Make your own free website on

Tony's Dharma Pages

Recommended Books
Buddhism Essays
Other Essays
About Me

What is Emptiness?

Water 1

As I’ve learned about Buddhist philosophy, one issue that has interested me more than anything else is how to understand the difficult concept of “shunyata,” which means emptiness. 

Etymologically, the word shunya relates to the mathematical concept of zero - it adds nothing nor subtracts anything.

Shunyata refers to the discovery of the Buddha that there is no definite entity that is a solid, irreducible core of personhood. The parts that constitute a person are real, but none of them can be considered a “self.” What constitutes our personal reality is a dynamic process of dependently arising factors.

Here’s a simple example. If you cut open an apple, does it break down into mini-apples? Is there an apple monad? No, it is made of parts, none of which are themselves apples, which collectively form what we label an “apple.” A self is made of non-self elements; nothing exists in isolation. Further, the constituent parts themselves go through a process of creation and dissolution, birth and decay, and thus do not remain stable. 

The reason it doesn’t feel this way is because our minds are restless. The whirling blur of cognitive processing moves so fast that our personality seems solid, like motion pictures on film that create the illusion of actual events projected onto a screen. Further, our brains evolved to detect patterns, remember certain events, and predict the future. Thus, our minds create narratives, especially relating to a self that persists through time. Yet in reality, there is no thinker of thoughts or feeler or feelings, only thoughts and feelings that arise. 

While most of us understand that the outer world is impermanent, and the more mature among us can come to terms with this fact, the more disconcerting fact is that the private, interior self is also impermanent. There is nothing that can be grasped onto as a permanent substance to identify with, despite our best efforts.

Meditation is the Herculean task of countering the illusion of self-permanence by concentrating the mind upon itself. Buddhist contemplation requires one to observe personality by detaching from it, as the personal mind cannot directly know itself any more than a hand can grab itself, or an eye can see itself. Through this detachment, there is a cleavage between our normal stream of consciousness and a clear perception of it. Both Hindu and Buddhist meditators refer to this discriminative wisdom as necessary in the path of enlightenment.

So if the mind is normally preoccupied by illusions, whence comes the ability to understand it? How is meta-awareness possible? Is there a meta-mind?

Buddha-nature (Buddha-dhatu, or Tathagatagarbha), which is the inherent potential of all sentient being to awaken, is a fundamental concept in Mahayana Buddhism. It is also considered ultimate reality (Dharmakaya) and pure mind (alaya). Yogachara philosophy has a similar doctrine of cittamatra, the store-house consciousness, that may have influenced the development of Zen Buddhism (see the Lankavatara Sutra). This is a clear mind, free of defilements, called in the early Agama scriptures “sorrowless, stainless, and secure.” Or, as the poet Alexander Pope characterized the state of innocence: “the eternal sunshine of the spotless mind.”

In esoteric Hinduism, the highest Self is called “atman.” It is often translated simply as soul, so we should be specific. The personal self is called “ahamkara,” and the individual soul said to accumulate karma and get reborn into different bodies is the “jiva.”

According to non-dualistic (advaita) Vedanta philosophy, the individual self is an illusion. Atman in itself is objectless/contentless (asamprajnata). The senses are just equipment which by themselves cannot perceive anything. Because we live in a physical world, atman contemplates forms. When emptied of phenomena, atman only contemplates itself and unites with Brahman, or sat-chit-ananda (pure being-awareness-bliss). Things, whether material objects or mental content (images, words, memories, feelings, etc.) are all that is seen. But the Seer, that is never perceived because it is That which does the seeing in the first place.

Is this higher-case Self the same as Buddha-nature? Many scholars and Buddhists believe that the philosopher Nagarjuna denied a positive conception of emptiness (i.e. that it’s our higher Self) and only affirmed that nothing is substantial. Perhaps there was a concern that Buddhism, like other religions, might devolve into ritualism, with followers imagining that emptiness can be reified as a supernatural being to be worshipped, which the Buddha certainly did not intend.

It was Nagarjuna, in fact, who advocated the “two truths” doctrine - a conventional one pertaining to the provisional world in which appearances of thingness, or compactness, are real, and the ultimate reality of emptiness, which is reality as it is. Unfortunately, language can only describe the former, so all verbal statements are, in this sense, relative. An object's characteristics are appearances, not inherent or an essence.

Moreover, this negates two specific ontological positions. Nagarjuna argued that eternalism, which holds that things exist in a permanent and static form, and nihilism, which denies that things exist at all, are both wrong.

In our normal frame of reference, we experience the world as concrete and the selfness of objects – mind and body particularly – feels real. In the state of Buddhahood, neither concepts of self nor non-self, existence nor non-existence, apply.

It’s not that things are unreal, but that our perceptions and ideas distort reality. Anatta (no self) cannot be absolutely true, for that would imply nihilism. Sri Ramana Maharshi made a similar point in the paradoxical statement that “The world is illusory; Brahman alone is real; Brahman is the world.” [1]

This matters, in practice, because if eternalism were true, nothing could change, including our consciousness, and if nihilism were true, again, necessary change could not take place because if mind does not exist at all, there would be no point trying to utilize or change it.


As mystics refer to it, generally, non-dualism means that manifest and unmanifest are one and the same, as all phenomena that we perceive actually reflect the same numinous quality. A mind free of attachment and aversion does not try to possess or fixate the world, but only reflects it like a clear lake or a mirror. And the mind’s very own nature – emptiness – is the same as the world it observes. As the Heart Sutra states: “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.” When we see reality as it is, with clarity, the universe is not a substance, nor a collection of substances, but an expression of our awareness [2]. Or, if you like, dynamic energy, a play of motion in spacetime. Mind and matter are part of one continuum [3].

