So, everything is empty? What now?

The Madhyamika school of Buddhism argues that emptiness is at the core of Buddhism. Focusing on dependent origination, Nagarjuna argues that there is no essence, which he defines as something permanent and intrinsic. The idea that everything is empty, while perhaps revolutionary for Nagarjuna’s time, seems more like common sense to me, as someone living in the “age of science” where atoms and the ever-divisible nature of the world is common knowledge. Even Garfield explains Nagarjuna’s theory in terms that it “presents itself as common sense” (Garfield, 122). But, what seems less intuitive is what I and others should do with this knowledge. Despite my readiness to accept the world as empty (as defined by Nagarjuna), I am unconvinced that this ultimate reality means that we should no longer cling to the conventional world; therefore, I am resistant to following a Buddhist path based on this particular assumption of emptiness.

From a Buddhist standpoint, I would assume that this understanding of emptiness leads to a release of any idea permanence and therefore, the cessation of suffering. For example, based on the premise of emptiness, one would accept death as not only inevitable, but also no longer a cause for fear because there would be no essence to die in the first place.

However, just because I accept emptiness to be true does not mean I must entirely relinquish attachment. For example, I would argue that many people in the United States also accept the idea of emptiness as I have, and yet many continue to live their lives focused on conventional reality. Just because I have no self (which in the Buddhist sense means that there is no permanent essence of self) does not mean that I must not be attached to this ever-changing self. I experience the self as meaningful and beautiful, especially in how it changes, and I do not want that dynamic self to die.

Perhaps, it could be argued that, while there are many ways to see the world, we should choose to see it through the lense of emptiness because this will allow us to release to the essence of self and therefore not suffer. The goal seems to be to balance both a personal experience of emptiness, which seems to undermine emotional attachment with a complete understanding of the meaningfulness of conventional reality. But what does this look like? The madhyamika school argues that nirvana and samsara are indeed the same and that the only difference is in how we perceive the world. However, is this ultimate way of perceiving, seeing all as empty, the nirvana that we want?

I question if emptiness demands the fearlessness of unattachment, as well as whether this way of seeing is necessarily the view of the world I want to hold.

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5 Responses to So, everything is empty? What now?

  1. Sarah says:

    Thank you so much for this post! I think that your question about what to do with this understanding of lack of essence is particularly important. I, too, have been thinking a lot about why this should influence attachment. I, too, am unconvinced that lack of essence means that there is little worth in attachment to the conventional world.

  2. cmlee says:

    I took a World Religions course in high school and we talked about a sutra that directly address what you’re talking about. Regardless if the situation outlined in the sutra is possible, the conventional self would be probably be paralyzed in terror. What does it mean to let this go?

    “A man traveling across a field encountered a tiger. He fled, the tiger after him. Coming to a precipice, he caught hold of the root of a wild vine and swung himself down over the edge. The tiger sniffed at him from above. Trembling, the man looked down to where, far below, another tiger was waiting to eat him. Only the vine sustained him.

    Two mice, one white and one black, little by little started to gnaw away the vine. The man saw a luscious strawberry near him. Grasping the vine with one hand, he plucked the strawberry with the other. How sweet it tasted!”

  3. makalaka says:

    This is something I have also thought about. I assumed this was a view many had, after all we are told that we can change ourselves if we wish. For example Myers Briggs test results can change depending on the situation one is in, they change along with the person. We are told that our “essence” is impermanent, that people change. I feel because of this impermanence as you pointed out, we are focusing on living our lives, and less on the afterlife.

  4. Marie says:

    I’m so glad you connected the understanding of emptiness to the cessation of suffering! I have been thinking about this a lot during class and our readings. I can’t stop relating this notion of emptiness/essence to the Four Noble Truths–it seems that the thought process/deduction of the logic of emptiness relates directly to the steps of the Four Noble Truths (they work underneath the same framework.) I plan on doing my essay on this! I’m sure we’re not the only ones who have made this connection, so I’m anticipating being able to find out more about it.

  5. jolsen says:

    Thanks for your thoughtful post! I appreciate how you brought up the point that you don’t mind being attached your dynamic, ever-changing self. I have to agree with you on that point. Part of the joy I experience from life is witnessing how I am able to learn and grow and change. I wonder what I would be like if I become entirely unattached to this “self” of mine.

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