The “Emptiness of Emptiness”: Emptiness as a tool

Many of you are probably familiar with the idea behind emptiness, but for those who are not, I begin with a short explanation:

The Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna in the 2nd Century CE established the theoretical foundation of the doctrine of emptiness (sunyata), which avers that nothing posses an absolute, conditioned self-hood that does not depend on anything else to come into existence. Put another way, everything that comes into existence is mutually dependent on causes and conditions. Everything is interconnected. Nothing stands alone. Additionally, nothing is permanent or eternal. Everything that presently exists will one day not exist. All things are transient.

These seats are empty.

Based on a comment I received a while back, I know some are unfamiliar with the aspect of emptiness that is the focus of today’s post, particularly in respect to Nagarjuna’s teachings, so here I will try to explain for everyone as best, and simply, as I can.

For Nagarjuna, emptiness was not an absolute truth in itself. If all things are empty, then emptiness must also be empty: sunyata-sunyata or “the emptiness of emptiness.” He considered emptiness as upaya, a Sanskrit word meaning “skill in means,” or “expedient means.”

To Nagarjuna, upaya specifically referred to the “skillfulness of non-clinging.” The root of suffering, he stated, is our tendency to “cling,” to form unhealthy attachments to transient things. Understanding the emptiness of things is a tool that helps us break free from our compulsive clinging, and transforms active causes for suffering into dormant ones.

Many Buddhists didn’t quite get this and some still view emptiness as an absolute, or ultimate truth.

There are some who would say everything is empty, and would cling in mind to this empty-nature of things. They are said to hold the wrong-view of non-existence because they cling to emptiness as the ultimate nature of things.

Nagarjuna, Treatise on the Prajna-Paramita Sutra

Even views are empty, and emptiness is not a view, it is upaya, a tool. When emptiness becomes a view, it then becomes an object of clinging, and is no longer useful. Nagarjuna maintains that the ultimate truth is not any view at all. He says, “Silence is the ultimate truth of the wise.”

Sometimes it’s difficult to see how a concept like emptiness relates to one’s daily life. It’s also a bit confusing. After all, we have many attachments that do seem healthy, like those we form with our parents, children, friends, pets, favorite works of art, etc. That’s why I like to use the word “clinging” because it suggests a kind of attachment that is obsessive and unnatural.  It’s one thing to love a person, and something else to cling to that love.

So, the hardest part about emptiness might not be in grasping it as a concept, but in seeing how it is at all practical. How do we use emptiness as a tool? Lama Anagarika Govinda, in A Living Buddhism for the West, offers some insight into this question:

In contrast to those religions that are based on unprovable articles of faith, the basis of Buddhism is understanding. This fact has misled some Western observers into considering Buddhism to be a purely rational doctrine that can be completely understood on purely intellectual principles. However, understanding in Buddhism means insight into the nature of reality, and is always the product of immediate experience.

Understanding is like a Swiss Army knife, with a file to scrape away delusion and attachment, a screwdriver to rivet insight, a can opener to unlock wisdom, and of course, the blade of emptiness to cut through everything else. In this way, understanding emptiness makes the experience of emptiness, or reality as it truly is: multifaceted, interdependent, and open, immediately available to us, and we can use this understanding for many different situations in everyday life. Just like a Swiss Army knife.

But the knife, of course, is empty. And it is meant to be used as a tool, not as an object of clinging. This also applies to the emptiness of the knife. That is nothing to cling to, either.

They cling to words and names. If they hear that emptiness is empty, they cling to this. If they hear that all things in their ultimate nature is peace, Nirvana, where the entire course of words stops, even to that they cling.



5 thoughts on “The “Emptiness of Emptiness”: Emptiness as a tool

  1. I loved this post. This spoke loudly to me, “the root of suffering, he stated, is our tendency to “cling,” to form unhealthy attachments to transient things. Understanding the emptiness of things is a tool that helps us break free from our compulsive clinging, and transforms active causes for suffering into dormant ones.” It is amazing that we have these teachings that reconfigure the entire way we perceive reality (and ourselves). We will always be given the bait by samsara’s friends; “this or this or this will save you! Grab it!” But, those of us fortunate to walk the path can at least be mindful enough to laugh and know better. I wrote a piece on how Buddhism and bare attention has helped me at: if you care to read. Thank you for your comment and I look forward to reading more of you!

    1. Thank you, Rachel, for your thoughtful comment. It is good to know that you got something out of the post.

      It looks as though you have just recently started your blog. Good luck with it.

      1. David, I did! You seem to have extensive knowledge of Buddhism. I study at the Shambhala Center when I can in New York. The more I learn the more I realize I don’t know. It’s remarkable. Yes, just started my blog a week ago. I’m excited to share and connect with people like yourself. Thanks for your comment.

        1. “The more I learn the more I realize I don’t know” is a great attitude to have. I have been practicing Buddhism many years and yet, I consider myself a “lifetime beginner.”

          1. It’s crazy and beautiful, this going deeper and knowing less. But, to look with that curiosity, everything can be new again. Blessings to you on the path of discovery and letting go!

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