The primary argument against doctrines of emptiness in spiritual practice does not refute the basic premise—that every experience is a process, interconnected with everything else, and therefore insubstantial as an individual unit of meaning. Folks don’t even really object to how emptiness suggests that meaning and language are subjective, contextual, and unreliable. I think we know this intuitively at this point. The place emptiness really gets under our skin is in how it seems compatible or incompatible with living in the material and political world all around us.
It’s fine to philosophically see emptiness as a defining feature of existence, the objection goes, but if we were to make this recognition part of our daily lives, wouldn’t we be disregarding the very real meaning our choices have in an interconnected world? When our purchase choices impact the planet in different ways, and how we eat, make money, and make love impact people around us in increasingly complex ways, is it even helpful to call on emptiness as an explanatory framework for existence? Basically, is focusing on emptiness skillful or wholesome in this moment—is it good strategy?
One of the things that’s so excellent—and so Buddhist—about these questions is that they refuse to let philosophy and theory sit on a shelf, self-satisfied in their logical imperturbability, and demand that the theory be accountable to real people in the real world. This is appropriate! And reflects the pragmatic nature of all the Buddhist teachings. When the Buddha said that although he understood a vast amount about the universe, conceptualized as the number of leaves in a forest, what he taught was only the strategies specifically useful for responding to suffering: just one handful of leaves. Emptiness is one of those strategies: a pragmatic response to the problem of suffering.
The teachings on emptiness begin (MN 121, “The Shorter Discourse on Emtiness”) with a guided meditation on increasing levels of tranquillity. The practitioner recognizes that the place they are meditating (the wilderness) is empty of the stress associated with being in a busier place (the city). Then they recognize that attending to internal space is empty of the stress of attending to the external sensory field. And onward, step by step, into a deeply immersed resting place where one is on troubled by stressful sensory experience at all. If we think in terms of pragmatic responses to the world, what might this meditation tell us? It tells us that it’s possible to be nourished by stepping away from busyness, conversation, and even observation of the world around us. I read this as a kind of deep mental and emotional self-care.
Contemporary activist discourse reminds us to rest and care for our own energy as a form of resistance to the Capitalist machine. A nap is restful, but it’s like a pale shadow of these deep meditative states. When we sleep, our body rests, but often our mind and nervous system (and mandibles) grind away, trying to process in dreams what we have not been able to release while awake. In meditation, the mind learns to rest—an actually nourishing rest we seek so desperately.
As the idea of emptiness developed historically, it expanded from a visualization that brings about tranquility to a logical analysis of experience with deep philosophical implications. By the time the Perfection of Wisdom literature appeared, a few centuries after the death of the Buddha, emptiness had become a defining characteristic of everything. “There are no beings to be saved,” and “there is no giver, no gift, and no recipient,” the Diamond Sūtra reminds its listeners. Emptiness became a radical, nondual ontology (theory of existence). Does it retain its pragmatic usefulness? I think it can, but just as the philosophy is more complex, so is the application.
We are consumption machines. We humans eat, we burn things, we reproduce, and we are devouring our planet. Another way to say this is that we are furiously engaged in the project of transforming every kind of matter we can into comfortable human beings, regardless of the waste generated or non-human lives lost. We have turned most wildlife on the planet into domesticated species that we eat. We have burned most wood on the planet to warm our bodies. And we dig and dig into the earth for anything we can burn to spin our motors, make the things we want to touch, and keep our bodies comfortable and our hungers satisfied. This was already true in the time of the Buddha, and the early South Asian texts of many traditions spoke to it, recognizing that we are food, fundamentally, and that our cravings are like a fire that never goes out. How might emptiness be a strategic response to this heavy recognition?
At the heart of craving is the idea that comfort can be attained through manipulating the material world. Consumerism as a cultural force depends on craving always being perpetuated. There is always more to have, more to become, more satisfaction to be found, more joy to be experienced as the culmination of a purchase. Even when we attempt to turn away from the consumer model of satisfaction, we often simply replace it with a relational or spiritual one. I need deeper experiences of God and nature, which require expensive retreats, psychedelics, or ritual spaces. I need a deeper relationship, which requires expensive dating processes, therapy, and marketing of my person as a desirable commodity. Behind all of this is the erroneous belief that things and people mean something, and that contact with the right things and people will result in contact with the right meanings, and then I’ll finally be satisfied.
Emptiness undercuts meaning, but it only undercuts craving if it has concrete, material actions to back it up. And the material action that supports the recognition of emptiness to be truly life-changing is renunciation. It’s nearly impossible to stabilize and mature the recognition of insubstantiality and interconnectedness when one is saturated by material abundance and comfort. It’s pretty easy to feel unattached when I have everything I want in this moment. But the more privileged my life becomes, materially but also relationally, the less tolerance I have for moments of dissatisfaction. Folks with an endless supply of food—whether nourishing or not—learn to not tolerate even the tiniest pang of hunger. Folks with an endless supply of potential partners, friends, or “likes” learn to not tolerate even the tiniest pang of loneliness. And yet we’re hungrier and lonelier than ever.
In the Perfection of Wisdom texts, bodhisattvas gather in cosmic assemblies to practice and celebrate the mystical truth of emptiness together. In other words, people deeply committed to their path get together with their friends to talk about what they most value, commit together to serving others, spend time with the teachers they most venerate, and sing songs to an ineffable goddess without whom none of them would be there. The result of meditating and conversing on emptiness should be the uprooting of the belief that getting more things and sensory experiences is the path to happiness (and planetary survival). When you see through the illusion of meaning, your world can get very simple. Just enough food to nourish the body. Just enough inspiration to nourish the mind. Good friendship, good eros, good rest, and good practice to nourish the heart on the path.
Emptiness as a philosophical gesture doesn’t care whether you are a ravenous glutton or a renunciate ascetic. But the planet cares. Your community cares. The ancestors care. All those who think there is a future for a wholesome life care. Renunciation is painful if you haven’t touched emptiness, because you think you’re giving so much up. There’s too much FOMO, and the heart doesn’t rest. With emptiness, you see that all those things you were craving were really stories of your own insufficiency, lack, and poverty of spirit. Those are the stories the machine needs us to believe, and before we can shift our actions in the direction of more wholesome engagement, we need something powerful enough to pierce its metallic, wealth-encrusted scales. But there’s a soft spot in the belly of the greed monster, and one well-aimed shot with the black arrow of emptiness can take it down.