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Is emptiness conventionally / provisionally non-empty? Please include reference to whose perspective you are replying from.


By empty I mean non-substantial, how dharmas are constantly arising and perishing, and nothing is the same from moment to moment, but in flux.

By conventionally I mean in the sense that enlightened beings can use "I" to refer to themselves, even though they ultimately lack any self identity at all or sense of "me and mine".

BY non-empty I mean permanent.


I know that there are debates about the identity of the conventional truth and emptiness, and Nagarjuna said that emptiness is empty.

I read Gelek Rimpoche - Geluk lama - say that he'd "love to say emptiness is impermanent, but emptiness is meant to be permanent", because it is uncompounded and uncreated. And a translation of The Great Prajna Paramita Sutra, saying it is neither permanent nor impermanent.

Personally, I would guess that it is identical to impermanent dharmas (there's discussion about that in early ch'an, seemingly explained by Zongmi), not permanent, and yet does not arise or cease, is not impermanent.

Then it's both empty and non-empty: changing in accordance with conditions, but not dependent on any individual conditioned thing. Arguably, I am rich independent of any one of my financial investments, even-though it changes with all of them. Not a great analogy, but I can't think of anything else that could be "permanent".

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  • good wellwritten question; very good that Asker specifically describes what the intended meanings are for the topic words of the question: in a lot of recent writings in English there's misinterpretation because of specialised meanings for standard English terms/words, so it can be tedious to try transmit intended ideas: especially nicely understandable done by Asker re 'permanent' & 'emptiness' etc; trying to describe these Existential Concepts with conventional language isn't typically vague enough: the concepts are different from conventional concepts & conventional descriptioning; good :) – M H Oct 24 '20 at 1:31
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No, of course not. Sorry, I don't have any references to back me but it just seems to be common sense...

How can emptiness be non-empty even provisionally if it [emptiness] is not a distinct existence, it's just a label for not having anything solid enough to serve as an absolute reference point?

Emptiness itself can't be an absolute reference point either. So even in conventional sense, you can't say "here's emptiness and there's the seeming solidity of samsara" or "here is emptiness and there's nirvana", or really for any other X, you can't juxtapose it with emptiness, you can only say "X is empty".

The only counterargument to that I can think of, is the fact that the noun "shunyata" exists. Every time we casually use the noun, especially with someone who does not really know it's meaning in-depth it's kinda like we are pretending that emptiness is non-empty.

We are not really claiming it is non-empty we are just saying the word with this face as if it were a something, and that slay of hand is the closest we come to reifying the concept to a level of something semi-non-empty.

Lol. I'm sure actual philosophers would give me an F for this, but here we go :)

P.S. I mean, if you get to the bottom of it, the real question is, does any "sign" (in the sense of semiotics) have a referent which itself is not a sign? When we say "X is empty", that is what we mean, right? that it is merely a sign? So how can we use "emptiness" as anything other than a sign, even conventionally, especially conventionally?

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The analogy i can give is to a role-playing game. There is a way to role-play and there is a way to analyze the mechanics of the game itself.

Similarly Ariya analyze the game based on logic and their verbal system of understanding is based on philosophical inference for demonstrable basis. They understand what can be rightly inferred even about thinking by thinking. They understand intellect in and by itself and here 'how one thinks' is the thing they solved for.

Existence is of delusion, delusion can be spoken of as faulty notions of objectification, objectification is thinking about and 'naming' what the five senses present and the intellect which knows and thinks about thinking.

When ariya rightly think about the senses & what the senses present, in that context they infer various elements but 'a self' isn't inferred.

The doctrine of self is known to be false and is also [by them] known to be adhered to by many other beings who grasp with wrong view the senses and what the senses present complete with intellect.

The doctrine of self is an unsubstantiated interpretation of reality [the RPG] and most beings adhere to it [role-play].

It so happens that role-playing here is abandoned by role-playing.

The thing is that, as the world role-plays, the use of role-play language for communication is required to interact with others to do anything in-game as it is to the only mean and it to an extent describes the environment even tho it is flawed & incomplete understanding.

In other words, one stuck in this game is here required not only to understand the predicament but is also required to play out the role-play scenario and if he is going to interact with delusional people then he has to talk in terms which are common norm.

If those he interacts with are favorably predisposed the Aryan can teach the Dhamma and those with eyes to see will be able to abandon adherence to the doctrine of self and come to agreement with the proposition that all which can be thought about as being existant in the game or being in-game or of the game, all that they call existence and it's rightly [due inference] categorically classed as repulsive.

They eventually know & see that which isn't objectified nor included in the allness of that all, isn't included in word 'existant' nor associated with game, the principle by which game is extinguished is by them classed as 'good and pleasant'. They do not delight in the discernment of principally changing persistence, they incline their minds to the discernment of the principal cessation of changing persistence, the principle of cessation becomes the primary happiness and a destruction of taints.

