One of the more difficult concepts in Buddhism - one of the most fundamental as well as perhaps the most widely misunderstood - is rendered in English as emptiness. In Zen it is taught with the Japanese word Ku. Many people misunderstand emptiness as complete non-existence. When I first came across this idea as an undergraduate, I imagined it was teaching that the phenomenal world was a sort of hologram hiding a sort of vast, cosmic nothingness. The term is sometimes translated as void, or worse The Void, which doesn't help. The word in English also has negative connotations implying a destitution of meaning or value or feeling. Is it any wonder that people think Buddhism is nihilistic? Is this misunderstanding of emptiness just a problem of its translation into English?
The concept that is rendered as Ku in Japanese derives from the Chinese Wu , which comes from Sunyata (Sanskrit), which in turn comes from Sunnata (Pali). The adjective in Pali is Sunna (empty). Have we lost the meaning in this game of Chinese whispers? Sunnata has the same connotation of ordinary physical emptiness in Pali as emptiness has in English - and it was sometimes misunderstood in similar ways. Confusion about the meaning was common even in the time of Buddha it appears and Buddhism has at times been accused of nihilism through much of its history. But in 'Dhamma language' emptiness doesn't mean total nonexistence, or nihilism. It means something quite specific, which can be expressed in positive as well as negative terms, but which is an experience that is beyond words and even concepts. It is the transcendence of the narrow identification of self to an egoless experience of reality without borders, the experience of samadhi - the non-dualistic state of consciousness seen as a pre-cursor to Nirvana.
Originally Sunna referred directly to the anatta (no self-nature) doctrine.
According to orthodox religious and philosophical thought at the time Buddha lived, each and every living being had its own unchanging 'soul' or essence - the atman - which was or became unified with the cosmic Atman (according to some the same as Brahman) on enlightenment. Buddha was contradicting this doctrine - anatta/anatman was a denial of atta/ atman - and sunna was an expression of this. It wasn't a denial of mind or consciousness or the sense of self, it was a denial of a real, enduring, independent, self-existent essence or soul.
In the Suñña Sutta, Ananda asks the Buddha, "It is said that the world is empty, the world is empty, lord. In what respect is it said that the world is empty?" The Buddha replied, "Insofar as it is empty of a self or of anything pertaining to a self: Thus it is said, Ananda, that the world is empty."
So, emptiness is not total nonexistence, but refers specifically to the absence of an atman - an ultimately real self, essence or identity. And describes reality in terms of interdependence rather than self-standing existences. But what relevance does this have to non-Brahmanists and non-metaphysicians?
Such doctrines as the Atman doctrine are really an intellectual expression of the ordinary human way of thinking of life in terms of enduring entities. The identities of things in the world are conventions of the human mind and society. We project these perceived identities outwards onto the universe itself, as if the universe really was divided up into discreet and abiding objects. At best, we see these 'things' as having changing relationships and properties, but nevertheless, an enduring identity. Buddhism teaches that the notion of entities is nominal or conventional. It is a necessary feature of thought and language that we treat identifiable aspects of reality as if they have a continuous existence - even if we acknowledge that this existence is characterised by change. Many computer programming languages are said to be 'object orientated' in the sense that they handle data in terms of identities or objects which have certain properties at any given time. The way that human beings think is remarkably similar to this in some ways. In terms of Buddhist philosophy, we confuse conventional reality with ultimate reality - that is, we confuse the nominal with the actual. No doubt it is a functional, pragmatic way to deal with information, but not a true reflection of reality, which as modern physics tells us, is a seamless and deeply interdependent flux - an evolving matrix of processes within processes. According to Buddhism it is this disparity between out attachment to the notion of enduring entities and the transience of reality, which causes the suffering that we experience from day to day.
Why do the original teachings emphasise this negative description, in terms of absence? It was framed in this way, to respond to the eternalist atman doctrine while perhaps minimising the chance of being interpreted as a new set of statements about the essence of reality. The power of this tendency to reify reality - to project our concepts of identity as if they existed externally - means that we may see even a teaching of inter-dependence in terms of a network of relationships between entities, when really it is only the mind that creates the existence of any entities or even relationships - reality is a seamless - and ultimately indescribable - whole. This is why, to avid nihilistic misunderstandings, some modern teachers describe emptiness in terms of openness or fullness - because phenomena are empty of that which would separate or confine them - a self-existent identity or essence.
