# How can the theory of emptiness be true and yet the self still transmigrates and takes rebirth?

The Theory of "Emptiness" is the concept that all phenomenon are empty of inherent existence. Something has the illusion of existence when the right causes and conditions arise. Example: there is no inherently existing chicken soup. You only get chicken soup when you put together a dead chicken, hot water. Veggies etc. in this theory, you illusory sense of self comes from the right causes and conditions, parents, a body, a brain etc. following this logic, upon death, the self should simply cease to exist because that which made you a self has dissolved and since you do not inherently exist you should just vanish, and yet the Buddha is clear we take rebirth. This is illogical and makes no sense. Perhaps this is why the Buddha never taught a theory of emptiness. This idea is nowhere in the entire Pali Canon.

• possible duplicate of If there is no soul, how can there be rebirth? – Andrei Volkov Aug 26 '15 at 23:12
• Emptiness is most certainly in the Pali Canon, if you search accesstoinsight for "emptiness" you get an authoritative result: accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.121.than.html – sova Aug 26 '15 at 23:28
• @Uilium Why are some questions marked as duplicate?. If it's an exact duplicate (the question is exact, not really the wording), it's better to have only one so the answers are not spread through many same-questions. But the general consensus I think is to be careful to not close questions that look the same, but aren't. – Thiago Aug 27 '15 at 2:02
• I would like to go on record that I think this question should remain open. Although at first glance it appears to be a duplicate, this question raises many much more subtle questions (such as the distinctive meaning of emptiness) and also the questioner has raised issues in their answer that are significantly different than such a question (i.e. the very nature of what the teaching of Anatta negates.) – Bakmoon Aug 27 '15 at 5:52
• @Uilium Why can't we group question's that are possible duplicates together Posting a link to another question adds it to the "Linked" section over there --> in the right-hand sidebar (above the "Related" section). A reason for not having truly-duplicate questions is to avoid posting truly-duplicate (i.e. copy-and-pasted) answers; another reason is that it's easier to read several answers if they're under one question than if they're under more than one question. OTOH we can aim to have different answers if the new question is nearly duplicate but actually slightly different. – ChrisW Aug 27 '15 at 13:58

## 7 Answers

Not all forms of Buddhism define emptiness in the way you describe; in Theravada Buddhism, for example, emptiness mainly means "empty of self":

“katamā cāvuso, suññatā cetovimutti”?

“idhāvuso, bhikkhu araññagato vā rukkhamūlagato vā suññāgāragato vā iti paṭisañcikkhati — ‘suññamidaṃ attena vā attaniyena vā’ti. ayaṃ vuccatāvuso, suññatā cetovimutti”.

"And what, friend, is liberation of mind through emptiness?"

"Here, friend, a bhikkhu, gone to the forest or gone to the root of a tree or gone to an empty dwelling reflects thus: 'empty is this of self or what belongs to self.' This one calls, friend, liberation of mind through emptiness."

-- MN 43

Being empty of self is different from not existing; it simply means that, from the point of view of experience, that which comes into existence does so from non-existence, and subsequently returns to non-existence; it has no existence outside of the single moment:

“aniccā vata saṅkhārā, uppādavayadhammino.
uppajjitvā nirujjhanti, tesaṃ vūpasamo sukho”ti.

"Impermanent indeed are formations, of a nature to arise and fall.
Having arisen, they cease, their tranquillizing is happiness."

-- DN 16

“yaṃ kiñci samudayadhammaṃ sabbaṃ taṃ nirodhadhamman”ti.

"Whatever is of a nature to arise, all of that is of a nature to cease."

-- DN 3

yasmā ca kho, ānanda, suññaṃ attena vā attaniyena vā tasmā suñño lokoti vuccati.

Because it is, Ananda, empty by way of self or what belongs to self, therefore 'the world is empty' is said.

--SN 35.68

There is only one example in Theravada Buddhism that I know of that is cited as support for the idea of emptiness being related to non-existence - in the Patisambhidamagga:

katamaṃ vipariṇāmasuññaṃ? jātaṃ rūpaṃ sabhāvena suññaṃ.

What is emptiness due to change? Born form is empty by way of intrinsic existence.

-- Paṭis. XX.5

The commentary to this passage refutes the idea that this refers to non-existence, however:

'Void of individual essense': here sabhāva is sayaṃ bhāvo; arising of itself is the meaning. Or sabhāva is sako bhāvo; own arising. Because of existence in dependence on conditions there is in it no essence by itself or essence of its own, thus it is "void of individual essence".

...

But if someone should say: "Own essence is individual essence; it is void of that individual essence. ... Because of the non-existence of any idea whatever it is the non-existence of materiality that is expressed by the words 'born materiality is void of individual essence.'" It should be argued thus: that being so, the words 'born materiality' would be contradicted; for what is devoid of arising is not called 'born'. ... And the word 'void' for what is non-existent contradicts the Blessed One's use of it above for the 'world' and also the words of the books of logic and linguistics; and it contradicts many logical arguments.

-- Path of Discrimination, p. 362 (Ñāṇamoli, trans)

So, while to say that "the Buddha never taught a theory of emptiness. This idea is nowhere in the entire Pali Canon." is clearly false (and should really be removed from your question), there are ways of understanding emptiness that don't contradict existence.

Further, the Buddha taught non-self; he didn't precisely teach "rebirth" - he never actually used a word, that I know of, that implies such an idea. He taught dependent origination; that mental formations lead to further becoming. It is pretty clear from reading the earlier texts (e.g. those cited above) that experiences arise and cease, being replaced by new experiences. This occurs even at the moment of physical death, hence "rebirth", or more accurately "birth".

In summary, emptiness can be understood to refer to absence of self (i.e. something eternal or immutable) and rebirth isn't really a Buddhist concept. Birth comes about because of mind states in one existence leading to future mind states in another existence - the separation between existences is merely conventional.

• Bhante, can "Born form is empty by way of intrinsic existence" mean that which comes into existence doesn't stay the same even between rising and falling? : Tin' imani bhikkhave sankhatalakkhanani Katamani tini uppado pannayati, vayo pannayati, thitassa annathattam pannayati – Sankha Kulathantille Aug 28 '15 at 19:22
• @SankhaKulathantille I don't know what "stay the same" could mean in the instance of a single moment of existence. It has no time to change, apart from disappearing again. – yuttadhammo Aug 28 '15 at 23:09
• For example Bhante, 1 Rupa kalapa is said to last for a period of 17 thought moments. Could it mean that the Rupa doesn't stay the same even during that time. – Sankha Kulathantille Aug 29 '15 at 0:52

The teaching that all things composed of parts are without self, but are mere names and labels designated in dependence on their parts is something that most definately is taught in the Pali canon, quite explicitly in the Vajira Sutta with the analogy of the analysis of the Chariot.

The reason why this doesn't contradict rebirth is that when a person dies, their final consciousnesses cause the arising of a new consciousness in dependence on a new body, and this new mind and body can be conventionally called a self, and there is a causal relationship between the two.

Rebirth

First of all the idea of emptiness doesn't really apply to chicken soup. This is a widespread misinterpretation. It principally applies to experiences. The basic idea is that there is a sense-object (arambaṇa) and a sense-faculty (indriya) and when the two come together in the presence of sense-cognition (vijñāna) then this produces an experience (vedanā), which then gives rise to a whole range of speculative mental processes (prapañca).

Note that vedanā comes from a verbal root √vid, meaning "to know, to discover". We have vedanā when we know we are experiencing something. So dependent arising is describing, not the arising of chicken soup, but the arising of a conscious experience. And of course experience is characterised by impermanence (anitya), disappointment (duḥkha), and lack of substance (anātman).

In this theory, the experience of being a self happens in just the same way. The first-person perspective and the sense of being someone who is having an experience, are just more kinds of experience. The kind that happen then the arambaṇa is a mental process and the indriya is the mental faculty and there is mental cognition.

Any arguments over whether the experience exists (asti) or does not exist (nāsti) are kind of meaningless. When you eat a peach, does the taste of peach exist? Or not? Or is the language of "being" inappropriate here? Early Buddhist texts argue that asti and nāsti don't apply to the world of experience (e.g. Kaccānagotta Sutta SN 12.15). And one of the ways of expressing this is to say that experiences are anātman - they don't have any kind of substance.

So to say that the self exists, or that at death it ceases to exist, is simply to misunderstand the situation. The sense of being a self, like the taste of peach, only persists when the conditions are present. It ceases, for example, if one is knocked unconscious! Or if one experiences nirodhasamāpatti in meditation. What we loosely call "self" is just an experience. At death that experience stops arising in us. Buddhists argue that either immediately, or after a period of time, that the experience arises in another being, based on the condition of the last moments of the dead persons conscious experience.

The implication here is similar to what we find in the philosophy of Kant. Everything we know comes from experience. Experience is constantly changing. Therefore we cannot know anything that is permanent. If something were permanent we'd either have to always know it or always be ignorant of it. In fact simple introspection shows that experience is constantly changing and nothing is constantly in our minds - ergo we can have no knowledge of anything permanent. If there is a permanent ātman, we could never know anything about it.

It is important for Buddhism that rebirth happens. Without it the morality of Buddhism falls apart. Buddhists are realistic enough to see that in this life the wicked frequently go unpunished and the good go unrewarded. All moral systems of thought are oriented towards a "Just World" in which everyone gets what they deserve. In most moral systems this is overseen by a supernatural agent, a god of justice (e.g. in the Vedas Mitra and Varuṇa over see different aspects of keeping things in balance). Without a supernatural agent, it is necessary that the moral agent live again so as to experience the consequences of their actions.

In the India systems with an ātman or jīva (i.e. a permanent aspect of the psyche) that passes from life to life this is straightforward. For Buddhists it is complicated by our denial of personal continuity. An ātman would wreck our metaphysics and so we have this on going tension between morality which demands continuity to obtain a just world, and metaphysics which denies continuity because permanence would ruin dependent arising.

When we try to apply this theory to objects that exist independently of our experience (such as in the chicken soup example) then the theory does not hold together. Buddhists who tried this ended up proposing contradictory notions such as the Two Truths, which rather than rejecting asti and nāsti, try to argue that objects are both asti and nāsti. This is because objects and experiences are of a very different nature. What is true of experience is not necessarily true of objects. It is a bad mistake to use a theory of experience as a theory of objects; and a catastrophe to use it as a theory of reality.

Such a theory was never meant to stand up to the kind of scrutiny we now subject it to. It was an ad hoc explanation for something that was widely believed to be the case in North Indian by at least the 8th century BCE. and for centuries people all over the world found it plausible.

Theories of Emptiness

It is quite wrong to say that the Buddha did not teach a theory of emptiness. If you look for the Pāḷi words suññā (empty) and suññatā (emptiness) you will find that they occur many times. A survey of these uses in the Pāḷi texts and their Chinese counterparts can be found in

CHOONG, Mun-keat. (1999) The Notion of Emptiness in Early Buddhism. 2nd. Ed. Motilal Banarsidass.

Also I believe that Bhikkhu Anālayo's new book, Compassion and Emptiness in Early Buddhist Meditation, tackles some of the same themes (though I have not read it).

It is true that the doctrine of emptiness changed over the centuries, but the Buddha (if the early Buddhist texts do represent his words) did indeed teach about emptiness. The early Buddhist texts (and the Āgamas more so than the Nikāya) use the idea of emptiness in a number of ways:

1. An empty place (i.e. where there are no people), which is used as a metaphor for ...
2. A samādhi state (Pali suññatāvihāra; Chinese 空三昧 = Skt śūnyasamādhi) in which there is no experience, i.e. a state in which there is no conscious mental activity.
3. The emptiness of the world (suñño loko) of self or anything belonging to self (suññaṃ attena vā attaniyena vā).
4. A synonym for nibbāna.

These meanings were developed over time into the various theories of emptiness we know about today. The 3rd use in Pāḷi is adapted by Nāgārjuna to give the classic early Madhyamaka interpretation of emptiness which is that dharmas are empty of svabhāva - i.e. that nothing can be a condition for it's own existence (which was an implication of later Abhidharma speculation).

• If you do not inherently exist as the theory of emptiness states, why bother meditating or doing anything...you don't really exist. How is coming to a realization that you are basically an illusion and that your existence is transitory with no inherent existence supposed to release you from suffering. If the theory of emptiness were true, it would be nihilistic and the worst possible news. This is why Buddhist think they have to meditate for decades or for lifetimes to achieve stream entry, because they have wrong views of emptiness to begin with. – atman Aug 27 '15 at 11:34
• I can only redirect you to my answer, which you have evidently not read. – Jayarava Aug 27 '15 at 12:00
• atman, the theory of emptiness most definitely does not mean that nothing exists or that everything is pointless. You are correct, that is a nihilistic view and would be very bad. In fact, it is warned against repeatedly that if you come away with this view after learning the theory of emptiness that you have misunderstood something. In other words, I believe the theory of emptiness and do not in any way consider myself to have a nihilistic view or believe that nothing exists or nothing functions. – Yeshe Tenley Apr 23 '18 at 13:35

"Just as when, with an assemblage of parts,
there’s the word,
chariot,
even so when aggregates are present,
there’s the convention of
living being"

To say an assemblage of parts constitutes the word "chariot" as a convention is not saying whatever the chariot really is lacks inherent existence. Its fundamental reality could be transcendent.

