What Do Buddhists Mean by Emptiness?

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What Do Buddhists Mean by Emptiness?

emptiness definition


By John Pendall


Let’s talk about emptiness, void, nothingness, Suññatā.

It’s a scary word—emptiness. It makes me think of moody Emo kids and nihilists. It reminds me of my aching wallet and lackluster social life. Emptiness is such a negative word here in the West that when I Google it, I’m confronted with self-help talk about how to not feel empty anymore. I was taught to equate emptiness with meaninglessness and lack. That’s not what it means in a Buddhist sense. Well, it kind of does, but not really. We’ll get to that soon enough.

Buddha said there are three kinds of emptiness: emptiness of self and objects, emptiness of labels, and emptiness as a liberating experience.

Basically, things are constantly changing and deeply interdependent. This means that they are empty of stagnancy and isolation. That doesn’t sound too bad, does it?

They’re also empty of labels because things change at such a velocity and are so utterly interdependent that there’s nothing substantial enough to accurately hang a phrase on. That realization comes with experiences had through meditation and mindfulness.

Thich Nhat Hanh decently explained emptiness in the Heart of Understanding. Sheng Yen also did a great job explaining it in the Method of No-Method. Running with TNH’s line of thought, I’ll babble on for a while about a piece of paper. If you really want to play along, peruse a piece of paper every now and then while you’re reading this column; unless you’re driving.

(Wait, you probably shouldn’t be reading this if you’re driving anyway. What are you doing? Stop smiling! You’re rocketing down a crowded road at 80 mph reading this column, shaving, listening to Alice Cooper, and drinking a dry martini! This is inadvisable.)

Anyway, for those who are stationary readers, the piece of paper you’re looking at is empty. I’m not talking about the lack of words on it, but the quality of the paper itself; it’s an expression of emptiness. It’s a temporary culmination of Dogen’s Uji, time-being. Why is this paper empty? Well, let’s ponder that a bit and get our daily dose of mind-blowing-ness…

Let’s follow the traditional Buddhist formula of returning things to their sources. This formula shows how interdependent things are. First, let’s return the paper to the store. Right off the bat (snapping my fingers), it’s dependent on you. If not for you, it wouldn’t be here now. It’s also dependent on the underpaid store employee who put it on the shelf. Both you and the employee are dependent on oxygen, food, water, and sunlight to survive. You also used fossil fuels (extinct dinosaurs and plants) to fuel your cars to get to the store. That means that piece of paper is also dependent on those things by extension.

You and that employee are the results of thousands of years of people getting it on. If anything had happened differently in all that time, neither of you would be who you are and where you are right now. Keep that in mind for every person we come across in this story.

The paper was shipped to the store from a distribution center. It was sent to the distribution center by a paper manufacturer who dyed and packaged it. It was given to them as plant pulp, which may have been provided by a lumber mill or sorcerer (I’m not completely familiar with the paper manufacturing process).

Before that it was transported by burly, bearded lumberjacks, hearty and full from their breakfast of flapjacks, Irish coffee and hog legs (I think I just inadvertently described TTB co-founder, Ty Phillips) who may have been hard at work in an Alaskan forest cutting down trees.

The tree that this paper came from may have been standing for hundreds of years. It depended on carbon dioxide, soil, sunlight and rain. It grew from a sapling, which came from a seed, which came from another tree.

That single piece of paper you may or may not be holding depends on all of those events to exist.

Even then, it only exists as it is temporarily. Even now it’s constantly changing on a molecular level. Even now it’s yellowing and growing crinkly. Eventually, it will crumble and dissolve. Maybe it will become part of the soil and serve as nutrients for another tree?

That’s one reason this paper is called empty. Another reason (and I love this one), is that it’s entirely composed of atoms. Its appearance as something singular and solid is a result of light and perception. A common 8.5 x 11 in. piece of paper is made of cellulose, calcium carbonate, and clay. It’s around 1.5 million atoms thick and is made up of about 10 sextillion (which sounds like an erotic science fiction novel) atoms.

That’s 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 atoms! Each of them constantly moving, shifting and binding with atoms from the environment.

Moving on from that piece of paper, there are around 50 quintillion atoms in a single grain of sand. To put both of these numbers in perspective, if you’re in the country or the desert on a clear night, you can see around two thousand stars. There are 100 to 400 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy and 100 billion galaxies in the observable universe. So there are more atoms in that piece of paper and that grain of sand than there are stars in our galaxy and known galaxies in our universe!

Things just get more astounding from there; a single cell in your body is made up of 100 trillion atoms, and there are about 100 trillion cells in your body. Each one has its own life. It’s born, reproduces, grows old, grows sick, and dies.

As for your entire body, physicists put the number of atoms at around 7 octillion. Octillion! That doesn’t even sound like a real number! 7,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 atoms!

Buddha never mentioned atoms directly because, well he lived thousands of years ago. He did say on several occasions that all things are made up of dust motes. His calculations regarding how many “dust motes” compose certain objects is startlingly accurate.

To finish this off, the self is also empty because it’s entirely composed of the five skandhas or aggregates: form, sensation, perception, sankhara and consciousness. But that’s a story for another time.

It’s because of all that we’ve talked about in this column that Buddha called attachment and yearning delusional. Most of this column is just intellectual rubbish.

Buddha encouraged us to sit down and be mindful so that we can experience Suññatā directly. Not only is it the nature of things, but it’s also one’s true self, or Buddha-Nature.

I am Suññatā. You are Suññatā. There is only Suññatā.


Photo: Google Search

Editor: Dana Gornall



John Pendall

John Pendall is a featured columnist & editor for the Tattooed Buddha, podcast host, musician, poet, and self-published author. He has a B.S. in psychology and lives between two cornfields in rural Illinois. His errant knowledge base covers, astronomy, theology, music theory, and quoting lines from movies.

John practices the "Outer Way" which he describes as, "I guess it's fundamentally DIY Buddhism and Taoism with a huge focus on autonomy, introspection, experiential learning and real world applicability. It isn't traditional or secular. I only call it the Outer Way for convenience, it doesn't actually have a name since it's just about doing what comes naturally."
By | 2016-10-14T07:48:53+00:00 January 18th, 2016|blog, Buddhism, Featured|0 Comments

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