Emptiness: Nothing Really Matters
The view of “no origin” (or, origination) is simple: not any thing has started from a beginning, at any time, anywhere. “No origin” means there has not been an origin—or beginning—of beginnings (or of Time either, for that matter; or even a “where”).
With not anything ever originated, or “created”, this does not mean that the universe has somehow always existed as it is. “No origination” means that a universe itself has not come into existence.
In other words, the view of “no origination” says that the universe itself cannot be a real existence. The mistaken beings who claim that the universe, and its worlds, do exist as such, are themselves unreal because there can have been no creation of forms, whether material (like humans) or immaterial (like ideas or thoughts).
So, the emptiness implied by no origination does not suggest a universe or cosmos which is empty of all things, it is saying there has not been a universe from the start.
A difficulty a human has of perceiving this viewpoint is apparently in “his” capacity to conclude that what he has sensed—seen, heard, etc.—is existent and therefore real (or real and therefore existent). The eyes look down and notice the human form and the brain supposes that “I am here, I exist, I am real”. The eyes look up at something seemingly apart from “me”—a world—and the brain cognizes that this too is there and exists as real.
As long as our supposition is that “I”—or anything other than I—have existence, we are starting from the presumptive bias that there is indeed some thing.
From the point of view that there is in reality no thing whatsoever, it would be contradictory to approach the proposition of no origination by holding onto the reservation that any—even one: me—thing resides outside of that proposition of “no creation”.
No creation also means no creatures. “You”, as creature, cannot stand outside or apart from the proposition of no creation and attempt to make sense of it.
So, it is not a legitimate question to ask “If there is nothing from the start, how am I here?” The teachings are telling you that your human understanding of reality and the truth of so-called reality are not the same. And these teachings are telling you much more that has an affect on “your life”.
Leading in toward the understanding of no creation, or emptiness, is advaita: the word itself, in Sanskrit, means “not two”; no two (or more) things exist—including “me” or “other than me”.
The foremost exponent of advaita in our time was Ramana Maharshi, who pointed his enlightened disciples toward ajata, which in Sanskrit means no creation, or no origination.
Ramana, though, focused his attention on first bringing his disciples to enlightenment, by showing that the underlying nature of all relative forms must be the formless Absolute. Advaita states that all that is, is the Absolute. According to ajata, or no origination, there cannot even be the Absolute.
Nondual (advaita) writings in general, often describe the Absolute as having neither being nor non-being. But the distinction in most seekers minds seems to be that there is something—not relative—which has neither being nor not being, and which is formless. Ajata leaves this (subtly dualistic) distinction unfounded.
Ramana has stated his fundamental teaching is ajata (though his remarks are mostly directed to those who have yet to comprehend advaita).
“There is no creation, in the state of Realization….Only if there is creation do we have to explain how it came about…There is no alternative but to accept the world as unreal, if you are seeking the Truth and the Truth alone.”
H.W. L. Poonja, or “Papaji”, had his awakening through Ramana, and also became a teacher of advaita. As with Ramana, his deeper seeing was into ajata.
“You have never allowed yourself to experience the emptiness that is empty of all objects….What is seen does not exist….No one exists; nothing exists….Nothing has ever existed. This ultimately is the only truth….Because I know the truth that nothing has ever happened…what need was there for a creation at all?....One can say this with authority only when one abides in that ultimate place where nothing has ever happened.”
Early ajata writings were accredited to Guadapada, the predecessor to Shankara’s teacher. As with all Indian sages, including Buddha, Gadapada was conversant with the Vedic gitas. The Ashtavaka Gita, for example (excerpts):
All this is the product of illusion, and nothing exists as “objects” in an undivided reality.
The ”universe” itself is a figment of imagination. The universe, even though it seems present to the senses, is unreal.
With the calming of the wind of the mind creating forms, the universe meets destruction (as a defined object).
The universe does not in reality exist.
This manifold universe is nothing…nothing exists.
What came through Guadapada as ajata was ostensibly the Madhyamaka (or, Madhyamika) school of the Buddha’s deepest teachings, which are given primarily in two major sutras.
In the Heart Sutra, an awakened disciple is speaking to a senior disciple, in Buddha’s presence:
“Form is emptiness, emptiness is form….all phenomena are emptiness…in emptiness there is no form…no consciousness…no mind…no mental objects (thoughts, concepts, perceptions etc.)…(nor an) origin.”
Hearing this, Buddha exclaimed: “Excellent!...it is just so…just as you have revealed”.