Buddha taught that all phenomena are characterised by three qualities - the Three Marks of Existence:
Dukkha (Sanskrit duhkha) or unsatisfactoriness. Nothing found in the physical world or even the psychological realm can bring lasting deep satisfaction.
Anicca (Sanskrit anitya) or impermanence. This refers not only to the fact that all conditioned things eventually cease to exist, but also that all conditioned things are in a constant state of flux. (Visualize a leaf growing on a tree. It dies and falls off the tree but is soon replaced by a new leaf.)
Anatta (Sanskrit anatman) impersonality, or non-Self. The human personality, "soul", or Self, is a conventional appellation applied to the assembly of physical and psychological components, each individually subject to constant flux; there is no central core (or essence); this is somewhat similar to a bundle theory of mind or soul.
These characteristics are inter-dependent: it is because things lack an independent essence, that they are in a constant state of change; it is because we hold onto the changing aspects of reality as if they had a continuous existence that they are unsatisfactory for us. Emptiness is really just the same as interdependence or dependent origination, and some of the clearest accounts I've come across explain it in these terms. Thich Nhat Hanh's commentary on the Heart Sutra (which I recommend) describes it using his own terminology of 'inter-being'.
If you are a poet, you will see clearly that there is a cloud floating in this sheet of paper. Without a cloud, there will be no rain; without rain, the trees cannot grow; and without trees, we cannot make paper...So we can say that the cloud and the paper 'inter-are.' We cannot just be by ourselves alone; we have to inter-be with every other thing.
A class of Mahayana sutras called the Prajnaparamita (Perfection of Wisdom) sutras developed this concept of emptiness. The earliest is the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra or "Perfection of Wisdom in 8,000 Lines", which is chanted in a shortened form in Zen dojos as the Heart sutra. It includes a number of quite enigmatic lines on emptiness:
"Form is empty; emptiness is form. Emptiness is not other than form; form also is not other than emptiness. Likewise, feeling, discrimination, compositional factors and consciousness are empty."
"Shariputra, like this all phenomena are merely empty, having no characteristics. They are not produced and do not cease. They have no defilement and no separation from defilement. They have no decrease and no increase."
Emptiness is that which is beyond dualities - it is raw reality, prior to conceptualisation and language. It is not to be seen as another concept, set in opposition to phenomena such as form (matter), sensation, perception, mentality, or consciousness. Reality is not separate from appearance. Thich Nhat Hanh explains this beautifully as follows:
Form is the wave and emptiness is the water.
Probably the second most influential Buddhist thinker after Buddha himself was Nagarjuna who, at the time that Mahayana Buddhism was emerging, developed the concept of Sunyata with a thorough and extensive philosophy of negation - the best known exposition of his thought is the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā (Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way). Key features of this teaching are:
- The Buddhist Concept of Emptiness of all things (i.e., all things, including the Buddha, have no inherent existence)
- The identity of pratītyasamutpāda (Dependent Origination) with śunyatā
- The indifferentiability of nirvāṇa from saṃsāra
- The tentative or merely conventional nature of all truth
The former is expressed in terms of the 'emptiness of emptiness':
Whatever is dependently co-arisen
That is explained to be emptiness.
That, being a dependent designation,
Is itself the middle way.
Something that is not dependently arisen,
Such a thing does not exist.
Therefore a nonempty thing
Does not exist.
One of the problems with philosophies based (for teaching purposes) on negation, such as anatta, sunna and to an even greater extent the work of Middle Path philosophers such as Nagarjuna, is that it is easily interpreted as nihilism. Many people misinterpret these ideas as a denial of reality. But Nagarjuna's philosophy is not nihilistic, it is negative to avoid all attachment to concepts, all reification. But really it is indicating through denial and silence, that which is beyond language and concepts. It is intended to negate attachment to concepts in order to see through them to reality. He has prompted comparison with the (equally misunderstood) 20th century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein.
