Creative Commons License photo credit: NASA Goddard Photo and Video

The Buddhist concept of emptiness and more particularly the usage of the words “emptiness” and “illusion” seem to be a source of some confusion. We tend to forget that a word is not a thing. It is merely a symbol or a label that is used within a particular social context consensually to represent something.

If I say “table” but the object I’m thinking of in my mind (the meaning I’m trying to communicate) is a book we will have a failure of communication. After all, successful communication occurs when shared meaning is achieved.

The following is my own personal understanding derived from reading Buddhist literature, my personal meditation practice, much thinking and having studied Buddhism during my undergraduate degree.

Much of our planning is like waiting to swim
in a dry ravine.
Many of our activities are like housekeeping
in a dream.
Delirious with fever, one does not recognize the fever.

– Paltrul Rinpoche

On Emptiness
The use of the term “emptiness” within the context of Buddhism derives from the observation of the dependent origination of all phenomena. All phenomena that exists, exists in dependence on a cause or causes of which the particular phenomena is an effect. Effects may also themselves be causes of effects. Interestingly the definition of a phenomenon as a cause is dependent on its effect to be a cause so defined. Thus dependence flows in both directions.

According to Buddhist thought, if something does not exist in and of itself without reliance on a causal chain (inherently existent) then it is said to be “empty” of inherent existence. In Buddhism something is deemed not inherently existent if its origination is dependent on a cause or set of causes for it to exist. Following on from this, as there is nothing that has not arisen dependent on some cause then the world can be said to be “empty” of inherent existence. This does not mean somehow that the world does not really exist.

Because there are no phenomena
That are not dependent-arisings,
There are no phenomena that are not
Empty of inherent existence.

– Nagarjuna

Applying an understanding of the above terminology and definitions or meanings behind the term “emptiness” you can see how if someone reads a text that talks about contemplating emptiness and they take emptiness to mean what it strictly does in common English vernacular, they might start trying to forcefully clear the mind of thoughts in order to create a void or an empty mind.

The fact is that when using the term “emptiness” in the Buddhist context of dependent origination the mind and all phenomena already is “empty”. In order to contemplate or observe emptiness you need only carefully and without commentary observe your own mind at work. Dependent origination is what is at work. Given this, mind is not self. Mind is largely an impersonal process playing itself out.

“One who is in harmony with emptiness
is in harmony with all things.”

– Nagarjuna

On Illusion
Similar to “emptiness” the Buddhist idea regarding the illusionary nature of existence is also open to potential misinterpretation. What is meant when something is said to be illusionary? What is an illusion? An illusion occurs when one thing is made to seem like another. In psychology an illusion is a perception that represents what is perceived in a way different from the way it is in reality.

So when it is said that existence is illusionary it does not mean something like that in reality nothing exists at all. Rather, it means that existence is commonly experienced or perceived as being a certain way and this is an illusion and different from the way things actually are. Not that there is an empty void where reality appears to be.

Just as it is known
That an image of one’s face is seen
Depending on a mirror
But does not really exist as a face,
So the conception of “I” exists
Dependent on mind and body,
But like the image of a face
The “I” does not at all exist as its own reality.

– Nagarjuna

Generally we experience separateness in life and this conditions our perception of the nature of the world. Our perception is the basis and boundary of our individual reality. Buddhism is saying that in reality, under the illusionary veil thrown up by limited physical senses, there is nothing that is separate, backwards or forwards. It is not intellectual knowledge of this but rather a true realization founded in experiencing this reality for oneself that brings about a positive transformation in one’s perception.

To transform means to change fundamentally, to recognize basic structures and to breach current limits. In the words of the Dali Lama – “Achieving genuine happiness may require bringing about a transformation in your outlook, your way of thinking, and this is not a simple matter.”

Like a magician’s illusions, dreams,
and a moon reflected in water,
All beings and their environments are empty
of inherent existence.
Though not solidly existent, all these appear
Like water bubbles coming forth in water.

– Gung Tang

So What?
The intense realizations that arise out of experiences of dependent origination and the illusionary nature of the world if cultivated can have a powerfully transformative effect on our perception and thereby on the quality of our life and the lives of those around us. The more a person experiences the intense interconnectedness of existence the more they tend to be open to a genuine and lasting sense of happiness and contentment.

When phenomena are individually analyzed as selfless
And what has been analyzed is meditated upon,
That is the cause for attaining the fruit, nirvana.
One does not go to peace through any other cause.

– Buddha

Such a person is far less likely to feel alone, isolated or depressed. Such a person is more likely to live their lives in an enlightened way and less likely to perpetrate violent exploitation of fellow human beings and the environment. However, if a person only perceives separateness then their entire approach to life is more likely to be grounded in self-centered self-ish-ness. Sounds just like the current mechanistic economic paradigm of “rational” self-interest, doesn’t it?

We are not separate from our environment. We are a part of it. What happens to the environment happens to us. We are not separate and alone. We are fundamentally of the universe. In order to be happy we must live our lives in accordance with this reality. Not in accordance with an illusion.

Just as one comes to ruin
Through wrong eating but obtains
Long life, freedom from disease,
Strength and pleasures through right eating,
So one comes to ruin
Through wrong understanding
But attains happiness and highest enlightenment
Through right understanding

– Nagarjuna

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