Applying Emptiness When Stuck in Traffic

Voidness, or emptiness, means the total absence of impossible ways of existing. Nothing can exist established all by itself, by its own power, without relying on anything else. That’s impossible. When, with the understanding of voidness, we deconstruct the deceptive appearance as someone inherently existing as an idiot, for instance, we realize that being an idiot is totally dependent on the mental label and concept of an idiot. This understanding helps us not to get angry when someone is honking his horn wildly and trying to pass us on the road.


Buddha taught in terms of four noble truths. These are four facts that are seen as true by any highly realized being, any arya. These are, basically:

  1. We all face problems in life.
  2. These problems come from causes.
  3. It is possible to have a complete stopping of the problems such that they never return.
  4. Such a stopping is achieved by an understanding that eliminates the cause of the problems.

When we speak about the deepest cause of our problems, it comes down to what is usually translated as “ignorance.” In English, “unawareness” is much better. Ignorance implies that you are stupid, so it’s not a good word. It doesn’t mean that we’re stupid.

There are two different forms of unawareness. With one, we’re unaware of cause and effect in terms of our behavior, that if we act in a destructive way it will cause problems. On a deeper level, we’re talking about unawareness of reality. What happens is that we have the habit of imagining things to exist with inherent existence, which we can also translate as “self-established existence.” This is the habit of grasping for inherent existence. Due to this habit, then automatically, in every moment, our minds make things appear to inherently exist. What this means is that it appears as if there were something on the side of things that, by its own power, establishes them to exist as what they appear to be, without depending on anything else. Unaware that this way of existing does not correspond to anything real, we take things actually to exist in this way.

That’s not so easy to comprehend. Let’s illustrate what this is talking about with the following example. Suppose we’re driving our car and there’s someone in the other lane beeping the horn and trying to pass us. How does this person appear to us? This person appears to be an idiot who is trying to pass us. This person appears to inherently exist as an idiot; he appears to be established as an idiot from his own side, independently of anything. In other words, there is obviously something wrong with this person, making him truly an idiot who is trying to pass me and honking his horn. We hear the horn, see the person, and automatically think, “You idiot!” The person appears like that and we believe that this appearance corresponds to reality: this really is an idiot.

What Voidness (Emptiness) Is Nullifying

What is the conceptually implied object of this conceptual cognition of the existence of this person as an idiot? The conceptually implied object of the cognition is a person actually existing as an idiot; there actually is an inherent idiot in the car. That is what is implied by this appearance and by our taking it to mind in this way. For example, if I think there is somebody in the other room, the conceptually implied object would be somebody in the other room; it’s what the thought would correspond to in reality. “Conceptually implied object” is a very important technical term in Madhyamaka (Middle Way) studies.

In any conceptual cognition, many objects are involved. The word zhen in zhen-yul, the Tibetan term for a conceptually implied object, can be used as a verb, “to cling,” and as a noun, zhen-pa, it means “clinging,” as in the Sakya teaching of Parting from the Four Clingings.  It clings in the sense that it latches onto something in reality that corresponds to what appears in the conceptual cognition. Implicit, when there is grasping for self-established, inherent existence, is the assumption that the way something appears to exist actually does correspond to reality. In our example, we conceptualize that the person honking the horn in the other car exists inherently as an idiot. Because of that conceptualization, it appears to us as though there’s an idiot there, so we assume that there actually is an idiot there; we believe our projection. The conceptually implied object of this cognition and of this appearance is an actual idiot in the car over there.

Voidness (emptiness) is an absence; something is absent. What is totally absent in this case is the conceptually implied object. The appearance of an inherent true idiot does not correspond to reality. Although there is a person driving the car over there, he does not exist inherently as an idiot. No one can exist inherently as an idiot, because there is no such thing as inherent existence as an idiot. So, there’s no inherent idiot in the car over there. That’s the general idea. We will have to refine it, however, because that’s not so precise.

Let’s use a simpler, though less precise example. Suppose a child thinks that there’s a monster under the bed. The conceptually implied object would be an actual monster under the bed. The fear that this child has does not refer to anything real. So, what we’re talking about with voidness is the absolute absence of something quite specific. It’s the absence of something that doesn’t exist at all. It’s totally impossible.

