By BHANTE SUDDHASO * Photo by AYYA SOMA
In Theravāda Buddhism we often talk about the “Three Universal Characteristics” (tilakkhaṇā) – that all things are impermanent (anicca), unsatisfying (dukkha), and impersonal (anattā). All three of these are related to the topic of emptiness (suññatā).
First off, I should point out that there is a common misunderstanding. Many people believe that emptiness is a Mahāyāna doctrine and that it’s not found in the Theravāda texts, but this is actually not correct. While it’s true that there are many Mahāyāna Sūtras which go into incredible detail about emptiness (such as the Prajñāpāramitā Sūtras, which range from the very short Heart Sūtra and the relatively short Diamond Sūtra, to the moderately long Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra, all the way up to the extremely long Mahaprajñāpāramitā Sūtra), there are also a large number of Pāli Suttas which speak about emptiness.
The main difference is that the Mahāyāna Sūtras go into extreme detail on the subject, whereas in the Pāli Suttas the Buddha usually speaks about it very briefly, without going into great detail. This is normal for the Pāli Suttas; in these texts, the Buddha rarely goes into deep detail on philosophical or doctrinal topics. What the Pāli Suttas tend to emphasize is developing a framework of understanding, which we then flesh out through practice, through meditation experiences, through contemplating and reflecting on those ideas, through recognizing them in our daily life, through living them in every moment. So, the Pāli Suttas are not really concerned with trying to explain in detail the nature of emptiness, but rather with giving us the tools through which we can come to a deep understanding of emptiness on our own. This is because, from a Buddhist standpoint, the underlying nature of reality is exactly the same for everyone, so if we just look objectively at our experience, every one of us will come to exactly the same conclusions.
From a Buddhist standpoint, the underlying nature of reality is exactly the same for everyone, so if we just look objectively at our experience, every one of us will come to exactly the same conclusions.
This is one of the reasons why people often like to analogize Buddhist practice with scientific method. There is a similar underlying principle to scientific method: this belief that there is a basic underlying reality and that any person who objectively examines their experience will come to the same conclusions.
The main difference is that, in Buddhism, we are focused on examining the nature of mind; we’re not so interested in the physical world, except to the extent that it reflects our mind, and gives us a surface through which to examine our own mind and therefore come to a deeper understanding of the nature of consciousness and of conscious experience. But there is a similar approach of carefully and objectively examining our experiences, and also a similar method of taking on hypotheses and examining them, and seeing if they’re true or not. If something turns out to be true, then we can take it on as something which is worth living in accordance with. If something seems promising but we’re not sure yet, then we might take it on as a working hypothesis – something that we’re going to act as though it’s true for the time being and see what happens. Or, if something turns out to be a bit doubtful or not so accurate, then we modify it and try again – or possibly we reject it entirely and we look for something else: another framework, another approach, or another idea.
In this way, the Buddha’s teachings can be seen as a set of hypotheses, which we are encouraged to try out for ourselves – to try out as bases for experimentation, bases for investigation, bases for living. We take these principles as working hypotheses and see what happens when we live our lives as though they were true.
Coming back to the subject of emptiness: in the Pāli Suttas, the Buddha sometimes refers to emptiness using the word suññatā (emptiness), or the world suñña (empty). However, although there are many suttas where he uses those words, there are also a large number of suttas where the Buddha speaks about emptiness without directly using either the word suññatā or the word suñña. An example of this is the Pheṇapiṇḍūpama Sutta (SN 22.95), the simile on the lump of foam. In this discourse, the Buddha never uses the word “emptiness,” but that is exactly what he is talking about: he is talking about the inherently empty nature of phenomena – in particular, of the components of body and mind, which are what we usually identify as “me” and “mine.” And perhaps the flagship sutta on emptiness in the Pāli canon is also one which does not contain the word “emptiness”: the Kaccānagotta Sutta (SN 12.15). In the Kaccānagotta Sutta, although the Buddha never uses the word emptiness, he is talking about it in a very direct way, in a very undeniable way, which would be instantly familiar to anyone who has read the Mahāyāna sutras about emptiness.
