Where Science and Enlightenment Collide

What Is Emptiness?

What Is Emptiness?

Emptiness (in Sanskrit, shunyata) is a foundational doctrine of Mahayana Buddhism. It is also possibly the most misunderstood doctrine in all of Buddhism. Too often, people assume it means that nothing exists. But this is not the case.

His Holiness the 14th Dailai Lama said, “The existence of things and events is not in dispute; it is the manner in which they exist that must be clarified.” Put another way, things and events have no intrinsic existence and no individual identity except in our thoughts.

The Dalai Lama also teaches that “existence can only be understood in terms of dependent origination.” Dependent origination is a teaching that no being or thing exists independently of other beings or things.

In the Four Noble Truths, the Buddha taught that our distresses ultimately spring from thinking ourselves to be independently existing beings with an intrinsic “self.” Thoroughly perceiving that this intrinsic self is a delusion liberates us from suffering.

All Phenomena Are Empty

The Heart Sutra continues, with Avalokiteshvara explaining that all phenomena are expressions of emptiness, or empty of inherent characteristics. Because phenomena are empty of inherent characteristics, they are neither born nor destroyed; neither pure nor defiled; neither coming nor going.

Avalokiteshvara then begins a recitation of negations — “no eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind; no color, sound, smell, taste, touch, thing,” etc. These are the six sense organs and their corresponding objects from the doctrine of the skandhas.

What is the bodhisattva saying here? Red Pine writes that because all phenomena exist interdependently with other phenomena, all distinctions we make are arbitrary.

“There is no point at which the eyes begin or end, either in time or in space or conceptually. The eye bone is connected to the face bone, and the face bone is connected to the head bone, and the head bone is connected to the neck bone, and so it goes down to the toe bone, the floor bone, the earth bone, the worm bone, the dreaming butterfly bone. Thus, what we call our eyes are so many bubbles in a sea of foam.”

The Two Truths

Another doctrine associated with the Heart Sutra is that of the Two Truths. Existence can be understood as both ultimate and conventional (or, absolute and relative). Conventional truth is how we usually see the world, a place full of diverse and distinctive things and beings. The ultimate truth is that there are no distinctive things or beings.

The important point to remember with the two truths is that they are two truths, not one truth and one lie. Thus, there are eyes. Thus, there are no eyes. People sometimes fall into the habit of thinking that the conventional truth is “false,” but that’s not correct.
No Attainment

Avalokiteshvara goes on to say there is no path, no wisdom, and no attainment. Referring to the Three Marks of Existence, Red Pine writes, “The liberation of all beings revolves around the liberation of the bodhisattva from the concept of being.” Because no individual being comes into existence, neither does a being cease to exist.

Because there is no cessation, there is no impermanence, and because there is no impermanence, there is no suffering. Because there is no suffering, there is no path to liberation from suffering, no wisdom, and no attainment of wisdom. Thoroughly perceiving this is “supreme perfect enlightenment,” the bodhisattva tells us.


The last words in the shorter version of the sutra are “Gate Gate Paragate Parasamgate Bodhi Svaha!” The basic translation, as I understand it, is “gone (or ferried) with everyone to the other shore right now!”

When we find we are empty of our ego or sepperate self, we find our true or higher self.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s