The Philosophy Of Emptiness

Photo by Rui Xu on Unsplash

Since the pandemic I spent a lot of time alone.

Whether hiking, cooking or working.

Spending time alone means you spent a lot of time with your thoughts as well.

This gave me some time to explore some concepts about the mind.

Since I’ve read a little bit of The Power of Now, I’ve wondered what the sources of most of the ideas he have had to say about the mind.

That means going straight to the source, Buddhism and Buddha himself.

Two months of reading and research, I’ll be summarizing all the things I’ve learnt so far in an straightforward format.

Why Buddhism?

Photo by Natasha Connell on Unsplash

Although I don’t consider myself a buddhist, but I’m very interested in the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha.

I used to think buddhism was a bunch of mumbo-jumbo, something to do with superstition and spirits.

I was very surprised when I found out that buddhism is about the mind. It has a logical system for practice, and does not required any belief or superstition.

I was hooked.

And since buddhism’s concerns deal mostly with the mind, thus it was very relevant to me spending time alone.

The basic concepts of buddhism can range from very simple to very deep concepts that takes years to fully understand.

That makes it very exciting for me to learn as you can jump to various levels of difficulty without getting bored.

Borobudur, an ancient buddhist temple on Java, Indonesia.

Learning buddhism also helps you understand Asia. India, China and the whole of South East Asia are deeply influenced by buddhist teachings at some point in history.

Buddha’s Story

Photo by Jamie Street on Unsplash

The simple story of Buddha is that he was once a prince that lived a very sheltered live. He did not see or learn of any negativity in the outside world, sickness, poverty etc.

One day he left his palace and he was introduced to the suffering of the world. He was then determined to find the root of that suffering.

First he decided to join a group of people called ascetics that were so devoted to meditation that they were starving themselves, denying every form of sustenance for the human body.

Eventually he realized, near the point of death that we couldn’t find his answer with these extremes.

Thus he recovered his health, sat under a bodhi tree and vowed to never get up until he found his answer.

Eventually he did and his teachings are passed on until today.

Photo by Sabine Schulte on Unsplash

Buddhism schools

There are 3 main schools of buddhism

  1. Theravada
  2. Mahayana
  3. Vajrayana

Theravada, I’ll call it (TV). Mahayana (MH) and Vajrayana (VR)

Theravada

Photo by Inna on Unsplash

TV is the oldest, found it places like Thailand, Sri Lanka, Myanmar. It is considered more fundamental and pure to what Buddha taught.

The main focus of TV is to become an arhat, and enlightened being like the buddha. According to my Thai friend you can become an arhat but you can’t become a Buddha because that’s another level of enlightenment.

Nirvana for some schools of Theravada can be said as a destination that you arrive at after arduous practice, just like the buddha.

Mahayana

Photo by Jade Masri on Unsplash

Mahayana is the second oldest. Found in places like China, which in turn influenced Japan and Korea. It can be considered more reformed and revised version of buddhism compared to TV, adding many influences into the mix, especially the concept of Śūnyatā, which we will look into earlier.

The main focus of MH is to be a bodhisattva, a being who has the ability to be enlightened and but works tirelessly to help others reach enlightenment too.

Nirvana for MH is within yourself, and it must be discovered through practice and wisdom.

You can compare TV and MH and see that TV is more focused on the individual while MH is more social.

Vajrayana

Photo by 和 平 on Unsplash

Vajrayana is the ‘newest’. Found in places like Tibet.

VR builds upon the Mahayana pathway of bodhisattvas with practices that claims to help shortcut the practitioner to nirvana.

Some sources claim it is also influenced by hinduism, possibly because of it’s geographic proximity.

I know the least about this school.

The Philosophy of Emptiness / Śūnyatā

“Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.”

Heart Sutra

Emptiness is one of the core concepts of buddhism.

Understanding emptiness helps us buddhist or not, see the world in radically different way.

Emptiness Is Not Nothing

When we want to explain something, sometimes it’s easier to explain what it is not before we explain what it is.

When we think of emptiness. We often imagine and empty cup, or an empty room.

That’s where the main confusion starts.

When we say something is empty, we must ask, empty of what?

Once we know what is it empty of, then we can begin to understand.

The philosophy of emptiness teaches things are empty of a separate self.

Emptiness Means No Separate Self

Photo by Kiki Siepel on Unsplash

Let’s think of a flower.

Without the seed that forms the plant. Without the soil that nourishes it.
Without the cloud that waters the plant. Without the sun to grow it.

How could a flower exist?

Thus we can say, a flower cannot exist outside the conditions that leads to its existence.

Let’s give another example.

You current experience reading this.

Without your eyes to see. Without your brain to process.
Without your memory to reference. Even without the food that gives you energy.

How could you read something without all of this?

Thus we can say, the ‘I’ that is currently reading this is empty!

There is no soul, force or even ‘self’ that is compelling you to read, it’s all this conditions coming together to form your reading experience, this very instant!

Emptiness is Fullness

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

Thus we can say Emptiness is also Fullness.

When you look at a flower, it is full of everything, the sun, the earth, the waters and even yourself, as you are perceive this flower in your brain.

When you look at yourself, you are full of everyone you have ever met! Who you are today is made up of uncountable conditions that lead to your current state.

The only thing that you are empty of is a ‘self’ that is independent of all these conditions.

Why Should I Care About Emptiness?

Emptiness As A Lens

Photo by Devin Avery on Unsplash

If you extract the concept of emptiness out of all its relation to buddhism, it is still a very good tool to view the world.

Try this experiment: Think of a goal you want to achieve but seems impossible.

When viewed through this lens of emptiness you realize that the super hard goal itself is empty, only made up of components, and the components are made up of other components and soon you can dissolve into very micro-actionable pieces!

Extinguishing Duhkha

Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash

On the negative side, which is what buddhism is focused on, is extinguishing duhkha, commonly translated as suffering but also means negative experiences, pain and unsatisfactoriness of life.

Mahayana Buddhism teaches that you suffer because you don’t see reality for what it is, illusory and quickly changing (impermanent).

All craving, longing, desire is clouding the mind from it’s true state.

With wisdom and realizing the true nature of reality (emptiness), you can purify your mind into a state of nirvana.

Summary

I’ve summarized most of what I’ve learnt of buddhism into this article. I’m exciting to expand on this as I learn more.

I’m also interest to venture into the 3 major schools of Chinese thought. Mahayana buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism. Maybe I’ll do a whole series on these in the future.

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store