What does emptiness mean in modern Buddhism? The term is both more complex and more illusory than it may seem at first glance.
Emptiness, or Sunyata, does not refer to a simple state of nothingness. Nothingness is a state we can easily imagine. Emptiness cannot be imagined and has no origin, which creates the linguistic paradox that the word "emptiness" cannot ever be attached directly to its referent, but rather points beyond that to which it refers.
The fullest expression of the doctrine of emptiness is found in the The Heart Sutra and is central to Buddhist practice around the world.
In term of doctrine, emptiness can be a feature of reality, a meditative state, or a phenomenological analysis of experience.
Emptiness as a Feature of Reality
Buddhism teaches that the world of forms is illusory. Beyond the world of forms and within it, reality is emptiness, which cannot be understood as a concept, nor can it be described in words. Emptiness is beyond human cognitive understanding but accessible sometimes during meditation or awakening.
Sometimes described as a shining Void, emptiness is not the origin of reality, but part of the fundamental structure of reality.
Emptiness as a Meditative State
In his book The Snow Leopard (1987) Peter Matthiessen describes sitting on hard rocks in the Himalayas and experiencing an emptiness or Void at the heart of phenomenal existence:
"These hard rocks instruct my bones in what my brain could never grasp in the Heart Sutra, that 'form is emptiness and emptiness is form' – the Void, the emptiness of blue-black space, contained in everything."
Although Matthiessen seems here to define emptiness as "blue-black space contained in everything", the quote points beyond this to his understanding through experience, not cognition, of the meaning of Heart Sutra's claim that "form is emptiness and emptiness is form."
In other words, emptiness can be accessed through the experience of awakening, but can never be conceptualized.
Emptiness as a Phenomenological Analysis of Experience
The lotus symbolically illustrates the Buddhist doctrine of emptiness as an analysis of experience. Floating between air and reflective water, the many-petaled blossom symbolizes the interconnected nature of all forms in the material world.
Imagine clouds floating in the air reflected in shining water and the flower floating between. This is the "jewel in the lotus," the meditative experience of both form and emptiness contained in one another.
The verbal express of this symbol in chant is Om Mani Padme Hum. Om represents the Hindu sound of the Universe. Mani means jewel. Padme means flower. And Hum is Enlightenment.
How Does Emptiness Inform Your Practice?
The Buddhist doctrine of emptiness invites us to move our practice beyond concepts and intellectual discussions into a deep quiet, into our own still waters which can then awaken in each of us a realization of emptiness in all things.
How is emptiness informing your practice today? Is emptiness a word bouncing around a head full of concepts? Or is it a shining jewel of indescribable beauty?
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Echoes of Voidness, Geshe Rabten, Wisdom, 1983.
The Snow Leopard, Peter Matthiessen, Penguin Books, 1987.