Essence and Emptiness

In the past couple of weeks, I have been trying to understand the concepts of emptiness and essence. Before this course, I never would have connected essence to dependence, as is a simplified paraphrasing of the argument made by Nagarjuna. Prior to this reading, I would have thought that, while a table might not necessarily have an essence—not because it is dependent on the steps it took to become a table—but because it is a table, a human being would have an essence because a human being is more complex. It is Nagarjuna’s argument that “all phenomena are empty of essence, but exist conventionally, interdependently, and impermanently,” (Garfield, 26). I suppose then, following this line of thinking, that the creation of a human being relies upon the parents who brought that being into the world, thus negating his or her sense of essence.

I don’t, however, understand what it means to be empty of essence. Garfield writes, “ to be empty of essence is not to be empty of existence. Instead, to exist is to be empty”.  In a case so confusing as this, I would ordinarily search for an exception to the rule, so that I might understand how the rule can hold its place. However, in this instance, I am hard pressed to think of an object or an abstract idea that does not fit this mold. Thoughts and ideas are dependent upon minds, and the existence of the entire Earth and its inhabitants is dependent upon a theory of creation (the fact that this theory has not been universally agreed upon—creationism vs. evolution—does not negate the fact that a true theory does exist). This might seem too ‘meta’, but if I can’t find anything that has an essence, how can an essence exist if it appears to be so unachievable? I suppose then that the point of the argument is to assert that all things are dependent upon what came before, interdependent upon each other presently, and thus connected.

Another point at which I found myself confused was when Garfield wrote, “ emptiness is itself dependent, and hence empty” (Garfield, 27). I wondered what emptiness was dependent upon? Is it that emptiness itself is dependent upon the existence of a phenomenon that can be without essence and empty? Or does it follow a similar structure to the example of a dollar bill in that its emptiness is a result of the dependency of what created it. I suppose the existence of a phenomenon would be what emptiness was dependent upon, but in this case, the examples seem to be two discrete entities. In the case of the dollar bill, it is dependent upon the printing press, the miners, and the trees, all of which were brought together for the sole purpose of creating a dollar bill. The existence of phenomena, however, was not created with the purpose of introducing or facilitating emptiness. The difference is that the dollar bill is deliberately created, while emptiness is a result of previously existing phenomenon.

Edelglass, William, and Jay L. Garfield. “24: Examination of the Four Noble Truths.” Buddhist Philosophy: Essential Readings. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009. N. pag. Print.

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4 Responses to Essence and Emptiness

  1. yeezy says:

    Hey there. Buddhist thought is difficult to grasp, and I’m having trouble understanding emptiness, which seems to be such an essential component of Buddhism. The problem when approaching Buddhist philosophy for the first time is that our preconceived notions of certain words and ideas such as, ’emptiness’ creates ambiguity. For example, when we think of emptiness, our instinct is to think of nothingness, but perhaps this is incorrect. I’m still trying to get used to wrapping my head around some of these ideas. Anyone have any tips?

  2. azhou says:

    I agree that the idea of emptiness being empty itself, is a hard one to grasp. You bring up an interesting point in the last paragraph about what emptiness is ultimately dependent on. I think Nagarjuna might say that emptiness does not need to result from anything, it is has always just been there because without the conventional truths, the ultimate idea of emptiness would not exist. As a result, the ultimate truth can’t held to be higher than the conventional as they are the one and the same.

  3. Merp says:

    I have been thinking a lot about the true meaning of emptiness and essence, and I too am struggling with what is means to be “empty of essence”. But after reading scm13’s comment, I made an immediate connection to Nagarjuna’s statement that “all phenomena are empty of essence, but exist conventionally, interdependently, and impermanently.” Scm13 concluded that existence and emptiness are one; so if this is the case, my understanding is that existence and all phenomena are impermanent since “the thing that arose changes leaving no essence of what it once was because all it ever was, was a set of changing conditions.”

  4. scm13 says:

    You said that “you don’t understand what it means to be empty of essence” It is not that being empty of essence means that something doesn’t exist, what it means is that the thing arises due to the presence of a myriad of other circumstances and as these circumstances change or become no longer, the thing that arose changes leaving no essence of what it once was because all it ever was, was a set of changing conditions. Therefore to exist is to be empty because there is no such thing as an essence, all there is, is emptiness. Existence and emptiness are one.

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