One of the simplest ways to define the Buddhist concept of “emptiness” (suññatā) is that a thing is “empty of what isn’t there.” We’re looking at what is absent in a thing that we have been assuming is present. What could that be?
My kid and I have been listening to The Hobbit together, and of course the riddles are one of the best parts. Riddling, the book tells us, is an ancient sport, and even dreadfully evil (read: traumatized) people like Gollum respect its rules. Begging forgiveness of master Tolkien (and master Baggins) here’s a riddle:
Absent though you think I’m here
In all things you hold most dear
Nowhere will you find me tied
To the shape your eyes have spied
What am I?
Philosophically, we say that the thing that is absent is “essence,” or “substance,” both of which refer to a hypothetical permanent defining attribute of a thing that persists through any change that happens to the physical object we call the thing. But essence is an idea, nothing more. It is the “soul” of a thing, which we may have an intuition about, but no actual evidence for. All the evidence suggests that physical forms, as well as the ideas and names that describe them, all change. So I think the simplest way to answer the riddle is “meaning.”
What is the soul, or the essence of a thing, if not a way of saying that it has a fundamental meaning? The meaning a thing holds is a concept that defines a thing in as deep a way as we are able. So a simple way to think about emptiness is to recognize that any meaning we give to a thing (object, entity, experience, concept, intuition, place, culture) is contingent—contextual, dependent on time, place, and relationship. Another way of saying that is that in the absence of telling a story about a thing, that thing has no intrinsic meaning. The meaning is in the telling and hearing, not in the thing itself. (There is no “thing itself.”)
The usual mistake in understanding emptiness is taking this to mean that things do not “exist,” in anyway other than as illusion. But that’s just a conceptual trap. “Exist” and “doesn’t exist” are just more layers of story and meaning—and the Buddha explicitely rejected them as irrelevant concepts. The meaning bound up in these words is that something that doesn’t exist doesn’t matter, and that’s terrifying. Our lives don’t matter? Good and evil in the world don’t matter? That doesn’t feel right—because it isn’t. Existence is a philosophical conversation called ontology. What matters is a different conversation, and it’s the more important: ethics.
Things are empty of intrinsic meaning. Any story we tell about a thing is thus more about us than the thing. In the Theravāda system, this is the first insight that leads to liberation from suffering, called nāma-rūpa, or “name and form.” It is the recognition that the name of a thing, which is the closest we can come up with to identifying its fundamental identity, or meaning, is not the same as the physical thing it points to. The label rides alongside the thing like the answer to a riddle. The riddle is the strange poem of direct experience, which is oblique, poetic, always leaping the bounds of whatever concept we try to bind it in. The answer is a name, which seems final, but which ends the game.
Which is more ecstatic, more resonant with mystery, the riddle—
Alive without breath,
As cold as death
Ever thirsty, never drinking,
Clad in mail, never clinking
—or the answer, stolid as a full stop: fish? The riddle sings. The answer thuds. It’s always like this. Emptiness recognizes that the answer to the riddle of experience never sufficiently sings the meaning of the thing. There is no soul in a person because no single concept can do justice to the wild mystery of a life. For a map to depict in perfection every detail of a landscape, it would have to be an identical replica of the place, and just as large. No concept is that capacious. So the thing is empty of the meaning we think it has—the name that defines it.
Emptiness, philosophically, turns out to be a word problem. A riddle. It points to a mistake we keep making… until we don’t. When we recover from the illusion that things are what we call them, an incredible spaciousness opens up around us. Suffering is basically emotional, the Buddha tells us, as we react to the stories unfolding around us. Freedom is a word for when our emotions are unbound from story, and set free to respond more intimately to life as it unfolds. The real riddle of practice, then, is how things continue to matter even as they are set free. The answer to that defines the enlightened activity the tradition came to call bodhisattva.