Seeing Through the Illusion of Thingness

Meditation On Emptiness


Emptiness meditation begins as an insight or analytic method that leads to the direct (and eventually global) perception of the absence of inherent existence. This meditation is a penetrating examination that uproots the fiction of the way things superficially appear to exist, as independent, inherently existent phenomena.  Unless false appearances are seen through, they will continue to deceive.

Attempting to withdraw from conceptuality is not enough to do the job, just as deep sleep does not lead to the realization of emptiness.  The point is that to simply withdraw from thought is not a sufficient or enduring solution because the illusion of inherent existence is a conceptual error that will deceive until it is understood.  One must be like a magician who knows the magic trick and so, cannot be fooled.  In emptiness teachings, instead of turning away from objects, the meditator must become intensely engaged in investigating them.  Through insight, comes the ability to directly realize the emptiness of all things without the need for inferential reasoning.  But first things first.

The sense that objects exist independently and by way of their own nature is an ingrained assumption.  Look around and see how objects are assumed to each have their own essential thingness that makes them what they are, as if they were born that way.  Trees are assumed to have a tree nature, flowers, a flower nature, houses, a house nature.  A house is made of various parts such as wood, paint, glass, etc., which are called a house.  However, there is also imagined to be an overarching essence that is a house, existing beyond the parts, as if it has fused them together in an inherent unity.

Inherent existence is also attributed to a self.  Mind and body parts are imagined to be owned and unified by a singular, permanent self, despite the diversity and impermanence of mind and body parts.  This self is seen to have an essence or core that exists beyond the parts, independent from them, and that is preserved through time.  It is as if there are two selves, one with parts that changes, and another with an intrinsic or inherent nature that stays the same.  However, it is not possible for what we call a self to exist independent of a mind and body, as it wouldn’t relate to anything associated with a person.

In refuting inherent existence, a central reasoning used is that of recognizing that whatever dependently exists, as in a person depending on a mind, body and environment, cannot also independently exist, cannot have its own separate essence or being.  Dependence and independence are mutually exclusive.  And it is dependent existence that negates the possibility of inherent existence, of objects existing in and of themselves, of a house or person existing as an independent entity. There are three primary dependencies used to refute the inherent existence of a self and all phenomena.  These are dependence upon parts, conditions, and thought.

First, all phenomena, both coarse, and subtle objects such as thought, depend upon parts, and parts of parts, and are therefore empty of an independent nature.  Secondly, as nothing arises from nowhere or creates itself (as that would imply that it already existed before being created), everything must depend upon conditions, and conditions of conditions.  Thirdly, as no independent or singular objects exist, the designation of all phenomena must depend upon thought, upon conceptual construction or designation.  This is why in emptiness teachings it is said that all phenomena are merely nominal, conventional characterizations.  This does not mean that nothing exists, but that any identified thing must be a conceptualization because nothing exists as its own thing.

In order to further clarify inherent existence and the three dependencies that refute this illusory mode of existence, imagine a flower.  Regarding parts, the designation of a flower depends upon recognizable parts, such as petals, a stamen, stem, colors, etc.  It seems however, as if there is also a flower nature that exists beyond the parts, that constitutes the flower’s inherent essence and unity. The parts of a flower are presumed to somehow belong to an innate, unified essence of flowerness.   This is what is meant by inherent existence, the assumption that things have an independent, core nature.  Yet what depends upon parts cannot exist as an independent unity.  If there was such a duality, there would be two flowers, one with characterized parts and another that was independent of them.  But if you take away all of the parts, there will be no flower essence left over.  Such inherent existence is unfindable because it does not exist.






A flower is also dependent upon conditions such as clouds, water, air, sun, earth, etc.  If these condition are removed, there will be no flowers.  A flower is empty of “own being.”  Apart from conditions, flowers cannot be found.  But flowers cannot literally be found in conditions either because they do not inherently exist.  Clouds are not thought of as flowers, nor earth or water, but these are among the innumerable conditions for what we call flowers to appear.  Whatever depends upon conditions, and all phenomena do, are empty of a self-nature.

When subject to analytical meditation, independent phenomena cannot be found.  Flowers exist dependently and thus conventionally, and not by way of their own inherent being.  Their dependent existence precludes their substantive existence and because they are unable to be singled out, can only be conventionally designated.  Therefore, all phenomena are dependent upon thought, dependent upon conceptual abstraction, because nothing can be independently identified.

In addition to the mutually exclusive independent and dependent reasoning, is the mutually exclusive sameness and difference analysis.  If any phenomena were to qualify as inherently existent, it would need to be either inherently the same or different from each of the parts that are seen to compose it.  This is due to the reasoned understanding that in order for an object to exist as a one independent and unified nature, it could not also have plural parts and natures. What is identified as singular essence in other words, would be required to maintain its independent, indivisible unity.  Just as an object cannot exist both independently and dependently, it cannot be the inherently same as something that it is also inherently different from.  (To view all phenomena as existing interdependently avoids both contradictions.)

