Finding Emptiness

The Sāsana is what the Buddha called the religion or dispensation that began forming nearly from the moment he attained enlightenment. It is a word that encompasses not just him as a person and a teacher but also his teaching, the dhamma, and how that dhamma has survived in the hearts and minds of those practicing after him. It is a living, breathing thing. By the lore, this ‘Wheel of Dhamma’, once set rolling, cannot be stopped by any mortal being. It rolls on and on, being passed from one wise person to the next as long as there is a will to put it into practice.

That said it is still an organic process involving human beings. People live and people die; most of all people change. The things they interact with also change. It is the same with the dhamma. We can’t say definitively whether the dhamma is evolving or devolving, but we can say that it has changed over time. Some of the original teachings have lost their meaning or become obscured. In their place, contemporary teachers are constantly inventing new and relevant ways to explain the dhamma to their students.

One of the changes through the centuries has come around the term ‘Emptiness’, or ‘Suññatā’ in pāli. This word was spoken of by the Buddha and was apparently a frequent abiding for him and some of the great disciples. Yet centuries later there was a major split in the saṇgha as the traditions that would become the later Māhāyāna and Theravādā broke apart. Ideas, themes, and even whole books of commentaries found themselves on one side of the divide or the other. Emptiness for the most part traveled on with the Māhāyāna and later traditions, and there’s no way of knowing now how much discourse on the subject was expunged from Theravada doctine. All that has survived in the pāli canon are a few suttās.

In the modern day we are in the midst of a great revival. The Buddhist traditions of the world are spilling out from their traditional homes and coming in contact with each other, creating an incredible melting pot of new ideas. Because of this students find themselves hearing about ideas in one tradition and wondering how it is represented in another. With Emptiness, however, Theravada teachers don’t have a lot to fall back on within their own tradition. That’s not to say Emptiness doesn’t exist in the pāli tradition. It’s there, but there have been conscious design choices that have steered away from the word in favor of other frameworks. Nevertheless contemplating the subject can be fruitful even for one practicing within the pāli tradition.

There are some teachers who have done the scholarly work of tracking down references and reading obscure texts in the original languages. They have come to conclusions about what was removed from the doctrine and what a more holistic view of Emptiness would be, in essence adding it back in to the Theravada cosmology. This essay is not that. I haven’t done the research nor do I have a background in other traditions where Emptiness is given a place of primacy. Of course I’ve read Zen teachings and stories and been inspired by the concept, but not much further. Instead since I’ve been asked about Emptiness repeatedly in a few specific contexts, I think I can speak to them without adding or subtracting anything from the toolbox that already exists in Theravada. I’m speaking to the subject from the standpoint of the average bhikkhu.

There is a sutta that sums up the Theravada approach to Emptiness: the Suñña (Empty) Sutta SN 35.85. In it Ānanda comes up to the Buddha and says, “People are saying ‘Emptiness, Emptiness’ … what is this Emptiness to which they refer?” The Buddha responds by saying, “The Eye is Empty of a Self. Sights are Empty of a Self. Yet consciousness is Empty of a Self … etc”. He lists the sense bases and their objects, their Consciousnesses and Contacts and says that all are Empty – of a Self. That’s the whole sutta, virtually a carbon copy of suttas on other subjects like Not-Self or Craving.

The context of the sutta though is important – it’s easy to miss but Ānanda begins by implying that Emptiness was a topic being talked about in popular circles. Not too different from today. While we can’t be sure whether they were sectarian teachers or the Buddha’s disciples, in all likelihood the later Māhāyāna stories and teachings didn’t come out of a vacuum. There must have been some Buddhist traditions talking about emptiness. But Ānanda’s lack of clarity is also important. The Buddha’s response in that sutta is to take what can be interesting but esoteric topic and bring it back to a core concept – Anattā. This is the time-honored approach. The Buddha’s dhamma is said to be Opanayiko – it is linear, leading one onward naturally and sequentially. The Buddha explained Emptiness using a well-expounded framework ripe for investigation.

