Image for post
Image for post
The Buddha

Emptiness is a very important word in Buddhism. In my experience, teachers use it to describe two very different things.

One is pretty straightforward and hard to argue with. The other invites reconsideration.

Emptiness, often luminous emptiness, is a description of enlightened mind, or what I would call consciousness. This is perhaps the ultimate paradox of Buddhism, which I have never heard anyone state squarely. If, as I have suggested elsewhere, consciousness is the ultimate reality, then all of these things, all of this impermanence all around us, all of this material, comes from nothing. Huh.

I can’t explain it. The Buddha did say we humans suffer from ignorance. Maybe there’s a reason why the Buddha did not explain all of this. Maybe he did and we just don’t understand it. Maybe the problem is just one huge misperception.

I can get to a place in my head where I perceive luminous emptiness. I do not feel qualified to dispute this usage. It makes sense on its own terms, so I shall continue to use it.

The other use of “emptiness,” on the other hand, strikes me as far from optimal.

“Emptiness” is also the common term Buddhist teachers use to describe the not self character of all things, including you and me, or “anatta,” to use the Sansrkit term. This is one of the three marks of existence.

And it sort of makes sense to use “emptiness” to describe this quality, but it requires a lot of explanation.

I like to use cars to explain the concept. We see cars on a daily basis, most of us do, anyway, and we can easily identify them. Any given car has parts that require changing periodically. We have entire businesses that primarily change the oil and other fluids in our cars. Tires wear out and require replacement. This is routine. When we change the oil in a car, it is still the same car. One can replace the engine in a car and still say it is the same car. There is no single part of any car that is essential to making that car that car.

You may believe that you possess some single, essential component that makes you who you are. Please tell us what it is and where it resides in your body. All humans have various organs we cannot survive without. But Buddhists still say we are “empty” in the operative sense. Whatever component that makes any human uniquely who that human is, that is ineffable, undefinable, at best.

I do not dispute the claim, but I do think Buddhist teachers should think up a better term to describe this aspect of our existence. It is too wildly implausible on its face to say that humans and all phenomena are “empty.”

Help spread the word.

Written by

Uppity gay, Buddhist, author, historian.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store