3

In this forum, while discussing emptiness as supreme truth, I came across following comment which may be relevant from Mahayana point of view:

"The realisation that things are not as how they appear in cultivated through emptiness of self (anatta) and emptiness of all phenomena."

Poster says emptiness is empty of self and all phenomena (meaning "all Dhammas"), which translates to "All Dhammas are empty of all Dhammas".

My questions are:

  1. Are Dhammas empty of Dhammas?
  2. Is emptiness empty of unconditioned or is emptiness empty of unborn, uncreated and unoriginated?

I think Dhammas can not be empty of Dhammas. It is like body is empty of body and there is nothing to be discarded. In my opinion Dhammas can only be empty of self.

What is your opinion?

11
  • Thanks for editing Chris!! Oct 8, 2023 at 14:02
  • 2
    I am the she who has made that statement in another post. This is what I had written- "The realisation that things are not as how they appear in cultivated through emptiness of self (anatta) and emptiness of all phenomena." Then Dheeraj Verma states "She says emptiness is empty of self and all phenomena (meaning "all Dhammas"), which translates to "All Dhammas are empty of all Dhammas". That isnt mine. It is his understanding. I agree with ChrisW and Andriy Volkov especially with the latter's comment that the "translates as" offered by Dheeraj Verma is wrong. It doesnt translate into that. Oct 8, 2023 at 18:21
  • @HomagetoManjushri Nibbana is supreme Truth nothing else. Oct 9, 2023 at 4:18
  • @HomagetoManjushri I found this “ Now all dharmas are empty of all dharmas because they are neither eternal nor transitory. ” link -> wisdomlib.org/definition/sarvadharmashunyata Oct 9, 2023 at 6:40
  • 1
    Further… nothing could ever be '… in cultivated through emptiness…' and the suggestion that it might be is clear proof that the translation is worse than wrong; it spoils any suggestion arising from it. The proper translation might be not 'in…' but 'is cultivated…' and does no-one mind, that makes too much difference to be ignored? I knew nothing of 'anatta' until reading your Posts but two things: the WWW doesn't seem to recognise 'anatta' as 'emptiness'. Further, '… emptiness of self…' or '… of all phenomena' is another thing that will not work in English' Did you mean 'absence'? Oct 9, 2023 at 18:39

4 Answers 4

4

Poster says emptiness is empty of self and all phenomena (meaning "all Dhammas"), which translates to "All Dhammas are empty of all Dhammas".

This is NOT how it is stated in Mahayana. This seems to be something you made up based on your misunderstanding. We don't say "emptiness is empty of self", "dhammas are empty of dhammas" - that is some kind of nonsense.

Instead "emptiness of self" means that the self is empty, in other words self is not substantial. It appears to be an entity, a subject of perception and an agent of action, but in fact it is a loose collection of processes emerging from a number of causes.

This is a well known truth in both Theravada and Mahayana.

The emptiness of phenomena extends the same understanding to all other phenomena. To a naive observer every thing (every individual "phenomenon") appears to be something concrete and clear-cut, until under closer examination it ends up being a nuanced world of interacting currents and processes, just like the self.

Mahayana says the emptiness of phenomena has always been part of Buddha Dharma, it just wasn't properly understood by Theravada students.

This misunderstanding is exactly why (according to Mahayana) the Theravadins get so hung up on exact terminology and get obsessed over analysis of dharmas, skandhas, nidanas, jhanas and so on. Theravada operates under implicit assumption that you can capture the Buddha Dharma, and indeed the entire reality, in a fixed set of rigid well-defined concepts, and as long as you precisely understand the exact definitions you can be free from ignorance. To Mahayana this sounds funny and even absurd: from their perspective reification of concepts is the root cause of suffering, therefore taking concepts as something solid is the very trap of papanca that Buddha's Liberation By Wisdom was supposed to transcend. So from Mahayana's perspective, the emptiness of dharmas is the critical part of the Teaching that Theravada is missing.

For many centuries the favorite technique of philosophers criticizing Buddha Dharma was to take some part of the Teaching, misunderstand it, and then debate with their own misunderstanding to show how Buddhism is wrong and their own philosophy is superior. Let's not repeat that mistake here, when we have internal arguments between the schools. If you want to argue with Mahayana, approach it with an open mind and try to understand what it is saying. Once you really understand it, then you can say "here is where they are mistaken" - but not before that.

