Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Emptiness - what the hell is it?

When I started sitting at the Zendo, I was handed the Sutra book and we were all supposed to recite certain sutras together. It was considered voice zazen - becoming one with voice. I was at a point where I did not want to take part in anything that would even remotely resemble any kind of ritual. In my search, I had found Zen centers to be the least ritualistic institution and since I needed a place which could provide me company for my sitting practice, I figured I would play along with a little ritual.

I chanted the heart sutra for the first time and it made no sense at all!!!! What do they mean when they say everything is empty? All phenomena are empty? There are no eye, ears, nose, tongue or that there are no perceptions and feelings? I have all of these and I feel and touch them, how can they be empty???

Answer came to quite a long time after I started sitting with this question of emptiness. A big part of misunderstanding had to do with the translation of the word in English. By being empty, we usually mean an object to be empty of something. A cup is empty of tea, a glass is empty of water etc. The emptiness that is mentioned in Heart Sutra is not this kind of emptiness. It essentially means that any object does not have an independent existence by itself, it is empty of an independent existence and hence it is subject to impermanence. An object comes into existence based on conditions, for example, an unpleasant feeling happens when conditions such as these are present - criticism, not getting what one wants etc. In the physical world, if we take example of the cushion - we can say that it exists because of cotton, cloth and sewing.

Once we start seeing that objects or people do not have an independently existing self, we stop associating attributes to an object and start to look into conditions instead. This is a big shift in paradigm - to be able to look into contents and understand then rather to look at a certain object as one single thing existing by itself. Looking into contents enables us to understand the "why". Why a certain object or a certain person is behaving in a certain way. With this shift, it is not possible to call anything good or bad. Everything happens as a result of conditions that came together. There is no absolute identity that creates itself.


  1. hmmm...interesting, i might be way off, but tell me, if we are looking at the conditions that make a person or a situation, would it not go hand-by-hand that we associate certain attributes to those conditions (not the person or the situation) to get to our 'Why's? the moment we do associate attributes, wouldn't it mean that we will choose the good ones and watch out for the bad ones as we live life?

  2. The issue at hand is that nothing is good or bad when observed under the context of conditions, it is just right. Good or bad are attributes that we associate based on our perception. It is good or bad for us because of the way we interact with that object or person, but object or person in itself is not good or bad.