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Emptiness- a Buddhist Perspective

Updated on October 18, 2012

Emptiness generally means containing or holding nothing. As a human condition, emptiness is a sense of generalized boredom, social alienation and apathy. Feelings of emptiness often accompany loneliness. In Buddhism, it is commonly referred to as Sunyata (in Sanskrit) and is a realized achievement. It has been differently interpreted and explained by many in the context of Buddhism and some other faiths.

According to Buddhist philosophy, every thing is dependently originated, even the principle of causality itself. Emptiness is the reality of existence of ourselves and all the phenomena surrounding us. If you think that some body else is responsible for your existence, you are far from reality. Your view of the world, your experiences, your attitudes, and your own self are all projections of your mind. Your mind has literally made them up. If you don’t understand this, you cannot understand emptiness.

All phenomena come into being because of conditions created by other phenomena. They have no existence of their own; they are empty of permanent self. Things, persons and events have the form and appearance of their own but their identity is in relation to each other. Beyond identity emptiness is a reality.

To understand let us look at a simple thing say a cup. When a cup doesn’t contain anything, we say that it is empty. A cup if empty of a substance has air in it. A cup in a vacuum still has space, light and radiation. But from Buddhist point of view, cup is always empty. Here empty means that cup is devoid of inherent existence. The cup exists but like everything its existence depends on other phenomena. The properties like being hollow, spherical, leak proof are not intrinsic to cup. Many other objects like vases, glasses also have such properties. The material is not the cup; shape is not the cup, function is not the cup. Only all these aspects make up the cup. The cup as an object requires certain specific conditions to exist. If all these conditions exist simultaneously, mind will impute cupness to an object. If one condition ceases to exist, for instance if it breaks, it forfeits being cup. Its function, its shape as well as imputation of cupness is disrupted. The existence of cup thus depends upon external circumstances. Its physical essence remains illusive. This is a case of simple object. The same conditions apply to other man made complicated objects like a car, house, machines as well as natural phenomena like earth, plants, animals and human beings.

In the case of a human being, there is a body, mind, a character, habits, behavior and other things, which describe a person. Whenever we experience life through six aggregates of perception – five physical senses and the mind, the phenomena - physical and mental - are produced. If we don’t give attention to what happened in the body, we remain unaware. If we pay attention to them, we produce reactions to them.

Whenever any of the six sensory organs come in contact with their objects – seeing, smelling, tasting, hearing, touching and thoughts – we cognize them and evaluate them on the basis of our stored information. We pass judgments if they are pleasant or unpleasant. If we break the link, which is sensation, between object and reaction, we will not experience the pleasant or unpleasant. Thus we can deconstruct our reactions to the objects by breaking the link of sensations. We see that pleasant or unpleasant things will lose its very existence.

If we realize that there exists nothing but its existence is created by the conditions of the other phenomena, we will gradually develop detachments to the existence of all ephemeral things. If we realize that even the phenomena of “I, Me, and Mine” doesn’t exist but is created by other phenomena, we will rise above ego. Slowly, with this realization all our sufferings will cease to exist.

In emptiness there is no form, no feeling, no perception, no impulse or no consciousness; there are no eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body or mind; there are no forms, sounds, smells, tastes, or objects of mind; there are no sight-organ element, and so forth; there is no decay and death. There is no suffering, no origination, no stopping and no path. There is no cognition, no attainment and non-attainment.

Even while an ordinary being, if upon hearing of emptiness, great joy arises within again and again, the eyes moisten with tears of great joy, and the hairs of the body stand on end, such a person has the seed of the mind of a complete Buddha; He is a vessel for teachings on Tatva (truth), and ultimate truth should be taught to him. After that, good qualities will grow in him. ” —Chandrakirti, Guide to the Middle Way, vv. 6:4-5

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