From an article about Heidegger,

The beginning of this story, as told by Heidegger especially in the Nietzsche lectures, is the end, the completion of philosophy by its dissolution into particular sciences and nihilism—questionlessness of being, a dead end into which the West has run. Heidegger argues that the question of being would still provide a stimulus to the research of Plato and Aristotle, but it was precisely with them that the original experience of being of the early Greeks was covered over... For the later Heidegger, “western philosophy,” in which there occurs forgetfulness of being, is synonymous with “the tradition of metaphysics.” Metaphysics inquires about the being of beings, but in such a way that the question of being as such is disregarded, and being itself is obliterated. The Heideggerian “history of being” can thus be seen as the history of metaphysics, which is the history of being’s oblivion.

Is this itself reason to suspect that philosophers like Plato, by which I mean contemporary thinkers who are paid to publish philosophy (including I suppose self help authors and some aspects of psychology) are bound to misunderstand the concept of emptiness? When the Buddha taught, the history of Being, metaphysics, had not yet, it seems, begun.

Are philosophers and people in general misunderstanding the terminology the Buddha used, perhaps because he lived at a time before 'Being' when there was only 'world' -- etc..

3 Answers 3


Many people in general misunderstand the terminology the Buddha used, including Buddhists & even translators. If these people misunderstand the terminology then what is to be expected of Western philosophers?

About 'being', the Pali scriptures report the Buddha discussed this word at length. For example, in the core doctrine of Dependent Origination, the notion of 'beings' is central to the meaning of the word 'birth' ('jati').

And what is birth? Whatever birth, taking birth, entering, coming-to-be, coming-forth of the various beings in this or that group of beings based on the appearance ('look'; 'features') of aggregates & appropriation of the sense spheres, that is called birth.

The word 'being' ('satta') refers to an internally generated 'view' of 'self' or 'persons' (see Satta Sutta & Vajira Sutta below).

Although 'beings' in these suttas is described as a mental state or mental view, most Buddhists & people regard 'beings' meta-physically, i.e., as an organism.

Similarly, most people & Buddhists regard the word 'birth' ('jati') meta-physically, rather than the meaning in the Indian languages of 'social & self identity' (see Wiki).

As for 'emptiness' ('sunnata'), it is defined as the absence of "self".

In Pali Buddhism, 'being' & 'emptiness' are opposite things however both can exist in the human experience; 'being' arising from ignorance & emptiness discerned by enlightened clear seeing.

Most crucially, the Buddha was not a philosopher but, instead, a 'Spiritual Doctor'. The Buddha had only one sole concern, namely, the ending or curing of suffering.

For the Buddha, the arising of 'being', i.e., the arising of 'ego' or 'self', is the arising of suffering. For example, a new born child has no idea of 'self' but later develops ideas of 'myself' based on cravings for things (such as food, comfort, love, pleasures, etc). These cravings are sufferings thus the manifestation of 'being' is always from the manifestation of suffering (refer to Vajira Sutta below).

'A being,' lord. 'A being,' it's said. To what extent is one said to be 'a being'?"

Any desire, passion, delight, or craving for form, feeling, perceptions, mental fabrications &/or consciousness, Radha: when one is caught up there, tied up there, one is said to be 'a being.'

Satta Sutta


Why now do you assume 'a being'? Mara, have you grasped a view? This is a heap of sheer constructions: Here no being is found.

Just as, with an assemblage of parts, The word 'chariot' is used, So, when the aggregates are present, There's the convention 'a being.'

It's only suffering that comes to be, Suffering that stands and falls away. Nothing but suffering comes to be [when 'being' comes to be], Nothing but suffering ceases [when 'being' ceases].

Vajira Sutta


And what is the emptiness mind-release? There is the case where a monk, having gone into the wilderness, to the root of a tree, or into an empty dwelling, considers this: 'This is empty of self or of anything pertaining to self.' This is called the emptiness mind-release.

Mahavedalla Sutta


Insofar as it is empty of a self or of anything pertaining to a self: Thus it is said, Ananda, that the world is empty.

And what is empty of a self or of anything pertaining to a self? The eye is empty of a self or of anything pertaining to a self. Forms... Eye-consciousness... Eye-contact is empty of a self or of anything pertaining to a self.

The ear is empty...

The nose is empty...

The tongue is empty...

The body is empty...

The intellect is empty of a self or of anything pertaining to a self. Ideas... Intellect-consciousness... Intellect-contact is empty of a self or of anything pertaining to a self. Thus it is said that the world is empty."

Suñña Sutta

  • didn't really answer my question very directly, just seems to repeat a well known fact, that there is an emptiness of self. EDIT may help me think tho, cheers :)
    – user2512
    Sep 15, 2016 at 9:01
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    thanks. this is a Buddhist forum therefore some contributors, such as myself, may know very little, possibly nothing, about Western philosophy. In summary, the Buddha taught the arising of 'being', i.e., the arising of 'ego' or 'self', is the arising of suffering. For example, a new born child has no idea of 'self' but later develops ideas of 'myself' based on cravings for things (such as food, comfort, love, pleasures, etc). These cravings are sufferings thus the manifestation of 'being' is always from the manifestation of suffering. Did Heidegger discuss the 'suffering of being'? Sep 15, 2016 at 9:17
  • there's works contrasting heidegger and buddhism, but mahayana. not being able to read sanskrit, or really begin a sustained practice, i've read a fair amount of philosophical scholarship on buddhism. also, i studied philosophy at uni. think that these overlaps just confused me...
    – user2512
    Sep 15, 2016 at 9:21
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    I did my best to fix my answer for you. Sep 15, 2016 at 9:27
  • I fixed it more. Sep 15, 2016 at 10:16

The term 'misunderstanding' does not has the same meaning for a philosopher and a Buddhist. From the Buddhist perspective misunderstanding something means not seeing with one's own mind, not being able to see empirically. As for most philosophers, understanding only requires the ability to understand language and being able of logical analysis. Metaphysics is mostly subject to speculations about what is 'meta' (after, behind) 'physics' (empirically perceivable nature). I'm sure there are exceptions, i.e. Aristotle is said to be a big empiricist, but in Buddhism there's the big difference that words and terminology are useless.

