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THOUGHTS ON EMPTINESS: What Does It Mean?

One of the most important--and most misunderstood--terms used by Buddhists, Zen-folk, Nagarjuna, etc. is "emptiness" (Sunyata). It does not mean a cosmic void, nonexistence, a substratum nihilum, or a denial of the world(s) of common experience. Nor does it signify a mystical via negativa. Rather it signifies the absence of something very precise: svabhaava, or self-essence. "Self-essence" is a technical Indian philosophical term denoting anything that creates itself (sui generis), is independent, immutable, possessing an invariant essence, self-defining, etc. Usually Hindus envision self-essential things as eternal also. The two most important self-essential things in Hindu thought are God and the Self (or soul).

According to standard Buddhist doctrine the subtlest, deepest, and most dangerous false view held by humans is the belief in a permanent, independent self. Our sense of "self" derives from "misreading" the causes and conditions of experience. Afraid of death and the possibility of our personal nonexistence, we desperately impute and cling to permanence where there is none, imagining that something permanent subtends the flux of experiential conditions. Rather than recognize causes and conditions for what they are, we hypostatize their obvious effects, often deeming these hypostatized "entities" to be more real than what we encounter in actual experience. Thus the notion of "self" is symptomatic of our deepest desires and fears. Overcoming that view by seeing that all that comes into existence does so dependent on perpetually changing causes and conditions (pratiitya-samutpaada) is to "see things as they truly become" (yathaa-bhuutam).

Buddha had spoken often of a "middle way" between extreme views. The two extremes he discussed most often were "eternalism" and "annihilationalism," or put in other terms, "continuity" and "discontinuity." Things (e.g., the world, persons, etc.) were neither continuous nor discontinuous. Neither the world nor the things in it endure unchanging and endlessly; nor is the world a random, discontinuous, fragmented happenstance. Things are neither reducible entirely to their specific causative conditions, nor are they ever something other than their conditions: this is the middle way.

Nagarjuna understood the basic message of Buddha to be the elimination of all hypostatic theoretizations, i.e., abstractions which had been concretized to the point of seeming more real than the conditions from which they had been abstracted. Such views he called "d.r.s.ti." For Nagarjuna, however, the problem of hypostatization was not confined to the notion of self in its limited sense of an individual's self-essence, but was apparent everywhere, since all seemingly rational explanations of the way things are--including the Buddhist explanations of his day--were grounded in conceptual entities that were ultimately unreal (e.g., self, God, nirvana, etc.). All our fundamental notions, including time, actions (karma) and the agents of action, the characteristics with which things are defined and classified, relations, and so on, all were infiltrated by d.r.s.ti. Nagarjuna recognized that at bottom d.r.s.ti hinged on the notions of "identity" and "difference." Identity was simply another name for self-essence (svabhaava): a continuous, invariant, self-identical essence. Difference presupposed the very notion of identity that it attempted to negate, since to claim 'X is different from Y' presupposes that X and Y have determinate identities; and if taken seriously such that difference marks the complete absence of all identities, difference would entail such radical discontinuity, disjunction, and lack of intelligibility that even the most mundane things would become incoherent and inexplicable. In his major work, the Muula-madhyamaka-kaarikaa (one of the most important links in Awakening 101, see also below), he constructed a methodology for ferreting out d.r.s.ti such that the middle way between identity and difference might be realized.

"Empty" signifies what occurs through causes and conditions and is therefore devoid of self-essence. Everything, when seen properly, is devoid of self-essence, and thus "empty." It is the self-essence which is unreal, NOT the flux of conditions (though Nagarjuna also warns against hypostatizing "conditions").

With thanks to Dan Lusthaus, Yogacara Buddhism Research Association. Added to and edited for our purposes here by the Wanderling.


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