In spite of it being the currency of the Mahayana Movement, getting a strong and hard definition of “emptiness is very difficult. If one asks fifty teachers one gets roughly fifty answers. The word is as vaguely applied as are the terms “mindfulness,” “vipassana,” and “organic.” When emptiness becomes a philosophy instead of an experience problems in understanding the term often arise. Many people write entire books about emptiness, and in so doing, they tend to fill pages with absolutely nothing.
With all that said, an article by Lewis Richmond published in the Post, says, “‘Emptiness’ is a central teaching of all Buddhism, but its true meaning is often misunderstood. If we are ever to embrace Buddhism properly into the West, we need to be clear about emptiness, since a wrong understanding of its meaning can be confusing, even harmful. The third century Indian Buddhist master Nagarjuna taught, “Emptiness wrongly grasped is like picking up a poisonous snake by the wrong end.” In other words, we will be bitten!”
Richmond’s statement seems to be true. I used to participate in some on line discussion groups. These groups are supposed to be by Buddhists and Buddhist meditators for Buddhist and Buddhist meditators. I finally had to bow out and unsubscribe from almost all of them (I may have missed one or two). Many used the term “emptiness” to mean “nothing exists.” I would read that the body is nonexistent in the “ultimate reality” of things. “Ultimate reality,” now there is a phrase for you; ultimate compared to what? It is another pseudo-Buddhist term I have a great difficulty with. Well, the next time you eat, think about what it is you are feeding; or the next time you feel pain, what is it that is feeling pain. Tell any woman delivering a baby that she has no body and she will be happy to tell you she does indeed have a body and you are an idiot for saying she doesn’t. If you mention the facts of reality as the Buddha taught it, you may be open to the charge of being a “fundamentalist;” that is, pointing out the error of logic inherent in much of the BS found in this world. Apparently, one is a free thinker only if they stop applying rational thought. Does “free thinker” = “freedom from thinking?” There seem to be self-loathing Buddhists in the world who try to reduce the entire teaching to a few two syllable clichés to reshape Buddhism without the Buddha.
The Buddha had a simple test for measuring a person’s wisdom. You’re only wise insofar as you can get yourself to do things you don’t like doing but know will result in happiness, and to refrain from things you like doing but know will result in pain and harm. He called this kind of action nekkhamma and we translate the word as “renunciation.” (Nekkhama, of course, doesn’t mean renunciation, it’s just they way it is translated.) The Buddha came to this standard for wisdom from his insight into the radical importance of intentional action in shaping our experience of happiness and sorrow, pleasure and pain. Because action is so incredibly important and yet so often misguided, wisdom has to be tactical, strategic, in promoting actions that are genuinely beneficial. Wisdom has to outmaneuver myopic predispositions so we can give up to a happiness that lasts.
Siddhartha Gotama did not teach Buddhism. He did not teach an “ism” at all. He taught Dhamma, truth. He seemingly said little about “emptiness” as a philosophy, he merely stated the facts about it. The Buddhist usage of the term “emptiness” does not reject the existence of anything at all. That would be anti-Buddhadhamma, wouldn’t it? What it does mean is that things do not exist the way our grasping self supposes they do.
Nor is “emptiness” (śuññata) necessarily central to all Buddhist teaching. It is central in the some schools of Zen thinking to be sure, and to the scholars of contemporary “Tibetanism.” but not to all Buddhists. I would venture to guess that is daily life most Buddhists are unconcerned with the philosophical twists of “emptiness.” They just want to get through the day with as little pain as possible — very much like the rest of all sentient beings.
Nor am I convinced that it is the “most misunderstood” word in the Buddhist vocabulary, albeit, easily misunderstood. The theory of Buddhadhamma is a very profound. Many people, including teachers, keep the idea of emptiness at a superficial level. They begin explaining the term in their own way. To compound the confusion of the teaching surrounding emptiness they might add tidbits like, “Life is suffering,” and “other worldly.” Now the confusion about what the Buddha taught becomes more profound than the teaching itself.
Emptiness is more about “what is missing right now” and less about some grand philosophy of reality outside of human experience. After all, human experience, or the experience of being human, is what the Buddha was mainly concerned with. Let’s look at the Buddha’s actual teaching on the subject.
One of the places where the Buddha sets us up for a beautiful three part teaching on emptiness is the very short Sabbe Sutta — the All (SN 35.23)
“Monks, I will teach you the All. Listen & pay close attention. I will speak.”
“As you say, lord,” the monks responded.
The Blessed One said, “What is the All? Simply the eye & forms, ear & sounds, nose & aromas, tongue & flavors, body & tactile sensations, intellect & ideas. This, monks, is called the All. Anyone who would say, ‘Repudiating this All, I will describe another,’ if questioned on what exactly might be the grounds for his statement, would be unable to explain, and furthermore, would be put to grief. Why? Because it lies beyond range.”
Does this look complicated, straightforward and direct, but complicated? Even early on, however, commentators could not resist adding to the Buddha’s teaching. Almost immediately “the All” become one of “three alls” in their few. Nibbana was even included in the three alls. The fact that the Buddha referred to a singularity called “the All” did not dissuade these intrepid scholars from adding to it.
Here Gotama is describing “the All” of human experience. That was the focal point of his teaching. There is nothing metaphysical in his description of all there is. Nor is there a metaphysical component to the things that we are to relinquish, described in SN 35.101. (Na Tumhaka Sutta: Not Yours) “Whatever is not yours: let go of it. Your letting go of it will be for your long-term happiness & benefit. What is not yours?” It is a very simple and direct teaching. So what is it that is not ours? The very things that are described in the Sabba Sutta; in other words, “the All.”
