In popular culture, ‘empty your mind’ has become a catch-phrase of meditation circles.
But the origins of striving to bring your mind to a place of emptiness wasn’t meant to help take your mind off our anxieties or slow our caffeine-addled brain—it was a radical statement about the nature of reality, both physical and mental.
In Buddhism, this idea is called śūnyatā (“shun-ya-ta”): translated as emptiness or voidness. Śūnyatā connotes the concept that all things are empty, including our own sense of self.
Śūnyatā isn’t a claim that people and things don’t exist – they do. Rather, it connotes the idea that things—and people—are empty of own-being. In other words: no thing comes into being or exists completely on its own; all objects and beings are in constant interdependence.
We spoke to the Hershey Professor of Buddhist Studies at Harvard University, Janet Gyatso, to learn more about the complexities of this concept.
“Everything is in relationship to its environment. If you had something that was completely autonomous, existed on its own logic, we wouldn’t even know that it was there. That would be equivalent to it not existing. If something exists only independently, autonomously, it would be as if it didn’t exist.”
Śūnyatā is closely associated with the notion of Dependent Origination, which says nothing arises independently. A flame requires the wick and the oil to burn. A seed requires the soil, rain, and sun to sprout. A mountain erodes into the sea. The dead animals and leaves fertilize a forest’s ecosystem. All things are always in interrelated flux. Including people.
“We construct an ego all the time,” said Gyatso. “Buddhist philosophy makes the point: that ego is a construct. … egotism leads us to think wrongly about things, and suffer. We are lead to suffering because we don’t realize how interdependent we are.”
Accepting that the world is essentially empty of any permanence, that humans have no atman, soul or self, fits with what scientific discoveries suggest is true—and perhaps it’s the reason why a version of Buddhism that presents itself as a spiritual philosophy took root in the Western world beginning in the late 19th century.
While Buddhism denies it is nihilistic, it found favor among key thinkers associated with nihilism. Buddhism greatly influenced Arnold Schopenhauer’s pessimistic philosophy, and even won rare praise from Friedrich Nietzsche in The Anti-Christ where he called Buddhism “a hundred times as realistic as Christianity,” and in his own words, “beyond good and evil.”
Despite its popularity in the West, Buddhist ideas meet with resistance in their advocacy of nothingness as the basis of reality. American philosopher Jim Holt dismisses Buddhism as a non-answer to the questions of existence:
“To a Buddhist, the world is just a whole lot of nothing. It’s just a big cosmic vacuity. And we think there’s a lot of something out there but that’s because we’re enslaved by our desires. If we let our desires melt away, we’ll see the world for what it truly is, a vacuity, nothingness, and we’ll slip into this happy state of Nirvana which has been defined as having just enough life to enjoy being dead.”
Gyatso says that Refusing to take Buddhism as a serious is in part a commitment to western absolutes, the centrality of human ego, and an aversion to relativism.
“People feel very anxious if you’re going to tell them that … there are no truths that you can hold onto — it sounds very scary. In fact if you understand the way it plays out in Buddhist societies, you see that it’s not necessarily so scary after all. It doesn’t really mean that you give up on everything you believe in and are thrown into an abyss and a vacuum. All it means is that you have a certain sense of recognition that you live in a world that’s very specific to a particular culture, and a particular group, and these are constructs.”
Śūnyatā is not meant to deaden a person, but rather to awaken them to the true nature of things The relativism śūnyatā implies, far from leading to a kind of anarchic do-what-you-want way of life, is intended to naturally arose—rather than command—compassion. Rather than commanding, tempting or threatening people into being moral, Buddhism trusts that the relinquishment of desire will inevitable result in compassion for all living things.
Gyatso: “In the psychological and social realm it has to do with compassion, empathy. … that’s an attitude. That of course translates into action. You are not always focused on yourself. You are not constantly busy building up our ego.”
The 2nd century Buddhist philosopher Nāgārjuna, put forth the most important philosophical formulation of śūnyatā. Much like the Greek skeptics, Nāgārjuna used rigorous logical reason to demolish any and all arguments of his philosophical opponents—often Hindus and other Buddhists who repeatedly tried to assert an intrinsic essence or permanence to the self or the world.
Nāgārjuna affirmed śūnyatā —emptiness—as the truth of the universe. For Nāgārjuna, nirvāna meant simply to experience the universe in light of a proper understanding of the emptiness of all things. The fruit of this realization, far from existential despair, is liberation, joy, and deep, lasting tranquility.
And what’s more, the doctrine of śūnyatā, rather than fighting the emerging scientific worldview, stands in healthy congruity with it: affirming both life and nothingness in the same brilliant sweep.
This series is adapted from the podcast episode I produced for the Ministry of Ideas. Listen to it here.