First, to explore the sameness option with a flower.  A flower is assumed to have an essential nature of flowerness.  For a flower to qualify as having a singular nature would require it to be indivisible and therefore, exactly the same as all of its parts, such as the petals, stem, color, moisture, etc.  Yet these parts are not even identical to each other!  One petal is not even identical to another petal.  If a flower had an intrinsic nature that was the identical to or one with every part, then if a petal dropped off, there should not be a flower.  So, is this flowerness inherently the same as a petal?  Is a flower a stem?  Can you find a flower in the moisture?  Where is this flowerness?  A flower essence is believed to mysteriously possess each of these parts, however it is unfindable.  Again, if the parts of a flower are cleared away, there will be no flower essence left over.

Now, if a flower was inherently different from its parts, what would this flower be?  The idea of a flower wouldn’t relate to anything and the name flower would be meaningless.  A flower exists dependently and is conventionally designated on the basis of characterized parts.  Conventionally, the word flower makes sense.  However, even conventionally, an inherently existent flower does not exist.

This is one of the reasonings that leads to the insight that phenomena are empty of inherent existence.  When clearly recognized, one directly experiences a vacuum, a void, where the object believed to inherently exist is utterly absent and thus, unfindable. Emptiness is a stunning realization.  It is seeing that what you believed to exist so concretely and so fundamentally is like an apparition.



“Whatever has arisen depending upon something is firstly not one with it.” Aryadeva


Chandrakirti’s Sevenfold Reasoning: The Bicycle

Chandrakirti, a disciple of Nagarjuna, developed Sevenfold Reasoning to refute the belief in an inherently existent self and all other object phenomena.  The Sevenfold Reasonings are listed and elaborated upon in the next section on the self and both deepens and broadens the argument that in order for any phenomena to inherently exist, it must either be exactly the same or different from the parts.  If it was not, the object would instead and necessarily be designated in dependence upon parts rather than existing as an inherent unity, which is the emptiness position.  Chandrakirti used a chariot in applying his Sevenfold Reasoning to phenomena, but the it can be applied to any object.  A flower was used previously as an introductory example and now a bicycle will serve as another.

First, the felt sense of the bicycle as existing inherently needs to be identified. Imagine a bicycle and how it is taken to exist as a thing in itself, as if it has an inborn nature to be a bicycle, beyond and aside from its parts.  This step is critical or the mistaken assumption will not be properly targeted.  It takes a while to understand inherent existence because the assumption is so ingrained.

Second, the force of the sameness and difference argument also needs to be clear.  If a bicycle is believed to exist inherently, this singular nature must either be identical to each of the bicycle’s parts or altogether different from them. Otherwise, a bicycle could not be said to exist inherently or independently, but rather in dependence upon innumerable parts.

Third, the sense of the inherent nature of the bicycle must then be mentally compared to each part to determine whether it is either totally the same or different from them.  Regarding sameness, is the unitary sense of the bicycle the same as each of the bicycle parts?  Can you find a bicycle in the tire?  Is a bicycle the same as metal?  Is a bicycle the seat?  Is it the color?  Does the shape inherently make it a bicycle?  Where is this essential bicycle nature to be found among these parts?  The investigation must be thorough to be convincing,  Next, if all of the different parts that are eliminated as not being  that bicycle nature are put aside, is there a bicycle essence or nature left over, that still remains? Where is this bicycle nature that is supposed to own or collect the bicycle parts?

Then regarding difference, if there does exist a bicycle nature that is inherently different from the bicycle parts, what could a bicycle be and where is it?  Aside from parts, what and where is a bicycle?

One comes to discover that an inherent existent flower cannot be found.  It is not in the parts, or aside from them.  Inherent existence doesn’t exist, for nothing is partless but instead, dependently existent and therefore empty of own being.  An inherently existent bicycle, flower, or a self of persons comes to be recognized as a conceptual overlay, a label, an illusion that appears to have independent status but does not.

Through analysis, when it is realized that an inherently existent bicycle or any phenomena cannot be found, the perception of an absence or void appears. During meditation, as the direct experience of emptiness fades, one returns to the analytic meditation, moving back and forth between insight and the direct perception of the object’s absence, each strengthening the other.  With continued practice and in applying this meditation to all different phenomena including processes such as cause and effect, motion and time, the realization of the emptiness of inherent existence deepens and becomes global and stable. Through emptiness meditation, insight and the direct apprehension of emptiness merge, come together it is said, “like water poured into water.”