The Na Tumhaka Sutta the Buddha simply says that if we give up the All we have simpler and happier lives. He doesn’t promise us Nibbana, nor does he say we will understand the nature of the universe. What he does say is that, “The eye is not yours: let go of it…Forms are not yours… Eye-consciousness is not yours… Eye-contact is not yours… Whatever arises in dependence on eye-contact, experienced either as pleasure, as pain, or as neither-pleasure-nor-pain, that too is not yours: let go of it. Your letting go of it will be for your long-term happiness & benefit.” He says the same of the ear, which is also “ not yours: let go of it…The nose is not yours: let go of it…The tongue is not yours: let go of it…The body is not yours: let go of it…The intellect is not yours: let go of it. Your letting go of it will be for your long-term happiness & benefit. Ideas are not yours… Intellect-consciousness is not yours… Intellect-contact is not yours… Whatever arises in dependence on intellect-contact, experienced either as pleasure, as pain, or as neither-pleasure-nor-pain, that too is not yours: let go of it. Your letting go of it will be for your long-term happiness & benefit.” It is the not being ours that is the emptiness of which the Buddha speaks. It works like this, he says,
“Suppose a person were to gather or burn or do as he likes with the grass, twigs, branches, & leaves here in Jeta’s Grove. Would the thought occur to you, ‘It’s us that this person is gathering, burning, or doing with as he likes?’”
“No, lord. Why is that? Because those things are not our self nor do they pertain to our self.”
“In the same way, monks, the eye is not yours: let go of it. Your letting go of it will be for your long-term happiness & benefit… The ear… The nose… The tongue… The body… The intellect is not yours: let go of it. Your letting go of it will be for your long-term happiness & benefit… Whatever arises in dependence on intellect-contact, experienced either as pleasure, as pain, or as neither-pleasure-nor-pain, that too is not yours: let go of it. Your letting go of it will be for your long-term happiness & benefit.”
If you’re addicted to alcohol, it’s not because you feel that the alcohol has any inherent existence. It’s because, in your mental calculation of things you want or need, the immediate gratification that comes with the alcohol exceeds the long-term damage drinking is doing to your life. It’s a universal principle that attachment and addiction are tactical issues and not metaphysical problems. Attachment to things and actions do not arise because of what we think they are, but because of what we think they can do to give us happiness. We overestimate the pleasure and under rate the attendant pain but somehow we stay attached to them no matter what we understand them to be.
The Buddha tells us what our addictions and attachments are, in their ultimate sense. It’s in the Suñña Sutta: Empty, SN 35.85
Then Ven. Ananda went to the Blessed One and on arrival, having bowed down to him, sat to one side. As he was sitting there he said to the Blessed One, “It is said that the world is empty, the world is empty, lord. In what respect is it said that the world is empty?”
“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. And what is empty of a self or of anything pertaining to a self? The eye is empty of a self or of anything pertaining to a self. Forms… Eye-consciousness… Eye-contact is empty of a self or of anything pertaining to a self.
“The ear is empty…
“The nose is empty…
“The tongue is empty…
“The body is empty…
“The intellect is empty of a self or of anything pertaining to a self. Ideas… Intellect-consciousness… Intellect-contact is empty of a self or of anything pertaining to a self. Thus it is said that the world is empty.”
Just as we ought to let go of those things which are not ourselves, the Buddha tells us that all things we experience are not ourselves — nor do they have anything pertaining to a self. This is about human experience and not philosophical musing. The Buddha viewed all issues of experience relating to intentional actions and their results, that is kamma, his strategic yardstick for measuring wisdom applies to all levels of human experience: from the wisdom of simple generosity to the wisdom of emptiness and even Enlightenment itself. Wisdom is wise because it works. Wisdom makes a difference in what we do and the happiness we experience from those actions. These demands integrity: the willingness and ability to look honestly at the results of our actions, to admit when we’ve caused harm to ourselves or others, and to change our ways so that we won’t make the same mistake yet again.
This standard is direct and earthy in it’s grounding and somewhat surprising as most of us don’t think of the Buddha’s wisdom as so grounded, simple and straightforward. The phrase “Buddhist wisdom” conjures up teachings more abstract and baffling — anything but common sensical. The topic of emptiness a case in point. We are usually told that emptiness means that nothing has any inherent existence; on an ultimate level, things aren’t what we normally think of as “things;” and they are processes that are in no way separate from all the other processes on which they depend. This is a very sophisticated philosophically oriented idea while enchanting doesn’t offer much real help in getting practitioner up early to meditate nor in causing anyone to give up a destructive addiction.
In the end, the Buddha’s practical teaching of emptiness seem to be fading and being replaced with glamorous sexy philosophy, “Marayana.” It is one reason to avoid straying too much into Fairy Dust Buddhism, and also one reason to return to the original teaching of the Buddha. It also helps to remind one of another often ignored teaching of the Buddha. It comes from the Ani Sutta: The Peg (SN 20.7) and should be a warning to us all.
…in the course of the future there will be monks who won’t listen when discourses that are words of the Tathagata — deep, deep in their meaning, transcendent, connected with emptiness — are being recited. They won’t lend ear, won’t set their hearts on knowing them, won’t regard these teachings as worth grasping or mastering. But they will listen when discourses that are literary works — the works of poets, elegant in sound, elegant in rhetoric, the work of outsiders, words of disciples — are recited. They will lend ear and set their hearts on knowing them. They will regard these teachings as worth grasping & mastering.
In this way the disappearance of the discourses that are words of the Tathagata — deep, deep in their meaning, transcendent, connected with emptiness — will come about.
That is a Buddhism without the Buddha.
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