Tuesday, October 27, 2009




Buddhist Door, Tung Lin Kok Yuen, Hong Kong
Hong Kong, 2009

Address of Corresponding Author:
BLOCK – EE, No. – 80, Flat No. – 2A,
KOLKATA – 700 091
Tel: +91-33-23215586
Mobile: +919434485543
Email: ankurbarua26@yahoo.com



The phrase "form is emptiness; emptiness is form" is perhaps the most celebrated paradox associated with Buddhist philosophy. The expression originates from the Prajna Paramita Hridaya Sutra, commonly known as the Heart Sutra, which contains the philosophical essence of about six hundred scrolls making up the Maha Prajna Paramita. Nāgārjuna’s unique version of emptiness is a direct result of the eight-fold method of negation. It is interpreted as non-arising, non-ceasing, non-permanence, non-annihilation, non-identity, non-difference, non-coming, and non-exiting. Through the eight-fold negation, all the concepts by which we normally apprehend the world are placed in the negative form. In this way, one is supposed to realize correct understanding of ‘emptiness’.

Key words: Emptiness, Śūnyatā, Nāgārjuna, form, Buddhist, Negation.


In early Buddhism, the term ‘suññatā’ or ‘śūnyatā’ is used primarily in connection with the ‘no-self’ (anatman) doctrine to denote that the Five Aggregates (skandhas) are ‘empty’ of the permanent self or soul which is erroneously imputed to them.1

The doctrine of emptiness, however, received its fullest elaboration by Nāgārjuna, who wielded it skillfully to destroy the substantiality conceptions of the Abhidharma schools of the Theravāda. Since there cannot be anything that is not the Buddha-nature (buddhatā), all that appears is in truth devoid of characteristics. The doctrine of emptiness is the central tenet of the Mādhyamaka School. A statement of Nāgārjuna's views in support of it may be found in his Mūla-Mādhyamaka-Nārikā.1,2

Nāgārjuna is regarded as the founder of the Madhyamaka school of Mahāyāna Buddhist philosophy which he had established during the 2nd-3rd Century A.D. The ‘Mulamadhyamaka-Karika’ ("Fundamentals of the Middle Way") is his major work. 1,2
It was originally composed in Sanskrit. The Sanskrit as well as early Tibetan versions of the work had survived without significant damage over the ages along with the later Chinese translations. Several complete English translations of the ‘Karika’ are available in recent times.1,2

Emptiness thus becomes a fundamental characteristic of Mahāyāna Buddhism. The teaching is subtle and its precise formulation a matter of sophisticated debate, since the slightest misunderstanding is said to obstruct progress towards final liberation. Emptiness is never a generalized vacuity, like an empty room, but always relates to a specific entity whose emptiness is being asserted. In this way up to twenty kinds of emptiness are recognized, including the emptiness of emptiness. The necessary indiscoverability is the essence of emptiness of Mādhyamika. It is important to distinguish this emptiness from nihilism.1,2,3

The Buddhist notion of emptiness is often misunderstood as nihilism. Unfortunately, 19th century Western philosophy has contributed much to this misrepresentation. However, the only thing that nihilism and the teaching of emptiness can be said to have in common is a skeptical outset. Nihilism concludes that reality is unknowable, that nothing exists, that nothing meaningful can be communicated about the world. The Buddhist notion of emptiness is just the opposite. It states that the ultimate reality is knowable, there is a clear-cut ontological basis for phenomena and we can communicate and derive useful knowledge from it about the world. Emptiness (śūnyatā) must not be confused with nothingness. Emptiness is not non-existence and it is not non-reality.1,2,3,4

However, in Yogācāra (Vijñānavāda), emptiness is taught as the inability to think of an object apart from the consciousness which thinks of that object, i.e. the necessary indissolubility of subject and object in the process of knowing is the concept of emptiness in Yogācāra. It is important to distinguish this from idealism and solipsism.1

The Concept of Emptiness
In order to understand the philosophical meaning of the term emptiness (śūnyatā ), let us take a simple solid object, such as a bowl. We usually say that a bowl is empty if it does not contain any liquid or solid. This is the ordinary meaning of emptiness. But a bowl empty of liquids or solids is still full of air. To be precise, we must therefore state what the bowl is empty or devoid of. A bowl in a vacuum does not contain any air, but it still contains space, light, radiation, as well as its own substance. Hence, from a physical point of view, the bowl is always full of something. But from the Buddhist point of view, the bowl is always empty. The Buddhist understanding of emptiness is different from the physical meaning. The bowl being empty means that it is devoid of inherent existence.3,4,5

