A Whole Bunch of Ways to Think About Emptiness

Here are some ways to get a good intuition for the Buddhist philosophy of emptiness.

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Introduction

Emptiness – it’s a word that comes up a lot in Buddhist thought, and often in a way that makes it sound very important. This was quite frustrating to me for some time because I didn’t get what people were actually talking about or why it was relevant to contemplative practice.

It turns out that an understanding of emptiness can help tie a good deal of Buddhist philosophy together, as well as provide a useful platform for many types of insight practice. This is the first blog in what will be a series about emptiness, and is intended to give a brief intro to what emptiness is, and some intuitive ways to think about and understand it.

Where Does Emptiness come into the Picture?

The Buddha taught that the root of the pervasive unsatisfactoriness that characterises human life is ignorance (Sanskrit: avijjā). He taught that we are ignorant not just in the sense of lacking some knowledge, but of actively misperceiving the true nature of reality. It is this misperception, according to the Buddha, which underlies all of our suffering. So what is the nature of this misperception?

We have a clear sense of being in a world of separate, real things, and that we are seeing the world and the things in it as they really are. The apparent reality of things – the sense that things actually exist in the way we perceive them – is what we are mistaken about. Despite appearances, all things (including ourselves) are in fact characterised by emptiness (Sanskrit: Śūnyatā).

Although emptiness is implicit in much of what the Buddha taught, he didn’t speak much overtly in terms of emptiness. It was the 2nd Century Indian Philosopher Monk Nāgārjuna who is best known for making it an explicit feature of Buddhist philosophy.

Really, Actually Real – Svabhāva

We are mistaken about the apparent reality of things – what the heck does that mean? A key concept to understand is that is that of svabhāva. This means something like “inherent existence”, “fundamental existence”, or “essence”. It means something that you can really find, if you look for it – something ultimately real. When Nāgārjuna speaks about emptiness, it is svabhāva, according to him, that reality is empty of.

Something with svabhāva would be something irreducible – something which is an inherent part of reality. The ancient Greeks proposed the concept of atoms (or atomos, in Greek – literally meaning ‘indivisible’) of the four elements as the fundamental units of reality. Some Christians might propose a soul as something with an inherent irreducible essence, and scientists may have put forward electrons, protons, and neutrons as examples of svabhāva at a certain point in the history of science.

The Ship of Theseus Problem (AKA The Sugababes Problem)

To demonstrate how thinking in terms of inherent essences can trip us up, let’s look at a thought experiment and philosophical problem called The Ship of Theseus.

The problem goes like this: the ship of the Greek hero Theseus occasionally requires repairs – a new nail here, a new board there. But after many years, somebody realises that every single part of the original ship has been replaced – nothing of the original remains. The question is: is it still the same ship? If not, at what point did it become a different ship? These questions can seem deeply perplexing if we think of a ship as something which inherently exists.

However, questions like these simply have no answer, because there is no such thing as a ‘ship-essence’ underneath the constituent parts of a ship to which the labels ‘same’ or ‘different’ can apply. The idea of a ship is a useful conceptual fiction imputed to a bunch of boards and nails and sails and stuff – a shorthand which makes the collection of parts easy to think and talk about. This is to say that a ship has no svabhāva – no inherent essence.

These same problems apply to British girl group Sugababes, whose last original member, Keisha Buchanan, was finally replaced in 2011, causing a mass panic about the ontological status of the concept of Sugababes, and by extension, every aspect of perceived reality.

A ship is a conceptual fiction imputed to ship parts, and this same reasoning applies to anything with parts – from the Sugababes down to the level of a hydrogen atom. You could replace the electron, neutron, and then proton of a hydrogen atom (and the quarks that compose those) and be unable to answer if and when the atom was the same atom or a different one in precisely the same way. Of course there are differences – the composition of a hydrogen atom is more interesting to physicists than that of ships, and for good reason, but they are the same with regard to their lack of inherent essence.

Illusions and Princess Leias

Note that what is being asserted is not that empty things – like ships and atoms – do not exist, but only that they don’t actually possess the irreducible essence which they might seem to. An analogy that Nāgārjuna sometimes employs in his writings to demonstrate this point is that of a magician’s illusion – a kind of magical hologram. Those who have not apprehended the true nature of reality are like those who think that the hologram is what it depicts – for example, a Princess Leia.

Nāgārjuna is in the position of saying that the hologram is not what it appears to be. He isn’t saying that there is no hologram – that nothing exists at all – only that the onlookers are mistaken in their perception of what the hologram really is. In the same way, those who have not overcome their ignorance perceive the world as being full of things with inherent existence – things like selves, suffering, objects, time, material form, Sugababes, and so on – which do not really possess that inherent existence.

