Deconstruction East and West

Introduction To Buddhist Emptiness

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We live in illusion.  The world does not exist the way it appears.  Our sensory-cognitive process delivers a view of life as a landscape of independent objects.  The felt impression is that everything exists through its own separate and intrinsic nature.  Language is involved in this reification, deepening the sense of an independent identity in what is named.

It appears as if everything exists through its own “thingness” to be the way it is, including a self.  However, all phenomena exist interdependently rather than independently.  To conceive of phenomena existing in and of themselves, through 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 all phenomena without an independent self or being.

What is taken to exist so fundamentally such as fire, requires fuel, oxygen, friction, etc., as fire does not burn itself.  It does not create itself or endure in itself.  Fire exists in dependence upon conditions that are not considered to be fire either.  For example, fuel is not fire, nor is oxygen.  However, if you remove the conditions that fire depends upon, there will be no fire remaining.  Thus, they are called conditions.  Fire and the conditions of fire are unfindable as things existing in and of themselves, as entities.  Despite our recognition that everything changes, people and things are falsely assumed to have fixed, inborn natures that make them what they are.

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

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People will say my mind and my body, as if there exists a separate self hidden somewhere.  A self is seen as the owner of the transitory mind and body complex, as an underlying, unchanging essence or core.  However, there is no such independent self to be found within or apart from the mind and body.  The self is a mere conceptual construct that is mistakenly believed to have its own intrinsic nature.

Objects of every kind, apples, cars, people and subtle mental objects such as thought, feelings and sensations, can conventionally but not ultimately be identified or located.  An object can only be designated by characteristics that are relative to other characteristics, such as large is to small, fast to slow, coarse to subtle. There are no actual objects hiding behind these relative, relational characterizations.  There are simply no independent objects that can be found to exist, no self-established things.  This is the primary argument of emptiness teachings.

To see through the deception of inherent existence is critical, because it is the root error that leads to the endless grasping and aversion that underlies all suffering.  However, one must first identify what inherent existence is as a clear target in order to aim the arrow.  To then pierce this mental fiction is to be unburdened from the view of being a separate, contained self in a world of separate, contained people and things. It is to be free from a life of perpetual fragmentation, conflict and fear.

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

Conventional and Dependent Existence

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In emptiness teachings, conventional existence refers to our everyday perception and understanding of things, such as saying that the sky is blue.  To exist conventionally also involves the understanding that since all phenomena depend upon conditions, they cannot substantively exist.  To exist conventionally then, is to be conceptually constructed.  For as there are no independent phenomena that can ultimately be singled out, whatever is identified can only be a dependent and conventional designation.  This is why conventional existence is also referred to as nominal existence, as existing in name only.  This does not mean that everything is only a name, as in a total mental fabrication, but is the recognition that phenomena cannot exist inherently, in and of themselves.

For instance, an apple is produced in dependence upon clouds, water, soil, sunlight, air, insects, wind, seeds, ad infinitum, none of which exist as their own things either.  An apple is produced in total dependence upon what are not considered to be apples.  Yet if the conditions that apples depend upon are removed, there will be no apples.  An apple is ultimately unfindable.  It is not found independently, in and of itself, or in its conditions either.  Water is not considered to be an apple, because you cannot find an apple in water.  Nor is soil or light seen to be an apple.  An apple lacks an intrinsic nature.  So what is an apple really?  An apple is a useful and valid description of what can be relatively and conventionally designated, but cannot ultimately be identified because an apple exists interdependently, not as an entity.  It is in this sense that an apple and all phenomena are empty.

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“Empty things are born from empty things.” – Nagarjuna

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Conventional truth provides us with the only means we have to function and to understand anything.  It is valid and necessary to conventionally recognize that an apple is not the same as a rock.  However, emptiness teachings make the crucial point that they are not inherently different either.  For neither exists as a separate entity from which an ultimate comparison of sameness or difference can be made.  It is not that apples do not exist at all. Apples exist dependently and therefore conventionally.  Their appearance is relative to function of the human organism and not an entity that we discover “out there.”  Whatever arises in dependence upon conditions cannot exist essentially, substantially.  What we call an apple falsely appears to be fused together by an “appleness,” as if an apple has an intrinsic nature or power to be an apple.  To see this deception is to understand the emptiness of phenomena.

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"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". -Chandrakirti

“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” -Chandrakirti

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Emptiness

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Emptiness is referred to as ultimate truth, because it appears non-deceptively. Emptiness is the perception of an absence, the absence of the inherent existence of phenomena. To say that things are empty is to say that they dependently exist, that they are essenceless without their own nature or being. Buddhist emptiness is not the content of phenomena, or a universal essence or a source.  It is the recognition that the way phenomena appear to inherently exist is unfindable and thus illusory.  So again, emptiness is an absence, not a thing. When the belief in inherent existence is refuted, the emptiness, the groundlessness of all phenomena is realized.