The Concept of Non-inherent Existence
Though from the Buddhist point of view everything is impermanent, but this does not mean that the bowl is non-existent. The bowl actually exists, but like everything in this world, its existence depends on other phenomena. There is nothing in a bowl that is inherent to that specific bowl in general. Properties such as being hollow, spherical, cylindrical or leak-proof are not intrinsic to bowls. Other objects which are not bowls have similar properties, as for example, vases and glasses. The bowl's properties and components are neither bowls themselves nor do they imply our perception of bowl on their own. The material is not the bowl. The shape is not the bowl. The function is not the bowl. Only all these aspects together make up the bowl. Hence, we can say that for an object to be a bowl we require a collection of specific conditions to exist. It depends on the combination of function, use, shape, base material and the bowl's other aspects. Only if all these conditions exist simultaneously does the mind impute the label of a bowl to the object. If one condition ceases to exist, for instance, if the bowl's shape is altered by breaking it, the bowl forfeits some or all of its attributes and our mind cannot perceive it as a bowl anymore. The bowl's existence thus depends on external circumstances. Its physical essence remains elusive.3,4,5,6

It is our mind that perceives properties of an object and imputes attributes such as bowl onto one object and table onto another. It is the mind that thinks "bowl" and "table". Apparently, the mind does not perceive bowls and tables if there is no visual and tactile sensation. However, there cannot be visual and tactile sensation if there is no physical object. The perception thus depends on the presence of sensations, which in turn relies on the presence of the physical object. We must understand that the bowl's essence is not in the mind, also it is never found in the physical object. Obviously, its essence is neither physical nor mental. As the essence of an object cannot be found either in our external world or in our mind, we must conclude that the objects of perception have therefore no inherent existence. 3,4,5,6

If this is the case for a simple object, such as a bowl, then it must also apply to compound things, such as cars, houses and machines. For example, a car needs a motor, wheels, axles, gears and many other things to work. We should also consider the difference between man-made objects, such as bowls, and natural phenomena, such as earth, plants, animals and human beings. One may argue that lack of inherent existence of objects does not imply the same for natural phenomena and beings. In case of a human being, there is a body, a mind, a character, a history of actions, habits, behavior and other things to describe a person. We can even divide these characteristics further into more fundamental properties. For example, we can analyze the mind and see that there are sensations, cognition, feelings and ideas. 3,4,5,6

We can analyze the brain and find that there are neurons, axons, synapses, and neurotransmitters. However, none of these constituents describe the essence of the person, the mind, or the brain. Here again, the essence remains elusive.3,4,5,6

Emptiness of Emptiness:
The ultimate nature of reality is deepened and enhanced in our mind. We would develop a perception of reality from which we could perceive phenomena and events as sort of illusory or illusion-like. This mode of perceiving reality would permeate all our interactions with reality. Even emptiness itself, which is seen as the ultimate nature of reality, is not absolute, nor does it exist independently. We cannot conceive of emptiness as independent of a basis of phenomena. Because when we examine the nature of reality, we find that it is empty of inherent existence. If we are to take that emptiness itself as an object and look for its essence, again we would find that it is empty of inherent existence. Therefore, the Buddha actually taught us the “emptiness of emptiness.” 3,4,5,6

The Concept of Dependent Origination
The Principle of Dependent Origination or the Doctrine of Impermanence is a twelve-factor formula titled Paṭiccasamuppāda in Pāli. The key concepts within the causal relationships are identified as the antecedents and consequents in a linear sequence. One factor is identified as a conditioning factor for the next which in turn is the conditioning factor for the following factor until the final stage, the twelfth concept, birth, which recommences the process of existence and becoming and the whole twelve steps.6

This formula can also be viewed in reverse order to indicate how the removal or cessation of one factor leads to the predominant influence of another factor, and down the line until the first conditioning factor – ignorance – is removed completely thus eliminating the proliferation and building of factors. Once this is achieved an individual can be said to be enlightened because he is no longer haunted by the specter of ignorance as he has defeated the three poisons and understood the arising and ceasing of phenomenon.4,6

The traditional interpretation of this formula states that this is what causes the arising or rebirth and death and requires at least three lifetimes. The Dependent Origination can be viewed microcosmically and be applied just to this lifetime to describe the arising and ceasing of thoughts and the perceptual process, thereby indicating the correct way to apprehend an object if enlightenment is sought.4,6