“Those who assert dependent phenomena. as like moons in water, as not real and not unreal, are not tricked by views.” -Nagarjuna

Meditating on Dependent Conditions

In emptiness teachings, there are many reasonings and methods.  Another central meditation leading to the direct, non-conceptual perception of emptiness involves looking at various phenomena believed to independently exist such as a tree, a body, and even subtle phenomena such as sensory perception, thoughts, feelings, etc., and identifying the conditions they depend upon.  For what depends upon conditions cannot have own being.  Because things dependently exist is exactly why they are empty of inherent existence.  Recognizing that everything depends upon conditions, rather than independently existing, is a powerful meditation on emptiness.

A table for instance, depends upon wood, nails, manufacturing tools, people and so forth.  If a table depends upon conditions other than itself, then it cannot independently exist as a thing in itself, as a table in itself.  And if we further consider even one of the table’s conditions such as wood, we can see the innumerable conditions that it too depends upon, such as trees, whose conditions further depend upon the sun, earth, water, etc.

If the conditions that a table depends upon are removed, there is no table remaining.  A table cannot have its own nature if it depends upon conditions not considered to be a table.  For one does not consider rain to be a table because a table cannot be found in rain, nor in other parts of a table.  With the method of recognizing the dependent conditions of any and all phenomena, a table, a flower, a person, etc., it can be seen that if you clear away the conditions that they depend upon, there will be nothing left over, no independent object nature or essence to be found.   

All phenomena are empty because they exist in dependence upon conditions, which are also empty, in a kind of essenceless interplay.  There is no final foundation or being that is ever discovered.   And so whatever is identified can only be a conventional and conceptual designation.  We cannot transcend this limit of knowledge because nothing exists as its own thing to single out or identify. But to recognize this limit is in this sense, to transcend the limit, to see through the trick of the appearance of inherent existence.

Eventually one recognizes that everything lacks self-existence, that conditions depend upon other conditions, and conditions of conditions, in empty interdependency.  This is the teaching of the Middle Way, the understanding that things are neither existent nor non-existent, but like essenceless, groundless interreflections.  Nothing that dependently exists can be pinned down and yet, there is a coherence to worldly convention.

Central to emptiness teachings, is to look for an inherently existent self and recognize that like everything else, it is empty.  The emptiness of a self is addressed in the next section.

6 Responses to “Meditation On Emptiness”

  1. Wilson Duong

    Thank you, Susan, for such clear, simple and insightful deconstruction of emptiness, and for so beautifully distilling the sameness from the paradox of the two truths. Hope you can help harmonise another paradox – that of engaging in deep analysis versus silencing thoughts in and through meditation.

    Yours gratefully,

    • Susan Kahn

      Hi Wilson,

      This particular paragraph of the article begins to address your question. “Through analysis, when it is realized that an inherently existent bicycle or any phenomena cannot be found, the perception of an absence or void appears. During meditation, as the direct experience of emptiness fades, one returns to the analytic meditation, moving back and forth between insight and the direct perception of the object’s absence, each strengthening the other. With continued practice and in applying this meditation to all different phenomena including processes such as cause and effect, motion and time, the realization of the emptiness of inherent existence deepens and becomes global and stable. Through emptiness meditation, insight and the direct apprehension of emptiness merge, come together it is said, “like water poured into water.”

      The article on “The Two Truths and the Emptiness of Emptiness” further elaborates.

  2. Stephen

    This is an idea I struggle with. I understand the logic behind the argument, that we and everything in existence are all interconnected, but how does that necessarily mean that the existence of any individual person, animal, object, and so on is illusory? Why can’t essence be an emergent, sum of the parts trait? Why would a collection of differing parts necessarily make the whole a facade? It seems logical to me that any complex object would need to be divisible into smaller components.

    That may only be my Western, Judaeo-Christian bias, but I want to understand this. Every other part of Buddhist thought has has a beautiful, artful symmetry. If there is truth to the Dharma, as there appears to be, then I want to seek it.

    • Susan Kahn

      This is an involved question. There many reasonings in J. Garfield’s “Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way” and other writings, that are needed to cover it. Whatever exists dependently cannot have its own nature whether dependent upon one condition or many. What exists dependent upon conditions cannot exist prior to the conditions. Therefore, how can something that is non-existent prior to a condition truly have its own independent nature? It cannot and that is the illusion to see through. Conventionally, it seems that there are actual causes and effects that produce essences, but these are mere sensory-cognitive appearances that are totally relative (and thus empty) to what we call the human organism. This teaching requires study but delivers clarity!

    • Anonymous

      To have a good understanding of emtiness is really very hard. The answer i heard isThe sum of the parts is not the bicycle. It is still the part of the bicycle, just like the sum of all body parts of me is not me but my part, my possession… the basic reason behind is i and my part are not one and cannot be one, therefore sum of the body part is not me. Then where am i? Nothing there just like mind labeling and illusory.

      • Susan Kahn

        Yes, I think you’ve got it! There are no actual wholes, no singular nature to anything that stands above and beyond parts, or that possesses them. All there are is parts. Our minds abstractly conceptualize a oneness, but such a partless unity does not exist.

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