It’s easy to fly into space when you’re wrestling with a view like shunyata (emptiness). I’ve met more Buddhists than I can count who splatter things like, “Nothing exists, I don’t exist, yadda, yadda,” all over social media.
Emptiness is an intimidating concept, and that can make it difficult to practice with, but it’s possible to reel it in. But it’s difficult to simplify it without losing its value. But, here goes.
Here’s what emptiness isn’t:
- It’s not meant to be a standalone concept separate from committed morality and meditation practice.
- It doesn’t equal non-existence.
- It’s not some “Outside the Matrix” God realm or some shit.
Here’s what emptiness is:
- It’s the nature of all things, that nothing exists by itself, in itself, or for itself.
- Beyond concepts. Concepts can’t adequately express that first fact—including the concept of emptiness. The second we conceptualize something and express it linguistically, we’re relating to it like it isn’t empty.
- It’s an ever deepening meditative experience, as well as Awakening itself.
Now that we’ve got that cleared up, let’s talk about trees. When we look at a tree and experience it as such, we’re engaging the very habits that cause and prolong all of our suffering in life. Because that tree isn’t really there… as a thing-unto-itself.
There are a few different ways we can go with this, but I’m gonna choose the simplest because that’s what this post is about.
When we look at a tree, we need (first off) the tree (duh), the eyes, and consciousness. We need all three of those pieces in order to experience the tree (and experience ourselves experiencing it).
If there are eyes and consciousness, but no tree, then yeah, we’re not gonna see a tree. If there’s a tree and consciousness but we’re blind, then we’re not gonna see a tree. If there’s a tree and the eyes but no consciousness, then we’re dead or unconscious and there’s no tree.
So the tree is empty since it requires all three of these pieces to appear. This applies to all of the senses and everything we sense—inside and out.
We can simplify(?) this even more and cover everything in one swoop: knower, knowing, and known. That covers the entirety of our experience, of our lives, even our sense of self (and not-self). Without each of those in place, none of them can exist. This echoes the Madhyamaka expression, “All in one, one in all.”
There can’t be a knower and knowing and not something known; there can’t be knowing and known with a knower; there can’t be known without knower and knowing. This means that the knower, known, and knowing are all empty.
And yet we experience them separately, as things-unto-themselves. We live our lives perceiving ourselves as separate from what we’re doing and the things we’re interacting with. This makes it so easy to cling and crave things, to hate, fear, and get infatuated. Also, it’s just inaccurate.
Not all Buddhist schools agree with this interpretation. Yogacarins would say that knowing can exist without the knower and known, but that’s for another post.
Madhyamaka asks us to meditate on emptiness, to sit concentrating on the breath with all of this in mind. That our experience of the breath is really the body, breath, and consciousness. We need all three to experience the breath. We also need the breath to experience all three (meditating is hard when you can’t breathe). We also need the body to experience all three (no body = no consciousness and no breath).
So they’re not three. And they’re not one. Because to experience them as one, we need all three. Hence, ta da! Nonduality. That’s why emptiness is beyond concepts.