Emptiness - Introduction
If everything is empty, then what ceases in Nirvana and is born in rebirth? Guy Armstrong tackles this question and more in this richly informed, practical guide to emptiness for the meditator.
When emptiness is possible, everything is possible.
Were emptiness impossible, nothing would be possible.
EMPTINESS IS AN ODD TERM for the central philosophy of a world religion.
It certainly lacks the emotional appeal of Hinduism’s bliss and devotion,
for instance, or Christianity’s love and charity. It is not a word designed to attract newcomers. More than just austere, it sounds a little off-putting. Who would
gravitate to a way of life based on what sounds like nothingness?
In fact, the insights pointed to by emptiness are deeply liberating and bring
great happiness. They transform how we understand ourselves and life in profound
ways. Many of those who have practiced the Buddha’s teaching on emptiness
regard it as the greatest gift he offered the world. Nonetheless, it is not an
easy subject to approach.
When I first became interested in the concept of emptiness in Buddhism, I
read a hefty volume with a respectable pedigree that defined emptiness as “the
lack of inherent self-existence.” I didn’t doubt the author, but that definition
didn’t mean much to me at the time. Other works couch emptiness in terms of
dependent origination, which is also intellectually challenging. The fact that so
many books have been written about emptiness points to both the richness and
the complexity of the subject. Mingyur Rinpoche is a bright young Tibetan lama who, not too long ago, returned from a four-year personal retreat wandering the Himalayas. On his first visit to California in 1998, I had a chance to visit with him and show him around Marin County. As we drove I tried to strike up a conversation. “How
do you find the West?” I asked. “Square and clean,” was his reply. “Do you
think Tibetans are happier than Westerners?” “Yes.” End of conversation.
We reached our destination at the top of Mount Tamalpais and were walking
along the trail around the summit, an asphalt track about six feet wide, when I
thought I’d try again. “What is the difference between the Dzogchen view and
the Madhyamaka view?” I asked, referring to two schools in Tibet that are considered
to have different understandings of the nature of reality.
“Ah!” he said, now interested. “To understand that, you have to understand
that there are eighteen different kinds of emptiness!” He sat down on the path
right where we were and talked animatedly about the two views, concluding by
saying something to the effect that the Madhyamikas think that the Dzogchenpas
believe that something exists that doesn’t actually exist, but that actually the
Dzogchenpas don’t believe that. Or something like that. The eighteen different
kinds of emptiness went by quickly, but in any case it was a delight to listen to
the young rinpoche.
I wondered at first if our word emptiness was a weak translation of some lofty
ideal that had many rich overtones in the original ancient dialect, but that turned
out not to be the case. In Pali, the Indian language in which the earliest teachings
of the Buddha are preserved, the root word is suñña. (Please see the glossary
for the pronunciation of non-English terms.) The Sanskrit is shūnya. Both
words literally mean “empty.” A line of advice frequently given by the Buddha
to his disciples was, “There are these roots of trees, there are these empty huts.
Meditate now, lest you regret it later.” The word for “empty” here is suñña. As in
English, it becomes a noun by adding a suffix: suññatā (Skt: shūnyatā), giving us
“emptiness,” the quality of being empty.
Over many years the word emptiness has taken on a number of meanings in
Buddhism. The quality of something being empty is perhaps the simplest meaning.
It is helpful to remember that when a noun is derived from an adjective, as
emptiness is derived from empty, it doesn’t mean that the noun refers to something
that exists independently as an object on its own. It only means the noun is
denoting the quality pointed to by that adjective. Just as it is not possible to find
wetness apart from something that is wet, we don’t expect to find emptiness as
a thing that exists on its own. We could also talk about the roundness of a snow
globe or of a pregnant woman’s belly, but we are only saying that the objects are
round. Emptiness here just means the quality of something being empty, like a
jar, a desert, or the sky. With this meaning, emptiness functions, in a certain way,
more like an adjective.
What might be understood as empty and what is it empty of? Let us begin by
asking what it means to be a human being. Most people imagine that individual
human experience revolves around a self, a notion that appears in our language
through the terms I, me, my, and mine. Prior to careful investigation, we assume
that the term I refers to an entity that can be found. The Buddha, however, discerned
that our human experience is empty of a self. This is the liberating teaching
of not-self. In this example, emptiness is more or less synonymous with the
absence of a “self.” This was one of the early meanings of emptiness in Buddhism.
