Ken Ward's Thoughts on Buddhism

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Thoughts on Buddhism

Emptiness (Skrt: Śūnyatā; Pali: suññatā)

This webpage is about the Buddhist view of emptiness . First we define emptiness. Then we explain how Buddhists use this knowledge to reduce suffering.

On this page:

  1. What is Emptiness
  2. Searching for Emptiness
    1. The Modern Chariot
  3. How Emptiness Reduces Suffering
  4. Gotama's Examples of Emptiness
    1. A Bubble in the River
    2. The Tree that is All Layers and No Wood
    3. A Magician's Trick

What is emptiness?

This section defines emptiness as the opposite of how existence is normally viewed.

Empty of...

The words 'empty' and 'emptiness' are used as follows. Suppose we have a glass of water. We drink the water. We might say, "The glass is empty." However, we do not mean there is nothing in the glass. It is full of air. We mean the glass is empty of water. Similarly, a diver searching for treasure on the sea bed might find a chest. He opens it and declares, on the radio, "The chest is empty." Of course, he does not mean there's nothing in the chest. It is full of sea water. What he means is that it is empty of treasure.

This expression "empty of" sounds strange. We would say, "The glass is empty", or we might say, "There's no water in the glass." But we are unlikely to say, "The glass is empty of water." We should therefore be aware that the word "empty" is used in a technical Buddhist sense, rather than a natural English sense.

When a Buddhist says that things are empty, he or she does not mean they are nothing, do not exist, are useless, or are an empty illusion. The Buddhist means that things are empty of a self, or of one permanent thing. This page explains this.

What is a self?

Buddhists mean by self one single permanent thing that is the essence of someone or something and which distinguishes it from any other thing. When I say I am writing about emptiness and non-self, I do not mean that the word "I" does not refer to anything. I am not saying this page wrote itself.

I am saying there isn't one single everlasting thing that this "I" refers to. To write this page, I use my hands, my feet, my body, my brain, the chair and so on. (I use my feet for balance, by the way, and the chair to position me suitably). That is when I say, "I write this page", I am referring to a bunch of things, none of which is the single, permanent thing that does the writing. One part of the brain controls the hands; another the feet; yet another the balance; another part of the brain, or the mind (perhaps many parts), thinks what to say. The "I" isn't a lie; it just isn't one, everlasting thing.

"It is said that the world is empty, the world is empty, lord. In what respect is it said that the world is empty?" The Buddha replied, "Insofar as it is empty of a self or of anything pertaining to a self: Thus it is said, Ānanda, that the world is empty." Gotama

When the Buddha referred to Ananda, the monk, in the above, he was using a convenient term, Ananda (his name) to refer to him. While the word is empty of a permanent, single self, it is not meaningless, just an easy way to refer to the five skandhas.

A Definition

Something is empty if it is:

  1. Divisible.
  2. Dependent.
  3. Impermanent.
  4. Identifiable

A divisible thing has parts, steps etc. It is not one single thing (an entity, or a self), but many parts. It is empty of an entity. For instance, a house, a car, a person ... are referred to as if they were ONE thing. But the words refer to things made up of parts. So anything divisible into parts is not ONE entity, but MANY. There is no one entity, for instance a car, that exists. The word car is dependent on a PLURALITY of parts. Any divisible thing is not ONE thing. What we call a car is empty of a car.

A dependent thing depends on something else. Without these supporting things, it does not exist. It does not exist in and of itself, but depends on causes. It is empty of independent existence. A mind exists in dependence on thoughts, feelings, images, reasoning ... Because it is made of parts and is divisible, it is empty. Without thoughts, feelings, images, reasoning ... there is no mind. And because these are continually changing the mind is empty of permanent existence.

An impermanent thing has a beginning, it changes, and it has an end. It comes and goes, and does not last. Because it changes from one time to another, it is not ONE thing, but a succession of things. So there is no ONE thing. For example, what we call a body refers to something that changes every 7 years, and less obviously changes every moment. It is a succession of things, so there is no ONE thing that is the body. Impermanent things, because they change and are a succession of things, are not ONE thing, but several. The body as ONE thing is empty of a (ONE) body.

