Sunyata or “emptiness” is a difficult concept and many people find it confusing. One of the first misconceptions folks have about emptiness is that is nihilistic and implies nothingness. It doesn’t. Emptiness does not deny the existence of things. It merely says that things exist in a temporary, non-substantive way. The “self” that is an individual, has a personality, thoughts and feelings, is not negated, rather what is negated is the idea that “self” exists as an independent entity in the ultimate sense, that it is unconditioned and does not depend on anything else to come into existence.
Some people understand the non-substantiality part but do not fully grasp the crucial element, which is the relativity of things.
Nagarjuna, who, pardon the cliché, pretty much wrote the book on emptiness, as far as Mahayana Buddhism is concerned, famously stated:
All things which arise through pratitya-samutpada, I explain as emptiness. It is a conventional designation. It is itself the Middle Way.”
Pratitya-samutpada is a term that is variously translated as dependent origination, dependent arising, dependent co-production, dependent co-arising, and so on. I prefer to use interdependency, or sometimes openness. Today, I will call it interconnectedness.
Why are things empty? Because everything is interconnected. Nothing comes into being on its own, and therefore, nothing can exist on its own. Things exist because of other things. They are empty, devoid of svabhava, own-being or self-being.
Another well-known expression of this understanding is found in the Heart Sutra:
Form is emptiness, emptiness is form. Form does not differ from emptiness, emptiness does not differ from form.
Thich Nhat Hanh comments on this phrase by saying:
Emptiness is quite an optimistic concept. If I am not empty, I cannot be here. And if you are not empty, you cannot be there. Because you are there, I can be here. This is the true meaning of emptiness. Form does not have a separate existence.”
Understanding emptiness is prajna-paramita, transcendent wisdom. The central message of the Heart Sutra is that because of emptiness, the Bodhisattva path is possible. If emptiness meant only that the self is non-substantial, that alone would provide no important reason to practice compassion. But, because beings are also interconnected, compassion is not only possible, but paramount. Interconnectedness means that we are all equal, we are essentially one, therefore there can be no reason not to practice compassion. The Bodhisattva path is practice for “self and others.” Ultimately, self and others are like form and emptiness, they do not differ from one another.
The Diamond Sutra says,
A Bodhisattva does not entertain concepts such as self, a separate person, a being, or ego-entity. Thus, there is no “I” who liberates and no “they” who are liberated.”
Nagarjuna called this essential oneness advaya-dharma, which Dr. K. Venkata Ramanan in Nagarjuna’s Philosophy, translates as “the undivided being,” noting,
As an individual, one is different from another; this is the mundane truth where distinctions are essential. But in the ultimate truth, with respect to their ultimate nature, the individuals are not different; for the ultimate nature of one is itself the ultimate nature of all.”
Of course, emptiness has many other implications, such as the importance of non-clinging, the emptiness of views, even the emptiness of emptiness. Yet, this understanding of interconnectedness is the dharma door that opens to the Bodhisattva path that leads to awakening. And awakening means the journey to the Endless Further, awakening and ever re-awakening to transcendent wisdom, which in turn means walking the Bodhisattva path.
Even as we understand that reality is non-dual, that is no self or other in the ultimate sense, without the practice of compassion, that is making efforts for the benefit of others, on behalf of others, there is only knowledge, mere intellectual understanding, which is not sufficient enough to even generate real bodhicitta, the thought of awakening.
In his Compendium of Doctrine, Shantideva writes,
But what of the passage in the Talhagataguhya Sutra, where we read: ‘In whom is there the thought of awakening, Master?’ ‘In him, O King, who has the intact resolve to gain it.’ ‘And who has such a resolve?’ ‘He in whom is the spring of great mercy’ ‘In whom is this?’ ‘He who never neglects all sentient beings.’”