The first perspective on Emptiness is that all phenomena – Form, Feeling, Perceptions, Formations, and Consciousness – are Empty of something else. We are not saying these phenomena don’t exist. That would be contrary to reality. But when we look for permanence, reliability, or personality within these things we find that they lack any. A cup is a cup. But it’s not a good cup or bad cup, not strong or weak, not mine or yours. These ideas are all created by an observer and are all relative to other ideas. The cup is beautiful in one circumstance but could quickly become ugly in another. This change can sometimes occur without any change to the cup itself. When we trace these ideas back to their source we find they were never in the cup to begin with; they were always in the mind of the observer. So to the awakened observer the cup is empty of everything other than it’s material reality.

This is pretty straightforward and it also highlights one of the underpinning’s of the Buddha’s teachings: these teachings are for the purpose of liberation. Reflecting on the inherent Emptiness of the cup in this way shows how all the suffering and misunderstanding that arises is within the observer – within us. This is where the work has to be done. When the observer empties out their mistaken ideas about the cup and just perceives it as it is, then the craving and ignorance stop. One can’t go any further than this and thus this form of Emptiness achieves a conclusion. There is no deeper and more sublime reality than the simple reality that the sense base is seeing an object. Because at the moment when craving and ignorance cease the mind has become ‘cool’. It has reached Nibbāna, and the holy life is lived for this very purpose.

Now it’s pretty clear, even from the few references that have survived in the Pāli Canon, that the Buddha also used Emptiness to refer to something more. Not just a characteristic of phenomena but an abiding – an extremely subtle and sublime abiding. This was where he and notable disciples like Ven. Sariputta often spent their time in deep meditation. Yet in-depth descriptions of this abiding don’t survive in the pāli sources, nor is there a point-to-point description of the path to reach this abiding.

According to doctrine this is a very late and profound attainment. Case-in-point, the Buddha and Ven. Sariputta don’t discuss this attainment in the context of training. They only mention it casually to Ven. Ānanda, who at the time was letting his meditation take a backseat to other duties like attending the Buddha and mentoring young monastics. There wasn’t much risk of Ven. Ānanda getting lost in strange mental states, so if hearing about Emptiness inspired him to take his practice more seriously it would be a positive.

What has continued to work for Theravada through the centuries is to try to maintain a fairly coherent picture of the physical and mental landscape, one that leans away from esoteric concepts in favor of experienceable realities. Emptiness as a quality of phenomena can be seen here and now, and one can train their minds to see it again and again. But this second perspective on Emptiness describes a state not of the external world – which can be known and defined – but the internal world of the meditator. The meditator obtains a state of being empty, but it’s problematic that we can’t immediately answer the question – “Empty of what?”

Though intriguing, this state doesn’t fit easily into the Opanayiko dhamma. If one is Empty of suffering – well, that’s fine, that’s what samādhi is. If one is Empty of craving – well, again, samādhi provides that temporarily, while wisdom secures it permanently as the taintless liberation of mind. It’s likely that many Māhāyāna uses of the word are in fact talking about samādhi rather than a rare and profound state. But surely the abiding of the Buddha and the great disciples must have been something more.

Zen has the famous parable about the meditation teacher who received a scholar asking about the dhamma. The teacher poured his guest tea until the cup was overflowing, then compared it to the scholar’s mind – too full of ideas. The idea is fairly accessible. We need to empty our minds before anything new can come in. But what is it like to completely empty the mind – and then to remain empty for a time, with thoughts and feelings and perceptions flowing through like tea through a cup full of holes? It would require not just the cessation of volition, or ideas of self, but perhaps even the cessation of the bases of contact. No eye, no ear, no mind. If there is nothing here to make contact with, then the body and mind are like an empty shell that all impressions pass through unhindered.