(A thing is anything that can be an object of the six senses.)

We sometimes decide that a concrete entity exists if we can find it (identify it). If we can't find it (under any circumstances), it does not exist. This is called Occam's Razor in Western philosophy, or the Law of Lightness in Indian philosophy (when applied to concepts and ideas).

If you can't find it, It doesn't Exist. It is empty (of existence).

Suppose I look in my wallet and find no money. You say, "Your wallet is full of money, invisible money. You can't see it and you can't feel it. But it is there." Of course, you are joking. If I can't feel the money, see it, hear it, smell it, taste it, weight it, and so on, there is no money there. If we search for the self in the five skandhas and cannot find it, then there is no self there. There is nothing we can identify that is the self. In complex thinking we often fall into the trap of believing in imaginary things. Such an error is believing in things, instead of emptiness. (This does not mean the world is an illusion. It is not. Things exist conventionally. What is illusionary is how we think about it. And this (ignorance) leads to craving and suffering. It leads to suffering, for instance, when we worry over the body (even though there is no ONE thing that is the body).

So, if you search everywhere for something, and you do not find it, then it doesn't exist. This principle can be applied to objects and to ideas. If someone claims Bigfoot exists in an area, and we search everywhere in that area, but do not find Bigfoot, we conclude that Bigfoot does not exist in that area.

For instance, scientists once believed in the ether. They searched everywhere to find it (through experiments), but failed to find it. They concluded it did not exist.

This principle is used in Buddhism to show that entities do not exist in any way we can conceive them. A popular demonstration is to claim a chariot does not exist. That is, word chariot is a convenient way to refer to the parts arranged in a particular way and does not refer to one particular thing.

The following is somewhat related to Nagasena teaching King Milinda about emptiness, using the chariot as an example.

The (modern) chariot

Buddhists often use the example of the chariot here. I am using a modern one.

Suppose you see me driving along. You say, "There's Ken driving a car." This is perfectly correct. However, we will now prove a car does not exist. It doesn't exist apart from the word and the collection of parts.

To emphasise a point, we are not claiming what we conventionally call a car does not exist, or is an illusion. We are saying that there is no single, indivisible thing which is the car. And when we use the word 'car' we use the word conventionally in dependence on the parts. We are doing this because applying these ideas to experience, we reduce suffering.

Now, let's prove this.

You might think, "Why bother? Who cares?"

The answer is "No one cares." Buddhism isn't about cars.

But Buddhists bother to study this as a trial run, as a practice which can be used, along with the questions above, to reduce suffering.

So, let's do it.

Is the car the parts

We know the car is empty from our questions above. For instance, we can divide it into parts. This means it isn't ONE thing, an entity. The car isn't there in and of itself, but exists dependently.

A detailed way to show a car does not exist is one we normally use to determine if something that might exist, really does exist.

To find out, we go and look for it.

If we find it, it exists. If we have looked everywhere and still can't find it, it doesn't exist.

Now let's do the same for the car to see if it exists.


"Is the steering wheel, the car?"

"No." So we remove the wheel.

"Is the engine the car?"

"No." So we remove the engine.

"Is what remains the car?"

The answer could be "Yes" or "No". Lets say it's "Yes."

"Are the wheels a car?"

"No." So we remove the wheels and the body remains.

"Is this the car?", pointing to the body.

If the body is the car, and you buy the car from me, then I am entitled to let you have the body and keep the other bits (wheels, engine and so on), because they are not the car!

In the unlikely event that the answer is "Yes." Let's continue. If the answer is "No," we can remove it, and nothing remains, even though nothing that is the car has been removed. But we have nothing. So the car is nothing

A thing has parts if it has a top, bottom, left, right, etc.

We can ask, "Is the front part the car?"

"No." We remove the front part.

"Is the back part the car?"

"No." We remove it. And what remains is nothing.

"Is that the car?"

"No, it is nothing. There is nothing left."

Nothing remains If we have removed parts, none of which is the car, but nothing remains, then the car does not exist as a single, indivisible thing. (Unless there is somewhere else we haven't looked, and the car is there).

