Some (mostly secular) thoughts about Emptiness

“Angel of the North” by Antony Gormley; photo by David Wilson Clarke Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons

This article emerges from a paper presented at last year’s conference at BCBS on Secular Buddhism, which in turn arose from a period spent writing a book on A Philosophy of Emptiness. This entailed a largely non-Buddhist and widespread consideration of concepts of emptiness from Taoism and Buddhism, through Greek thought, Christian mystics and Romantics to the contemporary world of science, philosophy and art practice. Here I will concentrate on ideas of emptiness in Buddhist teachings and their relevance and interest to present times and contexts.i

Emptiness in Early Buddhism

Interestingly the actual terms emptiness or empty are rarely to be found in the suttas and the teachings of Early Buddhism where the emphasis is strongly on anattā or not-self. The three critical marks of existence are presented as impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and emptiness of self. Many numerical models such as the five aggregates and the various links of dependent origination describe the compounded and constructed nature of the self. All of these models are attempts to desolidify our sense of self—to turn us towards an understanding of it as verb rather than noun—as process rather than product. They do not challenge our sense of continuity and subjectivity but do challenge the belief that the self is singular, unchanging and independent rather than constructed, changeable and relational. The sense of self that is to be negated and emptied out is an illusion. It is the imposition of identity with attributes of independence and permanence on the foundation of the transactional or processual self that is dependently originated from the interaction of causes and conditions.

For of all the things that evoke desire, aversion and ignorance, the self is the most central and the most pernicious. From the Buddhist perspective ignorance arises when our process of selfing, a self that is continuous in the process of becoming, is grasped and identified with as an isolated permanent entity. From identification with a solid sense of self we create a world from that centre. From this ignorant cognitive misperception of self we add the emotional reinforcements of desire and hatred. What fortifies this self-image is desired, what threatens is evaded and above all, we mostly remain in a dense ignorance of what we are doing and how we are doing it. I think, by paying close attention to our own experience, it is pretty easy to see how this works—how we are attracted to what solidifies our sense of self and identity and how we push away and defend ourselves from anything that threatens. Another Buddhist teaching shows how this process of solidifying the self acts in three main ways both emotionally and intellectually: through craving expressed in the linguistic form “This is mine”; through conceit demonstrated by “This I am”; and cognitively through holding onto false views of self expressed as “this is myself.” In the Mulapariyāya Sutta (first sutta of Majjhima Nikāya) the Buddha goes through the ways that the ordinary man contemplates the four elements, fire, water, earth and air and the stages of meditation. Contemplating each, the ignorant person imposes him or herself onto each, considering it “mine.” In contrast, awakened beings see each element directly, free from the need to impose themselves or their sense of possession on them. This says the Buddha is due to the destruction of desire, hatred and ignorance. Liberation.

In another sutta in which the actual word empty is used, the concept of emptiness of self and of world are noted and conjoined. Ānanda asks the Buddha “Venerable sir, it is said, “Empty is the world, empty is the world.” In what way is it said empty is the world.” And he receives this reply: “It is, Ānanda, because it is empty of self and of what belongs to self that it is said, “Empty is the world.”ii

There are also two suttas in the Pali canon that, unusually for Early Buddhist texts, use the word emptiness in their titles: the longer and shorter Discourses on Emptiness. The word is used in a somewhat different sense from that of later Mahāyāna teachings. Here it is specifically related to meditation: emptiness is not related to a philosophical idea so much as a practice, to an undisturbed physical space in which attention can be nurtured. However it does emphasise the double aspect of emptiness. Within formal stages of meditation the monk is said to regard each stage as “void of what is not there, but with regard to what remains, he understands that which is present as “this is present.” This is said to be “genuine,” undistorted pure descent into “voidness.” What remains are the six sense fields of a living body. Such an admonition, to see what is not there and also what remains, is one that we should carefully consider when discussing emptiness.

There is another source of consideration of emptiness in the four eight-verse poems from the Atthakavagga (The Book of Eights) of the Sutta Nipata, a text that Stephen Batchelor has called “the ur-text on emptiness.” Here we are told that nowhere does an awakened one hold contrived views of is and is not. Such a person sees all views as empty of ultimacy. Batchelor describes such a one as a “priest without borders.”

