Emptiness

Last night I listened to a dharma talk about emptiness.  The talk was really good and it clarified the philosophy really well. At the end of the talk we had a discussion, in which I was trying to express my thoughts as they came to me but I feel like I didn’t quite get them out in the way I wanted to. So I am writing about it here. Because writing is a better mode of expression for me than talking.

When I first learned about the idea of emptiness in Buddhism it kind of freaked me out. My initial feeling about it was that it was an empty void, which both depressed me and scared me. I was under the impression that Buddhism was all about finding this state of “empty void” and then that is where one would find happiness. I just couldn’t understand how this state of “empty void” could be a happy place. And I felt like I would never be able to achieve this state of “empty void.”

However, the rest of the teachings of Buddhism made a lot of sense to me, so I stuck with it. And as I learn more about it, the philosophy of emptiness makes much more sense.

If you think about it, really think about it, you will see that nothing is real. Things become “real” because our brain assigns meaning to those things. For example, at my painting class the other day the teacher kept talking about two different shades of blue paint that we were supposed to use. For the life of me, I couldn’t see two shades of blue. I saw two shades of green, but only one shade of blue. My brain interpreted one of her shades of blue as green. So for me it was green, not blue. (remember The Dress?)

Things get really mind-blowing when this idea is extended to people. Yes, this idea of emptiness extends even to us. There is no “me” that is set in stone. I am projecting a version of Moni out into the world. But that projection is passing through your own filter of who you think I am. So I am actually a different person through your eyes. So who is the real Moni? A real, solid, Moni doesn’t really exist. There are multiple versions of Moni depending on who you talk to.

This idea of emptiness as it applies to the self really has really become more understandable to me as I cultivate online friendships. I think in the “real world” it’s harder to see this because you are dealing with a flesh and blood human. But it’s easier to see with relationships that take place online because you don’t have the benefit of flesh and blood. Your brain is forced to create this person in your head to make up for the missing pieces. We are doing this with every single person we know, real life or online, or whatever. The person you are relating to goes through all of your filters and you create a version of that person in your mind. And none of this is bad. Or even good! It’s just the way our mind works.

So the idea of emptiness seems way less scary to me now. Well, it’s kind of scary. it’s a different way of looking at the world and the idea of things not being set in stone is a weird idea. My brain wants order because that is what brains do. But it also helps to understand this idea a little bit as well. I know there is a lot more to learn regarding this philosophy.

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6 thoughts on “Emptiness

  1. In my course I managed to upset most of my class initially on the the topic of emptiness and Nagajurna. I asked whether emptiness was absolute and the lecturer claimed it was. I replied that in my view emptiness was painful to which it was suggested I was obstructed. Surprisingly, the two Venerables in my class seemed to take my view, and preferred to see it as a tool rather than absolute. My view is that if emptiness is absolute it is being ascribed a self nature, and the point of emptiness is that it too should be empty of self nature, otherwise it becomes another perfect concept. If emptiness is absolute it should cover all possible meaning and would include empty, hollow or false words or truths. For me this is unsatisfactory, duhkha, painful. Several days later the lecturer conceded that emptiness cannot be absolute, and could also see that if that was the case it would preclude compassion and our sharing in Buddha-nature. The underlying issue seems to be one of translation: there has been an emphasise on sunyata as emptiness but an alternative is openness, open endedness and being open to the world and the Dharma. It seems that early uses of the word emptiness referred to the sky above us rather than falling through the emptiness of space. I like the idea that early bhikkus wandered under a big open sky seeking wisdom rather than living under an empty sky and empty world. Interested to see my essay results after expressing such open ended views. Big hugs

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      1. I found the notion of openness better too. Here is the quote I used and which I like from my essay:

        McCagney (1997, p. xxi) argues for a non-absolutistic interpretation of Nagajurna and declines to use the term emptiness for sunyata. She proposes for Nagajurna the root meaning of the term sunyata in its earlier metaphorical meaning was that perfect wisdom “is like space. It cannot be grasped or gotten hold of. It provides no basis or support. The view of space presented in the Rgs and the Asta is an agrarian view, an ancient pre-industrial, pristine and rural view which derives from looking straight up at a deep blue, clear, vast and boundless sky. The Goddess of Wisdom, Prajnaparamita, symbolises the sky. The colour symbol of wisdom (prajna) is blue… Buddhist space is not interestingly described as empty because it is filled with clarity, with vastness, indeed, with light, as is the perfection of wisdom… For Indian Buddhists, the sky is not empty, but open. In the Prajnaparamitas, sunyata means openness…” (McCagney 1997, p. 25).

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  2. I thought you expressed it very articulately last night. Your remarks made me think about how assigning a self to people robs them of the chance to change or be fluid. In marriage for instance, when I assume I know how my husband will react to something, or how he feels about something, or what he’ll say, so I stop listening to him.

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