Wednesday, June 17, 2009


Take a look at the June 14, 2009 posting "What Does No Self Mean" where we initially discuss emptiness. An explanation of emptiness could easily fill a book or a series of books but there are more succinct explanations which is what Contemporary Enlightenment is all about.

Many people believe emptiness means void or even, the void, a place or status or mind state where there is nothing, empty of all form and substance. Many seek that state in meditation. Others believe it means empty of a separate status or self so that all things are connected and many gain comfort from that realization. Although not incorrect, such definitions are woefully incomplete. Emptiness is far more than that.

Emptiness is not a state or thing or process or condition or even the absence of states or things or processes. It is a term used to reference everything that is, attempting to break free of the mind's love of duality, or subject and object, and relative terminology. Trying to explain it then precisely in those same dualistic, relative terms, which is how our minds have been trained to process, can be maddening! But lets try at least an introduction.

I think it is best to back into an explanation by using existing insights. Perhaps the most famous and, I believe, profound insight on emptiness is the Buddhist Heart Sutra which said in part "Form is emptiness, emptiness is form." This statement has been referenced endlessly through the ages, and for good reason, because in referencing form it attempts to break through the perspective of dualism which is the cause of the confusion.

I initially and simplistically referred to emptiness as the reflective ability of the universe in an earlier posting using a mirror as a metaphor. To communicate with you I must use some common reference, even a dualistic one. Referring for illustration purposes to the mirror as we did in the earlier posting, emptiness is not the object reflected on the surface or the surface itself. Empty in that the reflective ability has no qualities or substance or form itself whatsoever, yet it is simultaneously capable of manifesting or reflecting any object in the universe. Emptiness is the universal ability to manifest form, the reality in which all form arises and therefore is form. For example, if a universe consisted solely of reflected images in an individual mirror, emptiness is the term we use for the reflecting or manifesting ability of that mirror, whether no objects are present or all objects are present. The point of the Heart Sutra statement is that there is no duality here. Any images or objects and the universal reflecting or manifesting ability are one and the same and cannot be separated. Yet the dualistic perspective of our minds do separate them into subject and object, in this case a reflecting ability and the reflected image. The mind must be trained to reject that perspective because it is clearly erroneous. The image and the reflecting ability are one and the same. Note that we do not say identical because that word implies two. The sutra actually says form is "none other than" emptiness and emptiness in "none other than" form.

The consequences of this insight are nearly limitless. Emptiness is often used to reference the connection and inter dependence of every object in the universe. That is true as well but incomplete. The primary meaning is that all form arises in your awareness, in your consciousness, in the awareness and consciousness of all beings, in other words, your awareness is emptiness itself. Your awareness and consciousness, and that of all life, is like that reflective ability of the mirror. Although it sounds counter intuitive and, initially, even absurd, your awareness and consciousness and all objects and form, are one and the same. Because you think dualistically, you believe there is a subject, your consciousness (and almost certainly your mind and body), and separate objects or form. But as emptiness, they are one and the same. How then can you ever consider yourself a lonely separate self at odds with the universe?

That is why the sages will say, metaphorically you think, you and the clouds you see enveloping a stunning sunset are one. Poetic license you say but logically absurd. They are there, you are here, and however pretty they may be, always separate. And as long as you think that you are just your body and your mind and only the material is "real", that perspective is understandable. But if you instead understand that you are really your awareness and your consciousness and that you are really emptiness itself (and not that vulnerable bag of skin and bones), you will understand that your awareness is part of that universal reflective ability in which all form arises and that all form and that reflective ability, or emptiness, are one and the same.

But wait a minute you say. So I create all objects, they exist in my mind? No, of course not. That is not insight, that is narcissism. The qualia or "suchness" of any object, its form, is defined by, is one with, the awareness of it. That does not mean it does not exist in some sense. But the sages say its true nature is beyond our understanding. Our awareness and the awareness of all life colors or defines or manifests all objects and phenomenon. Our awareness and that color or definition are one and the same. And, very importantly, that goes for all objects and all form, even your own mind and body. And it is this last insight that fatally attacks dualism and must eventually be grasped. Because as long as you think you are your mind and body and all of this is the object, separate from you, and you are the observing subject, you just won't get it. Your perspective must change. From a material subject and object perspective, this will never work and although you may gain partial insights, the more you look the more irreconcilable logical holes you will see until it is rendered frustratingly unsupportable and you retreat comfortably back to duality grumbling about new age nonsense.

Remember, this is not about right or wrong, correct or incorrect. It is a bit like looking at an abstract painting from a purely classical perspective. It looks like jumbled, meaningless form. But take a course on modern art, and from this new perspective, you will begin to see. But I am not asking you to broaden your perspective to look at a single canvass. I am asking you to see the entire universe.


  1. I get it, this is what I was trying to describe but as you so eloquently put, is difficult to put into words. Something as simple as the color blue. My definition, vision and perception of the color blue may be completely different to yours but it is MY consistency. Also, what about reality which we as humans cannot see, (4th dimension of time, quantum physics etc..)without the assistance of presentation. It exists, but those unfamiliar, would have this feed into the dualistic nature of our minds.


  2. Very deep and philosophical article, I agree with vpami much. But for me, the emptiness - it is human stupidity
    Richard Brown vdr virtual data room