The Healing Aspect of Emptiness

Sunyata, frequently described as the emptiness of all things, is not a term that naturally brings to mind thoughts about healing. However, it is a mistake to understand emptiness just in the negative sense, only as a negation of the “thingness” of things. We can use other words as a translation for sunyata, such as non-substantiality, transparency, and openness, which allow us to have a more comprehensive of the term. Openness, in particular, widens our view because within emptiness things are not static, rigid, predetermined, easily categorized or contained. In Buddhism, reality is not particle-like but rather space-like, and space represents the greatest openness.

Miyamoto Musashi's calligraphy of "ku" or emptiness.
Miyamoto Musashi’s calligraphy of “ku” or emptiness from The Book of Five Rings

Equality is another word that fits. As Nagarjuna taught, emptiness and interconnectedness (pratitya-samutpada) are synonymous. Because we are interconnected with one another, there is no possible way to maintain an attitude of superiority over others, nor can we immunize ourselves from the sufferings of others. Their life is equal to ours and their suffering is our suffering.

The great Tibetan lama Tsongkhapa (1357–1419)  taught that there are “three principle parts of the path”: renunciation, bodhicitta, and emptiness.

Renunciation does not necessarily mean to renounce the material world. It’s not letting go of transient things themselves, but rather to letting go of our attachments to them. Renunciation means to change our way of thinking.

Bodhicitta is the aspirational wish to realize awakening for the sake of others, the highest expression of selflessness and compassion.

By emptiness, Tsongkhapa was referring to a correct view of emptiness, or a deep understanding that things are devoid of an inherent self-being (svabhava). In other words, wisdom.

In Tibetan Buddhist Medicine and Psychiatry, Terry Clifford writes,

In the medical analogy of the general Mahayana, love and compassion is the medicine that cures the sickness of hatred and anger. In the higher Mahayana, shunyata [emptiness] is the ultimate medicine. Emptiness is the antidote for all poisons and defilements. Therefore, there is no need to withdraw from the world to be cured of its poisons. In fact, the love and compassion of the Mahayana demands that the bodhisattva stay in the world of passions in order to help other beings.”

In Mahayana Buddhism, emptiness is the foundation for both renunciation and the compassion of bodhicitta. However, these are not three separate parts, they are an integrated whole.

Changing one’s way of thinking is not easily done. In this respect, developing a deep understanding of emptiness helps transform our view of suffering and disease. The Buddha taught that everything comes from our thoughts, that we create the world with our mind. Lama Zopa Rinpoche, in Ultimate Healing The Power of Compassion, notes that “the mind itself is fundamental to healing disease . . . we have to heal the causes of suffering, which are in our mental continuum.”

The world we create with our mind consists largely of concepts and names (nama). Names are merely labels. We label a chair a “chair” or a door a “door,” and so on. These labels, however, are not the ultimate reality of these things. We label ourselves “I” or “self” and come to believe that “I” or “self” has some sort of substantial reality. From the false sense of “I,” distinctions are imagined and everything becomes a specific, determinate entity.

I should remind you that this is from the standpoint of the ultimate truth. In the conventional truth, of course, I exist and so do you. Yet, owning to the fact that we are interconnected, we are, in a sense, one. Therefore, no separate, substantial “I” or self-being can be asserted.

Now, as Ramanan* points out,

To seize the determinate is really to allow oneself to be misled by names; it is to imagine that different names mean separate essences; this is to turn relative distinctions into absolute divisions. When names are not seized as separate substances, then they cannot be made objects of clinging.”

With a firm grasp on the concept of emptiness we can learn to un-name, un-label. We should be able to see how “disease” is just a label. Lama Zopa writes,

All our sickness is the creation of our own mind . . . unless our mind makes up the label “I” there is no way that we can see the I. in the same way, unless our mind makes up the label “cancer” or “AIDS,” there is no way that cancer or AIDS can appear to us.”