“Rothko No 14” by Notnarayan – Own work. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Emptiness in Mahāyāna and Vajrāyana

It is in the beginnings of the Mahāyāna that emptiness becomes a central topic and the emptiness of self is extended to the emptiness of all phenomena—even down to the emptiness of emptiness itself. The first and central teachings on śunyatā, usually translated into English as emptiness, come from the Prajnāpāramitā literature, a collection of texts dating from around 1st century BCE to many centuries later, their content ranging from proto Mahāyāna through to Tantric material. Central to any discussion of emptiness are the texts of Nāgārjuna, especially the Mulamādhyamakakārikā (MMK). If the middle way of the Buddha’s early teaching is generally considered as that between sensory indulgence and deprivation, the emphasis now shifts onto a middle path between eternalism and nihilism, between is and is not, as expressed in the Atthakavagga and also in the Discourse to Kaccāna of the Majjhima Nikāya. Nāgārjuna has been described both as the forerunner of the Mahāyāna and as trying to link the teaching of his time back to a purer teaching, that of the Buddha rather than the more abstract analysis of the Abhidharma. Certainly he begins by firmly linking teachings of emptiness to those of dependent origination as being the teaching of the Buddha. Thus the dedication of MMK reads:

I pay homage to the Fully Awakened One
The Supreme Teacher who has taught
The doctrine of relational origination
The blissful cessation of all phenomenal thought constructions.

In the more poetic and contemporary translation of Stephen Batchelor,

I bow to buddhas
Who teach contingency

Nāgārjuna’s method of argument is the tetralemma, a fourfold logic of complementarity that goes beyond contradiction: He explains that because of dependent origination, everything is marked by eight negations;

Non-origination, non-extinction
Non-destruction, non-permanence,
Non-identity, non-differentiation
Non coming into being, non going out of being.

A path between is and is not.

Using these arguments to deconstruct every possible position that an opponent might hold, Nāgārjuna sets out to demonstrate the emptiness and indeterminacy of all phenomena whilst embodying another major theme of the Atthakavagga, the danger of holding views. Reducing all opponents’ arguments to absurdity, Nāgārjuna denied that he himself upheld any position. He addresses different topics such as time, self, anguish, seeing, walking and so on, exposing their essential unfindability. Towards the end of the work Nāgārjuna reveals that dependent origination (here translated as contingency) and emptiness are one and the same, and constitute the middle way of Buddhism.

Contingency is emptiness
Which, contingently configured
Is the middle way
Everything is contingent,
Everything is empty.

This, he states, shows that:

When emptiness is possible
Everything is possible.
Were emptiness impossible
Nothing would be possible.

When emptiness is realised this way, what remains is suchness:

Life is no different from nirvana.
Nirvana no different from life.

Re-iterating the stance on opinions seen in the Four Eights, Nāgārjuna states:

Buddhas say emptiness
Is relinquishing opinions
Believers in emptiness
Are incurable.

The only early Buddhist text that Nāgārjuna cites, (the Discourse to Kaccāna) refers also to this.

This world Kaccāna, for the most part depends upon a duality—upon the notion of “there is” and the notion of “there is not.” But for one who sees with complete intelligence the arising of the world as it happens, there is no notion of “there is not” in regard to the world. And for one who sees with complete intelligence the ceasing of the world as it happens, there is no notion of “there is” in regard to the world. … “There is,” Kaccāna, this is one dead-end. “There is not,” this is another dead end. Without veering towards either of these dead-ends, the Tathāgata teaches the Dhamma by the middle.

As Nāgārjuna states:

The Buddha rejected
Both “it is” and “it is not”
In his Discourse to Kaccāna.

However, he also says that emptiness itself is a dangerous concept, and one that may as easily be grasped and held too tightly as we ignorantly hold our selves and all phenomena. A badly understood emptiness he likens to a snake, which, poorly handled, will harm.