In regards to the world [the game] it does not occur to them 'this is good' they know that it's wrong, should not be and shouldn't occur. There being no longing the game ends as it is only conceived & sustained in-game by intellect subscribed to the doctrine of self [wrong view].

I could use the word 'convention' to describe some of these circumstances but i am disinclined to do so because it's imo become somewhat of a buzzword and i guess people might have preconceived notions.

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  • good point re 'buzzwords'/ terms which arenot clear(if at all) unless carefully described in detail for & within particular contexts & venues; also, wasn't readily able to follow the initial the analogy utilised :) – M H Oct 24 '20 at 1:35
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It depends. At the start of your emptiness contemplation you experience both emptiness and non-emptiness. However when you attain Nibbana you experience total emptiness.

Please refer to Cula Sunnata Sutta and Maha sunnata sutta.

https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an05/an05.075.than.html

https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.122.than.html

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Good householder Anon,

All saṅkhāras are anicca, good householder. What ever in that all, and most ideas, are void of any substance, yet have causes.

And of course, the sense of the common, common run-a-mill people, doesn't see, taking inconstant for constant and constant for inconstant, seeking refuge in an emptiness...

And what is all?

How ever, and that is importand, the run-a-mill person, one who's still a householder, does good to investigate form, the five senses and it's objects first, otherwise one become simply an "merit-off-consumings"-BSE star, head and heedless spreading useless comments to try to maintain ones identifications.

This might help to find back from Mohayanas and their brothers in arm to the Buddha and his Sangha: The Concept of Emptiness in Pali Literature - Medawachchiye Dhammajothi Thero but at least, brain-mastubation stays just brain-mastubation, is neither the path, nor it's aim.

So here on it: The Essence of the Dhamma

[Note that this isn't given for stacks, exchange, wprld-binding trades... but for an escape from this wheel]

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The following is taken from my longer article on this subject. This quote is jumping in at the end of that article, but it summarizes my answer to the question asked. This answer may not seem to respond to the OP’s question as asked because it is coming from the non-conventional view, but it is responding to the incorrect view encoded in the question. The OP is very clear about what he/she/they is asking, but from the non-conventional view the question is meaningless. The Two-Truths doctrine is important to our understanding, but it shouldn’t be a justification for making-believe we still understand the conventional world today as humanity once did two and a half millennia ago. "Forms are Empty, Emptiness is Form"

...please note that Emptiness is not Suchness, and is not the nature of anything—because then suchness wouldn’t be empty of an intrinsic self. We can say it is the essence of Suchness, elevating the absence of what we thought was there in the appearances to the stature of the absolute source of all, but that is just overkill and so wrong. It’s useful for a while, but it has the nasty effect of retarding our progress.

“Know that pointing out appearances as mind and mind’s nature as emptiness (thus making the duality of appearances and emptiness into a unity) is not the method of Nyingtik pith instruction. Such instruction may be given occasionally, but only as a provisional means to elevate the mind of an individual initiate, certainly not as a definitive truth.”

“Neither existence nor nonexistence nor space-time is to be found here. Appearances and emptiness are indistinguishable, so that neither eternity nor the void are anywhere perceptible.”

(Quotes above attributed to Longchenpa in the “Yeshe Lama,” Jingme Lingpa)

Suchness is the presencing of forms (otherwise there would be no distinguishing anything), and forms are empty of any intrinsic self. Yet we can discern the inherent essence of each form. Where we get lost is in confusing the “nature” (inherent essence) of a form, which sets it apart from other forms, with an intrinsic self. Our problem lies in the confusing multiplicity of meanings for the word “nature.” If we just thought of it as “intrinsic self-naturing” versus “essential character,” we'd be on our way to lessening our confusion. Thus, “Emptiness” (note the capitalization) is a form also—it’s a thought form, called a “concept.” So repeat after me: “Forms (suchness) are empty, Emptiness is form.” This will remind us that “Emptiness” is just an idea that took hold when we noticed we were originally wrong about everything. The essential character of Suchness is Pure Spontaneous Presencing. And I feel the need to again remind you that suchness is not a thing, it's the name we give to this activity—“presenting as form.” And the nature of this is not something else, it’s the activity. So Pure Spontaneous Presencing is not a thing. It’s simply a description of the salient characteristics of the activity that is our phenomenal existence—of suchness. Thus, it defines nothing, because there is nothing to define. As Garab Dorje said:

“Transcending all discrimination in its arising, Transcending all discrimination in its release.”

And as Jigme Lingpa said:

“While safeguarding the continuity of the wonderful intrinsic perfection of our existential presence, if the thought “the nature of pure presence is empty” springs up in the rational mind, by ascribing an objective focus of emptiness to pure presence, buddha is precluded.”