The Kaccānagotta Sutta also provides one of the most direct frameworks for understanding what emptiness is talking about. Briefly speaking, in the Kaccānagotta Sutta, the Buddha states that phenomena cannot be described as either existing or as not existing. That is what we mean by emptiness.
One way to conceptualize this is that any object appears to exist under certain conditions, and does not appear to exist under other conditions. For example: right now you are having an experience. You have the conditions under which this current experience manifests. But in a few moments the conditions have changed, so you are having a different experience. In this moment you cannot say that the experience you had a few moments ago exists. It seemed like it existed at that time, but that time is gone. So now it seems like it does not exist. A moment ago, it seemed like it existed, now it seems like it doesn’t exist. So, which is it? The experience you had a moment ago – does it exist or does it not exist? From one perspective it seems like it does, from another perspective it seems like it doesn’t. So, is it real or is it not? Or when you are sitting in meditation, a thought flashes across your mind, so for a moment it seems like that thought is real, it seems like it exists. A moment later it’s gone: it seems like it doesn’t exist. So, is the thought real or is it not? Does it exist or does it not exist? That depends upon on your perspective, it depends upon your conditions. It depends upon the angle from which you look at it.
Another common example, emphasizing the subjective angles that we look at things: if you look at a bowl from one angle it seems to be concave, but from another angle it seems to be convex. So which is it? Is it concave or convex? Depending on how you look at it, you could say it’s both concave and convex, or you could say it’s neither concave nor convex. More precise would be to say that from one perspective it seems to be concave, from another perspective it seems to be convex, but the actual reality cannot be defined in those terms: the actual reality is just a bowl. A bowl is not concave or convex, it’s just a bowl. In the same way, when we look at a phenomenon, from one perspective it seems to exist, but when we look at it from another perspective it seems to not exist. Is its true nature existence, or is its true nature non-existence? Well, from one angle you can say it’s both real and not real – it both exists and does not exist – whereas from another angle you can say it neither exists nor does not exist. But both of those perspectives also are a little bit flawed. In actuality, what the Buddha says is it cannot be defined in terms of existence and non-existence: the concepts of existence and non-existence don’t apply.
The Buddha also says in the Kaccānagotta Sutta that, without going to either the viewpoint that things exist or the viewpoint that they don’t exist, a Buddha simply teaches dependent origination – conditional appearance (paṭicca-samuppāda). In other words, things appear to exist when the conditions are right for them to appear.
In the Pheṇapiṇḍūpama Sutta, when describing the true nature of body and mind, one of the examples the Buddha gives is a mirage. A mirage is an optical illusion that appears when the conditions are right; when you are looking in a particular direction and the sun or another light source is reflecting in a particular way, then a mirage appears – an illusion. And we take it for real because it looks real, it appears real. But it only appears real because the conditions are right for it to appear, and when those conditions change the mirage disappears. Fundamentally, can you say the mirage is real or not real? You can’t really say it’s either one. What we can say is that when the conditions are right a mirage appears to exist, and when the conditions change the mirage does not appear to exist. That’s all we can say.
One way of applying this to our practice is by recognizing that since all phenomena are inherently insubstantial (another way of saying they are empty), they don’t themselves have any absolute or eternal reality – and yet nonetheless they do appear to have conditional reality under certain conditions. It’s not that there is nothing there at all, but rather that what is there is insubstantial, it’s conditional. It appears only under certain conditions, and its appearance is incredibly fleeting – faster than a fingersnap. And actually one of the long-standing debates in Buddhism is whether anything really exists for any length of time at all. What appears to be the case from the suttas is that nothing actually exists for any amount of time – there is no length of time in which things exist, but rather they vanish the same instant that they appear: they appear and vanish simultaneously. There is no ongoing existence to anything, and things only appear to exist in relationship to other things.