A Brief Aside About the Point of This Stuff

At this point, these arguments about emptiness may seem confusing not because they are hard to grasp, but because the truth of them seems so obvious and unnecessary to point out. Few people think that ships are an intrinsic unit of the fabric of reality.

These examples are merely intended to demonstrate the target of this style of reasoning – the lack of inherent existence. The rubber of this philosophy really hits the road when it is applied to things which are more punishing for our intuitions, and more psychologically consequential – such as our intuitive feeling of being a unitary ‘self’. Not many people suffer because they believe that ships are inherently existent.

Traditional Madhyamaka philosophy (the school of philosophy founded by Nāgārjuna, centred around the insight into emptiness) distinguishes between learned and innate belief in svabhāva for this reason. Belief in irreducible Gods or atoms would be instances of learned belief in svabhāva – these are clearly not innate, and can be discarded fairly easily by critically reasoning about them. Instances of innate belief in svabhāva, on the other hand, which include the belief in a self, and in mental states like pleasure and pain, remain influential – operating in the background – even when one understands logically that they cannot exist as independent entities. This distinction is well captured by the difference between belief and alief.

The point is the psychological liberation that results from developing a deeply intuitive understanding of emptiness – an alief in emptiness – and applying it to that which underlies our suffering. As I said, I won’t go into this much in this blog, but suffice to say for now that a more intellectual familiarity with the philosophy of emptiness will be a helpful crutch in this endeavour. To that end, let’s carry on looking at some more perspectives on emptiness thinking.

Beyond Convention

Something that svabhāva must have is reality beyond mere convention. Money is an example of something which only exists inasmuch as its existence is agreed upon. Its status as money obviously depends on social convention, rather than reflecting anything deep about the nature of reality; it’s not as though money is the kind of thing that had to be discovered.

Another way to say this that jives with some people is that svabhāva must be something that exists from its own side. Money does not exist from its own side – the monetary value of a disc of metal with a face on it being something merely imputed by those who agree to use it.

A similar point obtains for many things that cannot reasonably be said to exist from their own side. A world without humans, for instance, would not respect the boundary that we assert between chairs and any other random lumps of wood. This is another way of saying that the chairness of a chair exists in the mind of one who perceives it, and not in the wood of the chair itself.

Emergence

We looked at the magician’s illusion analogy for emptiness before – another analogy which can be a useful way to understand emptiness is that of emergence. (There are more and less strict definitions of emergence – I’m going to use a very lax and inclusive one for the sake of simple examples).

Emergence describes the tendency of new properties to emerge from the interaction of simple elements, which do not themselves possess those properties. One stick cannot stand up by itself, but if you have two sticks, you can lean them against each other to make them stand upright. This new property of ‘stand-uprightness’ is not something possessed by either stick individually, but which results from their interacting.

Another example: the properties that we intuitively call ‘wetness’ do not apply to individual water molecules – you need a very large quantity together for such qualities to emerge from the interactions of individual molecules. Similarly, the equations of fluid dynamics describe the behaviour of sufficiently large quantities of fluid, but do not meaningfully apply to any individual molecule, since the equations are determined largely by the way particles interact.

One last example – corrugated paper is much stronger than a flat sheet of paper.

This will be much more resistant to bending longitudinally. This extra strength is not some new ‘thing’ that you’ve created and which now exists in the world. It does not exist even in the paper itself. If you had an essentialist conception of strength, you might be tempted to attribute the strength to the ‘paper-essence’, but of course this is easily disproved by flattening it out again. The extra strength comes merely from the arrangement.

These emergent properties – stand-uprightness, wetness, and the strength of corrugation, all quite obviously exist in the conventional sense. But they don’t exist as ‘things’; they are more like descriptions of interactions – they are functions. Thus, when you fold the paper, you haven’t created a new thing called strength – even though the paper possesses a strength which it didn’t have before – and when you straighten it out, nothing is lost from the universe, even though that strength has now vanished.

This is one example of the distinction Nāgārjuna makes between conventionally existent and ultimately existent things. There’s no problem talking about the conventional existence of the strength of corrugated paper, but you are making a mistake if you think that that strength is something that is ultimately real – that is, something that can really be found on analysis as a thing. The same is true of the very paper itself, which itself is a function – doing things like reflecting light in a way that looks papery, supporting creases when folded, and so on – that results from the interaction of its parts, rather than a unitary essence.

