The Sanskrit word Śūnyatā is usually translated in English to “Emptiness”. This is a major Buddhist concept, and I would like to try to explain it here and make it as easy as possible for you to understand it, but also to grasp its implications for everyday life.
The world of the Buddha
From the point of view of the Buddha, all our insatisfactions and our disturbing negative emotions are due to our misconception of the reality of the world. So what does the Buddha exactly mean by the “reality” of things? He argues that all things are empty of inherent existence. This is the mysterious sentence we have to understand and see its implications.
To do so, I suggest we start by formulating this sentence in a different way, then we can take a simple example to make it more comprehensible. When the Buddha says that things are empty of inherent existence, he means that everything in the world, including physical objects, ideas, and all other phenomena, cannot exist like we think they exist just by themselves.
The flower without an observer
Let us just take an example. You will notice that to think about such an example is already a very hard task, because it is a paradoxical situation.
Imagine a flower. Once you realize this easy task, you will notice that the imagined flower that you created in your mind has a kind of shape, color, size, and it may have many other attributes like smell, color, and it can even remind you of some related phenomena or situations.
Now, try to imagine this flower being real, but without any observer. This is where things start to get tricky. We usually think that the flower we have on our balcony for example, continues to exist even when we go to sleep at night and we don’t think about it anymore. But the question here is: How does it exist precisely? If the flower still exists without any thinker to think about nor to perceive it, does it really have a shape, a color, a smell, etc.?
What is really inherent to the flower and what is provided to the flower by our own perceptions?
That is a deeply complicated philosophical question. The Buddha does not bring any answer to this question, but he clearly asserts that everything we observe, we see, we experience and we perceive has nothing to do with the reality of those phenomena. That is why he argues, we are continuously trapped by superficial phenomena that we take for the ultimate reality.
Implications in psychology
It is important to understand the example of the flower in order to be able to generalize it to all other phenomena. Once we really understand that there are many attributes of the flower, including the word “flower” itself, that are not inherent to the flower itself, we start to see that our whole world is mainly composed of our own imagination. At every moment of our life, we are faced with a multitude of objects, sounds, events, etc. and we give to all of them certain meanings and this have direct impacts on our thoughts, our mood and our behaviors.
For example someone pushes us and cuts our way on the street, and we may think: “this person is disrespectful”. We suddenly feel anger, and we are convinced that our anger is based on real facts and an accurate understanding of reality.
This way, argues the Buddha, we constantly remain in the realm of a disturbed view, biased feelings and endless turmoil. Not only do we suffer because we project on life events much more meaning than what they really have, but we also harm others because we react out of that suffering.
The emptiness of inherent existence of the self
In Buddhism, the concept of emptiness does not only apply to exterior phenomena like physical objects and life events; it also encompasses the whole experience of the self!
It is obviously one of the most disturbing and controversial ideas in Buddhism. I will try to explain it in the next article: The non-self in Buddhist Psychology (to be published soon).