Sherab Namgyal / July 4, 2012

Crash course in Buddhist emptiness


Have you always wondered what the emptiness in Buddhism actually is or have you heard long Dharma talks from teachers and friends without really getting it? Then this article for you.

The logic in this article is twofold:  All appearances exist only in the mind and the mind is in itself non-existent.

All appearances exists only in the mind

Red Flower

 The Samputa-tantra states:
“All things, external and internal,
Are designated by the mind.
Apart from the mind nothing else exists.”

So what does it mean that things only exist in the mind? This is best explained by an example:  When you observe a red flower what makes the flower red? Red itself is only a name and in other languages the color red is called something else hence the name cannot be what is meant by red. The red color does not exist in the flower itself as if it was seen by an animal without the capacity for seeing colors it would not appear red. It is known from modern science that the diffraction of white light makes a rainbow. But even watching red color in a rainbow does not make a color red, only the perception in the mind makes it red.  So without mind there is no red or no flower for that matter.  Only by designation (or perception) of that “red flower” in mind does the red flower exist. Furthermore objects existing “outside” the mind do not exist outside the mind. If it where so we would have no cognition of them as they would exist outside our experience. None such objects have ever been proven to exist. Some claim god exist outside the mind but on that topic see my earlier article “God where are thou – The negation of a creator god”.

To sum up; a red flower exists only in dependence upon the interaction of three things: Flower, eye and mind. As the flower and the color red only exist upon all three objects the flower solely exists in mind and hence is non-existent. And on a further note: So is mind. This answers the question: “If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, did the tree fall at all?” – It follows from the presented logic that it did not.

Digital art: Japanese style Ensō (円相) / Ensoh

The mind is in itself non-existent

“When you look into space, seeing stops.
Likewise, when mind looks at mind,
The flow of thinking stops
and you come to the deepest awakening.”
– Mahasiddha Tilopa

As clarified in the first part both internal and external object exists merely in mind and this leads to the question: How does mind exist? Mind has no color, form, weight or any other physical qualities and so from a physical perspective it exists nowhere. This means that the red flower exists simply in mind and mind exists nowhere and both are consequently non-existing. This is what Buddhists call emptiness (of inherent existence).  This does not negate that you have experiences of red flowers, friends and family and so forth in the same way as we dream of many things every night. You might ask if mind then exist non-physically and have mere mental existence? As mind has no physical causes we must conclude the cause of mind is a former instance of mind and so mind is nothing static and is thus itself empty of inherent existence. This can be concluded from the fact that no physical objects or processes anywhere have ever been cause of any mental faculties or capacities.

To summarize: Internal as well as external objects exist only in mind and mind itself lacks inherent existence. Or simply: Everything exists only in mind and mind is nowhere. This is Buddhist emptiness.

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