, lacks its own being or substance. Deconstructing consciousness and seeing its emptiness takes a lot of examination, but is profoundly liberating. For the idea of consciousness existing in and of itself, not only perpetuates the sense of an inherently separate self, but involves an argument supporting the separate existence of all phenomena.~
Consciousness is commonly viewed as independent from everything else, existing with its own essential nature. Within nonduality, this is often referred to as pure consciousness and is seen as a foundational and transcendent reality, as the essence of everything. Such a perspective does not recognize consciousness as dependent upon other phenomena to appear, but sees it as self-originated, self-created. This argument runs into a problem. In order to create or produce itself, consciousness would need to have already existed.
Additionally, consciousness is said to be conscious of itself as an undifferentiated unity. But for consciousness to indivisibly know itself is a muddled notion in more than one way. Consciousness must be conscious of something to be considered conscious. If there is no content to be conscious of, how could consciousness be considered conscious? Conscious of what? When it is seen that consciousness depends upon other (empty) things, then consciousness can also be seen as empty, empty of its own independent nature.
Furthermore, for consciousness to be conscious of itself, would require it to have an interior, making the customary claim that consciousness is an indivisible timeless and spaceless unity impossible. For it would take time for consciousness to be conscious of itself and to distinguish spatial parts with which to make an object of itself. When consciousness is viewed as an independent entity, it must necessarily be changeless and identical only to itself. However, whatever is fixed and unchanging would be inherently dead, isolated from the flow of interrelational continuation.
Alternatively, consciousness can be viewed as interdependent, like fire and light, as nondual interreflections, all empty of their own essence. This interdependence can show up very subtly, as in non-conceptual meditative states. Just as all phenomena lack an independent self, so does consciousness. Like a mirage, phenomenal objects and processes falsely appear as if they have their own solid core of being.
Buddhist and western emptiness teachings make the additional argument that consciousness is dependent upon content that is not even considered conscious. For it arises along with what does not think and does not perceive. Conscious is of something, that is, consciousness is also dependent upon what we would call non-conscious elements. And because consciousness does not exist solely as itself, it functions interrelatedly with is called a world. If consciousness was purely subjective it could not recognize anything else, let alone refute its existence.
The conventional designation of consciousness is also dependent upon a body, including the senses. So what sort of pure consciousness can there really be? What intrinsic property can consciousness truly hold? Consciousness is not an independent and objective witness waiting vacantly for phenomena to enter it. It is not separate from what is perceived. Consciousness is empty.
A perspective of separation between consciousness and perception would require consciousness to remain the same, while connected to perceived things. Yet how could anything be connected to other phenomena and remain absolutely unchanged? How can anything be both fundamentally separate and connected? Instead of existing independently, consciousness is a mutually arising and dependent phenomenon, just as fire does not burn itself and is utterly dependent upon fuel.
Consciousness is mistakenly believed to exist in a self-created, self-powered way. It is assumed that it operates itself, but this would be like saying that trees that are blowing, themselves intend to blow, or that magnets move by way of their own volition. Consciousness is an interrelated, essenceless movement, but is treated as if it is altogether privileged, which leads to subject-object duality with its inferred separate self.
In emptiness teachings, it is said that there is an equality among all phenomena because nothing can be truly separated out. This is one of my favorite parts of the teaching. It expands the meaning of love and compassion. Yet, this is not to say that there exists an autonomous, undifferentiated loving unity either.
Love and compassion depend upon a relative otherness to be loving and compassionate toward. For love does not love itself in a way that is identical to itself. We don’t consider an act of love to be self-referring, just as consciousness must be conscious of what is not considered consciousness.
And as consciousness involves diversity, love is also of the world, rather than existing in and of itself and for itself. As everything is without its own essence, things are neither the same nor different from each other. Neither consciousness nor, nor anything else, exists in isolation, foundationally, or essentially. Thus the emptiness of all things.
And too, as there is no inherently existent consciousness, there is no inherently existent me. This implies the absence of a self-identity to defend, or the need to desperately grasp and cling to things as mine. This understanding provides the remedy for suffering. For as everything interrelates, there is no place to fall. The realization of emptiness opens the everyday heart to recognizing unity within diversity, while embracing diversity within unity, conventionally speaking. Fear, intolerance and other afflictions, cannot withstand such a great embrace.
11 Responses to “Consciousness Is Empty (and so is love)”
Ironic how the ’emptiness of love’ results in a greater kind of love than we are accustomed… It is a love that eliminates dualistic (and divisional) thinking, unleashing our capacity to love those we previously could not.
I asked a Sri Lankan Bhikkhu why we must have loving-kindness and compassion toward others. His response was that all beings were responsible for our enlightenment due to cause and effect, and therefore we must have metta and karuna toward them. This was an interesting perspective of inter-connectedness, and one that coincides with your writing. Thanks!
Yes, it is always consciousness of … no pure subject, no pure object. While there may be objects that do not exist for a subject, they will never be objects we can know. All that we have is that which is given to consciousness. Discerning any boundary between consciousness and its contents would require stepping outside. Only where shall we place our feet? The existence of a thing is a matter of dependent designation, and that both requires and applies to consicousness. In the courageous denial of any privileged status for consciousness, the ground of our being is swept from beneath us. No more grasping, for who is there to do such a thing?
Beautiful article! Although it is not difficult to understand how all perceived things are empty, but I always wondered how can the perceiver aka consciousness itself be empty. Your reasoning (which is on the same lines of Arya Nagarjuna) i.e., “Consciousness must be conscious of something to be considered conscious” brought the message home. Thanks for the insight!
There are no perceivers, there are only perceptions.
One cannot exist without the other. Therefore, both are empty of inherent existence.
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This is really good, Susan. It shows up, consciousness, so right there that says it’s phenomenal, dependent, empty. I enjoyed this a lot. ♥
Another marvelous essay and to the point. We have no need to reify consciousness. – Wonderfully expressed!
I’m very new to this and I’ve been going along the Vedanta, Non-Duality direct path so please bear with me if this is obvious.
If consciousness is empty then what is it that knows existence?
If “to know” means to know objectively, independently and from a subject’s own side, then there is no knower to know existence. And if to exist means to exist inherently and substantially, then there can be no true existence either. Still, emptiness is not nothingness. It is the absence of inherent existence, of thingness, of substance. As nothing can ultimately be singled out, knowing and can only be a relative construct, a mere conventional designation. The article on “The Two Truths” gets into this.