What is emptiness?
Emptiness in Buddhism is defined as
the opposite of how existence is normally viewed.
In English language, when we use the
word ’empty’ and ’emptiness’ we mean ‘not filled’ or ‘the state of containing
nothing’. Suppose a full glass of water. I drink the water After, I might say ‘there
is nothing in the glass’ or ‘the glass is empty’. Generally what I would mean
by these two statements is that there is no water in the glass yet there is no
mention of water in the two statements. After I drink the water, there is no
water in the glass yet there is space in the glass and this space is filled
with air. In our everyday life, we automatically ignore what we are not beholding
in our mind. When Buddhists use the word ’empty’ and ’emptiness’, they do not
mean that there is nothing or nothing exists. For Buddhists to say a thing is
empty is to say that thing is empty of a self or empty of one permanent thing.
What is a self?
A self or one permanent thing is the
essence of something and this essence distinguishes it from any other thing. If
I say I am writing this essay then there is no one permanent thing that ‘I’
refers to. To write the essay I used my hands, my eyes, my brain, my body, the
chair, the laptop, air and so on. I used my hands to type on the laptop, my
eyes to see and read, my brain to think and decide, my body to sit on the
chair, air to breathe oxygen which keeps me alive and so on. So when I say ‘I’
in ‘I wrote this essay’ I am referring to multiple things and not one of these
things is a permanent single thing that does or can do the writing itself.
Buddhists classifies a thing as ’empty’ with four characteristics.
Divisible, dependant, impermanent and identifiable.
refers to parts that comprises a thing. A divisible thing is not one single
thing (an entity or a self) but of many parts. For example, a car, a house, a human
etc are referred to as one thing but these words refer to things made up of
parts. A car is made of various parts like wheels, body, engine, seats and many
others. So car is not one thing that exists. The word ‘car’ refer to a thing
that is made up of multiple parts. A car is not wheels or its body or its
engine or any of its parts. We cannot reduce or equate the car to any of its
parts. If we remove all parts which are not the car then nothing will remain. Therefore
the car does not exist as a single indivisible thing.
Similarly, a dependant thing depends of supporting things to exist. It does not
exist, nor in itself or of itself. It is empty of independent existence. For
example, a car exists in dependence on thoughts as an idea, in assembly of
parts which are put together in a reasonable structure which becomes a car.
Without the thought, assemble of parts and reasonable structure, there will be
no car. Any change, in the assembled parts which cause the car to exist, will change
the car (for example, the type of car, the size of car, functions in the car
etc.). So the car is dependent on other things to exist and it is empty of one
A beginning, the capability to change and an end; these three features refer to
the impermanence of a thing. The car is impermanent because it has a beginning
and it has an end. In between the start and the end it can be changed. A car is
brought into existence with the assembly of parts and as time is passing or the
car gets used, it is heading towards its end. It is deteriorating in value and
efficiency. An element of
emptiness can be understood by the argument that when I say “I wrote this essay”
I contradict my own statement. To write we need pen and paper (something to use
the pen on i.e. hard surface. This is a general perception) and to write the
essay I did not use pen at all but I still say I have written this essay. This is
an example of how in our daily life we keep on using the same words for
different things or actions. As the time is passing, things and actions are
getting changed. People who never encountered a computer will have completely
different experience of writing the essay. This change is also happening
constantly at the micro level. For example, scientific research has found out
that our body changes every 7 years. Among multiple changes, one change is that
skin cells are replaced by new skin cells. That means if I touched your skin
then after 7 years it will not be the same skin that I would have touched 7
years ago. This change process that completes over the span of 7 years is
essentially happening every moment. The change of 7 years is a succession of
change that takes place every second (millisecond or the smallest measure of
time). This highlights the impermanence. Things are changing every moment. Future
is becoming the present and present is becoming the past.
Something is empty if it is identifiable. For something to exist we rely on the
condition that if we can identify it then it exists. If it cannot be identified
then it does not exist. So if we search for the ‘car’ and cannot identify the ‘car’
then there is nothing identifiable that is the ‘car’. What do we refer to when
we use the word ‘car’? The car is not one thing. There are wheels, a body,
engine and multiple other parts in the car. But the parts in themselves are not
the car. So then what is the identity of a car?
claim that identity is based on five aggregates. The five aggregates
are: material form, feelings, perception, mental formations, and,
consciousness. Using these aggregates we can identify a thing. These five
aggregates are extremely important in Buddhism. Our thoughts, ideas, feelings,
our every experience; these are all from these five aggregates. Our relation
with these aggregates can be described as ‘interdependent’. It is these five
aggregates that lead us to suffering. These aggregates are impermanent. And because
these aggregates are changing every moment, we are also being changed every
moment. This continuous change that is happening, we are unable to realize and
understand it. We take our state to be permanent but it is continuously
the example of water bubble to explain emptiness. Inside the water, a water
bubble is formed and we label it as a thing. As soon as it is formed in the
water it starts to rise up and when it reaches the surface it is nothing. There
is no substance, it is empty. If we use five aggregates to analyse the bubble; our
consciousness makes us aware that there is something. We use perception to
decide what it is. It can be seen by the eyes, heard with the ears, felt with
touch; all of it can happen only in the water. As soon as it gets out of water,
it’s vanished. This again highlights the impermanence of bubble. If we keep on
looking for the bubble in the air then we are bound to be unsatisfied because we
will not find it. (we will not find that bubble in the water as well. Zeno paradox.
Meditation example. Realize that tiniest measure of time where everything takes
place.) This is the idea of suffering in our everyday life. The thoughts we
have, our feelings, our perceptions; everything around us is our own
fabrication. From the example of a car we can conclude that there is nothing we
can identify that is the self. To consider our own fabrication as a permanent
thing is our error. This error is also our own fabrication. If we continue to
regret the error, we are using the same process to create more suffering which we
first regarded as the error. From the definition of empty, we can believe that
almost everything is empty. Everything in the realm of five aggregates has two
associations: cause and consequence.
the world is composed of the five aggregates. Everything in the world is
impermanent and changing. That means our world is changing continuously as
In Buddhist teaching, emptiness is taught as
an approach to meditation. Emptiness is the path to release from suffering.
In fact, I
contradict my own statement. To write we need pen and paper (something to use
the pen on i.e. hard surface) and to write the essay I did not use pen at all
but I still say I have written this essay. This is an example of how in our
daily life we keep on using the words for different things or actions and yet
the action or the thing keeps on changing. This highlights the impermanence. Nor
a thing is permanent nor the idea.
Meditation is one of the three divisions of the noble
eightfold path. Meditation is subdivided into three paths; right effort, right mindfulness
and right concentration.
The goal of the meditation is to reach the cause of all
suffering; achieve emptiness to end suffering. It is to be nowhere nor to be everywhere
but to be here.
It is to grasp the moment in which the continuous change is
happening. Much like Zeno’s paradox of motion, the smallest measure of time (from
second to millisecond to nanosecond to yactosecond) with which the future
become the present and the present becomes the past. Meditation manifests
itself with heightened form of concentration and then towards realizing the
nature of things to achieve complete liberation. In Buddhist teaching, emptiness
is an approach to meditation which leads us to release ourselves from suffering.
Having all energy, all focus and all concentration here in the moment.