A group of Mahayana sutras referred to as the Tathagatagarbha (Buddha Womb) Sutras teach that there is a permanent, unchanging essence within each being. The term Tathagatagarbha can be variously translated as 'Buddha Womb', 'Buddha Embryo' etc, and is closely related to and sometimes synonymous with Buddha Nature. It may have arisen as a result of Hindu/Brahmanist influences since it arose during a Hindu revival in India. These sutras are in agreement that the Tathagatagarbha is an undefiled, eternal essence within all beings. It is presented as an antidote to a false, nihilistic understanding of emptiness. But, as I have already argued, to see these doctrines as nihilism is to totally (yet understandably) misunderstand them. A minority of Mahayana Buddhists adhere to this view literally. However such an interpretation seems essentially indistinguishable from the Vedic/Brahminist teachings of Atman that Buddhism rose out of and broke away from. Others see such interpretation as being in contradiction to the principles of anatman and sunyata. To me, this raises the question of why, if Buddha was essentially in agreement with the Brahminists, he felt any need to debate with them and to give radical, innovative teachings which directly contradicted them. Buddha rejected eternalism as well as annihilationism. How does this interpretation differ from eternalism? Is this not just another attempt to cling to atman, to imagined permanence? Another reification of concepts? How do we reconcile this with the rest of Buddhist philosophy?
Could it be that the authors of these sutras (which were of course attributed to Buddha, but which did not appear until several centuries after his death) had misunderstood such doctrines as Anatta, Sunyata and Madhyamaka philosophy as nihilism? Or perhaps they were creating an antidote to the popular misunderstanding of such teachings as nihilism - redressing the balance by teaching emptiness in positive terms.
In one of the Tathagatagarbha sutras, the Lankavatara Sutra, it is explained that the Tathagatagarbha doctrine is a teaching method:
Then Mahamati said to the Blessed One: In the Scriptures mention is made of the Womb of Tathágata-hood and it is taught that that which is born of it is by nature bright and pure, originally unspotted and endowed with the thirty-two marks of excellence. As it is described it is a precious gem but wrapped in a dirty garment soiled by greed, anger, folly and false-imagination. We are taught that this Buddha-nature immanent in everyone is eternal, unchanging, and auspicious. It is not this, which is born of the Womb of Tathágata-hood the same as the soul-substance that is taught by the philosophers? The Divine Atman as taught by them is also claimed to be eternal, inscrutable, unchanging, and imperishable. Is there, or is there not a difference?
The Blessed One replied: No, Mahamati, my Womb of Tathágata-hood is not the same as the Divine Atman as taught by the philosophers. What I teach is Tathágata-hood in the sense of Dharmakaya, Ultimate Oneness, Nirvana, emptiness, unborn-ness, unqualified ness, devoid of will-effort. The reason why I teach the doctrine of Tathágata-hood is to cause the ignorant and simple-minded to lay aside their fears as they listen to the teaching of ego-less-ness and come to understand the state of non-discrimination and imageless-ness. The religious teaching of the Tathágatas are just like a potter making various vessels by his own skill of hand with the aid of rod, water and thread, out of the one mass of clay, so the Tathágatas by their command of skillful means issuing from Noble Wisdom, by various terms, expressions, and symbols, preach the twofold ego-less-ness in order to remove the last trace of discrimination that is preventing disciples from attaining a self-realization of Noble Wisdom. The doctrine of the Tathágata-womb is disclosed in order to awaken philosophers from their clinging to the notion of a Divine Atman as transcendental personality, so that their minds that have become attached to the imaginary notion of "soul" as being something self-existent may be quickly awakened to a state of perfect enlightenment. All such notions as causation, succession, atoms, primary elements, that make up personality, personal soul, Supreme Spirit, Sovereign God, Creator, are all figments of the imagination and manifestations of mind. No, Mahamati, the Tathágata’s doctrine of the Womb of Tathágata-hood is not the same as the philosopher’s Atman.
