Recently my wife and I participated in a group discussion at Fo Guang Shan Mabuhay Temple in Manila. The session was particularly interesting because the subject of our discussion was on the Buddhist concept of emptiness, a difficult concept even for many seasoned Buddhists. To make things a little more challenging, among the 10 of us were 3 new comers who were entirely new to Buddhism.
Thanks to the participation of everybody who were present as well as good effort by the facilitator, the session turned out well. Below is a summary of the different “Emptiness-es” that were discussed.
Emptiness in everyday usage. The word emptiness usually carries a negative connotation in everyday usage; Like feeling “empty” (lonely) or lacking in meaning or purpose in life. Or the phase “looking at the cup as half full (good) or half empty (bad)“.
Therefore for people who are new to Buddhism, it is natural that they first impression when they listen to Buddhists talk about emptiness is to associate it with something negative.
Useful emptiness. We can look at emptiness as something useful and functional. Like a room is only useful when there is a space (empty) in it. Without the empty space, you can’t put things in it. The same is true for a cup, only when its empty can you fill it with water or tea.
Another example are the empty spaces between musical notes. For a musical piece to make sense, the empty spaces are just as important as the notes themselves. Or a blank sheet of paper, only when a paper is empty can it be written on.
So emptiness also carries the idea of having potential, like the blank piece of paper can potentially carry the words of the next “Harry Porter” or the mind that is not cluttered can absorb new facts.
Emptiness in people. There is not such thing as a self-made man. We are who we are because of various of factors like the environment, up bringing etc. Thus we are not intrinsically good or bad people, but who are are is a result of various factors.
This is a good news because it means that we are not intrinsically greedy, evil, selfish etc. So there is no such things as “I am a stupid person” or “I am a bad person”. Rather, “I am a person who has done stupid/bad things”. Because people are empty of a “real me” we can be better persons by changing our behavior.
This way of looking at emptiness echos what motivational speakers and self-help books have been telling us. Since there is no fix self, it is possible for us to change our “selves” by changing our behavior.
Emptiness as in lacking in intrinsic existence. This is the “official” Mahayana ideal of emptiness (or Sunyata in Sanskrit). Very briefly, empty of intrinsic existence means that nothing (chair, table, people, everything) exist by itself, all things exist because of various factors and conditions.
The idea of emptiness is also embodied in the Heart Sutra, probably the most famous Sutra in the whole of Buddhism. The main teaching in the Heart Sutra is that it is through understanding the 5 aggregates are empty of inherent existence that one gains Enlightenment.
The Theravada idea of emptiness (or Sunnata in Pali). What emptiness meant in Theravada Buddhism was not brought up in the discussion, but I’ve added it here for a more complete discussion.
Interestingly, the popular understanding of emptiness (Emptiness 4) is a Mahayana concept and is not found in traditional Theravada Buddhism! Mahayana literature on emptiness tends to be more philosophical and metaphysical in nature (as is Mahayana Buddhism in general). Whereas Theravada discussion on emptiness, and all other subjects, tends to be less philosophical but more psychological in nature and focus on what we need to do (this is the sense I get when I read the suttas).
The Theravada understanding of emptiness can be found in MN121, Culasunnata Sutta (Shorter discourse on Emptiness) and MN122, Mahasunnata Sutta (Greater discourse on Emptiness).
In the Culasunnata Sutta, the Buddha taught Ananda the meditation practice of putting one’s attention on what is not there (thus emptiness as in “what is not there”). For more discussion on this, please refer to Ajahn Brahm’s talk on the Culasunnata Sutta or Piya Tan’s detailed research on the sutta.
In the Mahasunnata Sutta, the Buddha refers to emptiness as emptying one’s life of clutter and to live a life simply. Again, refer to Piya Tan’s detailed research on the sutta.
Thus the concept of emptiness found in Theravada Buddhism differs from Mahayana Buddhism and its meaning is closer to the English word “Empty”.
My purpose of writing this post is not to say that Mahayana or Theravada Buddhism understanding of emptiness is more accurate. Rather it is to highlight the different meanings we can, consciously or unconsciously, associate with the word emptiness even as we discuss it.
Personally, I feel that all the 5 different understanding of emptiness stated above are correct in their own context. But it can be confusing if we mix them up and discussed them all in the same thread. Hopefully, this post will help remind us to be more mindful when we discuss about emptiness.
 Interestingly, this idea is very similar to what was taught in the Anattalakkhana Sutta, believed to be the 2nd sutta taught by the Buddha in Theravada Buddhism.