With voidness, however, we’re not talking about the absence of an object that’s impossible, like a monster. We’re talking about a way of existing that’s impossible. For instance, there may be a cat under the bed that the child thinks is a monster, but the cat doesn’t exist as a monster, because there is no such thing as “existence as a monster.” Voidness, here, does not refute the existence of the cat, it refutes the existence of the cat as a monster.

Establishing a Label as Valid

Let’s look again at our example of the idiot. Conventionally, this person may in fact be driving like an idiot, but how is it that we can validly label him with our concept of “an idiot” and call him one? The Indian master Chandrakirti gave three criteria for a valid label.

First, there needs to be an established and accepted convention that agrees with the labeling. In Germany, there are certain rules of driving etiquette and it is not considered proper to drive with your hand on the horn as you constantly try to pass everybody. Someone who does that can be considered an idiot. This is relative. In India, this would be normal driving. I once came to Europe with an Indian friend on the first trip he had made to the West and what shocked him most was that people drove without honking the horn! Because in the West we have the convention that a person who drives like that is an idiot, it is correct to call this person an idiot from that point of view.

The second criteria is that this needs not to be contradicted by a mind that validly cognizes superficial or conventional truth. Objectively speaking, is the person driving like an idiot or not? Do I have my glasses on correctly? Do I have my hearing aid in correctly? Am I really seeing and hearing correctly? Everybody else around also sees that this person is trying to pass everyone and is beeping the horn, so it is not contradicted by others’ valid seeing of this conventional aspect either.

The third criterion is that this labeling not be contradicted by a mind that validly sees the deepest truth. This is referring to a mind that validly sees how it is that this person exists as an idiot. How is it that he is an idiot? Is he just conventionally an idiot, dependent on where and how he is driving, or is it that we merely are projecting that this person inherently exists as an idiot? If we think this person really, inherently, is an idiot, that would be contradicted by a mind that sees how things actually exist. This person is conventionally driving like an idiot. That is accurate, that is a valid convention, a valid label, and a valid superficial truth. What happens is that we inflate how he exists as an idiot. He exists as an idiot merely dependently on many things – specifically on mental labeling, which we will discuss shortly.

We inflate the superficial appearance and project onto it something that is not there: a way of existing that is not there. We don’t do that consciously, it is unconscious. It just automatically happens because of our habit of seeing things in this way. The inflation is that he inherently exists as an idiot. That mode of inherent existence as an idiot is not referring to anything real. Again, we are talking about the absence of an impossible way of existing, not the absence of an impossible object.

The Difference between “Innate” and “Inherent”

Let’s look a little closer at what we mean by inherent existence and by mental labeling. We need to understand the difference between innate and inherent.

We have many innate qualities. For example, our mental continuums innately have body, speech, and mind, understanding, emotions, and so on as part of the package of being sentient beings. We have Buddha-nature and all the aspects of Buddha-nature. The technical term for “innate,” lhan-skyes in Tibetan and sahaja in Sanskrit, is sometimes translated as “simultaneously arising.” It means that these things are part of the package and they arise simultaneously with each moment of mind. In each moment of experience, we have body, speech, and mind – whether we are awake or asleep. We may not be talking when we’re sleeping, but there is the ability to communicate. For example, others can look at us and see that we are sleeping. Even if we don’t snore when we sleep, the breathing has a certain regularity and slowness that communicates that we’re asleep. That is an example of how we communicate all the time. Although this quality is often translated as “speech,” it is not to be limited to verbal speech alone. These are innate factors.

“Inherent” (Tib. rang-bzhin) is something very different. Something inherent, if it existed, would be innate, in a sense, but, by its own power, it would make something exist and make it exist as what it appears to be. It is sometimes spoken of as some characteristic feature or defining feature inside the object that makes it what it is. With this idiot, it would be something really wrong with him, which is findable inside him, permanently there, and which, by its own power, makes him an idiot. Often we think like that: “This terrible person next door who plays music all the time...” or “This wonderful person whom I just saw...” as if there were something inherently inside the person all the time that makes him or her exist this way. I am using examples that are emotionally charged, but this is the case with everything. There seems to be something inherent about you that makes you inherently human.