9
  • This is exactly right.
    – user13375
    Oct 8, 2023 at 22:21
  • I disagree with your answer that self is empty. Suppose I have a notion of self then according to you I am empty , emptiness is mine , emptiness is myself but I reached emptiness by making choices and intentions which is the condition and therefore emptiness is impermanent therefore it can not be called self. Self is empty is a misunderstanding as well. Oct 9, 2023 at 4:12
  • Emptiness of phenomena is also misunderstood. Emptiness is empty of self and not the other way round. Body or it’s parts is not me , mine or myself but body is not empty of body ( body is the other thing) Oct 9, 2023 at 4:15
  • 1
    Sounds like you keep repeating the same points instead of trying to understand. For you "emptiness" means "absence", for me it means "illusion". It's okay, I'm not going to argue.
    – Andriy Volkov
    Oct 9, 2023 at 7:32
  • 1
    Ruben and Andriy are saying the same thing
    – user13375
    Oct 9, 2023 at 18:15
4

Apparently, there are two types of emptiness. But you have the understand what emptiness means in each case.

The first type of emptiness is the emptiness related to the self. This literally comes out of SN 35.85:

As he was sitting there he said to the Blessed One, "It is said that the world is empty, the world is empty, lord. In what respect is it said that the world is empty?"

"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."
SN 35.85

It's also explained using the lute analogy in SN 35.205.

Emptiness of the self means that something (e.g. body, consciousness etc.) that you associate with the self, is not the self, does not contain self, is not owned by the self, is not apart from the self, is not part of the self etc.

And the third mark of existence states that all phenomena is not self. We can also say all phenomena is empty of a self.

The self is essentially a transient mental idea that is associated with the five clinging aggregates.

The Madhyamaka way to state this is that the self is empty of intrinsic substance.

The second type of emptiness is the emptiness of all phenomena, coming from Mahayana's Madhyamaka philosophy by Nagarjuna.

Let's take the example of a phenomena known as the "smell of metal". I just watched this interesting video "Can you actually smell metal?".

You could take something metallic using your hand and you can smell it. You would get this metallic odor. However, it turns out that metal doesn't produce any smell. When body oils come into contact with metal, it would oxidize to produce the chemical 1-octen-3-one, that is the source of the metallic odor.

So, the "smell of metal" is simply a concept concocted by the mind to explain what it senses. So, we can say that the "smell of metal" is empty of intrinsic substance.

This can be extended to all phenomena. I would explain it as "how you think something is, is not same as how it actually is."

In this way, the emptiness of self is a specific instance of the emptiness of phenomena - "how you think the self is, is not same as how it actually is."

The usefulness of this is not getting trapped in confusing the mental idea of Nirvana or other things, with what it actually is. The same teaching can be found in SN 22.85, where Ven. Yamaka learns that his mental idea of how the Tathagata is, is not the same as how the Tathagata really is.

However, there are a few things to be stated.

First, Madhyamaka didn't invent something radically new compared to what was taught in the EBTs/ Pali Canon.

Emptiness of phenomena is related to papanca (reification or objectification-classification or mental proliferation) which was taught in MN 18 and other suttas.

Second, while Mahayana usually considers emptiness of phenomena to be more important than emptiness of self and a superset of emptiness of self since the self is itself reified, Snp 4.14 puts the mental idea of the self at the root of reification / objectification - classification. Hence, Theravada holds emptiness of self to be more important, in my opinion.

"I ask the kinsman of the Sun, the great seer,
about seclusion & the state of peace.
Seeing in what way is a monk unbound,
clinging to nothing in the world?"
"He should put an entire stop
to the root of objectification-classifications (papañca):
'I am the thinker.'
Snp 4.14 (also please see this footnote by Ven. Thanissaro)

Third, according to MN 1, it is not that water, earth, Nibbana etc. don't exist at all. Emptiness is not about non-existence, rather, it's about illusion. For an unliberated person, water, earth, Nibbana etc. are all tainted with reification/ objectification-classification relative to the self. On the other hand, arahants and Buddhas see things as they truly are.

