Implications of the Concept of Emptiness

With the concept of emptiness, the Mahayana completely reoriented and changed the conceptual system of Buddhism. As you first hear or read about emptiness, it may come to you as a rarified and abstract concept. Let me give you a tag that you could hold on to, to compare the doctrine of emptiness with stuff we have talked about before.

You Can’t Step Into the Same River Once

You could say that traditional Buddhism adopts a view that is a little like Heraclitus’ view of all of reality being made up of a flow of moments. Heraclitus said that you can’t step into the same river twice because the river is constantly flowing.

What does the Mahayana say? Not just that you can’t step into the same river twice, they say that you can’t step into the same river once. In reality there is no identity in the momentary flow of the river. You can’t step into the same river once. That’s the doctrine of emptiness.

This is a pretty abstract and puzzling concept. It is important for us to know about the consequences of the doctrine to get some understanding of how it worked out in the larger skin of the Mahayana tradition. Let me give just some of the implications of it.

We are Buddhas and we are Already in Nirvana

The doctrine of emptiness results in a concept of non-duality. If everything is empty of any real identity, then there can’t be any real difference between any two things. As a result, Mahayana texts often equates emptiness with the doctrine of non-duality.

What does this mean? If everything is empty, then there can’t be any difference or duality between Nirvana and Samsara. There can’t be any difference between us and the Buddha. What that means is that Nirvana is right here at this moment. It is here right now, if we can understand it correctly. It also means that we are already Buddhas if we understand the nature of ourselves as being not different from the nature of the Buddha.

This is a pretty significant reorientation of the ideals of traditional Buddhism. Traditional Buddhism said that there was no permanent reality in anything, everything was in a process of flow. But there was no way of confusing Nirvana, which was up there at the end of this process, with Samsara. Now, this distinction is stripped away. Nirvana is right here, right in the midst of that flow, if we can begin to perceive it correctly.

So, one of the important consequences of the concept of emptiness is this doctrine of non-duality.

What the Bodhisattva Seeks is Here

A second important consequence has to do with the practice of the bodhisattva. We’ve said before that the bodhisattva returns to this world. He comes back to Samsara in order to help other people pursue the path to Nirvana.

That’s still true. Bodhisattvas have compassion for others, but you can see here now, when you confront the concept of emptiness, that the bodhisattva doesn’t come back just for altruistic purposes. It’s not just altruism that drives the bodhisattva back into this world. Why? There isn’t any difference between Nirvana and Samsara.

If there is no Nirvana out there to seek, you can only find it here, you’ve got to come back. The bodisattva is back in the world of Samsara to help other people, but the bodhisattvas are also here for reasons that have to do with the bodhisattvas’ own awareness and their desire to know Nirvana right here in the experience of suffering.

This article is part of the series about Emptiness.

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