This is what is meant by “dependent origination” (paṭicca-samuppāda): things appear based upon other things; nothing appears on its own, it appears based on its relationship to other things. This is also where the concept of interdependence or interconnectedness comes from. No phenomenon in the entire universe exists of its own accord. All phenomena exist (or seem to exist) in terms of their relationship to other phenomena, and all phenomena are defined in terms of their relationship to other phenomena.
It’s a bit like a dictionary. A dictionary can be a remarkably frustrating thing, because every word is defined by using other words in the dictionary. No word has any meaning by itself. Words only have meaning in terms of their relationship to other words. It’s the same with all phenomena. Any phenomenon only has meaning in terms of its relationship to other phenomena. It only has apparent existence based upon its relationship to other phenomena. And every single thing without exception is subject to change. In fact, every single thing without exception is changing.
So, the fundamental nature of reality is kind of like clay: it can be shaped into anything. It can take any shape, any form. If you give a sculptor a lump of clay, they might make a frog, or they might make a tree, or they might make a sword, or they might make a pencil, or they might make a Buddha, or they might make anything, because you can shape it into any kind of physical object you want to shape it into. But, fundamentally, the clay is not any of those shapes, it’s just a formless block of clay. But you could also say that that lump of clay is all of those shapes because it has the potential to manifest as any of those shapes, and when the conditions are right, that lump of clay then will appear to be any of those shapes. So, what is the lump of clay? Is the lump of clay a frog? Well, yes and no. Under certain conditions, yes, it certainly seems to be that way, but under other conditions, no, it doesn’t seem to be that way at all. This also is pointing to the nature of reality, the nature of emptiness.
One way of looking at emptiness is that it represents infinite potential: the basic substance of reality is infinite potential. The potential to manifest as any ‘thing’ and also the potential to manifest as the absence of things. This is another important point when we talk about emptiness. Emptiness is not bound by any particular form but it’s also not bound by the absence of forms. Emptiness is not nothingness. There is a lovely saying in Zen: “Everything is empty and that emptiness is completely full.” It’s this sense of boundless – limitless, infinite potential to appear as anything. And whichever way you look at reality you will see something manifesting, but fundamentally that’s just emptiness taking a particular form – or, rather, appearing to have a particular form.
Another great example is light in a prism. Light itself has no color. But when light passes through a prism, the light splinters into an infinite rainbow of countless different colors. Therefore, you can also say that light contains an infinite range of colors. Which statement is true? Is light colorless or does it have an infinite range of colors? Both statements are actually true; from one perspective, from one set of conditions, from one angle, either statement can be true – which also means that both statements are false. You cannot say that light has no color because it has infinite colors, and you cannot say it has infinite colors because it has no color – it’s colorless, by definition. Rather, we can say that under certain conditions the light will appear colorless, under other conditions it will appear to have many colors. This is also a way of starting to approach the nature of emptiness.
So maybe right now one part of emptiness is manifesting as a phone, another part of emptiness is manifesting as a female monk, another part of emptiness is manifesting as a clock – but these are all just temporary manifestations. In a few minutes the phone will be gone, the monk will be gone, the clock may or may not still be there because the person observing it will also be gone. The experience will change dramatically one way or the other. One way of looking at it is that reality itself – which is boundless infinite potential, unshaped raw emptiness – does not change, but the perspectives through which we view that unchanging reality do change, which means our experiences shift and change, and all of those experiences are ultimately based upon the perspective of an observer, which means the appearance of all these different objects and things and events and so on is dependent upon self-centeredness. I see a phone because I am looking through these eyes. I am looking through these eyes at that camera: me looking at that.