The Dalai Lama has commented on the Heart Sutra:
“As one’s understanding of the ultimate nature of reality deepens, one begins to recognize more clearly the erroneous nature of one’s belief in intrinsic existence. If one understands emptiness…there is simply no basis for grasping onto selfhood to arise. From this practical perspective…emptiness constitutes the highest and most subtle understanding of the Buddha’s teaching on no-self….Even the resultant state of clarity that arises from clear penetration into the perfection of wisdom is itself empty of intrinsic existence. Finally, and this is a crucial point, even emptiness itself is devoid of intrinsic existence…emptiness is therefore both the means of eliminating the mental afflictions and the resultant state that one arrives at after having done so.”
In the Diamond Sutra, Buddha addresses a disciple. Buddha states that those who “gain perfect clarity of mind …do not create the perception of a self. Nor do they create the perception of a being, a life….” Nor do thoughts really exist. “Subhuti, a past thought cannot be found. A future thought cannot be found. Nor can a present thought be found.”
He advised that each discover “the self-less, birthless nature” of reality; renounce “self existence every day”. He emphasizes, “No beginning [and thus no finite ending], Subhuti, is the highest truth.”
“Subhuti,” said Buddha, “undifferentiated is this dharma in which nothing (no thing) is differentiated.” No “this” or “that”. And, he said, as “an illusion…a bubble, a dream….view all ‘created’ things like this.”
Where there is no self, there is no thinker who creates differentiated perceptions, or thoughts. Where there is no such thing as a self, there is no self which perceives a “world.” All conceived forms have a beginning and an ending, as contrasted with emptiness.
The Sixth Chinese Patriarch, Hui Neng, said that he came to enlightenment through overhearing a recitation of the Diamond Sutra. Later the Zen master delivered a commentary on this sutra.
Hui Neng received his appointment as a roshi by winning a poetry contest designed to show the depth of the aspirants’ realization. The last two lines of his short poem are a summary of emptiness.
There being nothing, from the start,
Where can dust alight?
Dust also can mean, in Buddhism, confusion. The point of ajata/madhyamaka is that where we have surmised that not anything has ever actually been real, or existed, from the start, where can our problems, confusions, or sufferings appear from? Clearly, if there was not a single mind in the universe, could it be said that a universe existed? When we perceive that thoughts, phenomenon, selves, time, place, etc., are all dependent on discriminations in the human mind which supposes their reality, how can any of these “manifestations” be taken seriously enough to invite reactions?
When Ramana says, “nothing in fact ever happens”, what in that case, “really matters” in an ultimate sense?
Buddha said, treat this life as “an illusion…a dream”.
The mind tells us that what it perceives exists, in some form, and therefore is real; every form, whether material or immaterial, has a beginning and an ending. All that we see or know is impermanent—comes and goes. But we recognize that if there is an ultimate truth, the truth, it must be permanent, and not existent at one time and non-existent at another.
Where is any form perceived but in the mind?; and each mind itself has a beginning and ending. At night, when dreaming, the mind presents the form of your self; and the (other-than-you) world. And the mind takes this presentation to be real, to exist. And in the world, when wide awake, the mind also vouches for its reality.
“In other words, the dream as a dream does not permit you to doubt its reality. It is the same in the waking state, for you are unable to doubt the reality of the world which you see while you are awake. How can the mind which has itself created the world accept it as unreal? While you are dreaming, the dream was a perfectly integrated whole. That is to say, if you felt thirsty in a dream, the illusory drinking of illusory water quenched your illusory thirst. But all this was real and not illusory to you so long as you did not know that the dream itself was illusory. You want somehow or other to maintain that the world is real. What is the standard of reality? Does the world exist by itself? Was it ever seen without the aid of the mind? In deep sleep, there is neither mind nor world. When awake, there is the mind and there is the world. What does this invariable concomitance mean?”
A translator (unnamed) has written, in a book concerning emptiness:
“The meaning of this is that all statements, all theories, anything emerging from the operations of the rational intelligence, have the nature of relative truth. Theories may be of practical utility and may concur with empirical experience, but as expressions of ultimate truth, the ‘nature of things’, they are inadequate…. The knowledge of the ultimate transcends thought. It is suprarational. It is nonconceptual and nondual—quite different, we may suppose, from anything that we have ever experienced to date. It is prajna: immediate, intuitive insight into suchness, the wisdom of emptiness….”
Another translator (of the writings of Nagarjuna) has said:
“It is recorded in the Pali Canon that the Buddha foretold the disappearance of some of his most profound teachings. They would be misunderstood and neglected, and would fall into oblivion ‘In this way’ he said, ‘those discourses spoken by the Tathagata that are deep, deep in meaning, supramundane, dealing with emptiness, will disappear.’”
The Sanskrit word sunyata (or shunyata) means emptiness, or voidness; the absence of inherent existence or reality of all phenomenon; sometimes also translated as “unborn” (without origin).
