Youth in Focus: Hi Lam,
I’m not a serious student of Buddhism, but I like to read books and articles on the teachings. There is one thing that comes up often and puzzles me. I keep reading about emptiness and that nothing exists and that even I do not exist. I don’t get it. I can see and touch things, and so how can they or I not exist. Also, what is the benefit of knowing this? Lam, please enlighten me.
Well, TZ, I don’t think I can enlighten you as I am still totally caught in the web of samsara myself. In addition, emptiness is a profound subject and impossible to explain thoroughly in a short article like this. Anyway, I’ll try my best.
In reality, emptiness does not mean that nothing exists, but that phenomenon has no inherent existence. Ok, I know that this sounds complicated, and so I’ll give you some examples. Think of a mountain. It looks solid and permanent, right? But then imagine that each day thousands of people walk onto its face and take away buckets of earth and stone. After some time, people will say. ‘Hey look, the mountain has gone”. When this occurs, we can ask ourselves, what was the mountain and at what point did it stop being a mountain or, simply, in which bucket did it disappear?
In reality, there was no such permanent and independent object as a mountain. It was just a label that humans had attached to a pile of earth, stone and vegetation. If we analyse the pile, we would find nothing that could actually be identified as a mountain.
People are the same. Mentally imagine that you dissect your body. At first, picture yourself removing an arm. When you have done this ask yourself, “Where am I”? “Am I in the arm or the remaining part of the body”? You will probably conclude that you are in the remaining part of the body. Slowly, continue the mental dissection, removing all your limbs and later taking out your organs. At each point, ask yourself the same question: “Where am I – in the removed limb or organ or in the remaining part of the body? At some point, you’ll recognise that the thing you called “I” has gone, but where was it originally? Was it in the legs, in the heart or the brain? At which point did it disappear? In reality, you won’t find an object that you can identify as a permanent and independent being called “I”. Like the mountain, our physical body merely exists as a combination of elements and factors
Now, in this way, we are no different from a rainbow or a mirage. Both phenomena can be seen, but in reality exist only as a combination of factors and elements joining together. If you analyse them you will not find a permanent and independent object called a mirage or rainbow. In this respect, they are actually no more real than an illusion.
So, on a conventional level, yes, things do exist. We can see a table and so use it to place our books, but under analysis we understand that the table is no different from the mountain, our physical body or a mirage and rainbow – it has no inherent existence. Does that make sense?
Still, it is important not to believe that nothing exists and so nothing matters. With this mind set, people will become wild and crazy. In reality, we still need to live in the conventional world. Even if it does not ultimately exist, we should recognise that on a conventional level our action has an effect on others and our future. In this respect, we should endeavour to cultivate compassion towards others, but, at the same time, aim to develop wisdom by maintaining awareness that ultimately things do not exist as permanent and independent entities.
How does knowing this benefit us? Well, in the same way that a man who once sought water in a mirage stops doing so once he realises that they are just an illusion; we likewise will stop seeking happiness in worldly things when we realise their true nature. Consequently, we develop a certain amount of renunciation mind, which is an important step on the path to enlightenment.
Even for a person who does not aspire to enlightenment, an understanding of emptiness can radically change their lifestyle. In reality, people suffer because they seek joy in material goods or in relationships. However, when they recognis e that these things are no more real than a rainbow and will change and disappear, they will no longer see them as an effective means to fill an inner void and bring lasting contentment. As a result, they drop their expectations and gain some mental peace.