“Bhikkhus, a bhikkhu who is an arahant with taints destroyed, who has lived the holy life, done what had to be done, laid down the burden, reached his own goal, destroyed the fetters of being, and is completely liberated through final knowledge, he too directly knows earth as earth. Having directly known earth as earth, he does not conceive himself as earth, he does not conceive himself in earth, he does not conceive himself apart from earth, he does not conceive earth to be ‘mine,’ he does not delight in earth. Why is that? Because he has fully understood it, I say.

“He too directly knows water as water… Nibbāna as Nibbāna… Why is that? Because he has fully understood it, I say.

“Bhikkhus, the Tathāgata, too, accomplished and fully enlightened, directly knows earth as earth. Having directly known earth as earth, he does not conceive himself as earth, he does not conceive himself in earth, he does not conceive himself apart from earth, he does not conceive earth to be ‘mine,’ he does not delight in earth. Why is that? Because he has understood that delight is the root of suffering, and that with being as condition there is birth, and that for whatever has come to be there is ageing and death. Therefore, bhikkhus, through the complete destruction, fading away, cessation, giving up, and relinquishing of cravings, the Tathāgata has awakened to supreme full enlightenment, I say.

“He too directly knows water as water… Nibbāna as Nibbāna… Why is that? Because he has understood that delight is the root of suffering, and that with being as condition there is birth, and that for whatever has come to be there is ageing and death. Therefore, bhikkhus, through the complete destruction, fading away, cessation, giving up, and relinquishing of cravings, the Tathāgata has awakened to supreme full enlightenment, I say.”
MN 1

Fourth, the Buddha was not interested in ontology and metaphysics. Does a chair exist or does a chair not exist or how does a chair actually exist was not important to him. He was only interested in ending suffering. This can be seen in the Parable of the Poisoned Arrow, The All sutta and the sutta of the unconjecturables.

2
  • I would stick to Buddha. There are 3 marks of existence which are sufficient to explain the reality. Oct 9, 2023 at 12:11
  • 1
    Very well explained Ruben
    – user13375
    Oct 9, 2023 at 12:33
3

My (poor and uneducated) understanding of the topic is that, Dhammas are empty precisely because they contains other Dhamma -- "empty" meaning that a Dhamma is not only itself, and does not contain only itself.

Let's pick any object -- a leaf from a tree, for example. There are two topics:

  • Is it myself?
  • Is it itself?

The first question is related to anatta, the second is related to sunyata.

The first question is related to topics like, "Am I the leaf?", and, "Is the leaf mine?"

The second question is related to topics like, "Does the leaf contain leaf essence, is it essentially a leaf?" You might think the answer is yes: but would you still say "yes" after putting the leaf in a fire, or even after just waiting for a couple of years and letting time pass?

The second question is related to our perception and naming, for example "I perceive this as a leaf, and I call it "a leaf" -- but is it really?" And I think the true is that you could call it something else, and that it contains properties like both "wetness" and "dryness" and which aren't obviously leaf-like.

And the comment you quoted said that sunyata is important because it is our (incorrect) perception of things that causes our suffering -- for example "I'm suffering because a friend died" might seem like an objective and permanent truth -- but perhaps I'm mistaken in my view of "friend" and "life" and "death" and so on (where by "view" I might mean "focus", perhaps fixation).


I note that doctrine that "things are not themselves" might seem contradicted by the doctrine of "suchness" i.e. of things being as they are. I think it's the difference between an unenlightened and enlightened view of things (see also Zen on the subject of seeing a mountain as a mountain).

5
  • Excellent analysis. However how can all Dhammas be empty of all Dhammas? Consider my body. Annata says I am not body. Body is the Dhamma. I discarded my body. Now although body is not me , mine or myself but still there is a body. Body is not empty of body. Body is empty of self but not of body itself. Similarly for feelings. Feelings are empty of self but feelings are not empty of feelings. I refuse to love or hate a feeling but feeling is still there unless it is gone. Leaf has no self but it is still a leaf unless it is gone. Sabbe Dhamma Annata seems sufficient. Oct 8, 2023 at 15:16
  • You might think of the body as having or as being heart and lungs and so on -- maybe you think of "respiration" and "digestion" and "locomotion" as some essential characteristics of what "a body" is, even "solidity" -- and if so then you might be unhappy when it ceases to function in that way and is a better described as a sack of fertilizer or ashes, or memories. I think that's what the argument is, i.e. that "viewing" the body as "a body" can be misleading.
    – ChrisW
    Oct 8, 2023 at 15:43
  • I understand what you are saying. I meant that ,body nor any part of body is me , mine or myself but body and parts of body are still there. It is just that body or any part of body is lacking any self. Lacking any self means it generates suffering due to its impermanence and therefore not worth calling self. It is not that body or parts of body are absent unless I die and cremated. Unless body is really gone how can we say that body is not present ? Unless I reach to my destination how can I claim I have no road to travel? Oct 8, 2023 at 15:57
  • Unless I give up home and relationship , how can I claim there is no home and relationship. I am not empty of home and relationships. Pure and undistorted emptiness is reached through renunciation until then it will not be empty of stress due to presence of home and relationship s. Stress is real. Even emptiness is conditional therefore impermanent therefore one should seek cessation of feelings and perceptions by developing dispassion towards all Dhammas including emptiness. Oct 8, 2023 at 16:05
  • Andriy has it right above.
    – user13375
    Oct 8, 2023 at 22:23
0