Mervyn Sprung writes:
“It has often been called the void, sometimes emptiness, and at times, after its mathematical meaning, zero….sunyata is said to be ‘the exhaustion of all views,’ but not itself another view, not even a predicate which might be attributed to things….Sunyata is not only the repudiation of a causal account of the every day, it marks the repudiation of any account: it is not a theory about the space-time world. Sunyata is not one more theory among the many traditional theories offering an account of the factual world; it implies that such theories are delusive shadow boxing: accounts of what is not there, as if one set out to explain the delusive appearances of the magician’s tricks strictly in terms of the delusive appearances themselves….
“Nagarjuna says this sweepingly, ‘Sunyata is the exhaustion of all views’ and adds ‘Those for whom sunyata is itself a theory are incurable.’… There is no external being, no Absolute as Brahman, nor a real individual entity concealed behind the pretence; there is no pretender….It becomes rather the non-dependence of non-existents; there is no longer a real origination of anything in dependence on anything else….the world, or ‘life’, as we ordinarily experience it, is without any meaning.”
All the following quotations (not necessarily in their original order) give a general sense of the importance emphasized here. First, some points by the Dalai Lama, excerpted from a transcribed talk (1998) published as Transcendent Wisdom:
“This false way of apprehending things has been with us since beginningless time. Shantideva declared previously that it is necessary to stop grasping onto true existence, and to realize emptiness. While dreaming, all kinds of things may come to mind, but these are nothing more than appearances. Likewise, a magician may create a variety of illusory appearances, but they do not exist objectively. Likewise, oneself, others, the cycle of existence, and liberation—in short, all entities—exist merely by the power of mind and convention. When one is investigating an object to determine whether or not it is truly existent, one eventually arrives at the conclusion that the object does not exist in the way that it appears. Ultimately, the object itself does not exist, so it has no properties such as impermanence. Moreover, if something is not produced, it does not depart from non-existence. Upon establishing the lack of intrinsic existence of entities of form and so on, if one further proceeds to analyze that ultimate reality of the lack of intrinsic existence, one ascertains the lack of true existence of ultimate reality. First, one ascertains the lack of an intrinsic nature in forms and so on. When one gains an understanding of this emptiness of such things, one investigates the mode of existence of that emptiness. One finds that it, too, is devoid of intrinsic being and ‘exists’ merely by the power of convention. This is the emptiness of emptiness. Emptiness itself is not truly existent. Thus, even emptiness exists simply by the force of convention. It does not truly exist. It does not exist in an ultimate sense”
Longchenpa (Longchen Rabjam) was a Tibetan monk, 1308-1364. Selected points:
“Within the essence of totally pure awakened mind, there is no object to view or anything that constitutes a view—not the slightest sense of anything to look at or anyone looking. It is of no concern whether or not all thoughts and expressions are transcended. It is of no concern whether or not confused attempts at proof and refutation are demolished. It is of no concern whether or not the view to be realized has been realized. There is no reference point —no ‘How is it?’, ‘What is it?’. Labeling takes place in confusion, for what is nonexistent is taken to exist. It is of no concern whether or not anything has ever existed within the fundamentally unconditioned, genuine state. It is not empty, for it transcends that which is empty. It is not existent, for it has no substance or characteristics. In simply arising, forms are by nature empty. From what is unborn, there manifests what seems to be born, but even as it manifests, nothing whatsoever has been born. From what is unceasing there manifests what seems to cease, but there’s no cessation. Within the wholly positive expanse, birth, death, happiness, and suffering have never existed. Within the wholly positive expanse, self, other, affirmation, and negation have never existed. Afflictive emotions, karma, and habitual patterns have no support within this vast expanse, but are the playing out of magical games of illusion. At night and other times when you are overtaken by sleep, as you lie in a naturally settled state free of the proliferation and resolution of thoughts, sensory appearances that manifest in obvious ways disappear, so reification of them will disappear as well. Whatever arises in a dream due to the dynamic energy of sleep does not actually exist. Like water in a mirage, a dream, an echo, a phantom emanation, a reflection, a castle in the air, or a hallucination, all things are clearly apparent yet do not truly exist. Although they do not exist they appear to, and in manifesting they have no basis…If you evaluate your fundamentally unconditioned nature, you find it has never existed as anything whatsoever. However you strive, whatever effort you make, what now will be of value? Let whatever is anything at all be nothing at all. Since there is no longer an abyss, where could one go astray? In the experience of yogins who do not perceive things dualistically, the fact that things manifest without truly existing is so amazing they burst into laughter.”