Later Buddhist schools used the term emptiness to emphasize the lack of substance
in the world. Just as twentieth-century quantum physicists exposed the
lack of solidity in matter, the Buddha and his followers perceived this directly
through meditation nearly 2,500 years earlier. This lack of substance is pointed
to in the earliest Buddhist teachings and was explored more fully in succeeding
Another early usage of the word emptiness refers to a refined meditative state
in which perception is greatly simplified. In a usual moment of experience,
the many objects we perceive—sights, sounds, smells, tastes, sensations, and
images—lead to thoughts and feelings about them. We hear a person’s voice
and imagine she is talking about us. We see a treasured possession and dwell on
how it came to us. When perception is simplified so that we simply notice, for
example, sound or sight, we are able to be present in a balanced and peaceful way.
The full development of this approach was described by the Buddha as “abiding
A more colloquial use of the word emptiness evolved that points to the quality
of mind when we are in touch with the present moment and not preoccupied
with wants, needs, or issues of past or future. This mind is said to be empty in that
it is not filled with extraneous thinking. Such a mind is attuned to the present
with openness and receptivity. An empty mind moves easily to joy and contentment
and moves slowly to reactive emotions like fear and anger. We might
understand this as a less refined, everyday example of “abiding in emptiness.”
There is a common misunderstanding about emptiness that I would like to
dispel as we begin. Emptiness does not mean vacancy, nothingness, or the absence
of conscious experience. As we’ve seen, emptiness is a property or characteristic
of things that appear in the world. It is found within our human, conscious experience.
There is a subtle meditative state called “the base of nothingness,” which
denotes an absence of sense contact. It is a significant achievement in concentration, but it does not bear in a central way on the meaning of emptiness as presented here. For the purposes of this book, emptiness is primarily understood as
a property of things that appear in our world. Understanding emptiness brings
freedom to our experience as we live consciously in the world.
Notwithstanding these definitions of emptiness or the eighteen kinds that Mingyur
Rinpoche pointed to, we might say, simply, that emptiness means that the
things of this world, including me, are not truly solid or substantial. In the beginning we are mostly unaware of the solidity we attribute to our self and the rest
of the world, so even this description requires investigation. In fact all the definitions of emptiness have broad implications, because they go against fundamental
assumptions we have of ourselves and the world, assumptions so pervasive and
unexamined that we hardly know they are assumptions at all. Here is a brief summation
of some of these implications.
We hold on tightly to things in an attempt to find security, but because the
world is always in flux, this effort is ultimately unsuccessful. The thing we’ve
clung to changes, and the clinging to what no longer is becomes a source of frustration and insecurity. Clearly seeing the fact of impermanence undermines our
tendency to hold on, because we recognize that things will inevitably change.
As we get older, for example, if we continue to wish that our bodies would stay
as they were when we were twenty, we will suffer with every new wrinkle and
pound. When we understand that change is inherent in the nature of the physical
body, we can be much more graceful in accepting the aging process.
Seeing emptiness acknowledges this and takes it a step further. We also see
that there was nothing solid to hold on to in the first place. It is not actually
possible to cling to reality, because change is so rapid and universal that a graspable thing cannot be found anywhere. All that we can cling to is the memory of
something fleeting. We understand, for example, that aging is going on in our
bodies even at the cellular level. If cells are constantly dying and being recreated,
how can our skin be expected to be constant for even one year? Moreover, within
most cells, rapid chemical interactions are constant, as mitochondria burn the
nutrients delivered to them. These bodily processes cannot be stopped or frozen
even for a second.
When we see that this is true in every facet of life, it changes us deeply. We
become less bound to the past and able to live more in the present. The heart can
let go of what it has tried to store up. This shift comes as a great relief. We feel
lighter, freer, and happier.
We explore emptiness not to construct another ideology but to bring greater
freedom and contentment into our lives. The aim of all the Buddha’s teachings
is to convey a path out of suffering in all its many forms and into the greatest
possible freedom, which he called nibbāna. The Buddhist path is different for
each person, but there is a common trajectory for most of us, a series of steps in
the seeing of emptiness and an accompanying series of releases. It is these insights
and the resultant freedom that I do my best to describe in this book.
