This article explains the concept of “Emptiness', - a tenet of Buddhism.
According to the Buddha’s teaching on emptiness, (also known as ‘selflessness’), all phenomena are like an illusion. Emptiness is the actual, correct way in which everything exists: things and beings, animate and inanimate. It is the ultimate, true nature of all things.
Emptiness is not nothingness; it does not mean that things do not exist at all. Things do exist, but they do not exist the way we think they do. Our mind projects a way of existing onto the objects we perceive – like an extra layer on top of what is actually there – and then we believe that things really do exist that way. However, they are empty of the false, mistaken way of existing that our mind projects onto them. That false way of existing is called ‘inherent existence’, ‘ independent existence’ or ‘true existence’. It means that we see things as if they were permanent, independent, existing from their own side, in and of themselves. If we carefully analyse, we will come to see that things do not exist in this way – that such a way of existing is false, an illusion.
Take a flower for example. When we walk into a room and see a flower in a vase, we instinctively perceive the flower as something permanent, unchanging, existing all on its own, as if it did not depend on anything else for its existence. It seems very real, concrete, out there, existing in and of itself – almost as if it is saying: “I’m a flower. I’ve always been here and always will be here, just like this!”. The flower appears to us and we believe it to exist in this way. But this way of appearing and the actual way the flower exists are quite different. In reality that flower is impermanent, dependent on various causes and conditions, and not existing in and of itself. The flower came into existence in dependence upon a seed, soil, moisture and sunlight. It grew little by little and when it was in full bloom, someone cut it and placed it in a vase. Its existence is also dependent on its parts: stem, petals leaves, as well as on the cells and atoms that make it up. When first cut, the flower was fresh and beautiful but as the days go by, it withers and turns brown, and soon it will die and be thrown away. That is the true story of the flower, but that is not what we see when we look at it. When we look at it, it seems to be permanent, unchanging and independent of anything else.
Furthermore, our mind grasps at the object being a flower from its own side, not realizing that ‘flower’ is just a name people have given to a certain phenomenon with certain characteristics, and that people of other languages would call it by other names. So, although there appears to be a real, solid, permanent and independently-existing flower existing out there, in and of itself, when we investigate and search for such a flower, it cannot be found. Such a flower is an illusion – like a dream or a rainbow. It appears, but does not exist the way it appears. But this does not mean that there is no flower at all. There is a flower – an impermanent collection of parts that came into existence in dependence on causes and conditions, is changing and will go out of existence, and to which we give the name “Flower”. That exists, but not the permanent, independently-existing flower that we perceive and grasp at when we say: “Oh, isn’t it beautiful!”
In the same way, all things appear to be permanently, inherently, independently existent, but on closer examination, we realize that they exist in a completely different way. And that is their reality, their true nature: being empty of inherent existence.
This tendency to perceive, believe in and grasp at things as truly existing or inherently existing lies at the root of all our problems. Fear, worry, frustration, dissatisfaction, loneliness, grief, pain, and all the other myriad problems and sufferings of mind and body that we experience are caused by this attitude, which in Buddhism is known as ‘self-grasping ignorance.” We all have the potential to enjoy ever-lasting peace, bliss, wisdom and freedom from all suffering – the state of enlightenment of Buddhahood – but we are unable to attain this as long as our mind is caught up in ignorance, and does not understand the true nature of things.
Self grasping ignorance pervades our view of everything. We see ourselves as inherently existing – we cling tightly to an illusory image of a permanent, independently existing I or self. We hold on to self-limiting concepts about ourselves, believing that mistakes made in the past have become permanent aspects of our personality. These ‘permanent faults’ become the basis of low self-esteem and even self-hatred, obscuring our potential to be pure, perfect and free – an enlightened being. All this arises from ignorant misperception.
Moreover, we tend to cherish our sense of self, as if it were the centre of the universe. Out of this strong self-centeredness, we develop desire and attachment for people and things that make us happy and support our sense of I, we have aversion and fear towards people and things that disturb us or threaten our sense of I, and we are indifferent towards whoever or whatever neither helps nor harms us. Believing all these people and objects to also exist in a real, permanent, independent way further intensifies our attitudes of attachment and aversion. These attitudes disturb our mind and motivate us to create negative actions or karma, such as harming our enemies, and lying or stealing to benefit ourselves and our loved ones, and this karma is the cause of suffering and problems in the future. Self grasping ignorance is also the main factor that keeps us circling in Samsara, the cycle of death and rebirth.
That is why we should be concerned about our tendency to see things as truly or inherently existent, and why we should learn to perceive things in their correct way, as empty of inherent existence, or, as it says in the verse, as ‘illusory’. Perhaps a simple way to understand this is by thinking of the analogy of a rainbow. Due to certain conditions in the atmosphere and the play of sunlight and moisture, a rainbow appears in the sky. Although it looks as real we would like to touch it, it is insubstantial, a momentary and completely dependent on causes and conditions. It exists for a while and then disappears. Everything else, all conditioned phenomena – animate and inanimate – can be compared to a rainbow. Although most things last longer than a rainbow, the way they exist is similar: they arise due to the coming together of different causes and conditions, exist for a while, and then, again due to causes and conditions, they go out of existence. So, like a rainbow, they are illusory, empty of permanent, independent, substantial existence.
Keeping in mind that all things are illusory, one should engage in the practice of The Dharma, ( The Dharma is The Teachings of the Buddha ), the path leading to enlightenment, without grasping at anymore or anything as truly existing. In this way, one frees him – or herself from disturbing states of mind and karma – the causes of all suffering in the prison of Samsara – and works to help all other living begins to likewise become free.