Articles September 18, 2017

Emptiness: A Practical Guide for Meditators

Guy Armstrong

When emptiness is possible, everything is possible. Were emptiness impossible, nothing would be possible.
— Nāgārjuna

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.

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. 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 2,600 years earlier. This lack of substance is pointed to in the earliest Buddhist teachings and was explored more fully in succeeding centuries.

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 in emptiness.”

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. Emptiness does not mean vacancy, nothingness, or the absence of conscious experience. 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. 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, 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 ourselves 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.

This article has been adapted with permission from Guy Armstrong’s book, Emptiness: A Guide for Meditators (Wisdom Publications, 2017).

Guy Armstrong has been leading Insight Meditation retreats since 1984 in the US, Europe, and Australia. His training included living as a monk for a year in the Thai Forest lineage. Guy is a member of the Spirit Rock Teachers Council and a guiding teacher of the Insight Meditation Society.