Approaching Emptiness


By Lewis Gwilt

Emptiness is a key concept in Mahayana Buddhism but what is emptiness, why is it so key and what relevance does it have for our lives?

What is emptiness?

Emptiness, shunyata, is the reality that all things, including us, do not have separate existence. Not only does nothing exist separately or independently, but all things have the same nature and this is known as emptiness.

This means that both sentient beings and inanimate objects also ultimately have the same nature. It is not as simple as labelling things either as living beings or inanimate objects because, through the view of emptiness, they are not opposites.

Emptiness is relating to the world, not through concepts, but direct perception and experience. By projecting views such as ‘us’ and ‘other’ onto the world, we get the impression that there is separation between the two. An absence of these ideas means being empty of them.

Why is it so key?

The importance of emptiness lies in the truth it shines on the nature of our suffering. Suffering is caused by mistaking our impermanent sense of self for being permanent and regarding ourselves as existing independently of everything else.

Not understanding that our sense of self is constructed through our beliefs, which change over time, causes suffering because we see permanence which is not really there – it is imagined. This means projecting the idea of permanence onto something which is impermanent and changing.

In this way, suffering occurs from opposing or misunderstanding the way things are. Specifically, our own nature. If, as emptiness teaches, there is no separation, no separately existing thing, then that includes us. Not realising this is what leads to us suffering.

What relevance does it have for our lives?

Realising emptiness has great implications for our lives. By seeing that our sense of self is impermanent, we become aware that what we really are is not a collection of ideas, but that we are free from them.

This freedom includes not identifying with things like pride, hate, anger or anxiety. Getting caught up in these thoughts are examples of suffering, as it means we are not content or at peace. By not spending our energy on them, letting them pass, we are happier.

Aside from changing our attitude and outlook, which is one of peace, emptiness affects how we live and treat others. If we don’t hold onto hate or anger, for example, we aren’t interpreting people’s actions in a way where we feel these emotions which are potentially destructive.

Most of all, emptiness shows us an undistorted view of the world, where we are at peace with ourselves and others, rejoicing in our shared nature, and free from the thoughts and beliefs of separation which are at the root of our suffering.