As for misunderstanding the concept of emptiness, in Buddhism concepts don't really exist because you can't experience them (you can only experience thinking itself, you can't experience 1 + 1 = 2 for example), but emptiness is claimed to be a real experience. That being said, Buddhists would rather speak about the emptiness of concepts, claiming that theoretical knowledge won't bring you any insight. This is probably not a satisfying answer for you particular question, but since this is the Buddhist SE I hope it's good enough...

A suitable quote from Ajahn Chah:

If you don’t practice you won’t know. Frankly speaking, you won’t know the Dhamma by just reading it or studying it. Or if you do know it your knowledge is still defective. For example, this spittoon here. Everybody knows it’s a spittoon but they don’t fully know the spittoon. Why don’t they fully know it? If I called this spittoon a saucepan, what would you say? Suppose that every time I asked for it I said, “Please bring that saucepan over here,” that would confuse you. Why so? Because you don’t fully know the spittoon. If you did there would be no problem. You would simply pick up that object and hand it to me, because actually there isn’t any spittoon. Do you understand? It’s a spit- toon due to convention. This convention is accepted all over the country, so it’s spittoon. But there isn’t any real “spittoon.” If somebody wants to call it a saucepan it can be a saucepan. It can be whatever you call it. This is called “concept.” If we fully know the spittoon, even if somebody calls it a saucepan there’s no problem. Whatever others may call it we are unperturbed because we are not blind to its true nature. This is one who knows Dhamma

  • not a bad reply, thanks. a bit too anti conceptual to really accept tho :) actually, i agree with one of the answers which claims that Heidegger is completely off here. to say that the buddha came before X, so wasn't properly thinking like Xs, is fundamentally a misunderstanding
    – user2512
    Sep 16, 2016 at 1:10

One can hardly say "philosophers today", as philosophy itself is a wide field of activities; it can mean academic philosophy (which is publish-or-perish style of life, plus perhaps thinking "I am special because I do something which is profound and special" -- but that's the same for physicists or biologists) or conceptual reflection of experience. But it matters what experience is reflected, at what level, and what is the reflection supposed to bring.

So I will discuss philosophy as something extra-theoretical.

I happen to disagree with Heidegger in his accusations of metaphysics. Metaphysics (reflection) and being (contemplation) are orthogonal, but it is important that metaphysical reflection is based on contemplation (rather than delusion). There are contemplative geniuses, who are also masters of conceptualization of that experience (think of Nagarjuna, Dogen or Aquinas) all while knowing that it does not replace the experience itself (or being; ironically, it was Aquinas who re-introduced the concept of being (esse) into the western tradition). There are also great contemplatives who don't do conceptualization (for whatever reason) -- think of masters like Joshu, or John of the Cross if you wish, or a big amount of monks who never wrote anything.

There are also people who have little access to being (no contemplation), yet write papers/books about it -- unaware of their own ignorance. And there are people who are out of touch with being, and don't conceptualize.

The concept of emptiness (just like the concept of being) is pointing at something more than the concept itself, and its understanding comes through contemplative practice (which is called vipassana in buddhism). What I can suggest is that you do a vipassana retreat (I mean, 2 weeks or more), it is really worth it for many reasons, and then you will be able to see better if what they write about Wittgenstein & Nagarjuna and so on makes sense. A good question is what is the use of reading those papers anyway :)

(PS: I am a philosophy major and have later experience with vipassana.)

  • it's not a pun, it's what the term means en.wiktionary.org/wiki/metaphysics
    – user2512
    Sep 15, 2016 at 11:45
  • one can say "philosophy today" very easily, same as 'physics today' 'psychology today', etc.. the 'today' qualification may seem blurred, but "philosophy" has a history, so i don't see why not. it's you that is punning, i think. i get what you mean, but i did say 'like Plato' so am not sure why
    – user2512
    Sep 15, 2016 at 11:48
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    I changed the word to "accusation", hope that is clearer; Heidegger had a problem with it which he formulated repeatedly in the course of his life, and I think that it (validly) targets only a specific flavor of metaphysics. As for philosophy today, yes, you can say that, but as soon as you want to talk about something specific, you have to start making distinctions. Can you say that 'psychology today' does (not) understand mindfulness?
    – eudoxos
    Sep 15, 2016 at 11:56
  • doubt i'll get a better answer tho, so i accept what i understand of your claim, that there are obvious overlaps between buddhist philosophy and everyday experience etc..
    – user2512
    Sep 15, 2016 at 11:59
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    Oh, sorry about "pun", forget about it, that was my poor command of English. I don't remember ever seeing something humorous in his texts. Late Hggr was appreciative of eastern traditions, so actually the best way to study Hggr is to do vipassana :) Good luck and don't forget the practice :)
    – eudoxos
    Sep 15, 2016 at 13:22

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