Daily Wisdom / Tibetan Dharma

The Meaning of Emptiness

Book cover“Emptiness” is a rough translation of the Sanskrit term shunyata and the Tibetan term tongpa-nyi. The basic meaning of the Sanskrit word shunya is “zero,” while the Tibetan word tongpa means “empty”—not in the sense of a vacuum or a void, but rather in the sense that the basis of experience is beyond our ability to perceive with our senses and or to capture in a nice, tidy concept. Maybe a better understanding of the deep sense of the word may be “inconceivable” or “unnameable.”

So when Buddhists talk about emptiness as the basis of our being, we don’t mean that who or what we are is nothing, a zero, a point of view that can give way to a kind of cynicism. The actual teachings on emptiness imply an infinitely open space that allows for anything to appear, change, disappear, and reappear. The basic meaning of emptiness, in other words, is openness, or potential. At the basic level of our being, we are “empty” of definable characteristics.

Tsoknyi Rinpoche from The Best Buddhist Writing 2013, pages 120-121

3 thoughts on “The Meaning of Emptiness

  1. Maybe the semantic issue is not that the western mind confuses the meaning of ‘emptiness’ with ‘zero’ or ‘the void’, but rather that we do not really understand the significance of the latter terms. I once read an interview with a physicist where he related that, while we cannot really say what is ‘behind’ the Big Bang (since it is beyond space and time and not a ‘thing’ that can be related to other ‘things’), we can say that it is like a void, not in the sense of a lack of something (which is the western prejudice against ‘no-thing’), but rather a field of infinite potentiality out of which matter and energy arise and disappear back into. Is that not very much like the sense of the meaning of ‘emptiness’ given above in a more humanistic sense? And that is according to some of the most advanced scientific thinking. I think we just need to learn to appreciate the value and power of ‘no-thing’ in our culture — instead of always chasing after ephemeral — impermanent — ‘things’!

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