This thing inside the driver making him inherently exist as an idiot makes him exist that way independently of anything else, just by its own power. It seems as though if we really examine we will be able to find it and point at it. Of course, when we examine and dissect, we cannot find anything on the side of the object that is making it what it is. If you start to analyze this person in the car, you get a whole lot of atoms and energy fields and you don’t find anything solid that you can point to that is making him an idiot. If we analyze the actions of this person in terms of microseconds of movement, there is the motion of moving the finger one millimeter this way and then the next millimeter this way and the next that way, and so what is making the person an idiot? You cannot point to any microsecond of behavior that is making him the idiot, can you? In this way, you cannot find anything on the side of the object that is sitting there by its own power making this person exist as an idiot – even though he appears like an idiot.

Conventionally, he is acting like an idiot. We need to be careful here not to deny the accuracy of the superficial appearance and the accuracy of the way that he is acting conventionally. He is acting like an idiot; that’s correct. The problem is how he appears to exist as an idiot. He’s acting like an idiot based on other factors; it’s dependent on things other than himself. It’s not that this person is acting like an idiot by the power of something inside him. This person is acting like an idiot based on parts (his hand is moving in a certain way, and so on) and dependently on causes (he is in traffic and is in a hurry). If he were inherently an idiot, he would have to be the idiot when he’s not driving and even when he’s sleeping. He’s acting like an idiot dependently on the circumstance that he’s in. There can also be all sorts of cultural, psychological, and personal factors causing him to drive like an idiot. It’s dependent on all of these that this person drives like an idiot.

Mental Labeling

Also, even more basically, we can say that the cognition of the person as driving like an idiot is dependent on the concept “idiot.” If there were no such concept, we could not say that this person is driving like an idiot, could we? That gets us into the realm of mental labeling.

Mental labeling can be quite confusing. When we call this person an idiot, it doesn’t make him an idiot, does it? We’re not talking about little children shouting at each other, “You’re an idiot!” Labels and names do not have the power to make a thing into what we call it. A lot of people think that mental labeling means that we create things by words and concepts. That is certainly not what mental labeling means in Buddhism.

Think about it. Whether or not we label this person an idiot, and whether or not we think “idiot,” and whether or not anyone else is even on the road to see this person driving, is he still driving like an idiot? If he’s alone on the road and nobody is calling him an idiot, is he still driving like one?

Well, you’d have to say that it’s different for a group of people that has the concept of idiot and for another group that doesn’t have that concept. So it depends on the group and its conceptual framework. All you could say is that this person is driving like an idiot according to a certain convention, but he is not absolutely, inherently, driving like an idiot. It depends on laws and customs, regardless of whether anyone sees him or not. If we say it’s absolutely independent of anything else and just from the side of the way the person is driving, that’s impossible. These are the points that people get most confused about in terms of mental labeling.

You may then wonder, “Can we objectively say at all how this person drives?” This is a perfect question to analyze. That’s the problem, this grasping for what is really happening. Is he really driving like an idiot or not? When we get into this realm of what is he really, we are in the realm of inherent existence. This person is driving like an idiot dependently on the concept “idiot,” Western customs, and so on. The inflation is that he really is an idiot. That’s self-established inherent existence; that is what is impossible.

I think this starts to indicate how deeply rooted this confusion is because most of us, in fact, want to know how things really are and think that there is a way in which they really exist, don’t we? We say, “This really is a wonderful house,” or “We really had a great time this evening,” as if there were something inherent there and everybody should see it in the same way. Because we’re so accustomed to this, everything automatically appears that way and we think of it in that way. This is called “deceptive appearance-making,” sometimes called “appearances of duality.” Here “duality” means that it is discordant, not the same as what is in fact the case. The way it appears is out of harmony with the way it actually exists. This is what “dual appearances” means in the Gelug-Prasangika usage of the term.

The thing is that this person is driving like an idiot. That is conventionally accurate. We can have a crazy opinion that no one will agree with, or one with which other people will agree. Here in Germany other people would agree that this person is driving like an idiot, but that doesn’t make him a real idiot. We can have the opinion that a dog is driving, but nobody will agree. There are wild opinions and there are valid opinions.