This is a difficult concept to grasp, because I, like many others, can tell you that cancer is very real. It not only appears to me, it is substantially destroying me. And yet, cancer is empty. Lama Zopa helps us resolve this disparity in this way:

Understanding how our illness and all our other problems come from our mind is an important point in healing, because if something comes from our mind, we can control it, we can change it. Since this means that our mind has the power to eliminate disease we have no need to feel depressed or upset. Knowing how much freedom we have should inspire us and give us hope.”

We cannot say that perceiving the emptiness of cancer will cure or eliminate it. When Lama Zopa says that we can control and change it, this means that we can eliminate the control illness has over our mind. Additionally, as with any kind of suffering we might face, we can resist the temptation to give in to resentment and anger.

Having a disease need not destroy our happiness, our peace, or the quality of our life. On the other hand, the practice of meditation where we rest and calm the mind, giving it an opportunity to heal and rejuvenate, has been proven to improve both physical and mental health.

Mahayana teachings state that the cause for enlightenment is meditation on emptiness, but this is a bit of a misnomer as there is no specific “meditation of emptiness,” except perhaps in Vajrayana and tantra. I’ve heard the Dalai Lama talk about “space-like meditation on emptiness” and “illusion-like meditation on emptiness” but he has never explained these in detail. Lama Zopa talks about loving-kindness and tong-len, or “taking and giving” (a technique for developing bodhicitta where exchanges self for others, taking on the sufferings of others), as examples of emptiness meditation. Mindfulness meditation, along with reflection teaching on emptiness  presented in the Heart Sutra, can also take us there.

You might read or hear about meditations where dissolving into a state of emptiness. That only leads to nothingness. While emptiness is not anything substantial in itself, such as an absolute reality, it is not nothing. Realization of emptiness is a state of mind, a way of looking at reality differently. Emptiness itself cannot heal, but it can open our minds to healing possibilities we were not aware of before, and the mind is where a significant part of the battle against disease and suffering must be fought.

That which cannot be known is called emptiness. And yet, by knowing form, one knows emptiness. Knowing of nonexistence while knowing of existence is also emptiness. People in this world look at things mistakenly, and when they cannot understand something, call it emptiness. This is not the true emptiness. It is delusion.”

Miyamoto Musashi, The Book of Five Rings

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K.Venkata Ramanan, Nagarjuna’s Philosophy as Presented in the Maha-prajnaparamita-sastra, Motilal Banarsidass, 2002



6 thoughts on “The Healing Aspect of Emptiness

  1. Lama Zopa isn’t wrong, of course, but I think it’s useful to remember that “all our sickness is a creation of our own mind” to precisely the same extent that the chair I am sitting on is a creation of my own mind– no more, no less. Folks who think “cancer is all in your head, but X, on the other hand, is real” (for any value of X) are deluded.

    There are indeed tantric meditations on emptiness; in fact Jeffrey Hopkins has a thick book with just that title, based on the Great Exposition on Tenets.

    Is the Ramanan book good? I haven’t read that one.

  2. Thank you David. “We cannot say that perceiving the emptiness of cancer will cure or eliminate it. When Lama Zopa says that we can control and change it, this means that we can eliminate the control illness has over our mind.”

    It is exactly on this point that my disagreement with a good friend of mine led to me ultimately giving up the SGI and Nichiren Buddhism. His insistence that buddhism is not about helping us deal with illness, but in actually curing it (clearly, if we chant enough!). It is this pre-occupation with controlling the manifest world to bring happiness which is at the heart of what I saw as misguided. We can only truly control the mind. Of course, a calm and happy mind has great health benefits, but those benefits are just a bonus – not the ends itself.

    1. Steve, I can relate. I also got fed up with that insistence, and with the seemingly endless tales of miraculous cures that defied all credibility. The interesting part is that they also insist that chanting NMRK is not magic, and yet they like to talk as though it was.

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