ABOUT THIS BOOK
One could talk about emptiness in a way that is highly philosophical and
analytical. Instead, this book aims to be introductory and practical in nature,
inviting you to discover the truth of emptiness in your direct experience.
I offer pragmatic approaches that I have found helpful for myself and for
students I’ve worked with in thirty years of teaching Buddhist meditation.
The book is divided into four major parts: Self, Phenomena, Awareness, and
Compassion. Each part explores a key area of the implications of emptiness.
Those familiar with the history of Buddhism may recognize that the first three
sections parallel the evolution of Buddhist thought in India.
Buddhism began with Gotama Buddha’s awakening and first teachings
(ca. 445 b.c.e.) and the formation of the original Sangha (community of
practitioners). After the Buddha’s death (ca. 400 b.c.e.) some philosophical
disagreements emerged, and over the next few hundred years, the Sangha splintered
into about eighteen schools, including the modern tradition we know as
Theravada, “the way of the elders.” I will refer to these eighteen as the schools of Early Buddhism. Despite their differences, the eighteen schools all agreed on the
central teachings of the historical Buddha, which emphasized the emptiness of
our conditioned notion of self.
The Mahayana (“great vehicle”) schools emerged around 100 b.c.e.–250 c.e.
based primarily on the Perfection of Wisdom texts (Skt: Prajñāpāramitā Sutras)
and the works of a teacher named Nāgārjuna. The teachings of these schools
emphasized the emptiness of all phenomena, that is, the emptiness of objects as
well as of self.
The Yogācāra (“practice of yoga”) school, a branch of the Mahayana founded
about 350 c.e., looked closely into the nature of awareness itself and found that
it too was characterized by emptiness. This understanding became the basis for
many later schools of meditation.
The first three sections of the book correspond to the emphases of those three
schools. The fourth section of the book, Compassion, is relevant for all Buddhist
schools—and indeed to anyone looking to live a life guided by kindness
Supportive Tools and Practices
The Buddha’s teachings are called the Dharma, a term that means “truth” or
“law” or “the way things are.” Traditionally there are three avenues to learning
the Dharma based on what activity the understanding springs from.2 These three
avenues generally have differing degrees of power in their ability to transform us.
1. Understanding from hearing. This learning comes from hearing someone
talk about the way things are or, in the modern day, reading about it.
This gives us new information and leads to a certain kind of conceptual
knowledge, but its effect is usually limited.
2. Understanding from reflection. We deliberately consider and think about
the new information to see how it might apply to our own life and expe-
rience. We are still in the thinking realm, but we’re reflecting under our
own guidance in a way that feels new and direct. We might say that the
first two avenues fall under the approach of rational inquiry.
3. Understanding from meditative insight. This way of learning occurs
through the arising of an intuition that reveals a new way of seeing the
world. While meditative insight will eventually express itself in words, it
first emerges as a flash of pure seeing. Insight is essentially nonconceptual
and has the greatest power to transform us. The primary style of meditation
taught in classical Buddhism is called insight meditation (Pali:
vipassanā) because of its emphasis on this third kind of understanding.
Meditative insight can’t be willed, ordered, forced, or commanded. It
blazes forth when the conditions are right. An essential part of conditions
being right is that we have previously seeded the ground with the
two avenues of rational inquiry: hearing (or reading) and reflection.
Meditation then adds the qualities of stillness and presence, which lead
to fresh and creative ways of understanding. When the time is right, insight
arises as this third kind of learning.
In a public talk a few years ago the Dalai Lama explained succinctly how these
three avenues work together. He quoted an old Tibetan master talking about
his own practice: “When I meditate, I bring to bear my study and critical reflection.
When I study, I bring to bear my meditation and critical reflection. When
I reflect, I bring to bear my study and meditation.”3
We need all three avenues of learning to fully understand the truth of emptiness.
This book can itself be a source for study, and I will also recommend other
readings. In these pages you will find some reflections to carry out on your own.
You will probably form your own ideas and questions to consider further. Reflection
will greatly strengthen your confidence in your understanding and lead
onward to insight.