We might say, the car exists in another dimension, or in another world, as the Greek philosopher, Plato, believed of concepts like 'equality', 'triangle', and so on. Following this line of thinking is a 'tangle of views', which leads nowhere (Does not reduce suffering).

We can conclude that there is no single thing found in this world, that is 'the car'.

Is the car all the parts together?

At this point a protest might arise.

"The car is all the parts."

But a heap of parts is not a car. It might be a self-assembly car kit. But it is not a car. The car is not the parts.

Is the car the assembly of parts?

"The car is the assembly of parts."

So now the car is an 'assembly'. (This is an abstract word so it cannot be the car, but we ignore this for the moment.)

"Is the assembly the same as the parts or different?"

If it is the same, we repeat the analysis, asking of each part, "Is this part the assembly?"

In any event we fail to find the assembly (questioning as above). The car is empty, void, lacking substance. Unless there is somewhere we haven't looked.

Is the car the shape of the parts?

"The car is the shape of the parts."

A photograph of a car has the shape of a car, but it a photograph. A photograph isn't a car. You can't drive a photograph!

The car isn't the shape of the parts.

Is the car a thought or concept in the mind? Like a photograph of a car, an idea or concept of a car isn't a car. We can't drive it!

We have searched for the car but have failed to find it. If we have searched every possibility, and failed to find the car, then the car does not exist. It is empty, void, lacking substance.

This does not mean that if one is zooming towards you, you should perform this analytical meditation and decide it doesn't exist.

"Quick! Get out of the way!" Cars exist dependent on their parts and the word, "car" in our language. But they do not exist as a thing, an entity, a whole.

In general, if a thing consists of parts, it is a composite thing. All composite things are empty. If it has a left side, a top, etc, then it is composite and therefore empty.

How Emptiness Reduces Suffering

Buddhist believe that most things are really empty. This is a teaching of optimism because it means that most things can be changed. The brief examples are illustrations that we can solve or manage problems. The Buddhist would many other techniques in Buddhism, but realising emptiness is realising that there is an answer. And this can be a first step.

Divisibility implies a step-by-step solution

For instance, suppose we have a difficult job to do. This can be daunting unless we realise it is empty. Because it is empty it is divisible, so it can be divided into parts or manageable steps. The job can then be done step by step. It is no longer daunting. The concept 'difficult' is totally empty, void and lacks substance. It is no more than a magic trick, a bubble rising in the river. It doesn't exist. What is real is the step by step moments in mindful existence.

Dependence means changing the causes or circumstances changes the effects

If we feel anxious and we realise anxiety is empty, then we know this anxiety is dependent on causes, circumstances, etc. For instance thinking thoughts that make us feel anxious. In meditation, we can replace the anxious thoughts with others, for instance, replace them with loving kindness.

The concept or thing 'anxiety' is empty. It is nothing. When the Buddhist sees this, by asking the questions or searching for it, suffering is reduced. If it doesn't really exist, it can't bother you.

If we feel a strong urge to eat something fattening (when we want to lose weight), we can recall that the pleasure that eating the fattening thing is impermanent. It won't last. And after we have eaten one or several, we will feel unhappy. We will feel better not obeying the urge. The resulting discomfort is also impermanent, so it, too, changes.

Gotama's Examples of Emptiness

  1. A water bubble rises and appears to be some thing coming out of the water, but when it reaches the surface it is nothing. It is not a real thing; it is just empty. It is empty, void and without substance. Thoughts and feelings, for example, arise and appear to be suffering, but they ebb and flow and disappear. What seemed like suffering is just empty.
  2. A man goes out and cuts down a banana tree, seeking hardwood. He strips the bark, only to find something else, which he strips off. He continues to strip everything away, but finds no hardwood. The tree is empty, void and without substance. This analogy is like analysing thoughts only to find other thoughts. We continue until eventually find the collection leads nowhere. It is nothing. This brings to mind Chinese boxes, as one opens one, there is another inside. In this analogy, when we open the last box it is empty
  3. A magician performs a trick (or a modern example, we watch a dramatic film) but the observer is not impressed or upset, because he knows it's just a magic trick (or special effects in a film). The observer knows it isn't real. It is empty, void and without substance.

In Buddhism most or all things are empty. (Nibbana, for example, is not empty).