Emptiness

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Emptiness (stong pa nyid): the ultimate nature of phenomena, namely their lack of inherent existence. The ultimate understanding of emptiness goes together with the spontaneous arising of boundless compassion for sentient beings. [MR]


Emptiness (stong pa nyid)

  • In all Buddhist philosophical systems from Madhyamaka onwards, emptiness (Skt. sunyata) refers to the lack of inherent existence with respect to both mind and external phenomena. Its synonyms, therefore, include ultimate truth (Skt. paramarthasatya), actual reality (Skt. dharmata), and suchness (Skt. tathata). The characteristic which mind and external phenomena lack, i.e. that which they are empty of, is that they do not exist independently from the cognizing awareness in dependence upon which they are perceived. When all levels of conceptual awareness dissolve and the relationship between subject and object is correctly recognised, the natural, non-dual dynamic space, which is regarded as the true nature of mind and external phenomena is revealed. Although the term is known also in the literature of the Lesser Vehicle, it is in the philosophical speculations of the Madhyamaka school that the different interpretations of emptiness were greatly elaborated. This school is named after the doctrine of the Middle Way (Madhyamaka) which avoids the extremes of eternalism and nihilism, and which was expounded by Buddha Shakyamuni.There exist different views of emptiness within the Madhyamaka school—that of the Svatantrika who utilise independent syllogisms in proof of emptiness, that of the Prasangika who utilise the consequentialist logic of negation and reductio ad absurdum to destroy conceptual elaborations concerning emptiness, and that of the Great Madhyamaka which in the course of meditative insight distinguishes between the intrinsic emptiness of phenomena and the extrinsic emptiness of pure buddha attributes. In the sūtras of the Greater Vehicle, sixteen kinds of emptiness are differentiated, while in the tantras, four modes of emptiness are further clarified. See also under Madhyamaka. GD (from the Glossary to Tibetan Elemental Divination Paintings)

--from Essence of the Heart Sutra: The Dalai Lama's Heart of Wisdom Teachings by H.H. the Dalai Lama, translated & edited by Geshe Thupten Jinpa. (Snow Lion Publications)

By understanding emptiness, by clearly perceiving the empty nature of all phenomena, including ourselves, we can liberate ourselves from negative emotions, and thus from the creation of unwholesome karma and the power of the internal enemy. Through this process, we can begin to undo the harm we've caused by our grasping, and the derivative strong emotions to which it gives rise. The moment we begin to develop insight into the empty nature of self and all reality, the process of releasing our deluded grasp begins. At the moment of our first insight into the empty nature of self and reality, we start to break free of the enslavement of ignorance and the attack of the internal enemy. By reducing our grasping, we start to undo the causal chain of unenlightened existence. By undermining self-grasping ignorance, the first link of dependent origination, you prevent the arising of the second link, and ultimately become free of the endless cycle of suffering lifetimes.

But what does all this mean exactly? If we arrive at the knowledge that the self at which we grasp is empty, we may imagine this means that we as individuals with personal identities do not exist. But of course this is not the case--our own personal experiences demonstrate that as subjects and agents of our own lives, we certainly exist. So how, then, do we understand the content of this insight into absence of self? What follows from this insight? We must be very clear that only the self that is being grasped as intrinsically real needs to be negated. The self as a conventional phenomenon is not rejected. This is a crucial aspect of the Buddha's teachings on emptiness.