January 22, 2010

Self is Emptiness

I am empty. Well, I could use a cookie anyway, and maybe a mug of hot cocoa, but that’s not what I meant. In Buddhism, the principle of emptiness is a way of understanding the interconnected nature of all things. Wikipedia describes emptiness, under its Sanskrit name ‘sunyata’ (‘sunnata’ in Pali). as “a characteristic of phenomena arising from the fact that the impermanent nature of form means that nothing possesses essential, enduring identity.” In other words, all thinks are subject to cause and condition, aka ‘karma,’ and as a result all things change.

To say that “I am empty” is to say that I am subject to cause and condition, I change, and I have no fixed identity. This is also called non-self, or ‘anatta’ or ‘anatman’ (Pali and Sanskrit respectively). Thus, “the agglomeration of constantly changing physical and mental constituents comprising a human being is thoroughly analyzed and stated not to comprise an eternal, unchanging self.”

In essence, emptiness and non-self are the same thing, but often we emphasize non-self because it talks about our favorite subject – our self – whereas emptiness talks about phenomenon in general. Even as we intellectually recognize that no such permanent self exists, we still don’t like to be grouped into “phenomenon in general.” So while the teaching on emptiness is complete and should suffice for understanding the nature of existence, we needed a second concept in reference to human beings.

Isn’t that interesting?