Emptiness is not something to be grasped and nor does it entail non-existence. Phenomena, like selves, exist, but not in the manner in which we ignorantly assume. They exist in dependence on causes and conditions, on the relationship between parts and wholes and on designations we confer on them by usage and language. They are dependently originated and therefore empty of inherent singular existence. Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.

Finally, these teachings on emptiness turn back on themselves, pointing to the emptiness of emptiness. Emptiness is the relinquishing of opinions, not the replacement of one opinion with another. Understanding emptiness, connection, and interdependence leads to the other pillar of Mahāyāna teachings, compassionate action.

The original presentation of emptiness in the Mahāyāna was largely a non-mystical, immanent presentation of reality and the limits of language and knowledge. Some later commentators found this to be too cerebral and possibly too difficult, and potentially nihilistic. Buddhist texts include arguments about polemics that may be likened to Christian disputes as to how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, and this is not the place to go into the minutiae of various views. I would just like to say that there is a major fault line between non-implicativeiii Mādhyamaka (the name given later to the school based on Nāgārjuna) presentation of emptiness and one that presents emptiness in a more positive manner as having its own qualities. The teachings of Early Buddhism became considered as the first turning of the wheel of Dharma, those of the Mādhyamaka the second turning. The third turning encompasses the teaching of Yogācāra, Cittamātra, of Vajrāyāna and some Far Eastern schools. In general they tend to be more mystical, more influenced by practice rather than polemic. The doctrine of the two Truths, conventional and ultimate (truth of emptiness) of Mādhyamaka, becomes a teaching of three natures: the Imaginary or conventional nature as we normally misperceive it; the Dependent nature, which sees all things as dependently arising; and the Perfect nature, the ultimate nature of emptiness. If emptiness in Mādhyamaka is self empty, later emptiness is considered other empty, that is empty of all other, but full of its own qualities: its essence is emptiness, its nature is luminous and knowing, and its energy is unimpeded. Rather than emptiness of self, or emptiness of all phenomena, here the emptiness and non-duality is that of the relationship between consciousness and object, knower and known. In such teachings, it is often difficult to discriminate between the terms mind, emptiness and Buddha Nature. To its followers this third turn evades the inherent nihilism of Mādhyamaka; to those who adhere to Mādhyamaka, it opens the door to the danger of positing something substantial, pointing back towards the Atman, in opposition to which the Buddha had taught emptiness of self. Thus some schools of Buddhism, particularly the Gelugpa school of Tibet, whose most celebrated teacher is the Dalai Lama, consider the Second Turning of the Wheel to be the definitive teaching, whilst other schools both of Tibetan and Far Eastern Buddhism, consider the third turning to be ultimate.

Personally I believe that in practice one’s outlook on this has much to do with one’s personality, whether one is a glass half empty or glass half full kind of person, or devotionally minded or devotionally challenged. What is important, as with all Buddhist teachings, is the intention, which is to demonstrate the complementarity of emptiness and existence, evading the grasping of certainty and self and embracing contingency.

TWUP Jerusalem 190810 1 by Anish Kapoor, photo by Oren Rozen Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
TWUP Jerusalem 190810 1 by Anish Kapoor, photo by Oren Rozen Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Emptiness in the Contemporary Scene

Only Taoism is as concerned with emptiness as Buddhist thought, though I think one could say that it is both a more poetical and more foundational approach and one which has influenced all strands of Far Eastern Buddhism. This is outside the scope of this article but I would like to draw attention to a wonderful distinction made by a French Sinologist Francois Jullien who draws attention to a fundamental distinction between Chinese and Western thought; a distinction that underpins its approach to philosophy, painting and writing, and one that I think is relevant to discussion of emptiness in the context of contemporary life. He suggests that Chinese thought is structured by a logic of respiration rather than the logic of perception that led to the “ontotheological” choice taken by Greek and later Western thought. Such a logic does not separate presence from absence, a separation, he notes, that “in its foundation leads back to that of being and nonbeing.”iv The initial choice between “I breathe” and “I perceive” defines what constitutes reality. The Greek choice of perception led to the priority of a conception of reality as an object of knowledge. The Chinese choice, based on an experiential knowledge of breathing in and breathing out, led to the principle of a regulating alternation of emptiness and fullness from which the process of the world flows. Most fascinatingly, Jullien suggests that whilst Western philosophy has always followed the way of clarity, the Chinese have always chosen to think the foundational as indifferentiation.