The point is that there are valid cognitions to know conventionally what things are. That’s very important. The various schools of Tibetan Buddhism have their own unique explanations of this difference. The Gelug system speaks in terms of accurate and inaccurate superficial truths. An inaccurate superficial truth about something does not correspond to what it conventionally is. There is a big difference between what something conventionally is and how something exists as what it is.

Valid Labeling in the Gelug Discussion of Svatantrika and Prasangika

How do we know an opinion is valid? We use Chandrakirti’s three criteria for valid labeling. Here the difference appears between Svatantrika-Madhyamaka and Prasangika-Madhyamaka as Gelug explains it. Kagyu explains the two schools slightly differently. The main point of Madhyamaka is that everything exists dependently on mental labeling. That does not mean that mental labeling creates them. The Madhyamaka presentation of mental labeling is a refinement of what the less sophisticated schools of Indian Buddhist tenets, such as Chittamatra, explain concerning the relationship between the mind and objects. One of the main points of studying the schools of tenets in the proper order is to understand on a progressively more sophisticated level the relationship between the mind and objects.

The example used in the texts is labeling someone “a king.” Someone exists as a king depending on the concept and word “king.” If there were no social custom of kings, obviously, nobody could be a king. The question is: what makes a label valid? Svatantrika says that things have some findable defining inherent characteristic on their own sides that allows us to label the things correctly, as what they are. There must be something inside the king making him royal so that he can correctly be labeled “king.” If there were not, we could label a dog or a sweeper “king” and that would make them kings. We can see there is some political thought behind this. Actually, that’s no joke. This philosophy did develop in India where thinking in terms of caste is very important, so there must be something inherent in someone making him or her a member of the royal caste. That is Svatantrika.

Prasangika says no, there is nothing findable on the side of the person that makes him the king. Of course, conventionally, there are defining characteristics. Somebody who rules a country in the system of royalty is a king. There is a defining characteristic of what a king is. If nothing had a definition, it would be impossible for things to function – but they are only conventional. It is not that defining characteristics actually exist as something findable inside the object, by their own power making a person royal, for example.

How do we know the label is valid? Again we come back to Chandrakirti’s three criteria. Since these are so important to understand, let’s illustrate them again with another example. First, there is an established, agreed-upon convention. We come home and look at our partner. For ease of discussion, let’s say that our partner is a woman. She has a certain look on her face: her brow is wrinkled, her mouth is turned down, and it appears to us that she is upset and angry. There needs to be an established convention. That’s the first criterion. There is the convention that human beings, particularly from Western cultures, wrinkle their brow and have their mouths turned down when they’re upset. Dogs growl, but humans express being upset in this way. Our partner is following the convention of what human beings do when they’re angry. That is one way of validating the appearance. We can also compare it with previous occasions when she was upset to check if her expression conforms to her conventional pattern.

The second criterion is that it is not contradicted by a mind that validly sees superficial truths. We put on our glasses, turn on the light and make sure that we see the expression correctly. It was not that it was dark, we didn’t see correctly, or we didn’t have our glasses on. This criterion refers to something very practical and down to earth.

Although it is not mentioned explicitly in the texts, we can check other criteria in connection with this second point, such as the ability for something to produce an effect. For example, when we said “hello,” she didn’t say anything back to us. This is further evidence that the appearance that she is upset is accurate. Her other behavior corroborated that she was upset, because when she is upset and angry, she normally doesn’t say hello. In other words, anger has produced its usual effect. We may also ask her if she’s upset, if we really want to check.

If we leave it at that and just say, “Well, she’s upset and angry because probably something unpleasant happened today, it’s dependent on many factors,” then our cognition is perfectly valid. It would not be contradicted by a mind that validly sees the deepest level, how things exist, how it is that our partner exists as being angry.

If it appears to us that our partner is not just angry for this or that reason, but rather we think, “Oh my God, she’s angry again. She is an angry person, always upset about this or that. I can’t deal with it!” that’s contradicted by a mind that validly sees the deepest truth. No one exists inherently like that.