Fundamentally, in emptiness there is no ‘me,’ because ‘me’ is just a particular way of shaping realities, shaping objects, shaping phenomena. It’s a particular way of shaping emptiness into a particular configuration of one being looking at another being, or one being looking at an object. But fundamentally that’s not the way of things, that’s not reality. Reality has no shape, it has no form, it has no beings, it has no sight, it has no sound, it has no objects. And yet, it has every imaginable being, every imaginable sight, every imaginable sound, every imaginable object. All of that has the potential to appear when the conditions are right.
Taking on these perspectives, the mind naturally leads towards letting go, because we recognize that whatever object we are attached to is not quite real – it’s insubstantial. It is empty of inherent existence. If we are trying to hold on to it, we are going to suffer, because there is nothing there that we can hold on to.
We also recognize that no matter what perspective we have of our sense of self, it’s absurd, because our sense of self is also empty. It has no substance of its own, no lasting reality of its own, no inherent existence; it’s just a little fragment of crystallized potential, which from one angle seems to be real but from another angle can be clearly seen as not real – it just melts back into the infinite boundlessness of emptiness. It is just seen to be another tiny piece in the infinite matrix of possible realities, of possible experiences. So then we also start to drop our clinging to a sense of self, we start to let go of our rigid self-identity, we stop taking our rigid self-identity seriously. We have this identity of ‘oh I am so many meters tall and I am this gender and I have this career and I like this kind of clothing and that kind of music and this kind of food, and this is me.’ But then we realize that every single one of those components is empty of inherent existence. It is a conditional manifestation. Those phenomena, those details and aspects of who we think we are, only appear under certain conditions. Therefore, that can’t possibly be who we really are. This whole concept of self, this whole perspective of self-identity melts into utter nothingness when we look at it this way. But we also acknowledge that there is this experience, this experience is happening, because it’s one of the infinite possible apparent manifestations that occur within emptiness. It’s here, but it’s insubstantial. So, we don’t take it seriously, which means we are not caught by it, we are not trapped by it.
Practice the recognition of impermanence, know that nothing is your true self, and inevitably you will reach exactly the same realization of emptiness.
One comes to this naturally through developing the recognition of the impermanent and impersonal nature of phenomena – naturally you will come to a full understanding of emptiness. And this is probably why in the Pāli Suttas the Buddha did not bother to go into deep explanations on emptiness, because he saw he didn’t need to. If he just laid out the framework of practice, then people would figure it out on their own. Practice the recognition of impermanence, know that nothing is your true self, and inevitably you will reach exactly the same realization of emptiness. Inevitably, it will finally start to click into place.
In the Chan tradition they put this very simply. If you want to perceive emptiness, there is a very simple practice: “Let go of all forms.” (放捨諸相, fàng shě zhū xiàng) Let go of all forms, let go of all appearances, let go of all manifestations. Drop them immediately. This is also the fundamental meditation instruction for one of the meditation practices which we can do, which is called “silent illumination” (默照, mò zhào) in Chan Buddhism, or “objectless concentration” (animitta samādhi) in Theravāda Buddhism. The practice is just this one simple practice: Let go of all appearances, let go of all manifestations, let go of all forms. Don’t try to hold on to anything which is appearing as being substantial or real or persistent. Just let it melt away. The moment it appears, let it melt, let it dissolve. In this way, naturally, the mind starts to recognize this pervasive openness, which underlies and pervades all things. This is what we mean by emptiness. You can feel it in each moment.
Emptiness is a deceptive term because emptiness sounds a bit cold, but the actual experience of emptiness is more like a soothing warmth. And emptiness can sound depressing, but the actual experience of emptiness is joy; the actual experience of emptiness is safety. Like when you have been having a terrible nightmare and you start waking up from it and you start realizing that the nightmare is not quite real. Then a sense of safety comes over your mind. “Oh, there is actually nothing wrong! Oh, how lovely!” That’s what it’s like when we practice the perception of emptiness. It’s realizing that we are wrapped in the warm embrace of boundless limitless unshaped potential. We are completely immersed in the safety, the security, the harmless free-fall of formlessness.