The concept of emptiness is such a paradox

by Sonam Tsomo, Times of India, 28 October 2009

New Delhi, India -- Shunyata is a key concept in Buddhist philosophy, more specifically in the ontology of Mahayana Buddhism: ‘‘Form is emptiness, and emptiness is form.’’ This is the paradox of the concept.

<< The concept of emptiness is such a paradox

Emptiness is not to be confused with nothingness. Emptiness is non-existence but not nothingness. Also, it is not non-reality. Emptiness means that an object, animate or inanimate, does not have its own existence independently. It has its meaning and existence only when all the elements or components it is made of come into play and we can understand and impute its existence clearly.

By way of explanation, we are asked to observe a cup or any other container. Is the cup empty when it does not contain any liquid or solid in it? We say yes, it’s empty. But is it really empty? No, it’s not. It is full of air. Even when the glass is in a state of vacuum, it is not empty. It still contains space, radiation and maybe light.

Therefore the Buddhist point of view differs from convention. The cup is always full of something or the other. To describe it philosophically, the cup is devoid of its inherent existence. It has come into existence because of many other conditions coming into play.

It is because of these intricacies that the Buddhist concept of emptiness is often taken as nihilism. Scholars opine that western philosophy probably had a role in creating this misconception. Nihilism as a concept means that reality is unknown and unknowable, and that nothing exists. Whereas the Buddhist concept of emptiness says that ultimate reality is knowable, and that in no case should the concept of emptiness be taken to mean nothingness.

Plato held the view that there is an ideal essence in everything that we have around us, whether animate or inanimate. After all, ‘‘the essence of the cup ultimately exists in the realm of the mind.’’ The Dalai Lama says that Shunyata is the absence of an absolute essence or independent existence. If a thing exists, it is because of several other factors.

One might as well ask: Is it possible to have a partless phenomenon? According to the Madhyamika school of thought, there can be no phenomenon without constituents. Every phenomenon in the universe has to have parts or constituents to come into being.

The Dalai Lama’s book, Art of Living , makes our understanding of the perception of reality clearer. He says, ‘‘as your insight into the ultimate nature is deepened and enhanced, you will develop a perception of reality from which you will perceive phenomena and events as sort of illusory. And that mode of perceiving reality will permeate all your interactions with reality.

Even emptiness itself, which is seen as the ultimate nature of reality, is not absolute, nor does it exist independently. We cannot conceive of emptiness as independent of a basis of phenomenon, because when we examine the nature of reality, we find that emptiness itself is an object. Look for its essence and we will find that it is empty of inherent existence. Therefore, the Buddha taught of the emptiness of emptiness.’’