Consciousness is often used to describe Śūnyatā by some teachers but in Buddhism consciousness is one of the aggregates.

  • Where is consciousness used to describe emptiness? What are you basing this assertion on? – Yeshe Tenley Sep 13 '18 at 13:33
  • Hi. From a strictly Buddhist perspective I'm looking to define the Vijñāna and Śūnyatā as I have come to realise they are not used in the same way. – user14082 Sep 13 '18 at 13:46
  • If you want an explanation of "Consciousness is often used to describe Śūnyatā", then it would be good (maybe necessary) to add some direct quotes/references of teachers saying that. – ChrisW Sep 13 '18 at 19:07

The way these relate, according to instructions I received, and my limited understanding:

In ontological reality nothing exists by itself; everything is part of some process and relationship; In fact in Mahayana Buddhism we say that delineating these processes and relationships into distinct entities is a function of the mind. Same processes and relationships can be delineated in a multitude of ways, even though most of the time we assume there is only one, or only one right way to delineate them. Entities do not have (are empty of) inherent existence and are delineations made by the mind. We call this situation "Emptiness" (Śūnyatā).

The mind itself exists as (informational) phenomenon emerging from interaction of processes and relationships. So mind itself is not something fixed that has essence - it's fluid and ephemeral. We say, mind itself is empty.

Since "entities" do not exist as anything apart from the mind, and mind itself does not exist apart from the interaction of processes and relationships, we can see that mind and entities are of the same emergent nature. In other words, the latent regularities inherent in the interaction of processes and relationships give rise to mind as reflection and representation, culminating in delineation of entities.

So mind and its delineated entities emerge as virtual aspect of regularities inherent to the ontological reality. Mind and entities are virtual. This virtuality is what we call Emptiness. In this sense we can roughly say that mind is emptiness and emptiness is mind. Or, more precisely, that the nature of mind is emptiness. So in the absolute sense they are inseparable.

However, when we speak in the conventional sense, mind refers to representation, and when we speak about vijnana we specifically mean representation that develops in the case of sentient beings. The capacity for representation is one of the five components making up the subjective realm of the so-called sentient being, along with stimuli, imprints/tendencies, concepts of entities, and feelings. Vijnana is that which emerges from imprints/tendencies in response to stimuli and underlies the process of delineation and evaluation of entities, as well as the feelings that fall out of that. So in conventional use the meaning of "Vijnana" is rather specific.

While Emptiness (Śūnyatā) is a much more broad concept. It refers to the global situation that ontological reality does not have any sort of absolute point of reference, whether local or global, and that whatever virtual stuff that emerges, emerges from relationships and interactions, and that therefore all phenomena, including the ones we deal with in our human realms do not have any sort of inherent solidity.

  • Thank you. So all objects (including skandhas) give the impression of being lots of seemingly separate things but originate from a process of happenings and at any point in that process they arise, abide and cease. Moreover, this is also the case with consciousness but not with emptiness? (I loved your description of defilements in another question) – user14082 Sep 13 '18 at 18:37
  • More or less correct. Well, emptiness is not something that exists, either inherently or virtually - it's just a way to characterize the virtuality and relativity of emergent phenomena (which is all of them). It's a noun that should have stayed adjective (shunya, not shunyata). – Andrei Volkov Sep 13 '18 at 19:07
  • Perhaps "hollowness" would be a better translation than "emptiness". It's always the emptiness of something, not just the emptiness by itself. Emptiness does not exist apart from form that is empty (of svabhava). – Andrei Volkov Sep 13 '18 at 20:24
  • @AndreiVolkov Or 'voidness'. "The voidness of one thing is the voidness of all" (Upanishads) – user14119 Sep 18 '18 at 14:26

They are very different terms with very different meanings.

Mind (pali: viññāṇa) is that which knows something. Emptiness (pali: suññatā) is how things exist. We say the mind is empty - ie., that it lacks inherent existence. Madhyamakas say that all things lack inherent existence... ie., that they are empty of inherent existence. The question then becomes what is 'inherent existence' ;)

  • Thank you. If consciousness is a factor of the five skandhas, how does the emptiness you describe compare to consciousness? – user14082 Sep 13 '18 at 16:21
  • In my answer above 'mind' is synonymous with consciousness. So again, consciousness exists by being empty of inherent existence because that is how all things exist. – Yeshe Tenley Sep 13 '18 at 16:36
  • @YesheTenley please add Pali terms to your answer for clarity. 🙏 – OyaMist Sep 13 '18 at 16:36
  • 1
    @OyaMist done, but notice the OP used sanskrit – Yeshe Tenley Sep 13 '18 at 16:39
  • I often interchange between Pali and Sanskrit out of ignorance sometimes even within one sentence. It's all very new to me. Thank you for the addition: "mind is synonymous with consciousness". This was a great help. – user14082 Sep 13 '18 at 16:46

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