Emptiness: A Revolutionary Philosophical Concept

We’ve seen that the Mahayana introduced a lot of important changes into the Buddhist tradition by adding values to this already complex tradition that we’ve studied in some detail. But no change has been so profound and far reaching as the concept that we call emptiness.

A Truly Unique Concept

This is a concept that in a negative way challenges or undermines many of the rigid categories of traditional Buddhism. In a more positive way, the concept of emptiness introduces an spirit of affirmation and almost of infinite possibilities that wasn’t present in the earlier tradition. This spirit was present in some degree in that vision of the cosmos that Sudhana had.

It is a challenge to develop an understanding of this difficult concept. A balanced understanding will help us account for both its positive and negative dimensions. I must say that this is the concept that I have spent most of my adult life studying. I think that the doctrine of emptiness is one of the most profound and challenging religious concepts in the world, and one that, if you can grasp, will help you see not just the basic categories of Buddhism, but also lots of important categories of life in a radical different way.

A Radical Extension of No-Self

Let’s start out with a basic analysis of this concept of emptiness. Emptiness can be understood as a radical extension of the concept of no-self in traditional Buddhism. This is a concept that we have already talked about. Let’s lay out for ourselves what concepts of the self we’ve already learned.

Well, one will come from the Upanishads. That old Hindu idea of the eternal self that’s identical to Brahman and identical to the one reality that underlies the unity of this world. In the Hindu tradition, the self is identical to Brahman and it is eternal and permanent.

The Theravada expresses a traditional Buddhist view that undermines this old Hindu vision of the permanent or eternal self. In traditional Buddhism there is nothing permanent that endures from one moment to the next. So, traditional Buddhism says that there is no self. There is no permanent identity that endures from one moment to the next. All that we see in reality is just a series of momentary phenomena bounded together to give the illusion of some kind of unity, like the flickers in the flame of a candle.

The self, according to traditional Buddhism, is simply a flow of momentary phenomena.

The Mahayana took a step further. They went beyond this traditional Buddhist idea of the self. The Mahayana denies the reality not just of an enduring self, but it denies the reality of the moments themselves. They said that these momentary phenomena are empty of identity, empty of reality. The word empty here is Śūnya. From this comes the doctrine of emptiness.

What is the nature of all things? It is their emptiness. The fact that even as momentary phenomena, they have nothing that you could hold on to.

In the next series of articles we will continue with the study of this complex and unique concept.

This article is part of the series about Emptiness.

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