Personally, I think the questions carried things too far. I think the original intention of sunyata or emptiness arose from the realization that all phenomena are merely constructs that are not inherently independent.

Do we really understand reality and the phenomena that surrounds it? Colours are constructs of the mind, an interpretation as science had proven. When certain light wavelengths bounce off the surface of an object, we see certain colours like red, blue or green. If an object absorbs blue and green light wavelength, logic says you will see red, right? But what if you are colour-blind? Similarly, science had proven that we only see 1% of the visible light spectrum of the real world at any one time. The rest of the 99% is a construct of the mind and we are not even talking about the non-visible electromagnetic spectrum. Similarly, do we really hear certain words or are word sounds merely constructs or interpretations of our mind? Science again proves how subjective our hearings can be. This doesn’t take into account sound frequencies too high or low for human hearing. The sensations of itch and pain too had been proven to be merely constructs of our mind.

  1. Are Dhammas empty of Dhammas?

So, what is reality? Our mind depends on sight, sound, smell, taste and touch to know reality and its phenomena. But science had proven how wretchedly limited and constrained these senses are. If we can never truly know reality, how can we even answer the question whether all phenomena are empty of phenomena? It will be very pompous and pretentious to do so.

Then why did the sutras talked about emptiness of phenomena? I share the same sentiments as @Andriy Volkov and @ChrisW that it is merely to stress that all phenomena are constructs that are dependent on other conditions and causes, period. But don’t go beyond this with another construct that all dhammas are empty of dhammas....because that is not acknowledging that we don’t even know any dhamma inside out. We will never ever 100% grok the reality around us because of our limited senses.

  1. Is emptiness empty of unconditioned or is emptiness empty of unborn, uncreated and unoriginated?

Again, I am afraid this question is carrying things too far. An unenlightened person would not even understand what is the unconditioned, unborn, uncreated and unoriginated all about. How can they then start to answer whether or not emptiness is a part or not a part, contains or does not contain the Deathless? If the person is enlightened, I don’t think they would bother explaining this point to the unenlightened. It is like someone who had tasted mangoes trying to explain mangoes to folks who have never encountered this fruit. With Metta!


Appendix A:

This is additional information arising from the answer and subsequent discussion with the poster to a related post.

With regards to Emptiness in MN121, perhaps a more appropriate way of treating Suññata is to approach it as a type of perceptive as advocated by Ven. Thanissaro. This appears to avoid certain issues arising from treating Emptiness as a dhamma. In MN121, Ven. Thanissaro treated Emptiness as a meditative dwelling. Take note the Emptiness experienced is different at different stages of attainment! The stress and disturbances of the previous attainments are no longer present and one realize the current perception is empty or void of the previous perceptions of wilderness, earth, infinite space and so on. With the Emptiness experienced in the final release (Nirvana) being far superior than all the previous experiences.

To further elaborate, imagine trying to focus on our studies while loud and disturbing music is being played in the background. By not attending to the music and being consumed in our studies, the stress and disturbances from the annoying music is no longer perceived. Thus, the emptiness that is experienced is not intentional. It is a byproduct of attaining a certain level of consciousness. This also means that seeing Emptiness as impermanent and can be ceased, would require a person to cease a particular attainment. This doesn’t make sense, if a person had attained Nirvana, it wouldn’t be Nirvana if it can be reversed thus causing the accompanying Emptiness experienced to be ceased.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .