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Elizabeth Namgyel

The Fullness of Emptiness

(Editor's note: We are very pleased to have Buddhist teacher and author Elizabeth Namgyal as our newest whatmeditationreally.com blogger. You can read her biography and find links to her web site by clicking here. To get things rolling I posed a couple of questions to her. This is part one of her response.)


Q: In Buddhism, we often hear about the word emptiness. What exactly is emptiness? How do we apply the understanding of emptiness to our lives?


The teachings on emptiness are at the heart of the Buddha’s path.

And yet people often have misunderstandings about them. I suspect this is partly because some of the teachings on emptiness can be a bit cryptic and require years of study with a learned teacher. The other reason is that people often struggle with the word “emptiness” itself. What does it mean to rest in emptiness? We associate emptiness with “empty nest,” “a glass half empty” or an “empty feeling in our chest”…there is a sense of negation we associate with this word. But there is a twist. When we start to really understand emptiness as an experience we see that it leads us to an experience of fullness. This is what I want to talk about here.

When we speak of emptiness in the context of Buddhist scholarship and practice, it means that things don’t exist in a one-dimensional way. Because our mind, the world and the people around us are complex and changing, they are “empty” of an objective way of being. Just look at ourselves, for instance. We are cranky and kind, creative and destructive, joyful and miserable. Furthermore, the way we see ourselves and the way others see us is open to interpretation – relational. For instance, I am a mother in relation to my son and a daughter in relation to my parents. When I go shopping I am a customer and so on. It is impossible to pin down or objectify a human being. We are always a work in progress…the data will never be in on who we are.

One of the first Tibetan translators, Herbert Guenther, found another way of describing the “fullness” of emptiness – the potential of things when they are not held to be one fixed and static way. He translated emptiness as open-dimensional. Human beings are not “objectifiable” because we are dynamic and relational. In other words, who we are is full beyond expression.

This kind of knowing – knowing without shutting down around conclusions – releases great insight and compassion. Experiencing emptiness shows us that our ability to know through thoughts and ideas is not the only way we know things. And this is where it gets interesting.

There was a renowned Indian teacher named Dharmakirti (7th century). He wrote some famous texts on Buddhist epistomolgy. He was interested in how we know. He found that there are four main ways we come to know about our world: through our sense perceptions, through a basic awareness that registers experiences, through words and sentences and finally through seeing the fullness of things. Let me explain.

The first way we know is through sense perceptions (visual, auditory, and so on…).

We receive information through our senses most of the time, except when we sleep and our experience becomes primarily mental. During the day however, without even a conscious awareness of it, we take in information directly through our eyes, ears, and so on. That is why sometimes we are able to intuit something while not being quite sure where we received the information. We don’t always register the information that comes through our senses in a conscious way.

Even though we don’t register all experience that comes through our senses (the brain is selective), we most certainly do register some experiences. “Register” here means that experience is brought to the light of conscious awareness. For instance, when I look out my kitchen window at the view I take in a lot of visual information. But how much do I register? I am not consciously focusing in much detail. However, when my cat looks at the window, I watch him noticing all kinds of things. I think animals register more sensory experiences than people. We notice things in a gross way and then quickly jump to conclusions: “It’s overcast today” or “the apples on my tree need picking.” We may not be aware of the kind of direct cognition that happens before we label and conceptualize things because it is so subtle. But if you think about it, we have to know or be aware of an experience before we label it. So before we can say it is overcast, we do need to be aware of our visual intake. This second kind of knowing comes before we label things with words and sentences.

Then we know through words and sentences. This is not direct. For instance, we see something moving towards us, we register that consciously. And then we realize, “Oh, it’s Bob!” At this point everything we know about Bob rushes into our awareness. This information is not based on a direct seeing but rather surges up from memories we have about Bob, things we have heard about him, and the ideas we have formed around him. This kind of knowing serves us. Without this, we wouldn’t be able to say: “Hey, Bob” when he approached us. So our ability to know things in this way has a powerful function – we can communicate because of this. We can also have a vision for our life, plan, make decisions and so on. And yet, this way of knowing, which objectifies things (or sees Bob as a package), has a lot of limitations. It’s not a full picture of Bob. Bob, or the world we live in, is not limited by what we think of it.

This brings us to the fourth way we know things. Dharmakirti calls this

“yogic direct perception.” We could also call it knowing the fullness of things…or the open-dimensionality of things. This kind of knowing is not limited by concepts. It is the wisdom that emerges when we don’t close down around ideas – when we don’t objectify things or people. This way of knowing has a lot of depth and clarity. We call this experiencing emptiness because the mind that experiences emptiness is not holding on to an objective truth or existence. It is empty of an intrinsic or objective way of being…therefore, it is limitlessly full.

People often try to describe glimpses of great insight, interconnectedness and peace, where the conceptual mind relaxes and they have a bigger experience – a sense of wonderment or amazement. I have often wondered if all religious doctrines didn’t come from these kinds of bigger experiences. Our desire to express such experiences inspires great art, literature and music. Sometimes, in turn, art can evoke experiences of wonder or emptiness itself. But ultimately, such experiences are too profound for words. As it is said in the Vajrayana Buddhist tradition, the nature of emptiness is like “a mute tasting sugar.” It is ineffable because when you try to explain an experience of “fullness” you immediately objectify the experience through shutting down around an idea.

I always appreciate, however, that we try to describe these experiences of fullness creatively, because such expression inspires us and beautifies our world.