Thus, that which lacks ultimate reality can still function – and that function is not necessarily just a case of having conventional agreement – requiring people to be around to have ideas about it – as is the case with money. You can rely on the principle of corrugation to build stuff, for example, which would stay standing even if nobody knows about it.

Emergence, although a useful analogy, is not necessary to demonstrate the emptiness of inherent existence. We saw this with the ship of Theseus example, which is empty by virtue of being composed of parts, before we started considering any of its emergent properties. The constellation-ness of a constellation of stars is certainly empty, but it has no emergent properties; it is merely the sum of its parts.

Verbs and Nouns

Yet another way of thinking about emptiness is in terms of verbs and nouns. What we’re looking for when we’re looking for svabhāva is a noun; some really existent, unchanging thing. However, what we tend to find when we look is just verb – all function and interaction.

Although the grammar of our language forces us to imply that the action indicated by verbs emanates from unchanging subjects, (e.g. “the boy threw the ball”), this is incoherent. How could an unchanging thing cause the change indicated by verbs? (obviously this doesn’t really apply to verbs like “remain” which indicate inaction, but whatever).

Let’s take an apparently hard case as an example – the solidity of something hard and unreactive, like diamond. Surely the fact of its very solidity – its ability to provide resistance – characterises a noun and not a verb? Providing resistance doesn’t even feel like something that is being done, as much as a mere inherent characteristic of an object. This is precisely the intuition of essentialism.

Yet, it is indeed a kind of activity. For one thing, a diamond must be changing in some way to exactly match the force applied to it when it provides resistance – and to be responsive in a consistent way to the amount of force it can’t withstand at that point when it breaks. If it didn’t change in any way until the point when it breaks, that point would be arbitrary – yet in fact it’s the same every time.

Indeed what we find when we look into the physics of the thing is that resistance is created by interactions between electrons in the diamond and in your finger. Pushing your finger against the diamond pushes the electrons of each surface closer to each other. Those electrons repel, and so are pushed into higher energy states in their fields surrounding the atomic nucleus. At a certain point this process requires more energy than one’s fingers can provide – which feels to us like the diamond is “solid”. So, solidity is an effect produced by the interaction between a diamond and a finger within certain conditions – for example, room temperature air.

So, even something as apparently inert as the property of solidity itself is just more verb – a description of activity – of interaction. This explanation was given in terms of electrons as nouns, and here my knowledge of physics quickly reaches its limit, but I think it’s safe to say that a similar kind of analysis can be applied to the electrons themselves; they are not static, unchanging things, and can still only be described in terms of function – how they interact (physicists, please weigh in in the comments).

So, this is another way of saying that everything is empty: there are no nouns, there is only verb, verbing all the way down. I think this is sort of what physicists are talking about when they say that everything is energy.

Zooming In

Yet another analogy which captures this same point is one that I’m shamelessly plagiarising from one of Alan Watts’ talks – zooming in with an infinitely powerful microscope to figure out what things are made of.

Let’s say you’re looking at a piece of rock. At first it seems to be made of a fairly homogeneous hard grey material. You put it under the microscope and start to zoom in, and all you can see for a while is just grey blur – so it seems like your “irreducible hard grey rock material” hypothesis is confirmed – but then a new level comes into focus and you see that it’s made up of tiny crystalline structures. Grand. Now let’s see what those are made of by zooming in more. Again, for a while all you get is blur – so perhaps these crystal formations are the fundamental rock element we’re looking for. But no, another level comes into focus – and this time you can see molecules of… uhh… rockite (look, I’m not a geologist, I don’t know what rocks are made of). Zoom in more and there’s more blur until you get to atoms, and so on. The rock is just a big pattern of crystal structures, which in turn are big patterns of molecules interacting, etc. etc.. At every level, you look for “stuff” but find only pattern – only interaction.

The zooming in analogy has strong parallels to what we do in many forms of insight meditation; looking closely enough at apparently solid aspects of experience until they reveal their emptiness to us.

Dependent Origination

It is plain that we live in a universe of cause and effect, and this creates some immediate problems for essentialist thinking, because phenomena which arise due to cause and effect must lack inherent existence. If something arises in dependence upon conditions, and falls apart in dependence upon conditions – then by definition it doesn’t exist inherently. The Ship of Theseus problem was just one example of this.

