What Is Emptiness in Buddhism?

Category: Buddhist Path | Recent Meditation Posts

An image of a Japanese garden, because of emptiness we can see beauty

The Meaning Of Emptiness In Buddhism

Emptiness in Buddhism is the teaching that things are empty of self-existence. Things do exist, just not in one way and from their own side only. All that we perceive is dependent on us, the perceiver.

In Mahayana Buddhism, wisdom (prajna) is the understanding of emptiness. With meditation, we can experience this understanding in the form of a felt realization, one that transcends that which we can describe using words and the cognitive mind. Until then, we use the logical mind to help us get started on the path to realization.

Emptiness is a translation of the Sanskrit word sunyata. It is sometimes described as voidness or selflessness. For Mahayana Buddhists, sunyata describes the true nature of all perceivable phenomena. Everything in our world is ‘empty’ of existing in just one way, from its side only. We could also say things don’t exist in the way that we think they do. Instead, things exist interdependently, they appear to us in partnership with our faculties of perception.

As humans, for example, we live with a history of causes and conditions that compel us to see the collection of parts that make up a shoe as a shoe. And yet, where is the shoe? If we remove the laces, the sole, or the top of the side of the shoe, would it still be a shoe? The shoe is empty of the essence of ‘shoe,’ and yet, the object exists. It functions for us as a shoe.

If we were a mouse, however, we would not see ‘shoe’ but perhaps as a home. If we had the karma of a dog, we may see ‘chew toy.’ The same collection of parts exists for us differently depending on who we are. It’s not that we are right and the mouse or the dog is wrong. In each case, the object exists and functions for the perceiver in the manner it is perceived.

A ‘shoe’ is empty of self-nature. It is void of the essence of ‘shoe.’ Otherwise, it could never be anything other than ‘shoe’ to anything that perceived it. Its existence as a shoe depends on it being perceived as a shoe.

Why Understand Emptiness?

In the case of a shoe, it may be of little consequence whether one sees the object as a shoe or a paperweight. But when we remember that all things, including us, are empty, we can see how forgetting leads to suffering.

For example, we tend to think we exist as a single entity from only our side. But if that were the case, everyone would know us in exactly the same way. We could not be a co-worker to some, a mother to another, and a stranger to yet others. If we were self-existent from our own side, we could never grow or change. The ‘me’ that was recognized as ‘me’ as a baby would have to be the same ‘me’ who exists today. We could be liked or disliked, but if we existed objectively, we’d have to be liked or disliked in the same way by everyone.

In our experience, we know this is not the case. And yet, until we have a transformative, direct realization of emptiness, we’ll likely keep forgetting.

The Buddha’s realization of emptiness freed him from suffering (dukkha). He saw that our attachment to what we think we know about the self, others and the world is what gives rise to all greed and hatred.

Opening the mind to the possibility that nothing exists in just one way softens our clinging. We realize there is more than one way to look at things and that things exist in more than one way.

It’s possible, for example, that our biggest challenge is our greatest opportunity, that strangers or enemies could one day be the best of friends, and that we are not flawed, ordinary beings, but divine, inspired and perfectly complete as is.

Emptiness is not a negative concept of nothingness, but a positive description of spaciousness. Within everyone and everything lies infinite potential. To see it, we simply have to change the causes and conditions (otherwise known as karma) that give rise to our experience.

A Meditation On Emptiness

Emptiness meditation is a type of awareness or vipashyana practice that can help us experience sunyata for ourselves. There are many ways to do it. Emptiness meditation technique often begins with a logical contemplation. As the mind wrestles with the paradox that things exist but cannot be found anywhere, we can slip into insight about the true nature of all things.

In a classic meditation on emptiness, we search for the essence of self by contemplating the following questions.

  • Is the self in the body? If so, what if I cut off my thumb? Is the self now in the thumb, the rest of the body, both or neither? What if I cut off my whole hand? My whole arm? Both arms, and so on? Which of my parts is ‘me’, and when are my parts ‘not me?’
  • Is the self in the mind? If so, which of my thoughts is ‘me,’ and which is ‘not me?’ Do I still exist when I’m not thinking, when I’m spaced out or sleeping? Where am I if I suffer dementia, experience a head injury or loss of memory?

No matter how hard we look, we cannot find an objective, unchanging self. And yet, we do exist! This is the essential meaning of the Buddhist middle way.

By meditating on emptiness consistently, we begin to sense the futility of clinging to self, others, objects and thoughts as if they were solidly self-existent. We let go of black-and-white thinking and become much more at ease with fluidity. We experience the freedom of living in alignment with truth and accepting each moment exactly as it presents itself.

About the Author: Sara-Mai Conway

Sara-Mai Conway writes articles about Buddhist meditation based on her practice and experience
Sara-Mai Conway is a writer, yoga and meditation instructor living and working in Baja California Sur, Mexico. Her writing and teachings are informed by her personal practice and Buddhist studies. When not at her desk, she can be found teaching donation-based community classes in her tiny, off-grid hometown on the Pacific Coast. Learn more about Sara-Mai Conway here.

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