To conclude, there are at least two meanings of emptiness that I know of. Emptiness refers to the impermanence of physical and mental phenomena. This is emptiness in the negative sense, or samsara, in that we are attached to the illusion that we can hold onto a fixed identity. The suffering caused by this delusion is countered by an understanding of the lack of an inherent self in beings or objects, and by using a mode of perception that sees how the world operates without the interference of desire, in which things only have value as objects that benefit us.

As Thanissaro Bhikkhu puts it, you don’t deny the facts that your senses provide, nor add stories or explanations – rationalizations or justifications – for what happens. This means seeing phenomena without: adding (belief in a controlling agent) [4], wanting more [5] or subtracting from (denying facts, grasping, taking, possessing, fixating, etc.) [6] the world as it is, in each situation, moment-to-moment.

Another definition of emptiness is that it is a qualitative description of boundless consciousness. The enlightened mind not only has insight into emptiness, it is emptiness. This is emptiness in a positive sense. Some Buddhist scholars think this second definition contradicts the anatta doctrine, as it implies an essential or ultimate self.

As I see it, conceptualizations of emptiness are only valuable if they help one along the path to freedom from self-generated suffering. While the Hindu Yoga traditions and Buddhism diverge on certain points, they both agree that freedom begins and ends with the mind, and have methods of training it. And they both also have freedom, moksha or nirvana, as the goal. So emptiness is not something that should cause sectarian discord, much less devaluation of the world, but is a method and a reality to be embraced.


[1] Here is a student of Sri Ramana Maharshi describing how there is no 
I in an awakened state of being:

[2] Panpsychism views consciousness as not restricted to residing only “inside our heads,” but omnipresent in matter-energy like oil in seed. “Inner” and “outer” are actually interchangeable terms - the universe is inside us just as much as we are inside it. Try this as a koan (a mind-arresting puzzle in Zen Buddhism): look at an object and try to figure out where the image of that object is. Is the image in your brain, or exactly where the object appears to be?

[3] My views have evolved since I originally wrote this essay. I think, now, that neuroscientists have amassed enough data to conclude that the mind is what the brain does, and not the other way around. However, I no longer want to revise a piece I have already revised so many times, and I don't think this completely nullifies the more basic points. For more, see this:

[4] Conceptually, it’s common to assume that there is some extra thing that is in control of events, an intentional agent, through conscious deliberation and oversight, rather than just (human) processes of deliberating and planning. This does not just apply to a notion of an external deity, but also to a construct of an internal homunculus (“little man”) inside our heads, what some might construe as a soul.

For instance, when we imagine how the mind works, we might picture a brain-operator sitting in the middle of our skulls with a control stick, because we tend to assume that bodily control happens from a central agent. In reality, the brain does not function like that at all. The sense that it does is an illusion itself created by brain processes.

Let’s take vision as an example. I remember the author of a book about perception of light I read in college cautioning readers not to imagine an endless chain of “eyes behind the eye.” That is, we have a tendency to imagine that an apparatus has a like apparatus in charge of it. (See:

What actually happens is this: photons hit the cornea, diffracted by the opening or closing of the pupil. The impression is reversed and projected to a screen-like edge in back of the eyeball, where it reaches special cells in the retinal lining that detect the light and color called “rods” and “cones.” Transduction occurs, in which the impression is transformed into an electrical impulse that travels the optic nerve, to a section in back of the brain called the “occipital lobe” that interprets the information through the electro-chemical firing of neurons (brain cells) communicating with each other.

Thus, the basic process is that one form of energy (light) is converted into another (electrical impulses and chemical reactions). If there were another eye that received the image from the first, then there would have to be another eye, and then another, and so on. But there is no eye behind the eye that looks at images, like a person staring at a screen.

[5] This does not just mean desiring more material possessions, but just wanting more in general. Possessiveness does not even just refer to trying to control other human beings, although it is morally imperative to look at when this happens. Possessiveness happens on subtle levels as well.

After we experience a joyous event, for example, we might feel that this is so wonderful we don’t want the experience to end. As opposed to other types of satisfaction, say, fulfilling a physical need, whose happiness results primarily from a relief from the pain of need/want, joy is a transcendent type of happiness, what we call a “high.” And yet, when these experiences end, as they inevitably do, we often feel cheated, that something special has been taken away from us. It is intrinsically satisfying, and these highs push us to seek more than that which we need just to survive or be comfortable. This is the striving that characterizes human nature, for good or ill.

The major premise of Hindu Yoga, which is implicit in Buddhism as well, is that the “more” that we really want is not in the temporal-spatial realm. Yoga-meditation sets out to correct this by (re)focusing our attention.

[6] You don’t have to be an economist to understand that material resources are finite, but human wants are not (desires do not permanently dissipate after reaching an equilibrium of possessions-to-needs, but eventually arise again). We may be able to cut matter indefinitely into smaller and smaller subatomic particles, but energy still conserves, or balances out. You can’t gain extra without taking from elsewhere. If I have $10, that’s money not in someone else’s hands. If I decide to share some of it, that’s more for someone else, less for me.

We can’t have more than there really is, as the mass/energy in the universe is what it is.

Further Reading 

Brahman and Nirvana:


Atman and Buddha-nature:

Academic descriptions of shunyata:    

Theravada view:

Tantric view: