Emptiness in Buddhism is defined as
the opposite of how existence is normally viewed.
In English language, when we use the
word ’empty’ and ’emptiness’ we mean ‘not filled’ or ‘the state of containing
nothing’. Suppose a full glass of water. I drink the water After, I might say ‘there
is nothing in the glass’ or ‘the glass is empty’. Generally what I would mean
by these two statements is that there is no water in the glass yet there is no
mention of water in the two statements. After I drink the water, there is no
water in the glass yet there is space in the glass and this space is filled
with air. In our everyday life, we automatically ignore what we are not beholding
in our mind. When Buddhists use the word ’empty’ and ’emptiness’, they do not
mean that there is nothing or nothing exists. For Buddhists to say a thing is
empty is to say that thing is empty of a self or empty of one permanent thing.
What is a self?
A self or one permanent thing is the
essence of something and this essence distinguishes it from any other thing. If
I say I am writing this essay then there is no one permanent thing that ‘I’
refers to. To write the essay I used my hands, my eyes, my brain, my body, the
chair, the laptop, air and so on. I used my hands to type on the laptop, my
eyes to see and read, my brain to think and decide, my body to sit on the
chair, air to breathe oxygen which keeps me alive and so on. So when I say ‘I’
in ‘I wrote this essay’ I am referring to multiple things and not one of these
things is a permanent single thing that does or can do the writing itself.
Buddhists classifies a thing as ’empty’ with four characteristics.
Divisible, dependant, impermanent and identifiable.
refers to parts that comprises a thing. A divisible thing is not one single
thing (an entity or a self) but of many parts. For example, a car, a house, a human
etc are referred to as one thing but these words refer to things made up of
parts. A car is made of various parts like wheels, body, engine, seats and many
others. So car is not one thing that exists. The word ‘car’ refer to a thing
that is made up of multiple parts. A car is not wheels or its body or its
engine or any of its parts. We cannot reduce or equate the car to any of its
parts. If we remove all parts which are not the car then nothing will remain. Therefore
the car does not exist as a single indivisible thing.
Similarly, a dependant thing depends of supporting things to exist. It does not
exist, nor in itself or of itself. It is empty of independent existence. For
example, a car exists in dependence on thoughts as an idea, in assembly of
parts which are put together in a reasonable structure which becomes a car.
Without the thought, assemble of parts and reasonable structure, there will be
no car. Any change, in the assembled parts which cause the car to exist, will change
the car (for example, the type of car, the size of car, functions in the car
etc.). So the car is dependent on other things to exist and it is empty of one
A beginning, capability to change and an end; these three features refer to the
impermanence of a thing. The car is impermanent because it has a beginning and
it has an end. In between the start and the end it can be changed. A car is
brought into existence with the assembly of parts and as time is passing or the
car gets used, it is heading towards its end. It is deteriorating in value and
efficiency. Another element of
emptiness can be understood by the argument that when I say “I wrote this essay”
I contradict my own statement. To write we need pen and paper (something to use
the pen on i.e. hard surface. This is a general perception) and to write the
essay I did not use pen at all but I still say I have written this essay. This is
an example of how in our daily life we keep on using the same words for
different things or actions. As the time is passing, things and actions are
getting changed. People who never encountered a computer will have completely
different experience of writing the essay. This change is also happening
constantly at the micro level. For example, scientific research has found out
that our body changes every 7 years. Among multiple changes, one change is that
skin cells are replaced by new skin cells. That means if I touched your skin
then after 7 years it will not be the same skin that I would have touched 7
years ago. This change process that completes over the span of 7 years is
essentially happening every moment. The change of 7 years is succession of
change that takes place every second (millisecond or the smallest measure of
time). This highlights the impermanence. Things are changing every moment. Future
is becoming the present and present is becoming the past.
Fourth characteristic is identity. A thing is an object of the skandas. The
Five Aggregates are: material form, or the physical world, feeling or
sensations, perception, mental formations, and, consciousness. Using these skandas
a thing can be identified.