Buddhism and the Concept of Emptiness
By Frank Simons
The Mahayana texts insist that “everything is possible for someone for whom emptiness is possible.”
Buddhism. Part 12, Emptiness
Thu, Mar 3, 5:30pm
Callejón Blanco 4
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The Mahayana introduced many important changes in the Indian/Buddhist tradition, but none was as profound or as far-reaching as the concept of emptiness. Emptiness challenged and undermined many of the rigid categories of traditional Buddhism. Emptiness has to account for both its positive and negative dimensions. Emptiness can be understood as an extension of the doctrine of no self. The Mahayana denies the reality of any enduring self and also denies the reality of the momentary phenomena that comprise the flow of personality. This position is expressed by saying everything is “empty” of identity. The nature of all things is simply their “emptiness.”
The concept of emptiness has important negative consequences, but it has a positive dimension as well. If everything is empty of any real identity, there can be no real difference between any two things. As a result, Mahayana texts often equate emptiness with “non-duality.” If everything is empty, there can be no difference or duality between nirvana and samsara, and there can be no difference between us and Buddha. This means nirvana is right here, right now, in this very moment.
A correct understanding of emptiness requires a balance between two different perspectives or “truths.” Ultimately, all things are empty, and nothing is real. The relationship between these two truths is not static. There is a three-stage cognitive movement from conventional to ultimate and back to conventional. We begin thinking, “I am in samsara and want to achieve nirvana.” After studying emptiness, we realize there is no difference between these two states. The third stage of the process is paradoxical and elusive, conveyed in simple ways, with a gesture, or a smile. When studying Zen, a bowl is no longer a bowl, tea no longer tea. Upon awakening, a bowl is a bowl, tea, tea.
The philosopher Nagarjuna expressed the spirit of this third cognitive stage when he said: “Everything is possible for one whom emptiness is possible.” If everything is an illusion, there is no barrier to accomplishing anything. With emptiness, everything is possible.
If everything were empty of individual identity, would this make you feel wiser or freer? How might the doctrine of emptiness change your approach to the conventional details of life, including the path that leads eventually to nirvana?
The course of 24 lectures is presented by Professor Malcolm David Eckel, professor of Religion and Director of the Core Curriculum at Boston University, who holds graduate degrees from Oxford and Harvard. An expert on Buddhism, comparative religion, and Asian faiths, Eckel has written insightful books on Buddhist philosophy, including Buddhism: Origins, Beliefs, Practices, Holy Texts, Sacred Places.