The self cannot be found within the aggregates within our conventions of self that identify with the body...because the true self TRANSCENDS the aggregates and the body. If this were not so, and you did not inherently exist, the convention of self would simply cease to exists once the aggregates dissolve in dukkha in the same why a "chariot" ceases to exist once the wood, wheels, etc of the chariot are taken apart.

Using your logic, the chariot would also take rebirth because the "chariot" would be a cause of the next chariot on some undefined spiritual plane. It is all nonsense. The Buddha never taught a theory of emptiness. If he did, then there would be no concept of the "Chitta" or illumined mind and no hope of salvation from Samsara, because there is no one to be liberated and nothing really to be liberated from. Just a big mirage of emptiness. But the Buddha is clear that the citta, or illumined mind, transcends the 5 aggregates. From Pali Canon...

[MN 1.436, AN 4.422] "Whatever form there is, feelings, perceptions, experiences, or consciousness (the five aggregates), these he sees to be without permanence, as suffering, as ill, as a plague, a boil, a sting, a pain, an affliction, as foreign, as otherness, as empty (suññato), as Selfless (anattato). So he turns (pativapeti) his mind (citta, Non-aggregate) away from these (aggregates); therein he gathers (upasamharati) his mind within the realm of Immortality. This is tranquility; this is that which is most excellent!"

[DN 1.76] "This is the quelled and thoroughly purified mind (citta) cleansed, unblemished, devoid of impurities, pliable, manageable, steadfast, adamantine, so he directs his mind towards gnosis and vision; such that he knows: 'This is my body made up of materiality, and the four great elements, come from mother and father, kept going on rice and gruel, without permanence, liable to be broken and destroyed, and here also is my consciousness (vinnana) which is entirely dependent upon it.

[SN 3.234] The Aggregate Sutra. At Savatthi "Followers, the desire and lust for formations is a defilement of the citta, the desire and lust for feelings is a defilement of the citta, the desire and lust for cognition is a defilement of the citta, the desire and lust for experiences is a defilement of the citta, the desire and lust for vinnana is a defilement of the citta. But, followers, when one abandons the defilements of the citta regarding these five stations (aggregates), then ones citta inclines towards renunciation. Ones citta is made pliable and firm in renunciation by direct gnosis."

To repeat, my position is that the Buddha absolutely DID NOT teach a theory of emptiness. He taught anatta...a theory of non-self. In other words the self cannot be found in phenomenon because it transcends the world of phenomenon. This is supported by Buddha's description of Citta..the illumined mind, all over the Pali Canon as a transcendent property beyond the 5 aggregates (I have sited various quotes here already to support this). In addition, here is the Buddha's description of Nirvana:

"“There is, monks, a not-born, a not-brought-to-being, a not-made, a not-formed. If, monks, there were no not-born, not-brought-to-being, not-made, not-formed, no escape would be discerned from what is born, brought-to-being, made, formed. But since there is a not-born, a not-brought-to-being, a not-made, a not-formed, therefore an escape is discerned from what is born, brought-to-being, made, formed. (Udana, p. 109)"

Once again, notice the Buddha is describing a reality that transcends Samsara. Does that sound like a theory of emptiness to you?

• But if you look in the whole exchange between Mara and Vajira in the Vajira Sutta, it is quite clear that the Ven. Vajira is saying that just as chariot is just a convention that is applied to a collection of parts and doesn't exist except as a mere convention, so too a person or self is a mere convention applied to a collection of parts. Mara taunted her asking if there is a self, and Vajira could have easily said that the self transcends the aggregates but she didn't. – Bakmoon Aug 27 '15 at 5:38
• Yes. And look at the last stanza in that verse! BTW @atman if you use paragraphs you make your answer much easier to read! – Jayarava Aug 27 '15 at 8:58
• @atman care to provide a source for the passages you've quoted here? I don't recognize the Sutta numbering you've given. – user5770 Aug 28 '15 at 0:58

The question seems an objection to Mahayana concept of emptiness. I will try and give the answer to this objection from the Prasangika viewpoint:

the self should simply cease to exist because that which made you a self has dissolved and since you do not inherently exist you should just vanish

I don't think there is any reason to invoke rebirth if this is your objection to the emptiness of inherent existence. By this line of reasoning, if phenomena lacked inherent existence (ie, they are empty), then moment-to-moment in this very life, a person would vanish. However, we do not vanish. So, either the line of reasoning is based on incorrect assumptions or it is valid and leads to absurdity thus refuting emptiness of inherent existence.

I believe the line of reasoning is based upon an incorrect assumption: that things lacking inherent existence will be unable to function.

