One of the more startling implications of the Buddha’s insight into past and future is how deeply individual objects, events, and persons are best understood as interconnected conditioned processes. The interconnected part is heartwarming at first glance, but it startles because it undercuts everything we think as solid—not just objects like in Thich Nhat Hanh’s elegant “see the trees and clouds and entire cosmos in a piece of paper” example, but people, identities, ideas, culture, and background perceptions like time and space themselves.
The basic teaching on emptiness is simple: a thing (object, person, event, experience, concept) is “empty” of whatever isn’t there. As in “this room doesn’t have any horses in it,” which was the Buddha’s original example (in the “Shorter Discourse on Emptiness,” MN 121). Because the room is empty of horses, and only has people in it, you can do a meditation in which “people” is the only sensory information you attend to. You don’t have to deal with all the issues that arise when there are horses in the room, which is a relief. What meditating on emptiness teaches you is that you don’t have to stress about things that aren’t actually there.
By the way, the Pāli word for empty, suñña (Sanskrit: śūnya), was transliterated into Arabic as ṣifr, which then became zefiro in Italian, which shortens to zero. So although zero as a mathematical concept is attributed to the Arabs, the original conceptual leap may have been the Buddha’s, when he realized that you could think about (and meditate on) the absence of something.
This opens the door for an approach to meditation in which the aim is to perceive the most fundamental level of experience possible—in order to realize that even that is conditioned and you don’t have to worry about any of it. The “Shorter Discourse on Emptiness” proposes a meditation in which you concentrate on increasingly abstract aspects of experience, starting with place, and then generalizing to element, space, consciousness… all the way to the “signless immersion of the heart.”
This immersion is free from “signs” like the names of things, stories about them, values and meanings we ascribe to them—all the conditioned narratives that have their purposes, but which also carry stress. Recognizing that signs are conditioned and can cease doesn’t say anything about whether the experiences they refer to are in some absolute sense “real.” Emptiness is a meditation method and a reminder to have perspective—not an ontological claim about whether things exist, or whether they matter.
The reason emptiness can look nihilistic is that the conceptual frameworks we use to give meaning to our lives crumble under the logic of emptiness. They do, but that’s supposed to relieve anxiety, not cause it. Individual identity is a thing—a narrative, experience, felt sense, communal consensus—that we can see doesn’t reside in the body as much as in a conditioned web of relationships. This is what the insight into selflessness (anatta) points to, and the “Form is emptiness” of the Heart Sūtra. I experience the form I call “my body” in lots of ways, some of which rely on cultural narratives: mized race, queer, parent, middle-aged. None of those is inherently, or solely, what the experience of this body “means.”
Experiences have meaning when we give them meaning. Maybe even instead of saying we “experience” something, we should say we “interpret” something, because that’s most of what experience consists of. At least we should understand that everything we think and feel about what’s happening is interpretive, and that those interpretations are mostly learned from others. This is one of the wisdom pieces embedded in the contemporary practices of land acknowledgment, naming of ancestry, and unlearning systemic biases—they’re all a kind of citation of sources. When we recognize that all the narratives we’ve learned, and through which we feel like we understand the world, are conditioned and temporary, they lose a huge part of their power, though they protest vigorously as they are seen through, furious Rumplestiltskins stomping a hole in the floor and falling into it.
But you don’t have to stress about what isn’t actually here.