It is by this means that we validate the labeling of the person as being upset and angry without there needing to be something inherent on the side of the person that makes her exist as angry. When we talk about voidness, we’re talking about when we think she’s a terrible person. Voidness is an absolute absence of that way of existing: an absolute absence of there being something really wrong with this person that makes her a real pain to live with. When we believe that she really exists in that way, we react in a disturbing manner. We’re upset with her and impatient.

You might ask, “Doesn’t our dealing wisely and calmly with the situation also depend on knowing why our partner is angry?” Well, even if we don’t understand why she’s angry, we try to understand that it must be dependent on reasons and causes; it is not that she is inherently always angry. This allows us to see that perhaps somehow the situation can be changed. However, it is accurate to say, “My partner is angry and upset.” This is very important. If we do not acknowledge that our partner is upset conventionally, what basis do we have for compassion and for helping her? Everything falls apart in our relating to her beneficially and we fall to the extreme of nihilism.

This emphasis on recognizing what is an accurate superficial truth allows for the very close connection between the understanding of voidness and compassion. Without that, we don’t take others so seriously and that undermines really getting involved with others’ problems and helping them. It is quite subtle, but I think this is very important.

Dependent Arising and Karma

If you understand dependent arising, you must not neglect the fact that positive and negative actions are in fact positive and negative. That’s very true. When we talk about relativity, we do not reduce things to the point where anything could be anything. Killing is destructive, no matter what the motivation is. Even if we kill out of very strong compassion, like Buddha killing the oarsman who was going to kill the 499 merchants on a boat, it is still the destructive action of killing. It ripened into an experience of suffering: Buddha got a thorn in his foot. The suffering, the negative consequences, were very minor because of the strong compassionate motivation, but still it was a destructive action and still the laws of karma hold: a destructive action leads to suffering. The strength of the negative action is relative, but it is not totally relative – a destructive action cannot become a constructive one. Buddhism agrees that there is order in the universe.

Conventionally, killing is a destructive action. But what is it that makes it destructive? What we could say is that there is nothing findable in the act of killing that by its own power makes it a destructive action. It depends on there being someone who does the killing, someone who is killed, and a mental continuum that is influenced by that and will experience suffering as a result. The negative karmic force from the act continues as part of the perpetrator’s mental continuum, so that the person who committed the killing experiences suffering as a result. We can’t just speak in terms of something being “destructive,” independently of cause and effect. It is not just destructive up in the sky. Destructive means a certain action that ripens in the experience of suffering for the perpetrator.

What makes the act of killing destructive, then? The act is destructive dependent on factors other than itself – in this case, the karmic effect of the action. It is not that the act is inherently destructive, from its own side, made that way by something findable within it.

Let’s use another example that brings the point down to more day-to-day situations. Our dog has an accident on the kitchen floor and we get angry and shout, “Bad dog! You messed the floor! You did this bad thing!” as if that act by itself, independently of anything else, exists as bad. In this example, it’s easier to think of the “man-made” result of the act, rather than of the karmic effect that the dog will experience. Please note there’s a difference between a karmic effect and a man-made effect. The man-made, or in this case the dog-made effect of the action is that it made a mess and we have to clean it up. Based on that criterion, what the dog did on the floor was not nice.

Dependent Arising and Choices

In light of this discussion of valid labeling and opinion, what can we recommend for making correct decisions? There are so many different factors involved in making any decision. It’s not simply a matter of correctly labeling one or another alternative as the answer or the solution to a dilemma. In order to determine what is conventionally the most appropriate decision, we need, for example, to try to take into account as many factors as possible that will influence the outcome. Whatever happens is not just caused by one thing. It’s important not to over-inflate our actions and the importance of our decisions about what to do. If we say something, for example, and someone gets upset, there were many other factors making the person upset, not just what we said.

It’s quite easy to say, “As long as we have good intentions, whatever we decide to do is okay,” but there is an expression in English: “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” Moreover, we have many intentions and motivations behind each of the alternative courses of action we might choose, not just one, so it’s very complex.

Some people say, “Act spontaneously,” but spontaneously often means neurotically. If our baby is crying and the first thing that comes to our mind is to slap it, we would not say that was the best decision just because it was spontaneous. We need to try to consider as many different things as possible in making a decision, especially decisions such as whether to end a relationship or whether to change jobs. We need to clarify what I feel like doing, what I want to do, what I need to do, and what my intuition says. The four may be different.

