Working definition: The lack of inherent or intrinsic reality of phenomenon.
Caution: Not to be confused with nothingness or the lack of reality all together.
Reminder: Things do exist, however they do not exist inherently or intrinsically.
How then do things exist? Things exist in relation to causes and conditions (dependent co-arising) and as merely imputed labels and concepts of language designation.
Analogies: A reflection in a mirror, a mirage in the desert, a dream. All of these appear to us as truly real, when in fact they lack inherent existence.
The concept of inherent existence includes the notion that “things” have an essence or core that is substantial, independent, permanent, fixed and maintains itself from its own side beyond the perceiver.
Thought experiment: Take the chair you are sitting on and ask yourself if it exists? Most likely your initial reaction will be, of course this chair exists! The chair is stable and I am sitting in it! The chair is not a reflection, a mirage or a dream, its right here underneath me, I can touch it and perceive it! – Ok. You have now established the chair exists with certainty and conviction.
Now lets analyze and contemplate. If I were to remove the back of the chair, and hold it up to you asking, is this the chair? You would respond, no that is the back not the chair. And if I were to remove the seat from the chair leaving only the frame and ask, is this the chair? You would respond, no that is not the chair. And if I were to remove the screws from the frame and hold them in my hand, leaving the frame to collapse in pieces, and ask you are these screws the chair? You would respond, no that is not the chair. Finally, if I asked you if the pile of frame parts scattered on the floor were the chair, you would respond, no that is not a chair. So if the back, seat, screws and frame are all not the chair individually, than where did the chair, that you were so certain existed, go?
Lets rebuild the chair, uniting the frame with the screws and replacing the back and seat. Now the chair appears again, and your certainty returns. Ask yourself what’s missing in this picture? The missing element is the mind that perceives and labels the chair. There is a frame, screws, seat, and back over there and concept or designation “chair” coming from our perception over here. The chair over there is empty. It does not exist intrinsically or essentially from its own side. The chair exists as a co-arising of parts (frame, screws, seat and back) and as a mere label, concept or designation of language originating in our mind.
The thought experiment highlights how our mind’s constantly misperceives reality. To slow down the process, what occurs is: perception of an object => conceptual labeling => imputation of realness/reification of the object. This last part of the sequence, mistaking our concepts to be the object, is the heart of the problem.
The concept of Selflessness refutes the misperception that an intrinsically abiding, unchanging, fixed, permanent, essence or soul exists within a person. Upon examination of the five Life Systems (skandhas) of material form, sensations, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness, no such Self, I, or Me can be found. The self of selflessness is an open system of interdependence and change.
Selflessness is to the self, what Emptiness is to phenomenon.
Emptiness is a medicine. According to the Second Noble Truth, the root cause of suffering is misperception aka delusion (avidya). Because we mistake the appearance of phenomenon to be more real and substantial than it is, and because we mistake our imputed concepts for reality, this leads to desire, aversion, confusion and eventually to suffering. The mind has a habit of mistaking the self and phenomenon to be more real than they actually are. The projection of a greater ontological status on to an object is known as reification. Emptiness is a medicine for the subtle mental habit of reification. Emptiness is a tool of language and analysis, when intelligently applied, decreases the mental tendency to concretize things. Emptiness is a reminder that we should not confuse our imputed labels and concepts with the objects of our perceptions. While we must use labels and concepts to navigate the world, the automatic or unconscious assumptions we make about those labels and concepts, creates a massive distortion.
Emptiness is a tool. It is a tweezers that removes the thorn or reification from the mind. Emptiness is a doorstopper that keeps the door of our mind open to possibilities rather than succumbing to automatic and erroneous certainties. Emptiness is a set of glasses that corrects distorted vision, so that we can begin to see reality clearly beyond our misperception.
Do not reify Emptiness: Emptiness is a negation, not a thing in it self. Emptiness negates the essentialness, substantiality and certainty of things that we perceive. Emptiness exists only in relation to an object or phenomenon, whose essence is to be negated. The chair is empty, it lacks intrinsic reality. The chair exists conventionally, as an appearance or co-arising phenomenon and as a designation of language. But upon further analysis, no “chairness” actually exists. For this reason, Emptiness is also empty. To reify emptiness as a thing in and of itself, is said to be the greatest downfall of them all. This is why great caution is often taken when teaching about this concept, because the tendency of the mind to grasp and reify is so strong, it can easily misperceive the medicine, rendering it poison.
Emptiness and Ultimate Reality: Emptiness negates a view of ultimate reality that is static, fixed, independent or intrinsically real. Instead it proposes that reality is a flow of appearances, based on causes and conditions, mutually arising and fading in a constant dance, interrelated with all other things, completely free and open to change. The moment we solidify a perception of others and things as inherently fixed and real, thereby closing off their essential flow and connection, is the minute we create our own difficulty and suffering. This is the therapeutic use of language and perception that Mayahana Buddhism offers. It is the basis or womb of compassion.