Emptiness, Illusoriness and the Middle View

National Headquarters  |  July 5, 2019
Photo Credit: Peter Lin

“Form is emptiness; emptiness also is form. Emptiness is no other than form; form is no other than emptiness. In the same way, feeling, perception, formation, and consciousness are emptiness.”

Heart Sutra

The view of “emptiness” (Sanskrit: śūnyatā) is at the core of Buddhism. The Sanskrit term is composed of the word śūnya, plus -tā (“ness”); śūnya meaning “zero,” “nothing,” “empty” or “void,”  its root being śvi, or “hollow.” The principle of sunyata posits that all phenomena, including the “self,” are empty of “own-being” (Sanskrit: svabhāva), or an intrinsic essence or nature.

The Buddha taught that there are five aggregates (Sanskrit: skandhas) that collectively constitute a human individual:

  • Form (Sanskrit: rūpa)
  • Sensations (Sanskrit: vedanā)
  • Perceptions (Sanskrit: saṃjñā)
  • Mental formations (Sanskrit: saṃskāra)
  • Consciousness (Sanskrit: vijñāna)

While their nature is essentially “empty,” due to our ignorance and inability to realize the ultimate truth of “non-existence of self” (Sanskrit: anātman), these bodily and mental factors are subject to grasping and craving, and lead to suffering (as taught in the Four Noble Truths).

Emptiness encompasses the process of Dependent Origination (Sanskrit: pratītyasamutpāda), namely that all phenomena arise interdependently based on a convergence of causes and conditions.

“When this is, that is. This arising, that arises. When this is not, that is not. This ceasing, that ceases.”

The Buddha

Dharma Master Cheng Yen provides an example that can help us understand this:

Take a big tree. A thick-trunked tree comes from a small seed. If there is a seed but not the right conditions, if a seed is placed on a desk for one year, three years, ten years, this seed will always remain a seed. A seed requires the conditions of soil, air and water to converge with this seed. When this cause converges with conditions, it will grow into a thick-trunked tree. If we separate all these conditions, we realize, “All phenomena arise interdependently, with no nature; thus their essence is empty.”

Master Cheng Yen points out that in addition to the “view of emptiness,” we should equally contemplate another – the “view of illusoriness.”

All conditioned phenomena are like a dream, an illusion, a bubble, a shadow; like dew or a flash of lightning; thus we shall perceive them.

Diamond Sutra

Buddhist scriptures indicate that all phenomena are like an illusion (Sanskrit: māyā – the term combining “not” and  “this”). Metaphors for form include a ball of snow, heap of dirt, water bubble, thunder cloud, or lump of foam on a wave. Everything we perceive by the senses appears due to delusion, yet is void, hollow and without core, as in a mirage, reflection, echo, dream or magic show. Given today’s context, perhaps hologram could be added to the list of similes.

As we reflect upon the conventional reality we can observe right now versus the absolute truth we haven’t yet realized, the teachings lead us to adopt “the middle view:” To contemplate all phenomena as “neither empty nor illusory and both empty and illusory, with the true principle of the Middle Way.”

We can say things are illusory and unreal, but living in this world, we must make use of the illusory in order to achieve the “true.” How do we survive in this world? Of course, we need to have certain necessities. Every day we have to eat and absorb the nutrients which make our body healthy so we’re able to do things. We need the materials [that clothes are made of] but when we [analyze] these materials, ultimately they are illusory. We depend on many illusory material things … [and] the environment we live in. Although these things are illusory, we can use them to cultivate the “true.”

The “true” is that of “True Suchness” (Sanskrit: tathatā), denoting the essential nature of “reality” which is ineffable. The Sanskrit word tathatā is the root of Tathāgata, a term that the Buddha used to refer to himself, which can be translated as  “one who has thus come” or “one who has thus gone.” The “true” can be said to refer to Buddha Nature:

“There is wondrous existence in emptiness and true emptiness in wondrous existence.” There is wondrous existence in the world because we all intrinsically have Buddha Nature, because the principles are everlasting. The “view of emptiness” and “view of illusoriness” are part of the process of spiritual cultivation. The most important is the “middle view.” By harmonizing the Three Views, we understand that everything is neither illusory nor real and both illusory and real. So, we “contemplate the principles of the ultimate reality of all phenomena.” There is “wondrous existence in true emptiness.” This true principle can instantly break through ignorance and afflictions. By eliminating all afflictions, we achieve “all-encompassing wisdom.” This is returning to our intrinsic Buddha Nature, our nature of “True Suchness.”

The sections in italics are edited excerpts of translated transcriptions of teachings on the Lotus Sutra that Dharma Master Cheng Yen
gave on June 1, 2015 and February 10, 2016.

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