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Nov 30
Dharma Teachings
Empty of What?

This article, by Robert Alan Paul, presents an intellectual inquiry into the Buddhist teachings on emptiness. Using the following query, Robert expounds upon the inherent misunderstandings and the subsequent awakening to understanding that occur for each of us as we tread the path of meditation. He begins by asking: “What is the meaning of ‘it is neither existent nor non-existent’ or ‘beyond existence and non-existence’?”

“As I understand it”
Emptiness is a central topic in our teachings, and is understood in different ways throughout our path. Several centuries ago Tibetan scholars looked at the hodgepodge of different Indian Buddhist views and practices from the previous 1500 years and organized them into a particular sequence to assist students like us. We use this organization, but it should be understood as a pedagogical structure, not either historically accurate nor the only way to structure the path. For instance, Tibetan Buddhism traditionally teaches three general paths — hinayana, mahayana, and vajrayana. Hinayana is the path of taming our chaotic mind; mahayana is the path of benefiting others; and vajrayana is the path of skillful means which provides ways to implement the view and glimpses of realization from previous yanas.

However, in the Shambhala variety of Buddhism — as probably with other Tibetan schools — the way we are taught hinayana is from a mahayana and vajrayana point of view. Even those very new to the practice in Shambhala Training are given very sophisticated instruction and teachings, even though they may seem so simple. Thus, the focused attention we give to the flow of our mind during shamatha meditation is informed with mahayana compassion for others and vajrayana realization that we are fundamentally awake and enlightened — that we have buddha nature or basic goodness — simply by being human. Therefore, all we have to do is clear the clutter that hides our awake quality from us. Should be easy, right? LOL!

The reason why it actually might be easy to clear the clutter is because that clutter is sunya — it is empty of inherent nature: there are no solid obstacles to discovering our pure and awake quality. But what is this ‘emptiness’, anyway? First, I firmly believe that tremendous mistakes have been made in translating sunyata by ignoring of what it is that all phenomena are empty. In the English language ‘emptiness’ is the same as ‘nothingness’, and regardless of how much we may be told or repeat that this is not the meaning of sunyata, that nuance is all too easy to forget unless we expressly state the final clause. So sunyata is the lack of inherent nature, the lack of svabhava. Therefore, the first thing we need in order to understand sunyata is to understand svabhava: inherent nature.

Inherent nature is the unchanging and independent quality of any phenomena. The Middle Way (Madhyamaka) school of the mahayana path is considered by Tibetan Buddhists to embody the pinnacle of understanding of the nature of reality. Madhyamaka scholars argue that there is no such thing as inherent nature. (Remember, reason is what we use to learn, and that is why Buddhists can be so argumentative: it’s how we learn.) There are arguments throughout Madhyamaka texts and commentaries to convince us through reason in the certainty of the view. They say that if there were such an unchanging and independent quality as inherent nature, then we would never know it, it could never interact with us, and there would never be any changes. Inherent nature is the nature of something in virtue of itself alone, hence there cannot be any relationship with anything else (since if there were any relationship then its nature would not be in virtue of itself alone!). And the only way anything can interact is by having a relationship and by changing. Since things change all the time, we know that inherent nature is at least lacking in any change that is known.

Additionally, Madhyamaka uses a view that every part of a phenomenon is had by that phenomenon essentially. Remember, this goes for everything, including teacups and bodies, cabbages and kings, and our own mind. Therefore, if any part of a whole changes, then the phenomenon as a whole changes. (We may argue against this view, but let’s move on for now.) Since parts change all the time, the only phenomena that have inherent nature are unitary (i.e. singular, non-composite) phenomena. Even though we look at a cup and think that it is independent of anything else, and seems not to be changing, it has parts and the parts have parts, and all those parts are chaotically running around inside: hence the cup has no inherent nature.

So what is sunyata, the lack of inherent nature? It is the non-unitary, dependent and impermanent nature of phenomena. And since (as Madhyamika argues) all phenomena are sunya, all phenomena have those characteristics. But here is a tricky point: how do we understand what a thing is if there is nothing that the thing is in virtue of itself alone, and if all characteristics are dependent on other things and also dependent on its own interdependent parts? The answer is that we understand a thing relationally. Hence, it is said that all phenomena are sunya, all phenomena are dependent, and that is the Middle Way. It is therefore hard to define a ‘thing’ as long as we are restricted to defining it in terms of independent characteristics or properties. If we try to define something based on the premise that there are independent properties, then Madhyamaka provides all sorts of arguments to show that the definition entails incoherent consequences, thus denying the premise. The only way that we can understand something is through its relationships. This is one reason why society is so important in the Great Eastern Sun vision.

Now we can understand what it means to say that all phenomena are neither existent nor non-existent. Things do not exist independently; they exist dependently. To exist is to exist dependently. You, me and the teacup.

Please send feedback and queries for future articles through the comment function of this website. Note that I have some expertise in physics, Western philosophy and their relationship to Madhyamaka; hence I welcome queries concerning topics within those interfaces.

Robert Alan Paul has been a student of Shambhala Buddhism and other varieties of Kagyu, Nyingma and Rimé Buddhism, along with recent study of Gelug texts, since 1977. He completed Vajradhatu Seminary in 1982, and his meditation practices since completion of Kagyu ngondro include Vajrayogini, Chakrasamvara, Six Dharmas of Naropa, Mahamudra and Werma. He earned a bachelor’s degree in physics too many years ago to think about, and has participated in a number of graduate programs since then, some of which resulted in a degree. He obtained a master’s degree in philosophy 5 years ago (thesis on Schopenhauer and Buddhism) and is nearly finished with a Ph.D. in interdisciplinary studies in Western philosophy, Buddhist philosophy and physics. His nearly completed Ph.D. dissertation is on the philosophy and physics of sunyata, the lack of inherent nature and the relational nature of physical non-living phenomena. He worked as a physicist for about 20 years as a nuclear physicist, climate researcher, oceanography and meteorologist; 5 years as an economist, and the more recent 15 years developing science educational software, as writer, researcher, creative lead, and as founder, owner and businessman for his company. All the while raising two beautiful children who now actually do call home often enough (God bless them and the Internet) and being married to an amazing woman for 31 years who has put up with too much BS to fathom.

