What Is Emptiness?

Emptiness, or voidness, is not “nothingness.” It does not mean that nothing exists and so just forget all your problems, because they don't exist. Voidness means a total absence, an absence of impossible ways of existing. Our projected fantasies about how everything exists do not correspond to reality. Nothing on the side of things, including our problems, makes them a problem, by its own power. Conventionally, they may be a problem that needs to be taken care of, but we can only account for them being a problem in terms of the concept and word “problem” as defined by convention.

Voidness (Skt. shunyata), more commonly known as “emptiness” in English, is one of the main insights of Buddha. Buddha realized that the deepest source of everyone’s problems in life is their confusion about how they, others and everything exists. Their minds project impossible ways of existing onto everything. Unaware that what they project does not correspond to reality, people create problems and sufferings for themselves out of ignorance. For example, if we project on ourselves that we are losers and no matter what we do, we will never succeed in life, then not only do we become depressed with low self-esteem, but lacking self-confidence, we might even give up trying to improve our lot. We resign ourselves to a lowly position in life.

Voidness means a total absence, an absence of an actual way of existing that corresponds to what we instinctively project. We compulsively project them because of our ingrained habit of believing that the fantasies of our imagination are reality. “Loser,” for example, is just a word and a concept. When we label ourselves with the concept of “a loser” and designate ourselves with the word or name “loser,” we need to realize that these are just conventions. It might be accurate that we failed many times in our lives, or maybe we didn’t actually fail, but out of perfectionism we feel that we’re failures because we aren’t good enough. In either case, a lot more has happened in our lives besides our successes and failures. But, by labeling ourselves as a loser, we mentally put ourselves in a box called “losers” and believe that we truly exist as someone in this box. In fact, we imagine that there is something inherently wrong or bad about us that definitely establishes us as being in this box. It establishes us as being in this box by its own power, independently of anything else we’ve done in our lives or what anyone else thinks.

This way of existing as someone stuck in the box of losers and deserving to be there is a total fantasy. It doesn’t correspond to anything real. No one exists stuck in a box. Our existence as a loser has arisen dependently on merely a concept and name that we’ve applied to ourselves. The concept of “a loser” and the word “loser” are merely conventions. They may appropriately apply to someone, for instance when they lose at a game of cards, and in that situation, conventionally they are the loser. But no one exists inherently as a loser, for whom it’s impossible ever to win because they’re truly a loser.

When we realize the voidness of our truly existing as a loser, we understand that there is no such thing as this way of existing. It doesn't correspond to reality. Our feeling that we are truly a loser can only be accounted for by the concept and word “loser” that we've applied to ourselves because perhaps sometimes we’ve failed at something. But there is nothing inherently wrong with us that by its own power makes us permanently a loser and nothing else. Voidness, then, is the total absence of this impossible way of existing. In the past, present and future, no one could possibly exist in that way.

It takes great familiarity with voidness before we are able to deconstruct our fantasies and stop believing in them. But if we persevere in meditating on voidness, then gradually when, out of habit, we label ourselves as a loser, we will realize this is nonsense and dispel our fantasy. Eventually, we can even break this habit and never again think of ourselves as a loser.

Summary

Just because nothing exists in impossible ways does not mean that nothing exists. Voidness refutes merely impossible ways of existing, such as self-established inherent existence. It does not refute the existence of things as “this” or “that” in accordance with the conventions of words and concepts.