Whatever this Emptiness is, and I won’t try to go any further in pinning it down, it must by definition be temporary. The Buddha was an incredible teacher, community leader, and compassionate human being. He was not averse to thinking and considering new ideas. He was continually practicing and refining his teaching methods. In fact, the development of samādhi that is the jewel of Theravada doctrine – the system of jhana’s with their jhana factors – leads through thinking and considering to the more refined states of purity. After deep samādhi is attained and one returns to normal consciousness, one is again in contact with the world, and while moving about their mind becomes more coarse until thinking resumes. Thus thinking is not presented as an obstacle. Yes, it’s more peaceful when thinking is gone. But setting this up as a goal might mislead us to believe the path is about not thinking. We can learn to take charge of our thoughts and direct our mind skillfully – that is the path which leads sequentially onward to loftier and loftier states of freedom.

The abiding of Emptiness is an intriguing thing to consider, and if hearing about it inspires you to sit in meditation all the better. That it must be temporary doesn’t diminish it. Just the notion of clearing oneself out completely so that what arises in the future is something completely new and fresh is a wonderful premise. Traditions might differ on what the state defines and how attainable it is. But there shouldn’t be any confusion that experiencing this state will greatly alter one’s perception of reality.

The third and final perspective on Emptiness is worth discussing. It’s possible that some traditions, Buddhist and otherwise, use the concept of Emptiness to refer to that which is beyond conditions. What isn’t born, what doesn’t die … etc. In Theravada there is no need to use Emptiness in this way, for indeed by Theravada doctrine the unconditioned is not truly empty.

There are here and there references in the Pāli canon to the ‘nibbāna element’. This is something utterly outside all that can be known with the eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind. It is beyond consciousness itself. All those things are arising ‘in’ or ‘from’ the nibbāna element, but in ceasing they don’t return to it but simply cease. Things are one thing, nibbāna is another.

The Buddha is clear that the nibbāna element exists but is not some higher self. It is as devoid of a self as any other phenomena. Notably, though, he doesn’t say it is Impermanent. The nibbāna element exists but has no beginning and therefore no end.

What are we talking about? Everything we can experience has a beginning and end. Take the sound of a bell. Strike a bell and we hear a ring. Over time the ringing gets softer and softer until at some point we can’t hear it anymore. Even later it will have stopped completely. It has ‘nibbāna-ed’. The ringing was a phenomena that arose and ceased. Yet when there is no ringing, no bell, no ear to hear the bell, and no mind to attend to an ear in the first place – what do we have?

Nihilists would say that there is nothing, that it is infinite nothing or emptiness. In Buddhist cosmology ‘nothing’ is not so bleak. Nothing is just no-thing, and we tend to take ‘things’ too seriously anyway. What is there beyond things? Since our mind is a thing, it will never be able to dwell beyond things. But our mind can cease – it can nibbāna – and then the nibbāna element is what is left. It is always there and if the accounts of the enlightened beings are taken on faith, it is very, very good.

The Buddha uses many adjectives to describe nibbāna (, but Emptiness is not one of them. The words he uses are meant to evoke the experience of a subjective observer realizing this unconditioned state. In essence, our mind wakes up to the fact that our mind has boundaries in space as well as in time. We awaken to the fact that our mind can cease and that’s not such a bad thing. In fact, when the mind ceases there is nothing to suffer and therefore no suffering. But this is not void, not annihilation. It is the realizing of something beyond all the limited things we have ever known. Amazingly, it is this limited and conditioned mind that realizes it; it is this limited and conditioned mind which lets go. What more can be said without falling more short of the experience? We as suffering beings embark on a path to realize this nibbāna for ourselves. The holy life is lived for this purpose.

Emptiness is a powerful experience, abiding, and tool. Many of us came to meditation because we heard about Emptiness or intuited we were full of something that was making us unhappy. But once we encounter a teacher we are usually encouraged to develop by focusing on more objective realities like the body or thoughts. To not look for some great empty state but to consider the things that are arising and ceasing right in front of us. These are what we work with until we can finally let go into unconditioned states. But at various junctures along the way we will have experiences for which Empty or Emptiness are the perfect adjectives. Hopefully these various perspectives have given some background about Emptiness and will encourage you to refine your explorations. If you do go out and seek more knowledge in other traditions, may you do so with the highest chances of attaining what you seek.

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