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7 responses to “ Empty of What? ”
  1. I have been practicing Shamatha meditation for decades now, although I am a newcomer to the Buddhist view and particularly to the Buddhist dialectic. Please forgive me if my comments fall too far off the mark.
    There seems to be such a continued uproar over the question of the existence vs the non-existence of “reality”. I find it astonishiong that over 2000 yrs ago philosophers posited that our so-called “solid reality:” was not as it seemed and could be reduced to ever smaller particles, thus proving that “reality” as we know it was/is non-exixtent. They came to this conclusion through their reasoning and their followers spent the next several thousand years trying to demonstrate through logic the veracily of these conclusions. Of course this resulted in as many schools as there are trains of thought.
    With the developments in physics, particularly recently in Quantum Physics, we no longer need to be logically convinced of the non-existence of “reality”. We now have scientific experiments which have confirmed these ancient conclusions re the divisibility of matter, not only to the level of atoms but beyond, to quirks and quarks, strings and perhaps to the inevitable conclusion to all this reduction: pure light.
    From this perspective I find the dialectics on existence vs non-existence of reality to be moot. We have now reached a level where it is not a matter of logical reasoning but of scientific fact that none of what we perceive as solid reality is in fact so. If “matter” is to insubstantial, can I hold onto my beliefs, my feelings etc. as being any more real? Are these teachings on non-existence still relevant in the face of modern science? Are we now more ready to put our emphasis on exploring the second aspect of “ultimate reality” which is Luminosity?
    Already science is busy trying to reduce the mind or consciouness to its component parts, so far without much success. I suspect the “component part” model is not useful in investigating the nature of Luminosity. There may never be success in this area since we would be trying to understand, with concepts, a state which is by definition beyond concepts.
    We do indeed live in very exciting times!

  2. Robert Alan Paul
    Dec 6, 2011

    Reply to Alan Ramsey’s comment of Dec 2 beginning “Relatively true. But…”
    Some take the relative truth as less true than the ultimate truth. These are the teachings of Gorampa and his followers, and some Kagyupas and Nyingmapas are. Hence, we sometimes see teachings that reflect this view. Others, however, consider them two different ways of looking at the world, each equally true. I am in the latter camp. Relative truth is about dependent arising in the phenomenal world and in our experience of it, and absolute truth is about sunyata, how ultimately no phenomena have inherent nature. And as Nagarjuna stated in his Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way (Mūlamadhyamakakārikā) in Chapter 24, Verses 18:

    Whatever is dependently co-arisn
    That is explained to be sunyata

    These verses can be interpreted in many ways, and I take one view. Other views may be equally valid. We do not follow a mind-only (Cittamatra) path in which we do not exist and the tea does not exist, but a Middle Way in which we exist dependently.

    But I do not think the teachings are koans — there is no tea in the cup, but now I will drink the tea. I think that the teachings must be understood in terms of the reasoning which is presented.

  3. Robert Alan Paul
    Dec 6, 2011

    Reply to anonymous’ comment starting “Interesting article, but…”
    Yes, I agree that there are different domains of discourse and the results in one may be irrelevant to results in another. Hence, sunyata (or not) in domains of physical phenomena may have nothing to do with sunyata in domains of mental phenomena. This, of course, presumes that the domains are not interdependent, which is a loaded assumption. Additionally, many of the teachings are explicit in their analysis of atoms or other parts, such as the sevenfold reasoning analysis of a chariot and neither-one-nor-many analysis of the atoms of any physical object. These arguments are used to analyze physical things and also the mind as aggregates of skandas. Madhyamaka states that all phenomena are sunya, not just ego. Knowledge of this might assist development of prajna, and prajna may assist direct experience of sunyata in our daily life.

  4. Alan I haven’t read Madhyamaka or studied mahayana or vajrayana but enjoyed reading your perspective.

    I feel sunyata in the relative conditioned world as something that emerges from repeated experience of three marks of existence: Anitya (impermanence), Dukkha (distress), Anatta (non-self). It is something akin to the broken and empty heart of basic sadness, which is also the source of basic goodness.

    Sunyata in the sense of ultimate freedom and bliss comes from direct perception/realization of the unconditioned and unbounded climax state of consciousness (freed from clinging, aversion and delusion) that comes from meditative absorption. It is the nature of ultimate reality of all conditioned phenomena, including us humans. In terms of physics all matter (form) is energy and light (formless) and Void probably contains free energy. Energy cannot be destroyed, can only be transformed. This is the Vajra or indestructibe Truth.

    “If there is only empty space, with no suns nor planets in it, then space loses its substantiality.” – Buddha

  5. Arthur Ramsay
    Dec 2, 2011

    Relatively true. But ultimately we don’t exist dependently either. Mind you, the teacup maybe does, I am not sure. But is there any tea in it? Definitely not. Time for tea.

  6. Interesting article, but I wonder how an “intellectual inquiry into… emptiness” can help us. Having the idea that a teacup is made of atoms is, I think, a far cry from the actual experience of liberation, bliss, and compassion that most teachings on shunyata describe. And I’m not sure I see how the former could lead to the latter; I suppose it could even be an impediment, if we mistake the ideas for the experience.

  7. Beautifully crafted article, would love to see a more open to non shambhalian audience version -and deepening- of the theme

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