During insight meditation, the absence of inherent existence is directly perceived.  When this occurs, the emptiness of phenomena is seen non-conceptually, unlike the way things are conventionally conceived.  However, emptiness teachings resist reification, resist turning this absence back into an independent nature or entity, which would contradict the insight that everything is empty. And so it is said that emptiness too, is empty, dependently existent, completely dependent upon conventional phenomena to recognize their emptiness.

In this sense, the ultimate truth of emptiness is also only conventionally true, only conventionally existent, rather than inherently existent.  Emptiness teachings are not about a transcendent reality or truth, but about transcending deception.  Emptiness is dependent existence, and this insight avoids falling into the two extremes of essentialism and nihilism.  In essentialism, phenomena are seen to inherently exist and in nihilism, to not exist in any way at all.  This is why emptiness teachings are referred to as the path of the middle way.

Because all things are dependently arisen and thus empty of an independent nature, one cannot ultimately identify anything.  For nothing can be individually located.  Again this is why everything, including emptiness, can only be seen to conventionally exist.  Emptiness is therefore not a positive identification of anything.  It is but a negation that anything exists in its own right.  Nagarjuna, founder of the Middle Way school of Buddhism, recognized that the two truths of Buddhism, convention truth and ultimate truth, are ultimately the same.

Emptiness is not a proposition about the way things really are.  For there is no ultimate way that things really are, no entities and therefore no foundation from which to make such an objective claim.  Emptiness does not assert a positivist view of reality, but is a refutation of the view that anything could possibly exist inherently or independently.  This is a deep and liberating insight.

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"Just as here in this world an echo arises in dependence on a sound, so also all existence arises like an illusion or a mirage." -Nagarjuna

“Just as here in this world an echo arises in dependence on a sound, so also all existence arises like an illusion or a mirage.”
-Nagarjuna

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No Separate Self

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Central to emptiness teachings is to see through the myth of a separate self. This fictional self is seen as the unchanging and overarching owner of a mind and body complex.  For despite the fact that everything about a mind and body is always changing, the “I” is seen to have a nature that endures through time unchanged.  And while the mind and body system is multifarious, a self is envisioned as a singular unity.

When an essential self is thoroughly investigated, it is recognized that no independent entity or possessor of a mind and body can be found.  For it cannot be found within a mind or body, or apart from it.  Nor can a subject be separated from an object.  Subject and object are mutually dependent and thus, both are empty.  While there is assumed to be an “in here” and “out there,” there is no dividing line that can be located, only interdependence.  The self is discovered to be like a mirage, appearing as an actual entity, but upon close examination to be the overlay of a conceptually constructed label.

In recognizing the emptiness of the self, it can be understood that there is truly nothing to defend or attach to.  This insight undermines the root of fear with all of its displays.  Seeing the separate self as a mere conceptual and thus conventional construct is to recognize its emptiness.  This is the key to lasting peace.

Deconstructing the myth of the separate self is detailed on the third page of this introductory section, “On the Emptiness of the Self.”

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“Beings think “I” first, and cling to self; they think of “mine” and are attached to things.” -Chandrakirti

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5 Responses to “Introduction To Buddhist Emptiness”

  1. amandasana

    One of the clearest papers on emptiness I’ve ever read. Thanks.
    I’ve been mentally taking things apart since childhood, and nothing could ever be found. Only my concepts. And it’s parts. If you apply it to everything, even your emotional upsets, you rest in peace. The mind begins to rest in experience instead of all your troubles and concepts.

    Reply
  2. Rod Maurice

    I can only agree with amandasana, “One of the clearest papers on emptiness I’ve ever read.” Much appreciated. I seek more of your most clear and helpful writings.
    Emptiness is the greatest concept I never found and rejoiced at the never finding.
    It appears we have nothing and no-one to thank for this great blessing, save life itself. The experience of feeling joyfully grateful must waft like the glorious scent of the blooming of This. Peace.

    Reply
  3. annonymous17

    wow this blog on emptiness just healed me and fulfilled me! Through the right understanding of emptiness also comes universal compassion. :)

    Reply
  4. Luis

    Thanks for taking the time to explain emptiness so clearly. Not easy to explain, not easy to understand. I would like to read a posting or a reference explaining at more length how you go from realizing emptiness of all phenomena (including the emptiness of the self) to the end of suffering. That would be very helpful.

    Reply

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