Yet emptiness is not missing from Greek thought. Before the Western choice of philosophies of perception and clarity over those of breath and indistinction, ideas of emptiness lead from Buddhism directly to the Greeks. Echoes of emptiness appear in Heraclitus, in Stoicism, Epicureanism and especially in Pyrrhonian Scepticism. Philosophy was, for the Greeks as for the followers of the Buddha, a way of life, a way to eudaimonia or flourishing. This tradition however became largely ignored in the West with the rise of Christianity with its certainty and one God, which was much more in line with those philosophies of perception, presence and essence. With the rise of Christianity, philosophy and practice became divided and, in the terminology of French philosopher Pierre Hadot, philosophy ceased to be a way of life, becoming philosophical discourse and the project of the academies. During the many centuries of Christian hegemony in the West mention of emptiness was confined to individuals, mostly mystical and often considered heretical Christians, such as Duns Scotus, Meister Ekhart and St. John of the Cross. Later, echoes of emptiness occur in the work of Romantic writers with ideas of the Sublime.

James Turrell At the Guggenheim 2013 NYC Shankbone by David Shankbone Own work Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 30 via Wikimedia Commons
James Turrell At the Guggenheim 2013 NYC Shankbone by David Shankbone Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 30 via Wikimedia Commons

It is not until the modern era, with a general breaking down of certainties and foundations and a subsequent awareness of contingency, that emptiness widely spreads back into discourse, both as lack and as potential. In all the disciplines of intellectual life modern and postmodern times have seen challenges to previous certainties and foundations.

With scientific theories endorsing evolution, uncertainty, indeterminacy and quantum theory, with Nietzsche declaring the death of God, Heidegger the end of metaphysics, Derrida the close of ontotheology, and with Gianni Vattimo’s Farewell to Truth, with the modern and postmodern we enter a realm where contingency, loss of foundation and questioning of certainty gives rise to a concern with emptiness. Philosophers have found that the foundations of philosophies of presence (starting with “this is what exists…”) are challengeable and that Truth is a dubious concept heavily dependent on time, context and language. Différance (Derrida’s term for the relativity of language), decentralization, deconstruction and distributed views of self are the tropes of contemporary philosophy carrying suggestions of emptiness of essence, interdependence and interaction, unpicking the previous defenses against contingency—God, Absolute Truth, Essence and Reality—and exploring ways of living without foundation and certainty.

I believe that the West has traditionally lacked a logic of complementarity, a path between is and is not, that is implicit in the teachings of emptiness. As previously held foundations and grounds have been challenged by contemporary science, philosophy and art practice, a new perspective is called for. When traditional certainties are severely challenged, without such a logic, the loss of certainty and the experience of contingency lead to nihilism—the non-existence of lack, and the loss of meaning. However, a philosophy of emptiness, as explored above, teaches us something different. A philosophy of emptiness does not entail non-existence and loss of all meaning, and thus the inevitable emotional nihilistic response. Much contemporary philosophy acknowledges this, echoing ideas of emptiness of foundation and essence while attempting to find a path through contingency. To note just a few: there is the phenomenological return to experience of the lived world with Husserl, now giving rise to Neurophenomenology; the existential/phenomenological turn with Heidegger; the pragmatism of Rorty; the linguistic analysis of Wittgenstein; and the melding of the linguistic with the existential embodiment of Merleau Ponty in the work of Lakoff and Johnson on the embodiment of language and metaphor. Heidegger, particularly in his quite recently translated dialogues, shows a great familiarity with Taoist and Buddhist thought. Throughout these dialogues there occur references to emptiness that resound with the thought of Buddhism and Taoism. To take just a couple of examples: “The jug consists not in the piece of formed earth but in its emptiness; the potter does not shape the clay, but rather the emptiness.” And again: “Emptiness is the ungraspable.”v His influence returned to Japan with the writings of Keiji Nishitani, Nishida Kitaro and the Kyoto school. Derrida followed the emptying path of deconstruction and emphasised the importance of context and language, using concepts that may take on a more positive slant when interpreted in the light of Buddhist understanding of emptiness.

