Emptiness can be used to mean different things. In the West, when we talk about emptiness, we tend to mean “nothing”. For instance, if a cup is empty, there is nothing in there: no water, no coffee, no tea, no anything.
This can be confusing when we hear Buddhists say everything is empty. A hammer is empty—then why does it hurt when we smack our fingers? Rain is empty--- then why do we get wet?
Some Buddhist schools take this to mean that nothing exists at all. In my experience, this tends to be the minority view. Rather, emptiness in Mahayana Buddhist thought tends to be a very special kind of emptiness. It is emptiness of a self.
Ok, so what is a self?
When we talk about a self, we mean something that endures, doesn’t change, and is independent of everything else. Like an impossibly hard diamond. It is the idea of an immortal soul of some sort, some underlying real, actual substance that exists separate and apart. In the West, the philosopher Plato popularized the idea of an idea: that everything has its perfect self essence that exists apart from its material manifestations. Every circle is a reflection of a divine perfect circle. This sort of thinking became very well entrenched in the West.
Buddhist and Taoist thought goes against this. In both Buddhism and Taoism, the universe is a fluid, dynamic, changing place. There are no objects, there are movements. There are no things, there are open, changing, flowing containers. A good way to test this is to try to find the self. A classical example is a chariot. A more modern example might be a car. Where is the car in the car? Well, a car has doors, four wheels, an engine. But then you think, what if I remove the engine, do I no longer have a car? Or if it has three tires instead of four?
You can take a car apart and sort it into neat, interesting piles, but you will find no “car” there. You will have an assembly of parts. And if you look at each part, you will find parts of parts, and so on.
On the other hand, there certainly seems to be “something” there. You can get into your car and drive it to the beach or the grocery store. If you tell me I have no hand, I will slap you.
You can do this with all things, including yourself. Try it and see what happens. Most people, except children, shy away from this sort of analysis. We don’t push ourselves this far. Yet this is what Buddhism is all about: pursuing an investigation to the end.
In Buddhist philosophy, there is the concept of two truths. There are ultimate truths (there is no car) and conventional truths (I can get in and drive my car). Even though there is nothing like a “car”, we can still get to work every day. It is important when thinking about things to make this distinction. If you confuse one level with the other, than you may step in front of an empty car to find it smashing into you.
A second point is the inter-relation between all things. A car doesn’t jump from the Tao fully formed. A car is assembled, but some one has to mine and refine the metal. Some one has to put together the pieces. Some one has to transport the car from the factory to the dealer. Some one has to grow food to feed all these people. The sun and earth must exist and be ripe for the food to grow. Behind each car is a factory, a team of workers, farmers to grow food to feed the workers, real estate agents, homemakers, garbage men, lawyers, doctors, societies, civilizations, planets, sunshine, gravity, stars--- the whole universe goes into making that car. One might say, in fact, that a car manifests the whole universe.
If, in fact, there were permanent, enduring selves, then nothing would be possible. If there was an essential metal that existed apart and unchanging, you could never mold the metal into a car. It would always be metal. Likewise, sunshine and expelled air would never become a tree.
As Lao Tzu said:
Thirty spokes join in one hub
In its emptiness, there is the function of a vehicle
Mix clay to create a container
In its emptiness, there is the function of a container
Cut open doors and windows to create a room
In its emptiness, there is the function of a room
Therefore, that which exists is used to create benefit
That which is empty is used to create functionality
One thing that should be clear, but may not be, is that the form and emptiness are both required to have anything at all. Emptiness gives the cosmos its flexibility. Form gives the cosmos its existence. If everything were completely empty empty, all the way through, we wouldn’t have anything at all. If everything were enduring selves, we would have a static universe. Again, it is the middle way that is the way to go here. The Heart Sutra says: Form is emptiness. But it also says, emptiness is form. These are not two.
Tao Te Ching translated by Derek Lin