Let's set aside the selflessness of phenomena and look only at the selflessness of the person as this is agreed upon by Theravada and the Mahayana. It is clear, the Theravada posits the selflessness of persons. That people lack inherent existence.

This line of reasoning also refutes the Theravada position: if people lack inherent existence, then they will be unable to function and thus they will vanish in this very moment! So either the line of reasoning is flawed - it assumes the incorrect assumption that lacking inherent existence renders things non-functional - or the Theravada selflessness of persons has also been refuted as well.

I can tell you this, nothing exists in Samsara that does not change from one moment to the next, so we must be empty of a self that never changes, empty of an atomic self that can't be divided or quite simply empty of a soul. Conceptual things are empty of existence, like "chicken soup" because we make them up, we assume them into existence...in ultimate reality "chicken soup" is just what it is in the experience of the one experiencing the chicken soup, moment by moment, there are no words in ultimate reality.

Ok now, you write, "...in this theory, your illusory sense of self comes from the right causes and conditions, parents, a body, a brain etc. following this logic, upon death, the self should simply cease to exist because that which made you a self has dissolved and since you do not inherently exist you should just vanish...".

Are we talking about "the self" or "the sense of self"? Why follow this theory or this logic that most people who don't meditate just assume makes sense, when we as Buddhists can come up with theories based on our faith in the Buddha's teaching and/or our inner experience through practices such as meditation? I mean theories that are in harmony with the Buddha's teaching such as,

1) "the body or brain receives the mind(home of the delusion of self) much like a radio and does not actually make the mind."

2) "Death of the body from the point of view of the one dying is just another change and delusions will come along with the one dying to the next life unless the one dying has reached Nibbana."

3) "When we let go of our delusions is when we vanish like some kind of super hermit that needs absolutely nothing to be happy and at peace because being attached to nothing is what gives one real authentic peace and happiness."

By the way, how does something that doesn't exist vanish except perhaps through realization? I hope I understood the question correctly. -metta

• It is very simple. If you are arguing all phenomenon lack inherent existence, you are basically saying nothing really exists. When the aggregates dissolve, there is nothing left because there was nothing that really existed in the first place. Just a mirage. – atman Aug 26 '15 at 23:44
• I was a long way from finishing my answer when you posted this comment(sorry about that). I finished the answer now though :) – Lowbrow Aug 27 '15 at 1:04
• I added some paragraphs because I find it very difficult to read solid blocks of text, Hope you don't mind. – Jayarava Aug 27 '15 at 12:05
• @Jayarava Attwood Thank you, I appreciate that. I couldn't figure out how to do formatting like you did there. I suppose somebody has answered a question about how to do it somewhere. – Lowbrow Aug 27 '15 at 15:37
• one trick is to make sure you have 2 spaces at the end of lines. Or two carriage returns. – Jayarava Aug 28 '15 at 8:01

To add to these other answers, the question seems to overemphasize the 'dependent' aspect of dependent origination. See the Visuddhimagga (Path of Purification), which also points out the resulting risk of deviating into nihilistic views. At XVII, 20-23:

1. Among the conditions described under the headings of ignorance, etc., the respective conditions that make the [conditionally-arisen] states beginning with formations arise are incapable of making them arise when not mutually dependent and when deficient. Therefore this conditionality by depending (paþicca—ger.) makes states arise (uppádeti) equally and together (samaí saha ca), not piecemeal and successively—so it has been termed here thus by the Sage who is skilled in phraseology that conforms to its meaning: it has been accurately termed “dependent origination” (paþicca samuppáda), is the meaning.
2. And while so termed:

The first component will deny the false view of eternity / And so on, and the second will prevent / The nihilistic type of view and others like it, while the two / Together show the true way that is meant.

1. The first: the word “dependent” (paþicca) indicates the combination of the conditions, [522] since states in the process of occurring exist in dependence on the combining of their conditions; and it shows that they are not eternal, etc., thus denying the various doctrines of eternalism, no-cause, fictitious-cause, and power-wielder.3 What purpose indeed would the combining of conditions serve, if things were eternal, or if they occurred without cause, and so on?

2. The second: the word “origination” (samuppáda) indicates the arising of the states, since these occur when their conditions combine, and it shows how to prevent annihilationism, etc., thus preventing the various doctrines of annihilation [of a soul], nihilism, [“there is no use in giving,” etc.,] and moral-inefficacy-of- action, [“there is no other world,” etc.]; for when states [are seen to] arise again and again, each conditioned by its predecessor, how can the doctrines of annihilationism, nihilism, and moral-inefficacy-of-action be maintained?