Some of the explorations in the book will be most accessible to those who
already have a Buddhist meditation practice. We encourage you to take up a
meditation practice, if you haven’t already, that will foster the kind of intuitive
realizations that can most deeply free the heart and mind. Simple meditation
exercises suitable for new meditators are included in this book, but because
this is not primarily a meditation guide, we recommend that you find either a
teacher who can provide detailed guidance or a book specifically about meditation
The inquiry into emptiness is not a one-day or one-week adventure. Most of
us find that new understandings keep coming over a lifetime of study, reflection,
and meditation. With them comes an ever-growing sense of freedom and ease
in life, as well as more heartfelt connections with other people, creatures, and
physical nature. The entire process, which we might describe as the awakening of
wisdom, is possible only because of the vast, inherent richness of your heart and
mind. If you sincerely want to understand, and you pose the right questions in
a sustained way, the mind with its profound intuitive powers will respond with
wisdom and insight. The keys that unlock the mysteries are observation, inquiry,
A Note on Sources
Among the eighteen schools of Early Buddhism, each had its own canon of
texts that included monastic rules, discourses of the Buddha, and a psychological
schema. From all these schools only one entire canon has survived to
the present day, that of the Theravada School. It has come down to us in Pali,
a language of ancient India similar to Sanskrit. Much of the Pali Canon is purported
to be the authentic words of Gotama Buddha from almost 2,500 years
ago. While this is impossible to verify, recent work comparing these texts with
fragments of other canons found in China and Tibet support the view that the
Pali Canon does include the essential components of the Buddha’s teachings
from his lifetime.
In this book I will use the texts of the Pali Canon for quotations attributed
to the Buddha. When a phrase appears here such as, “the Buddha said,” it means
that such a statement can be found in the Pali Canon as representing the words
of Gotama Buddha. While errors have certainly crept into these texts over the
years, I take the discourses (Pali: suttas) of the Pali Canon to be as complete
and reliable a guide to the teachings of the historical Buddha as can be found today.
In Mahayana texts like the Prajñāpāramitā Sutras, statements are often presented
as having been spoken by the Buddha himself during his lifetime. Many of
these statements represent deep spiritual wisdom. As to their authorship, however,
I follow Edward Conze, a scholar who translated many of these texts into
English, in his assertion that the Mahayana texts were created by other authors
hundreds of years after the Buddha’s death.5 The consensus among Western
scholars agrees with this assessment. Conze suggests that the words were put
into the mouth of the Buddha to give the later texts the same authenticity as the
Similarly, it is clear that Nāgārjuna’s works and the key texts of the Yogacarins were created long after the Buddha’s time. This does not make them any less powerful or diminish their value for the sincere practitioner, but it can be helpful to recall that they are not the actual words of Gotama Buddha.
A Note on Terms The ancient languages of Pali and Sanskrit were very precise in their descriptions of the human mind and meditative experience, much more so than English
is today. Western culture unfortunately has little understanding of many of the
states that the Buddha was pointing to. We can expect that over decades some
of the ancient words will migrate into English, as they have into modern Thai
and Burmese—though we are not there yet (notwithstanding a perfume named
Samsara, and the like).
Good translations are helping us read more accurately in English what the
Buddha meant. I will generally try to use a single English word throughout this
work to translate a single Pali word so that we can develop a more precise English
vocabulary for these teachings. Unfortunately, sometimes the full meaning of a
Pali word cannot be adequately conveyed by one English word. For example, the
Pali term dukkha is usually translated as “suffering,” but it actually indicates the entire range of the uncomfortable experiences in life, from intense suffering to
pervasive insecurity to mild discontent. Other English words bring in connotations
that are not present in the original Pali term and so can be misleading for
English speakers. For example, “concentration” is the generally accepted translation of the Pali samādhi. However, concentration connotes an exclusive focus
of attention, a sense that is not present in samādhi. An English speaker who
wishes to understand the Dharma will still benefit from learning some of the
When a Pali word is used in this book, it will generally be in italics and will also appear in the glossary, where its pronunciation will be indicated. As for diacritical marks, which are key to the correct spelling for scholars, we will follow a middle path. For Pali or Sanskrit words that have passed into or are passing into
English (e.g., Theravada, Mahayana, nirvana, samsara, and the word Pali itself ),
we will not use diacritical marks at all or treat them in italics. For words that
are not widely used in English, we will preserve the diacritical marks (such as
those that indicate a long vowel) that an English speaker will need to pronounce
the word in a more or less acceptable manner, but otherwise phoneticize those
words. For example, while the word for “emptiness” in Sanskrit with full diacritical marks is śūnyatā, for ease of pronunciation by a general reader, we will be rendering this as shūnyatā.