Take anything which seems like it might have inherent existence – let’s stay with the ship example again – and rewind the clock. You will see it arising out of an interacting system of non-ship causes, like planks, ship builders, tools and so on. Take these elements and rewind some more, and you will see them being caused in turn – by trees, seeds, carbon dioxide, the sun, woodcutters, and so on. Every ‘thing’ is dependent on indescribably vast and densely interconnected systems of causes and effects, expanding exponentially backwards in time to the start of the universe – and furthermore every ‘thing’ influences the direction of interacting systems of causes and effects expanding exponentially into the future.

In this universe-wide continuum of interdependent streams, interacting all the time, to identify anything as separate – to identify the start or end of that thing – we must draw lines through these streams of interconnection, and these lines are drawn by convention; by our human concepts and perceptual systems, not by the structure of the universe itself. Take the Ship of Theseus example again – when does the ship really begin and end? As we saw, there is no answer to this question. There is no ending; only changing. The apparent end of one stream is merely the arising of another.

This is what Nāgārjuna means when he writes “Neither from itself, nor from another, Nor from both, Does anything whatever, anywhere arise.” If you think of things as having inherent existence, then the burden is on you to delineate when they begin and end. For somebody who has understood emptiness, this is a non-problem, because it is only conventionally that things can be said to arise (i.e. there is no arising of svabhāva), and so there is no essence to which the concepts of ‘begin’ and ‘end’ can ultimately apply.

Dependent Origination and The Problem of Definition

Another problem arises for essentialists in trying to define what a particular thing is in its essence without reference to cause and effect. If it isn’t part of the network of cause and effect, how can you know it? By definition it couldn’t interact in any way with the world – meaning it couldn’t be seen, touched, or even inferred in any other way – since inference must be grounded in assumptions about causality.

Therefore, the only meaningful thing we can say about anything is in terms of the effects it has – not about the essence of the thing itself.

Going Deeper Into Dependent Origination

Buckle in, ladies and gents; we’re about to get PHILOSOPHICAL.

Well ok,” – say the essentialists, reading that last section – “perhaps things that arise from conditions – conventionally existent things like ships – don’t have inherent existence, but there must be some bedrock of reality which is inherently existent”. They might propose some entity, like atoms, or quanta of energy, out of which dependent phenomena are composed. However, another problem arises when we try to ground the apparent existence of cause-effect relationships in inherently existing phenomena.

Inherently existent phenomena cannot change – to say of an entity x that it is both inherently real, and yet can change, say from state A to state B, would be to assert that state A and state B are different, but entity x is the same, whether it is in state A or state B, which is an obvious contradiction.

Again this is only a problem if we are talking in terms of ultimate existence, rather than conventional existence. A ship can have its sail up or down, but as we’ve seen, ships are not inherently existent precisely because they have parts that can change in this way.

So, how can dependence and the evident regularities of cause and effect be brought about by entities which do not change? The statement ‘A causes B‘ is not an explanation of the regularity with which B follows from A – it is just a description of that fact. Explanations require an appeal to a more fundamental level of activity. For instance, to explain how a shoot grows from a seed, one needs to start talking in terms of sub-seed parts.

But how will this be done for the statement ‘A causes B‘ if A is changeless and irreducible? If A is fundamental and causes B, then the power to cause B must be an inherent aspect of A – in which case one should expect A, unchanging as it is, to be constantly and unceasingly causing B – yet this is not how we observe causes relate to effects.

The alternative is for the power to cause B not to be inherent in A. Yet, if the causal power is external to A, in what respect does A cause B at all?

If an entity changes, then it isn’t inherently existent. But if an entity doesn’t change, there seems to be no basis from which to explain its interaction with other entities; an explanation which is plainly demanded by the obvious fact of cause and effect.

Conclusion

How far down into the structure of nature does emptiness thinking apply? I simply don’t know, and I hope it goes without saying that that’s a question for the physicists and not the philosophers. Reality is deeply unintuitive at the quantum level, and from the little I know, the laws of classical logic, the assumptions I have made about the laws of cause and effect, change, and so on, may not even apply. All I know about quantum physics is from Ant-Man 2, and I’m not even fully convinced that that was based on a true story.

As I mentioned at the start, the purpose of emptiness thinking is not to understand physics, but to undermine the source of our suffering. I have tried to provide the intuition for emptiness thinking with a few analogies and examples. Developing an understanding, and a flexible intuition for emptiness provides a fertile ground for insight practice. I hope to turn to this topic, and to go into more detail about the explicit arguments employed by Madhyamaka school against inherent reality, in later blog posts. For now, I leave it as an exercise for the reader.

Author: RationalShinkai

Ollie lives in England. He likes meditation, peanut butter, and Oxford commas.

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