Concept of “Emptiness” as I understand it


“Emptiness” is a concept that has been around for as long as the Buddhist philosophy has survived, and possibly longer.  The basic underlying principle of Buddhist teachings is about being “detached”, because all things are “empty”.  That a pen is only a “pen” because we gave it the name of a “pen” and attached meaning to it; otherwise it could have been called something else.  Reverend Jing Kung said that “emptiness” does not mean that there is nothing, there is something; it can be compared to the clouds in the sky.  From a distance, they look like fluffy cotton candy floating in the sky; but when you get on a plane and fly to it, then you realize that it is not really there, it is still there but not there.  It exists, just not the way that we perceive it to be.

For many years, I wrestled with trying to understand this abstract concept. The question that keeps coming back to me was how can something be there but not there at the same time? But, yet it is, just like the clouds in the sky.  It is there but not there at the same time. Then, one day I saw a quote by Ali ibn abi Talib, who is supposedly the son of Prophet Muhammad:

“Detachment is not that you should own nothing. But that nothing should own you.”

In that one moment, I gained a certain level of clarity of what emptiness actually meant.

Given that much of the meaning, structures, and artificial constructs that exists in any society were created by us humans. For example, the rules in the society, each person’s behavior, etc were created by us humans. Do they really exist, at least not in a tangible way like you can hold a pen in your hands? Bringing back the example of a pen, the concept of a “pen” exists because we attached the meaning of what a pen is to it.  Without it, a “pen” is just a “pen” and nothing more, it could have been a “ball”. Everything we do, how we react to stimulus, exists because we based our reactions/behaviors upon our past experiences, such as a pin prick is painful and therefore we learn to be careful when handling sharp pointy objects.  Or that a fire burns and its painful, so we avoid having direct skin contact with anything that is burning. Much of the formation of these behavioral reactions are done so automatically and subconsciously; you can almost say that we have no control over it. But, is that really the absolute truth?  Nevertheless, we are not totally without blame, and neither should we be blamed either; forgive yourself.

As we grow up, we associate certain reactions to certain stimulus. In the examples mentioned before, we learned to associate pain with pointy objects and fire.  In other examples, it would be learning to attach pain to people who have hurt you in the past (in some cases an entire gender of the population), or avoiding certain situations that would cause you discomfort (generally speaking) such as closing yourself up in a “safe” place because you do not like the unpleasant comments others may say to you. The point here is we tend to create intangible abstract concepts and attach meanings to it as we go through life.  These meanings may/may not be grounded on other abstract concepts, and thus the web we weave grows.

We hang on to these abstract concepts like our dear lives. Some of it has caused much grief and suffering. To us, these concepts are as real as a slab of concrete. The truth is, they are not.  They are only as real as we want them to be.  We are too attached to all of it, as a result, they owned us. We have surrendered our personal power to an abstract “object” of our own creation that is about as real as the clouds in the sky.  However, once you have released the meaning attached, it looses its hold on you.  It is what it is, something created by a conglomerating effort of the universe, and nothing more. Therefore, ladies and gentlemen, “nothing should own you” and you will be “free”, to be one with “emptiness” again; to be present in the NOW.  This is my understanding of “emptiness”.

(Note: Releasing said “attachments” are sometimes not a trivial matter. Seek help if you need to. It takes more courage to admit that you need help. We are only human after all. Be blessed!)