Reply To: Establishing Daily Study, Contemplation, and Meditation Practice

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Jared K. Jones


I was thinking about the question you asked in the Nagarjuna class. It’s a very good question. Why call emptiness ultimate if it is merely conventionally existent, just like everything else? I hope you’ll take a few minutes to read my rambling personal thoughts on the matter.

I’ve also thought about this point many times. Emptiness is the mode of being of all phenomena: physical, mental, and abstract; permanent and impermanent; in the desire realm, form realm, and formless realm; in the six realms of rebirth; in nirvana and samsara; all objects of all sentient beings minds in all possible worlds. If something exists, then it is empty of inherent existence. If a phenomenon is non-existent–like the mere imputation of the absence of an elephant in the room or the absence of a candle flame after it has been blown out–this non-existence also empty of inherent existence. So, even if something is non-existent, the non-existence of that thing is established by way of dependent origination/emptiness. So, emptiness is ultimate in the sense that there is no other property like this: it underpins everything else, both existent and non-existent.

Similarly, emptiness is only established due to depending upon objects and phenomena that are empty. There is no ‘ultimately existent’ emptiness. The ultimateness is merely imputed. As you pointed out, this means the emptiness and ‘being ultimate’ are both conventionally existent things.

It also seems that emptiness is ultimate in the realm of epistemology. Things are only knowable because they are empty. If phenomena existed in and of themselves, they would be inaccessible to our perception: a chair would exist among the parts and causes of a chair; or it would be an invisible property that pervades all the parts and causes of the chair; or it would exist as the peculiar assembly of only certain parts and causes… and there could only be one chair in reality; or chairs would be entirely separate from the parts and causes of the chair. All of these have strange and absurd consequences.

If the mind existed in-and-of-itself, it would not be capable of cognising a new object. One can speculate what this mind might know, but whatever it knew, that mind could not turn away from this knowing: its knowingness of such and such would be established as part of its nature. It could not avert its knowing gaze. Alternatively, it would be knowing even without an object of knowing. It would just be ‘knowingness of…’ without an object known. Actions of knowing could arise spontaneously without relying on knowers or that which is known, as could knowers and the known spontaneously arise without the other two. It gets quite confusing indeed. Instead, knowers, actions of knowing, and the known arise simultaneously and co-dependently. Like this, everything we know can only be known due to being empty. This is a unique property of emptiness. There is no other property that applies to all knowable things. This may be why Ven. Dharmakiriti said that a ‘knowable thing’ and ‘existent thing’ are synonymous.

Finally, emptiness is ultimate in the sense of being the most important or functional type of knowledge about reality. If we stacked all knowledge, it would be the highest. How is it the highest? If we arranged knowledge in terms of what viewpoint is the most correct about reality, it would be the viewpoint of emptiness. There is no viewpoint that is more correct. Correct viewpoints are also the most functional viewpoints: when we know how something actually exists and functions, we respond to it in the manner it actually exists and functions. So, it has great utility. What could produce a better result?

Also, emptiness is the type of special insight we need about reality to accomplish all of our aims and the aims of all other beings. There is no other knowledge that can claim a greater benefit.

So, from these perspectives–pervasive ontological application, pervasive epistemological requirement, correctness, utility, and benefit–I do not see any viewpoint or knowledge with a better claim to the word ‘ultimate’. However, ultimate should not be understood to mean ‘existing ultimately’. If emptiness existed ultimately, then it would be rather like a God or a Tao: some kind of ‘ultimately existent source’ from which all things and phenomena come. As Geshe-la was explaining, emptiness is a mere absence. Mere absence, mere absence, rather than the affirmation of something else in the place of inherent existence. There is no other self-existent thing affirmed in the place of inherent existence. Like knowingness, emptiness is always an ’emptiness of…’ rather than ’emptiness’ by itself, and due to this, it is also merely conventionally existent.

I hope this helps.