Différance is not. It is not a present being, however excellent, unique, principal or transcendent. It governs nothing, reigns over nothing and nowhere exercises any authority . . . not only is there no kingdom of différance, but différance instigates the subversion of every kingdom, which makes it obviously threatening and infallibly dreaded by everything within us that desires a kingdom, the past or future presence of a kingdom.

In Science, it appears in a wonderful phrase said to me by Roshi Reb Anderson: scientists sought for substance and found emptiness. It does not take a scientist to see that the reality of the world demonstrated by today’s science appears to be very different from the way we have traditionally considered it to be. The certainties of the classical science of substance dissolved with the discoveries of Einstein and those who followed. Einstein’s initial discovery of the Theory of Relativity has over time led on to indeterminacy, quantum theory, string theory, chaos theory, anti-matter, black holes, quarks and the elusive Higgs Boson, all of which have only widened this divide between the view of science and our common everyday understanding. And the view of science is surprisingly close to that of emptiness. In an article following the possible discovery of the Higgs Boson I found reference to: “the notion that seemingly empty space may contain the seeds of our existence.”vii Scientific disciplines such as systems theory, ecology and chaos theory are based upon ideas and models of interdependence.

The Mind Sciences have long demonstrated the divisions of the self and the reach of the unconscious. Over the years, the Self has been deconstructed and analysed into process in a strange resonance with what I like to think of as the first psychology of Buddhism. Today neuroscience is neurologically reinterpreting many early theories and beginning to teach us much about the complex, distributed, “empty” and interdependent processes of mind. The work of Richie Davidson, Evan Thompson, Rick Hanson, and the Mind and Life Institute opens up new perspectives, bringing together both traditional and contemporary views, both on anattā and ways to live well.

Artists are those who pay attention more closely than the rest of us, and are often the first to understand and articulate cultural change. Exploring emptiness throughout the fields of modernist and contemporary arts is a fascinating exercise, which here I can only express with mere lists—a collage of names and ideas. Enough to say that in the modern era, barriers and foundational beliefs have fallen in every direction and artists have both instigated the destruction and imagined ways of reconstruction. Mallarmé challenged the meaning of the word, Rimbaud declared “I is an other,” composers challenged musical form, John Cage challenged the very conception of what constitutes music. In visual arts, first the perspective of the artist creator became fractured by cubism until pictures lost the need to be representative at all, and the fields of abstract then conceptual art opened up beyond the frame. The work itself and much that has been written by and about such artists as Rothko, Barnett Newman, Yves Klein, Giacometti, Gerhard Richter, Anselm Kiefer, Anthony Gormley, Anish Kapoor resonate with expressions of emptiness. As the picture frame and the proscenium arch disappeared, so the audience of theatre and visual art is invited into the artwork. It becomes an experience, in the work of James Turell and Olafor Eliasson for example. Even in dance: one renowned contemporary choreographer is working with neuroscientists to explore kinaesthetic intelligence to try to help dancers evade habitude and create from “unknowing.”viii

In literature also the privileged position of the authorial voice became fractured by stream of consciousness writing and by journeys into the surrealistic unconscious. Ideas of emptiness abound, in the work of T.S. Eliot, both privative and positive, in Virginia Woolf with her “moments of being,” in Rilke, Samuel Becket, and in Milan Kundera’s lightness of being, to name but a few somewhat random examples. A summer or two ago, there was an exhibition in London called Invisible, Art of the Unseen, an exhibition which would, in a wonderful phrase of its curator, “challenge the complacency of the seen.” Artistic emptiness challenges the complacency of the seen and the heard, bringing us back to awareness of silence, space and embodied experience. For a philosophy of emptiness is matched by the practice of attention, and artists are so often those who invite and inveigle us to pay attention in a new fashion. John Cage’s silent piece 4′ 33″ makes us understand that silence is full of sound, that one cannot separate the two. It was Cage also who described the white paintings of Robert Rauschenberg as “airports for particles and shadows.” Each time you attend to them, the light is different, the perspective altered. Emptiness is surely the other face of interdependence; we see what is empty and pay attention to what remains.