And from Shantideva (685-783), an Indian monk:
“When shall I reveal this truth of emptiness to those who go to ruin through belief in real existence? If consciousness reveals the truth of things, on what grounds, in its turn, does consciousness exist? If both subsist through mutual dependence, both will thereby lose their true existence. What we see and what we touch is stuff of dreams and mirages. All form, therefore, is like a dream, and who will be attached to it, who thus investigates? Since there is no subject for sensation, and sensation, too, lacks all existence, how is craving not arrested when all this is clearly understood? ‘There is nothing’—when this is asserted, no thing is there to be examined. How can a ‘nothing,’ wholly unsupported, rest before the mind as something present? By training in the thought ‘There isn’t anything,’ this view itself will also be abandoned.”
Chandrakirti (or Candrakirti), an Indian monk (c. 600-650), known for a commentary on Nagarjuna’s 70 Stanzas on Emptiness:
“Therefore it has been established that even nirvana does not exist…ceasing to take anything whatsoever whether personal or non-personal as real, in its particularity, that is for us the way things are really.”
The Indian monk Nagarjuna (c. 150-250) is said to have been the first writer to focus on madhyamaka:
“All experienced phenomena are…like a dream…projections of human consciousness”.
“Because there are no phenomena that are not dependent arisings, there are no phenomena that are not empty [of inherent existence]. No things whatsoever exist, at any time, in any place, having arisen of themselves, from another, from both or without cause. Neither perishing nor arising in time, neither terminable nor eternal, neither self-identical nor variant in form, neither coming nor going; such is the true way of things, the serene coming to rest of the manifold of named things. Everything in this world can be taken as real or not real; or both real and not real; or neither real nor not real. This is the Buddha’s teaching. Those who think in terms of self-existence, other-existence, existence and non-existence do not grasp the truth of Buddha’s teaching. But since there’s not the slightest thing not empty, how could ‘emptiness’ exist? Does any thing whatever, anywhere, at any time, arise? Not ceasing, not arising, not annihilated nor yet permanent, not coming, not departing, not different, not the same: the stilling of all thought, and perfect peace. All that can be said is halted, for all that can be thought is halted.”
What follows are a baker’s dozen from various sutras on emptiness:
The Buddhas say that actions are productive of results, that beings wander in samsara. But, understanding perfectly the nature of these things, they have described them as “unborn.”
Whatever has not come to birth can never, for that reason, cease to be. You see that things within the world are empty: they do not exist; they are nonexistent.
The personal continuum and the aggregates, causation and the atoms likewise, Prakriti, the creator God: All are fancies that the mind alone constructs.
And yet the actual ultimate is free from constructs and elaborations. Therefore, where there’s nothing present, absent also is cognizing consciousness.
Appearance and emptiness—when these two are not separate, the view is fully realized.
We should perceive that everything—whatever may be said—is empty by its nature. So-called emptiness is empty too, and therefore there is nothing that’s not empty.
If there are things not empty, voidness may exist. And if everything is empty, how can emptiness exist?
When “thing” and “nothing” both indeed are absent from before the mind, nothing else remains for the mind to do but rest in perfect peace, from concepts free.
The wise abide within a state devoid of every feature, in perfect knowledge that phenomena are empty.
Things are destitute of “thingness.” Nonthings also have no “thingness.” This absence of both “thing” and “nothing”—those who know this understand the Veda.
The teachings upon emptiness were given that all the views that living beings hold, whatever they may be, might be relinquished and dismissed.
But just as with a fire that does not stay once all there is to burn has been consumed, when it has burned the tinder wood of views, the fire of emptiness itself goes out.
Many are the ones who talk and teach at length, but few of those who in their knowledge taste of this deep view.
And, to conclude, some verses from the Chinese Tradition.
First, from the Hsin Hsin Ming:
Delusions arise from the thinking mind. Why treat the creations of the mind as though they are concretely real?
“Things” exist because of the mind. The “mind” exists because of things.
When the mind is at peace, the phenomenal world does not disturb it.
When the phenomenal world causes no disturbance, it is as if there is no “world.”
When the mind is at peace, it is as if there is no “mind.”
No explanation is needed where there is no “mind.”
From various Chinese sages:
All phenomena are impermanent; all are empty.
This is the complete enlightenment of the Tathagata.
If nothing arises within the mind,
nothing will manifest without.
Thus perfected ones first empty the defilement of self. When the defilement of self is emptied,
how can the outer realm be an obstruction?
In this world, all things without exception are unreal.
Death itself is an illusion.
The Sea of Midway Island doesn’t know of my brother’s death.
My brother doesn’t know either.
Attaining this way, one’s daily life
is the realization of ultimate reality.
Writing something to leave behind is yet another kind of dream.
When I awake, I know that there will be no one to read it.
And finally, a verse from a Westerner:
It all means nothing!
Even the moon is a big goose egg in the sky.
It all means nothing
—and that’s the exciting part!