Forms are empty, Emptiness is form.

Addendum in response to the OP’s comment to this answer (placed here because of length)

By “permanent” you mean all of time? Time is the epitomization of arising and passing away—tick toc, tick toc—so would we say Time “itself” is permanent? I think we do, and yet even scientists are starting to say Time is just a convention that organizes events into orderly sequences. They are being forced into accepting a Two Truths doctrine because they and we share the same reality (i.e., Buddhism is right on this point). We say Time arises and passes away, but our experience of the arising and passing away of all things is only contingently factual because Time as we conventionally understand it, doesn’t exist.

But what does that word “reality” mean? The set of all events? A container in which everything “comes to pass”? What’s missing here?

It’s the motivating ‘force’, which in Buddhism is sometimes called “emptiness”. (It’s a terrible word because it’s an abstracted quality of all that manifests, but we conventionally use it as if it is something, but it’s truly only the absence of any intrinsic self-nature.)

So how did the absence of something become a motivating force? Habit. Lazy thinking. Misunderstanding. Because the truth is more bizarre than we imagine. Pick one.

The word “Emptiness” is a dialectical term. This means that when you apply it to things, you are asserting that they have no substance, no self, no intrinsic self-nature. And when you apply it to Emptiness, that also is without substance, no self, and no intrinsic self nature. It all just dissolves away. Thus, as you mentioned, Nagajuna said Emptiness is empty, which means Emptiness is just a mental form that has no intrinsic existence, but also that there is no Nature—just naturing.

So no, Emptiness is not permanent, because even what it points to (the absence of an intrinsic self-nature) is ultimately empty of meaning.

And because Time is not permanent, nothing that exists is permanent.

But your comment opens up the possibility of looking for something “relatively” permanent. Is there some conventional quality of experience that does not arise and pass away?

Emptiness is empty, awareness stops and starts in lockstep with what arises, so what’s left?

The motivating ‘force’, which is called Mahākarunā in Buddhism (or just Buddha nature, but that sounds like some thing). This simply means that stuff shows up in response to extant conditions. But not deterministically because the responses are stochastic in character and show a certain drift or creativity in what actually happens. The show is endless and it is spontaneous—but always coherent in some way from appearance to appearance. This is conventionally so, but not because we are ordering the appearances, but because the truth is a little bit different.

What is Reality? The Absolute truth? Time is impermanent, and not to be found absolutely. Awareness therefore is empty of meaning, for what would an awareness of no duration be? Emptiness is empty, as we said. So how, and to what, does Buddha nature respond?

This. This is all there is. The past is just the conventionally ordered conditions that made This possible, and they are intrinsic to This, not something attached like a string of moments of time that we remember. The Now we conventionally speak of as being the time that This is happening is not a moment in time because there is no such thing. Rather, it’s a vignette consisting of the conditions and the response to the conditions—all showing up Now—without any intrinsic substance or self. Just This, awesome beautiful display. And it never ends because it never begins. All there is, is this Now. That’s the stage. The how is beyond thought.

So to recap, conventionally, the appearances show up, and that is true. Ultimately, there is only the responsive naturing of appearances, and because time doesn’t exist ‘we’ somehow manage to organize these appearances into a moving image—the prior images in the sequence being the conditions intrinsic within the vignette Now. It’s like the entire ‘universe’ is just the imputed motion in a sequence of still images in an endless epiphanic display of Mahakaruna—and it is this that we break down into me, you, we, doing stuff to things, and making things happen.

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    I mean to ask whether emptiness is permanent and whether our idea of it refers to conventional existence: i.e. if there is some conventional quality of experience which does not arise and cease. – anon Oct 24 '20 at 19:47
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    My response to your comment, Anon, got long, so I appended it to my answer above. – StillJustJames Oct 24 '20 at 22:03
  • nice answer and comments; the clarifying explanation of the terms & contexts is helpful. thank you :) – M H Oct 25 '20 at 7:58
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Emptiness means that nothing exists in the ultimate sense.

It's like in sciences: all theoretical knowledge we have there is hypothesis. Newton's laws were good for centuries, but a time has came when we needed some other laws and equations to describe seemingly the same things (Einstein's etc). So any moment some new facts can arise, which would require to change our formulas.

That's what emptiness means. It means that everything in our "knowledge" is just a piece of experience: we have experienced something in perception; then we experienced some thoughts about that; that's how some piece of knowledge was created.

We say "we know it", but it's still a hypothesis based on experience; it's not an ultimate truth which would be true absolutely.

Likewise, "emptiness" is our concept. We assume that this concept is always true. We make that assumption on a basis of our experience and how we imagine the world.

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