The Concept of Emptiness in Relation with Dependent Origination
Dependent Origination demonstrates the interconnectedness of all phenomenons, their impermanence, their lack of an intrinsic self, and factors of conditioning. Likewise, emptiness for Nāgārjuna is equivalent to Dependent Origination as stated by Candrakīrti, “The meaning of the expression ‘Dependent Origination’ is the same as ‘emptiness’”, but it entails a further emphasis on the lack of intrinsic nature of dhammas and states that all dhammas are conceptual constructs. To the Abhidhamma, dhammas are the smallest analyzable unit of existence, but for Nāgārjuna, even these dhammas are conceptual constructs, and understanding this is having proper wisdom (prañja): the understanding of emptiness.2,4,6

Dependent Origination is the main ontological principle in early Buddhism and Abhidhamma Buddhism, but in Nagrajuna’s system emptiness becomes the term to represent this chief ontological principle. He writes, “It is Dependent Origination that we call emptiness”. Dependent arising and emptiness describe how reality comes to be; as such, it is ultimate truth and an ontological truth. This emphasis of emptiness as an ultimate truth is a later development unique to Nāgārjuna and later Buddhist thought. Nāgārjuna emphasizes the lack of intrinsic existence in the conventional level of reality. This lack must be apprehended by understanding the ultimate truth of emptiness.2,4,6

These two levels of reality mutually imply each other. Emptiness becomes dhammatta, the true nature of things. A commentator to Nāgārjuna describes emptiness as, “non conditioned by others, quiescent, accessible to saints only by direct intuition, beyond all verbal differentiations, still, it is nothing more than the mere absence of inherently or intrinsically real existence.” As a principle śūnyatā states that everything that one encounters in life is empty of a permanent soul or inherent nature and is inter-related, never self-sufficient, or independent; thus nothing has independent reality.2,4,6

Although there are different ways to explain the theory of emptiness, all are based on the theory of Dependent Origination. Nāgārjuna provides an insightful formulation of śūnyatā as the mark of all phenomena, as a natural consequence of Dependent Origination and an elaboration upon dependent arising. A further elaboration upon Dependent Origination is that the concept of emptiness is not itself a true doctrine or view, but is a therapeutic device. Nāgārjuna had explained this as the “antidote to all viewpoints (ḍṛṣṭi)”.2,4,6

Emptiness is a key concept in Buddhist philosophy, or more precisely, in the ontology of Mahāyāna Buddhism. The phrase "form is emptiness; emptiness is form" is perhaps the most celebrated paradox associated with Buddhist philosophy. It is the supreme mantra. The expression originates from the Prajna Paramita Hridaya Sutra, commonly known as the Heart Sutra, which contains the philosophical essence of about six hundred scrolls making up the Maha Prajna Paramita. The Heart Sutra is the shortest text in this collection. It belongs to the oldest Mahāyāna texts and presumably originated in India around the time of Jesus Christ.2,4,5,6

Nāgārjuna’s unique version of emptiness is a direct result of the eight-fold method of negation. It is interpreted as non-arising, non-ceasing, non-permanence, non-annihilation, non-identity, non-difference, non-coming, and non-exiting. Through the eight-fold negation, all the concepts by which we normally apprehend the world are placed in the negative form. In this way, one is supposed to realize correct understanding of ‘emptiness’. By understanding the ‘emptiness’ of these concepts by which we conceptually construct and apprehend the world and even the Dhamma, the teaching of the Buddha, one can understand the emptiness of emptiness (śunyatāśunyatā). This is an innovation in Buddhist thought attributed to Nāgārjuna.2,3,4,6

1. Bowker, J. 1997. Śūnyatā. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. UK: Encyclopedia.com. [Serial online]. [Cited 2009 April 28]; [2 screens]. Available from: URL: http://www.encyclopedia.com

2. Garfield, J.L. 1995. The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way: Nāgārjuna's Mulamadhyamakakarika, translation (from Tibetan) and commentary. New York: Oxford University Press.

3. Finkelstein, D.R., Wallace, B.A. ed. 2001. Emptiness and Relativity. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

4. McCagney, N. 1997. Nāgārjuna and the Philosophy of Openness. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers: 135-218.

5. Knierim, T. 2009. Emptiness is Form [serial online]. [Cited 2009 October 20]; [4 screens]. Available from: URL: http://www.thebigview.com/buddhism/emptiness.html

6. Williams, P. 2009. Mahāyāna Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations, 2nd edition. UK: Routledge: 69-82.

No comments:

Post a Comment