For example, I need to go on a diet, I want to stick to my diet, but I feel like having a piece of cake. My intuition tells me I will feel guilty afterwards. We need to analyze these four aspects of the decision, as well as the reasons for each. Maybe we feel like eating because of greed for cake. Why do we want to lose weight? Is it for health reasons, out of vanity, or to be more attractive to find a mate? We also need to weigh the consequences of what we do and then, in a sense, weigh all the different factors and see which are valid and which are invalid. For example, “I don’t want to eat now, I do not feel like eating, but if I don’t eat now I won’t have a chance to eat for the rest of the day. So, I had better eat something now.”

In this way, we try to make decisions, being as sensitive as possible to all the different factors. This is particularly important in making difficult decisions. With decisions like should I wear a black or a blue shirt, or what should I choose from the menu at the restaurant – just choose something, it doesn’t matter. We do not want to analyze too much. Making decisions is not easy.

It is quite interesting that one of the six root disturbing emotions and attitudes is indecisive wavering, not being able to make up our mind. To overcome this debilitating state of mind, we can turn to the detailed Dharma analysis of the factors that cause us to feel like doing something or to want to do something. The teachings on karma and the workings of the mind can explain the arising of these factors in a very complicated and sophisticated way. Within that, we can analyze which factors the various schools of Tibetan Buddhism say are valid and invalid.

So how can we know that we have made the right decision? Unless we’re Buddhas, we can never know if we have made the right decision. We don’t know the consequences of our actions. Also, we need to be open to possible changes that can occur, especially in decisions about ending a relationship. That is a tough one. After weighing as many factors as possible, we need to enter a discussion with the other person and see how it develops.

In our discussion of voidness here, voidness in this context would be the absence of there being something inherent in the situation that would make a decision the right one, from its own side. It does not exist like that; it’s dependent on many different things. It is not that one thing we decide or say, by its own power, is going to bring about the effect of what happens. What happens arises from a million different causes, not just from what we do.

It may seem as though something we did messed something up so we’re guilty, as if our act inherently existed and by its own power messed things up. That’s how it seems to us and we believe it, so we feel guilty. Conventionally, we may have contributed to the mess, but certainly, what we did, by its own power, independently of everything else, did not create the mess. There were many causes. As Buddha said, a bucket is not filled by the first, nor the last drop of water; it is filled by the collection of all the drops. There are thousands and thousands of factors that bring about an effect and that are responsible for what happens.

Responsibility and Guilt

For example, I spilled the glass of water and made a mess on the floor. That mess is not only because I knocked the glass over, but because of the person who put the glass on the edge of the table, the person who built the table, the fact that it is at this height and that the light was like this so I didn’t see it – a million factors were involved.

Now surely we couldn’t say that the person who built the table or who put the glass on the edge was responsible for the mess. We’re responsible, nevertheless we’re not guilty. I spilled the glass but that doesn’t make me a clumsy idiot – inherently – so that you cannot take me anywhere because I will spill things. People take such things as their identity: “I’m clumsy” or “I cannot possibly change the light bulb without breaking it, so help me.” These are very common thoughts. We all have them. We are not talking about some sophisticated philosophical stuff; we are talking about everyday life.

“Guilt,” then, means there is something inherently in us that makes us a bad person and what we did was inherently bad. We did something, we identify what we did as inherently bad and ourselves as inherently bad persons, and then we hold on to the identifications and don’t let go. With an understanding of voidness, we understand that nothing and no one can exist as inherently “bad,” established independently from their own sides. When we understand this deeply, we no longer feel guilty, but if we understand voidness correctly, we also understand that we are responsible for our actions.


With the understanding of voidness, we realize that even though the guy driving next to us, honking his horn and trying to pass, appears to us like an actual idiot, we don’t really believe that this corresponds to reality. We see how things arise as “this” or “that” dependently on the concept and word “idiot,” for instance, and on many factors. With this understanding, we do not lose our patience and get angry with the person. He may conventionally be driving like an idiot from the viewpoint of German conventions, but that does not made him guilty of being an inherently bad person.