Note the phrase 'the Tathágatas by their command of skillful means issuing from Noble Wisdom, by various terms, expressions, and symbols, preach the twofold ego-less-ness'. In what sense is the ego-less-ness twofold? I propose that it is twofold through both negative expression (anatta, sunyata) and positive expression (Tathagatagarbha, dependent origination).
In his article The Significance Of 'Tathagatagarbha' - A Positive Expression Of 'Sunyata' Heng-Ching Shih expresses the same argument in detail.
In this passage, the Buddha clearly identified the 'tathagatagarbha' with emptiness, markless, 'tathata', etc., meaning that the 'tathagatagarbha' is without any substantial entity. Then the question arises: -- if the 'tathagatagarbha' is empty by nature , why the Buddhas teach a 'tathagatagarbha' possessing all positive attributes, such as eternal (nitya), self ('atman'), bliss (sukha) and pure (subha)? ...It is pointed out in this passage that the 'tathagatagarbha' is empty in its nature yet real: it is 'Nirvana' itself, unborn, without predicates. It is where no false discrimination (nirvikalpa) takes place. There is nothing here for the Buddhas or Bodhisattvas to take hold of as an 'atman'. They have gone beyond the sphere of false discrimination and word. It is due to their wisdom and skillful means ('upaya') that they set up all kinds of names and phrases in order to save sentient beings from mistaken view of reality. In other words, it is exactly to help sentient beings case away their fear of 'anatman' that the 'tathagatagarbha' with positive attributes (i.e., 'asunya-tathagatagarbha') is taught, and at the same time it is to get rid of the clinging of 'atman' that the 'anatman-tathagatagarbha' is taught. Thus it is clear that the 'tathagatagarbha' is not an Upanishadic 'atman'.
There is a passage in the 'Mahaparinirana Sutra' in which Buddha nature is defined as the ultimate emptiness and the Middle Way. It reads:
Good son, Buddha nature is the ultimate emptiness ,which is 'prajna' itself. [False] emptiness means not to perceive emptiness or non-emptiness. The wise perceive emptiness and non-emptiness, permanence and impermanence, suffering and happiness, self and non-self. What is empty is 'samsara' and what is not empty is great 'nirvana' ... Perceiving the non-self but not the self is not the Middle Way. The Middle Way is Buddha nature.
Heng-Ching Shih explains this as follows:
The essential point of this passage is that true emptiness, or in this case Buddha nature, trancends any dictomony [between] being and non-being, self and non-self, suffering and happiness, etc. Ordinary people and the heterodox see only the existence of self, while 'Sravakas' and Pratyekabuddhas perceive only the non-self, but not the existence of a self. Clinging to one extreme or the other, they cannot realize the ultimate, and true emptiness and consequently cannot realize the Middle Way. Without the Middle Way, they are not able to comprehend Buddha nature. Trying to lessen the monistic flavour of the Buddha nature, the 'Mahaparinirvana Sutra' interprets Buddha nature as both encompassing and transcending the notions of self and non-self. It makes the doctrine of the Buddha nature adhere closely to the Buddhist teaching of non-duality and the Middle Way. Thus Buddha nature should not be treated as equivalent to the monistic absolute. If it does seemly indicate the presence of a substantive self, it is actually a positive expression of emptiness.
Interpreting the Tathagatagarbha doctrine as soteriological - as a teaching device - rather than as theoretical and literal in this way, we can resolve an apparent conflict into a teaching which is harmonious with the rest of Buddhist philosophy.
As with Thich Nhat Hanh's teaching of emptiness, we have another, relatively easy to understand, positive expression of the core teaching of Buddhism. And again we have the danger of literalism and reification - an even greater danger in this case due to the ambiguity of the texts and the ease with which they can be seen as metaphysics. The key, I believe, is to see all of these teachings as just that - to walk a Middle Path, avoiding literalism, clinging to no particular articulation, positive or negative, but instead letting go of all attachment to concepts and language and instead being open to reality itself without such 'mediation'. All good Buddhist teachings are knowingly pragmatic and soteriological, in my opinion.