I. Emptiness on the Intellectual Level
Technically, emptiness means that all dharmas have no independent existence of their own, apart from reliance on other dharmas. All dharmas have no real, individual essences that distinguish them from all other dharmas. In other words, everything in the world, both physical and mental, is interdependent with everything else in the world. The temporary existence of each is dependent on its relations with what is not it. There is no such thing as something existing entirely on its own, separate, and with no causal relation with anything else. That is, all dharmas are empty of individual inherent being, also called 'own-being', 'intrinsic nature', or 'self-nature' (Skt. , Ch. ).
The Bodhisattva Nagarjuna logically showed that all dharmas are empty in the following way:
"The own-being [of a dharma] () is a self contradictory notion, so Nagarjuna has little trouble demolishing any proposition whose terms are held to have . If it is real, it must exist. If it exists, it must be subject to change . . . .
"The following abstract pattern expresses Nagarjuna's standard strategy of refutation: You say that C relates A and B. A and B must be either completely identical or completely different. If they are completely identical, C cannot obtain, because two things that are completely different have no common ground and so cannot be related. Therefore, it is false that C obtains between A and B.
"The insistence that A and B must be completely identical or different rather than partly identical follows from the definition of as not dependent on another. Qualifications such as 'some' and 'partly' are excluded because the discussion is concerned not with common sense assertions such as 'some fuel is burning and some is not', but with concepts of own-being and essence. What pertains to part of an essence must pertain to the whole essence. A defining property is either essential or non-essential. If it is non-essential then it is not really a defining property of an essence. If it is essential, then the essence can never be devoid of the property." (Robinson, R.H., "Classical Indian Philosophy", 75-76; rpt. IN Elder, Joseph W., ).
Intellectually, we can also try to understand emptiness by the negative method-by understanding what it is not. Of the Five Types of Emptiness, it is only the fifth, true emptiness, which is the enlightened emptiness proclaimed by the Mahayana teachings:
"1) This kind of emptiness lacks any knowing consciousness; it has no awareness. This emptiness, the ordinary emptiness known to most people, is called insensate emptiness because it consists merely of the emptiness we can see with our eyes, and it lacks its own awareness. It is the false, insensate emptiness that people see in places where there is nothing at all. That lack of anything in a place is not the true emptiness.
"2) This is emptiness as it has been understood by those of certain external paths, none of whom understand the principle of true emptiness. They say that when people die they cease to exist, that is, they are annihilated. And so their version of emptiness is called the emptiness of annihilation.
"3) This emptiness is a contemplation cultivated by those of the Small Vehicle. They analyze form as form, mind as mind, and sort them into their constituent dharmas without realizing that they are all empty. They only go so far as to say that because a perceptible characteristic can be analyzed as one of the form-dharmas, that because feeling, cognition, formations, and consciousness can be analyzed in terms of various mind-dharmas, they are empty. As a consequence, those of the two vehicles are not certified as ones who have realized the wonderful meaning of true emptiness. They stop at the transformation city. They stand there, at that empty and unreal place, cultivating the contemplation of the emptiness of analyzed dharmas. That is what is called superficial , not profound . . . .
"4) The fourth kind of emptiness is cultivated by the Condition-Enlightened Ones, the Pratyekabuddhas, who have the bodily experience of the emptiness of dharmas.
"5) Bodhisattvas cultivate the contemplation of the emptiness of wonderful existence." (HS 21-23)
The lack of substantiality of matter according to the analysis of the New Physics is often wrongly compared to Buddhist emptiness. At most it can be used as an example to aid the understanding of the form (see Five Skandhas). The New Physics does not deal with the emptiness of the other four , which are categories of mind, not of matter-energy.
Below is a story about a monk who was a scholar of the , which is perhaps the most well-known of the sutras that explain the meaning of emptiness.
"Master Teh Shan . . . left home at the age of twenty. After being fully ordained, he studied the Vinaya-pitaka [see Tripitaka] which he mastered. He was well-versed in the teaching of the noumenal and phenomenal as expounded in the sutras. He used to teach the Diamond [Vajra] Prajna . . . .
"Said he to his schoolmates:
When a hair swallows the ocean
The nature-ocean loses naught.
To hit the needle's point with mustard seed
Shakes not the needle's point.
(Of) [learning] and [what is beyond learning]
I know and I alone.
"When he heard that the Ch'an Sect was flourishing in the South, he could not keep his temper and said: 'All who leave home take a thousand aeons to learn the Buddha's respect-inspiring deportment and ten thousand aeons to study the Buddha's fine deeds; (in spite of this) they are still unable to attain Buddhahood. How can those demons int the south dare to say that the direct indication of the mind leads to perception of the (self-) nature and attainment of Buddhahood? I must (go to the south,) sweep away their den and destroy their race to repay the debt of gratitude I owe the Buddha.'
"He left Szu Ch'uan province with Ch'ing Lung's Commentary [on the Diamond Sutra] on his shoulders. When he reached Li Yang, he saw an old woman selling (lit. mind refreshment) [a kind of Chinese hors d'oeuvres] on the roadside. He halted, laid down his load and intended to buy some pastries to refresh his mind. The old woman pointed at the load and asked him: 'What is this literature?' Teh Shan replied: 'Ch'ing Lung's Commentary.' The old woman asked: 'Commentary on what sutra?' Teh Shan replied: 'On the Diamond Sutra.' The old woman said: 'I have a question to ask you; if you answer it, I will offer you mind refreshment; if you cannot reply, (please) go away. The Diamond Sutra says: "The past, present and future mind cannot be found." What do you want to refresh?'
"Teh Shan remained speechless." (, Series One, pp. 58-60)
It took his encounter with the old woman to teach Teh Shan that intellectual understanding was not enough. He then went on to learn on another level from her teacher the enlightened Chan Master Lung Tan, who showed him the way to a real understanding of the meaning of emptiness.
Emptiness, ill-conceived, destroys a stupid man as would a [poisonous] snake when handled improperly, or a spell badly executed.
In America from the Beatniks to the present there have been many who have dangerously misunderstood the doctrine of emptiness as an invitation to self-indulgence: "Everything's OK." "Let it all hang out." "Morality is an uptight hang-up we have to get over." "Our feelings should be our guide." All these have involved wrong attempts to interpret the doctrine of emptiness in one way or another to deny cause and effect. In the long run the advocates of such positions drown in the sea of bad karma they themselves create, yet when they go under they are unable to see that as empty. For those who have truly realized emptiness, living in complete harmony with the moral precepts is the natural foundation of their being in the world.