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The Concept of Emptiness

There are concepts in the western philosophy that are unable to define those found in eastern thought.  Buddhist philosophy covers a large spectrum some of which are metaphysics, epistemology and ontology.  One must be aware that conventional western thought is ill-equipped to address certain, perhaps numerous Buddhist concepts.  One of those concepts is emptiness.  The Buddhist understanding of emptiness is unprecedented in western philosophy.  This is not to say that the western is inferior to that of the east, rather it claims that traditional western thinking is ill-equipped to understand the true nature of this concept.  There is no fault in being ill-equipped since the problem rests in one’s nature of thought.  The west has cultivated a formula of evaluation that is contrary to many eastern ideas. Perhaps this same argument is applied to the east.  Rightfully so, the east may not understand and/or translate western thought appropriately.

This essay is not an attempt to compare or contrast eastern and western thought.  However, it is important to understand that the basic tenets of philosophy between these distinct schools conflict with each other.  The use of western themes is used to illustrate the differences.  Furthermore, historically the description of eastern concepts has been proven to be a difficult endeavor worthy of extensive research.  This essay is an attempt to clearly communicate the understanding of “emptiness” in its appropriate context.

The traditional western thinker attempts to eliminate the dichotomy of cause and effect in exchange for an a priori justification of causality.  On the other hand, Madhyamika philosophy is not concerned with finding an objective, value-free truth, like its counterpart, regarding the causal relationship.  Its main concern is finding a pragmatic sense of purpose in the relationship between cause and effect.  The debates of whether or not an object is real differ in eastern and western philosophy.  Many westerners rely on the concept of platonic forms understanding that these ideas or forms are real, they exist.  Madhyamika philosophy states that things are not in reality produced, however, they do serve as objects that are readily perceived in our everyday experience.  This is to say that although one perceives an object, say a chair, it truly does not exist.  Rather the chair is merely a sum of reducible parts that only exists in the conventional world.  Furthermore, the concept of chair as a form does not truly exist.  This idea is in direct opposite to the western understanding.  Although some westerners may agree that the chair as a whole does not truly exist since it will someday deteriorate, they do maintain that the intellectual or conceptual form exists.  The thought that the chair really exists is merely an illusion, this concept with become clearer throughout the essay.

In order to understand emptiness it is essential that one understands dependent origination.  Dependent origination is presented as a universally valid pragmatic interpretation of causality.  Everything is subject to the concept of cause and effect.  This model has both a philosophical and soteriological understanding.  Philosophically speaking where there is a cause, there must be an effect.  And where there is an effect, there must be a cause.  The model of cause and effect truly has no meaning outside of each other.

In a soteriological understanding cause and effect teaches one about the true nature of things.  The understanding of the concept of interdependence as illustrated in the concept of cause and effect will bring one closer to the true nature of reality.  In Buddhist terms, when one realizes the true nature of things, including one’s own self, the illusion of the world will be dispelled.  Penetrating the illusion is liberating and core to the Buddhist tradition.  The penetration of illusion eliminates suffering, which is done by following the Four Noble Truths taught by the Buddha.  To clarify this concept it is important to understand the relationship between illusion, let’s use the term ignorance instead, and cause and effect/condition.

Buddhist thought identifies two significant principles: First, that as conscious human beings, none desire suffering and secondly, suffering originates from its causes and conditions.  Furthermore, Buddhism asserts that the root cause for ones pain and suffering is ignorance.  Pain and suffering do not exist independently; rather they are merely products of causes and conditions.  The ignorance of the nature of suffering becomes the catalyst for continuous pain and suffering through one’s life.

The continuous chain of cause and effect merely gives an illusion that things are real.  If one looks closely, it will become evident that object/things are comprised of a series of causes and conditions.  Returning to the chair as an example, the chair is merely an illusion comprised of countless causes and conditions.  However, the chair still has value serving a purpose in the conventional world.

Like the example of the chair, all objects in the external or conventional world appear to us as independent, self-sufficient entities.  However, if one looks closer they will discover that they are purely a spiraling collection of causes and conditions.  The question still stand, what does this mean?

This means that all objects, things and/or entities to include the human person are empty of intrinsic nature.  Nothing is absent of causes and conditions.  To say that an object exists, that object would have to be static.  However, we know this not to be true.  The human body for example is continuously changing, the blood moving through our veins, the movement of our muscles and/or the constant division of cells. Emptiness is the reality that objects as they are perceived are merely illusions.  Although the profound insight that both a material object and the self are empty of intrinsic nature, it is the realization of the absence of self nature that truly liberates an individual.  Realizing that one is empty of intrinsic nature is not an intellectual function, it is experiential.  As a result, the true concept of emptiness is truly ineffable.   However, words have been used to try to communicate, in a philosophical sense, an understanding of emptiness.  Ultimately, emptiness is a conventional designation.  It is simply an ordinary word used to accomplish a specific purpose.  Emptiness as a convention is also empty because of it own definition.

The dangers of the term emptiness rest in the misunderstanding and misrepresentation of the word.  Often in the west it has been associated with annihilation and nihilism.  Emptiness is misrepresented in these two definitions.  The root of this problem relates back to what was discussed earlier.  The paradigm for what is real, ultimate or true is very different in the east than the west.  Because of the cultural divide it is more likely that these errors were not committed out of malice, but out of ignorance.

The realization of emptiness is a profound and liberating experience in Buddhism.  To realize emptiness is to realize the ultimate nature of all things.  This experience is called enlightenment.  As mentioned, the understanding of emptiness is not an intellectual function; it is an experiential and/or spiritual function.  The Buddha was enlightened after years of meditation and spiritual practice.  The Buddha cultivated and developed wisdom according to the Four Noble Truths.  Through his persistent investigation into the nature of the reality of things as they are, the Buddha discovered the secret of emptiness.  Once one is enlightened there is no more illusion.  The concept of emptiness is a medicine for a specific ailment, the disease of clinging.  Cling simply relates to the attachment to the illusion that things are real, that they have intrinsic nature and are capable of supplying happiness.  Unfortunately, this is not true because clinging only results in suffering.  Emptiness is the cure that allows one to discover the cause of the problem.

Accordingly those who have attained enlightenment are the happiest beings in the world.  They are free from complexes and obsessions that torment others.  The one who is enlightened is in the pure service of others since there is no thought of the self.  The Buddha ministered for forty-five years after he was enlightened.  He taught others the way toward enlightenment.  He taught the emptiness of all things therefore capable of penetrating and experiencing the true nature of all entities.  Conversely, how does one operate in the world after experiencing such a profound reality that nothing has intrinsic nature?

One can only speculate what the Buddha experience each day after realizing emptiness.  Certainly, it is apparent that his thoughts were clear and concise.  He was able to articulate his experience into a conventional designation as one looks to the numerous sutras written.  Historically it is obvious that the Buddha fully participated in the convention world, but was he also somewhere else?  Could he transcend dimensions? Could he see the atomic structure of all animate an inanimate entities?  Where does one begin to answer these types of questions?  In short, the Buddha was the greatest quantum physicist able to see the nature of all things.

Works Cited

 Gethin, Rupert.  The Foundations of Buddhism.  Oxford Univ. Press:  Oxford, 1998.

Huntington, C.W.  The Emptiness of Emptiness:  An Introduction to Early Indian 

Madhyamika.  Hawaii Press: Honolulu, 1989.

Rahula, Walpola.  What the Buddha Taught.  Grove Press:  New York, 1959.

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