Emptiness and Appearance

Emptiness and Appearance

Questions and Answers

How can a tree, a rock, how can I myself be called ’empty’? From a conventional view, emptiness makes no sense at all. Look at a glass of water. The glass is full of water. So what is empty about it?

For a Buddhist, nothing in the world is permanent. Nothing stands still, and nothing exists without reference to something else. Things may appear to be unchanging. Look at a mountain, for example. It has been there for millions of years. It never changes. But hold on, is that true? We, humans, face the world through the filter of a human time scale. Experiences are fast or slow, depending on the point of view. Living for a day only, a fly experiences a much speedier world than a human living thousand of times as long. Consider the ocean. It has been there for a long time, and it will not just disappear any time soon. But it will, and it does, right in front of your eyes—a new ocean born every moment. The ocean you see was the ocean. Because by the time you register the ocean as the ocean, that ocean is long gone. Remember the seashells found in deserts. One hundred million years ago, these places were vast oceans. And now they are deserts. Change!

In the Buddhist view, all events, all phenomena, including every thinkable experience, arise and disappear according to their fundamental causes and conditions. That is to say; one thing leads to the next in a continuous multidimensional stream that humans consider to be reality. The world around us constitutes an energetic event unfolding in time. People are part of this happening just as much as everything else is.

A person, any creature, shares the same dynamic unfolding, moment by moment. Cell structures experience changes, renewals and ageing. The world enters into consciousness through the senses; the mind processes these impressions into desirable or non-desirable notions. Even when asleep, dreams arrive. Consider your reactions and emotions. Are they predictable? When in a good mood, you like something. Your mood changes, and you dislike the very same thing. Warm sunshine makes you happy, windy, wet and cold unhappy. Likes and dislikes change all the time. Everything depends on something else. It is obvious.

Nothing at all is the proper answer. For many people, this becomes a challenging, difficult point to accept. Humans like to see themselves as independent, decisive, in charge of their destiny—creatures of their own free will. It is not easy to accept that far from determining one’s destiny, in truth, one responds to causes and conditions within an ocean of causes and conditions. Perceived autonomous free will judgments are mere responses to specific causes and conditions, no more or less. The reactions, of course, can be intelligent or stupid and, in this way, influence the energetic field of reality positively or negatively. For a Buddhist, this becomes a critical understanding.

A tricky point. You can see the tree out there. It has the appearance; you can touch it, eat its fruit. It is there. It exists.
The tree (as everything else) has an appearance, yet at the same time, it is also empty of lasting substance. Examine what constitutes the tree. Is it the wood, the roots, the leaves or the fruit? Perhaps it is the biological structure, the molecules, the atoms that make up the tree? Countless elements and processes constitute the tree. Individually, none of them makes up the tree or could be called a tree. So we can say that the tree has a tree appearance but no definite tree-substance. The tree is simultaneously FULL of tree appearance and EMPTY of tree substance.

Yes, you are. You are there, and you are not there at the same time. The ‘self’ you may be proud of is as void of permanence as the abovementioned tree. Yet, because you are constantly changing, a fraction of a second by a fraction of a second, while having the appearance, you are also simultaneously empty of substance. You, too, constitute a conglomerate of changing factors generated by dynamic causes and conditions.

No, you don’t have to believe anything in Buddhism. Look for a method to repeal these propositions. If you are genuinely interested, start to examine. Engage logic and intellect. The Buddha said to treat it like buying gold. Use the acid test. You will be in good company. The greatest minds contemplated these issues for more than two thousand years and found them valuable and dependable.

Of course, you can. Not everybody can embrace the entanglements of Buddhist metaphysical philosophy. It doesn’t matter at all. If you live a life of kindness, generosity and compassion, that’s plenty enough. A little bit of daily practice will help further. Keep nibbling on these ideas and have faith in the power of your mind.

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