Everywhere linear models give way to models of networks and webs; parts and wholes are explored as mutually affecting components of systems; models are read both from bottom up and top down in a manner more compatible with a logic of respiration than one of perception. Artists explore lack of form and find emptiness that is far from empty. For in all these fields experts are paying close attention to reality and, so doing, they find the interdependence and the contingency and indeterminacy that lie beneath apparent solidity and independence. Such careful attention also helps us to see meaning and value in the complexity and plurality that remains when certainty is let go.

At the end of this consideration of emptiness from traditional and historical contexts to contemporary and secular fields, I came to a feeling—not a conclusion—that rather than a philosophy of emptiness, it is a path, a practice, unending, uncompletable, always underway. A path that brings one back to life as lived; ultimately empty, ungraspable, indefinable, yet full of challenge, beauty, joy and suffering. Barnett Newman’s “The Sublime is now.” With an end to totalizing discourses, Religion, Philosophy, Truth and Theory, all capitalized, emptiness may be a guiding thread that can help us live with contingency. It is a concept that takes the double journey through the knowledge of dukkha, of the tragic dimension of life, and embracing it, points to a path to live well with it. In Keiji Nishitani’s terms, it is a journey in stages, from the field of ordinary self-consciousness, through a relative nihility of deconstruction, to the field of absolute nothingness beyond duality that is śunyatā, that is an absolute openness that restores reality and meaning.

Emptiness may act as a hermeneutic tool to critique and question, to keep us aware, (not)self reflective on that difficult knife-edge middle path that moves between “there is” and “there is not.” It may act as an antidote to entityness and institution, emptying out and deconstructing totalities, foundations and false gods, even those contemporary overinflated gods often become demons: consumerism, scientism and even secularism. Yet, through open attention to what remains, we may find a path day by day that may enhance the well being of each and the many—what the Greeks called eudaimonia.

I can do no better than end by returning to with the words of Nāgārjuna, translated by Stephen Batchelor:

When emptiness is possible
Everything is possible;
Were emptiness impossible,
Nothing would be possible.ix

~ ~ ~

Gay Watson has a PhD in Religious Studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London and trained as a psychotherapist with the Karuna Institute in Core Process, a Buddhist inspired psychotherapy. She is the author of The Resonance of Emptiness: A Buddhist Inspiration for a Contemporary Psychotherapy (2002), and Beyond Happiness: Deepening the Dialogue Between Buddhism; Psychotherapy and the Mind Sciences (2007); This article is based upon her current book, A Philosophy of Emptiness (2014)


i Since this was originally written for a non-Buddhist context, I have omitted some diacritics. Names are given in Pali spellings for Early Buddhism and Sanskrit for Mahāyāna.
ii Sutta Nipata, 35.38
iii A non implicative negation is one that states, for example “there is no cat,” in contrast to an implication statement “that is not a cat” which also carries the possibility that there might be the presence of something other than a cat.
iv F. Jullien, The Great Image has No Form or on the Non-Object through Painting. (Chicago, 2009) p.5
v M. Heidegger, Country Path Conversations, (Bloomington, ID, 2010), pp. 84-5
vi J. Derrida, Margins of Philosophy, (Chicago IL, 1982), p. 21
vii L.M Krause, “The Godless Particle.” In Newsweek. July 9, 2012.
viii This is Wayne McGregor, choreographer with his own Random Dance company, and also with Covent Garden Royal Ballet. An exhibition of his methods of working, Thinking with the Body, was recently shown at Wellcome Collection, London 2013.
ix S. Batchelor, Verses from the Center, (New York, 2000) p. 21

“IKB 191” by Yves Klein. Original uploader Franciselliott at en.wikipedia (Original text : Yves Klein, Weitemeier, Taschen 1994.). Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons


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