Emptiness and Impermanence Notes

At 11amSLT I’m hosting a discussion on Emptiness and Impermanence at Sedona’s Playground. Come join us!


Emptiness and Impermanence

This idea of things being empty and impermanent is a very well known Buddhist thought. The basic idea is that everything is ever-changing, and therefore empty. It is considered common knowledge that the Diamond Sutra, one of the main Buddhist texts, deals with impermanence. But, some say this is a misperception. One of the main issues with any Buddhist texts is the fact that they are translated for those of us who don’t speak Sanskrit, Pali, or any of the other ancient languages they were written in (which is most of us). Because of these translations, we have to be careful about the way we interpret the words. We take emptiness and impermanence as meaning that Buddhists don’t believe anything actually exists. But this may not be the case.

Emptiness really means ’empty of inherent existence’. (Sean Robsville) “The teachings on emptiness are concerned with HOW things exist, not IF and WHETHER things exist (UFO’s Unicorns and Yetis) or WHY things exist (because God, The Devil or the Spaghetti Monster made them). … We don’t normally say that an explosion exists or existed (though there’s no logical reason not to say so). And we don’t normally say that the universe occurs. Yet an explosion and the expanding universe are similar entities, just operating on different timescales.” So, it seems that the way we use the terms “exist,” “existence,” and “existed,” are all relative to our notion of time. “So to say that something exists is ultimately an arbitrary statement. All we are saying is that its rate of disintegration is negligible on the timescale of our lifetime. In reality, all functioning phenomena are impermanent – it’s just that some are more impermanent than others.”

Let’s look at an example. Oftentimes you’ll hear people refer to the senses as our way of experiencing the world. What if you take a closer look at your senses? Your ears hear because of the many parts that make them up. But what if you took that ear apart and separated the many pieces? You would no longer be able to hear. Same with your eyes – they only work because of the various parts and the fact that the brain has a way to communicate with these parts. But we see how easy that can break down if one piece of this sense organ doesn’t work, or deteriorates over time. So, everything we experience is based on these very delicate organs, that themselves are reliant on time and consequence.

The Buddha points to a chariot and says, “Where is the essence of the chariot?” Is it in the wheels? The seat? The axle? The cart? No – none of these contain any “essence” of the chariot. And if each of these is broken down into their smaller parts, there is no essence within them either. The chariot, as a whole, is simply a particular arrangement of parts, each of which themselves are also a particular arrangement of smaller parts. The chariot is a thing that exists interdependently

The Buddha teaches that we want things to be permanent, because we love them or desire them to be ours forever. This creates suffering. The whole idea of Buddhism is to recognize that suffering is constant in the world, but to try to leave it behind. So the teachings of emptiness and impermanence seem not to be saying that nothing exists, but that nothing exists permanently, or eternally.

The Sanskrit term for emptiness, “sunyata,” is translated to english as: “Buddhist concept denying the existence of lonely properties, in other words those intrinsic properties of a thing that could survive it having no relations with other things, or being the only thing in its universe.” –http://www.answers.com/topic/sunyata#ixzz2E0zEBrRO

So you can see that the translation to “emptiness” is a lacking one. We just don’t have a better word for it. “Sunyata” could also be taken as meaning that nothing has an independent origin – that “the present state of all things is the result of a previous state.” (http://buddhismteacher.com/emptiness.php)

The idea that we see here is that nothing has a permanent essence that allows it to stay constant or exactly how it is forever. Even the universe is in a constant flux – growing, expanding, collapsing. There is nothing we’ve come to know that is permanent, and therefore nothing that has an essence that is eternal.

But Buddha isn’t the only one who has touched on this idea of emptiness and impermanence. Plato also developed a theory, which we call Plato’s Theory of Forms, which actually looks at the other end of the spectrum. In this theory he states that Forms are properties or essences of things that are eternal and changeless. Some examples of this would be beauty, car, notebook, lamp, love, hate, chariot, etc. In other words, Plato is saying that everything is referred by using a general notion(s) or idea(s) that are eternal and changeless. For instance, if I was to say, “Look at this beautiful table.” You know automatically, without further explanation, that I think the table (the object with four legs that acts as a hard surface, usually for eating on) has exceptional qualities that I find attractive. Of course, all this depends on the fact that we speak the same language.

To expand on this, imagine all the tables you’ve ever seen. No matter if they have two legs and are supported by a wall, or three legs and are triangular in shape, or four legs and tall, they are all tables. So the “idea” of table stays the same, regardless of which table you’re speaking of. A box is a box is a box, until you take away the sides and it’s a tray. A human is a human unless you look closer and see two arms, two legs, a torso and a head (which can then break down into smaller, more descriptive characteristics that determine WHO or WHAT a human actually is). So these Forms are in themselves not necessarily ideas, or mental objects, but an essence that is “changeless”.

“Time is the substance I am made of. Time is a river which sweeps me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger that devours me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire that consumes me, but I am the fire.” – Jorge Luis Borges

There are a few questions this makes us have to ask. The main question is: where is an objects separate, independent, defining and lasting essence? Can one say that a Form is completely changeless and eternal, or does the Form change as society grasps at better understandings of what things are? And, if things are empty and impermanent, what effect does that have on our consciousness or way of thinking (i.e. happiness, fear of death, our notion of souls, God(s), etc.)?

I open the floor.

Some links for further reading:


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