The Meaning of Emptiness in Buddhism

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Emptiness is a translation of the Sanskrit term shunyata. For Westerners, this term can create a lot of confusion. We tend to think of emptiness in negative terms. For instance, when we lose a loved one we might say we feel empty inside. In this short post, I explain what emptiness really is according to Buddhist philosophy and touch on its experiential aspect.

One of my fondest memories is when my dad came to see me graduate from Naropa University. He sat in the audience during my oral exams. We had to answer two questions, one with a long answer and the other with a short, pithy answer. The question I had to provide a long answer for was simply, “What is emptiness?”

Later, as we were driving out of the parking lot, my dad who is a devout Christian, said, “I can tell you what emptiness is.” Curious, I asked him to elaborate. He said, “Emptiness is life without Jesus Christ.”

For him, emptiness was perceived as a negative state, a void that needs to be filled with the loving energy of Christ. In fact, a similar confusion can occur among Buddhist practitioners who believe they are meditating in order to reach a void mental state. That’s a complete misunderstanding of what the Sanskrit term, shunyata, actually points to.

In a nutshell, the doctrine of shunyata simply means that reality is empty of concepts, including especially the concept of a separate, solid, unchanging self.

In other words, as the Apostle Paul pointed out, we all see as though through a glass darkly. Our view of reality is obscured by many conceptual layers of interpretation and assumption. For instance, rather than nakedly seeing the person who is approaching us, we reach inside our mind to pull out the vast number of preconceived notions we use to assess who they are.

We do this largely to keep ourselves safe. It’s a good tool to have if we are walking alone at night on a dark street with nobody else around. The problem is that labeling, assessing, and interpreting based on past experience tends to be how we approach everything in life.

All that shunyata means is that reality is completely empty of the conceptual labels, assessments, interpretations, and opinions we form so instantly and largely unconsciously. There is something more real underneath and beyond the conceptual overlay the exists between us and our perceptions. That’s the basic meaning of emptiness from a philosophical perspective. There is, however, a deeper meaning from an experiential perspective.

Experientially speaking, emptiness is the natural spaciousness and openness of the mind resting in its natural state. Ironically, though, it isn’t empty at all. The mind’s true nature is luminous awareness, which together with its natural openness, is full of warmth, love, compassion, and joy.

I hope this demonstrates that emptiness is nothing to be afraid of. It’s the basic ground out of which everything arises, and it’s reality as it really is before we project all of our thoughts, attitudes, and judgments all over it.

Kimberly Holman

Kimberly Holman is a Certified Mindfulness Meditation Instruction with a B.A. in Psychology from the University of Maine and an M.A. in Religious Studies from Naropa University.

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