empty thoughts on emptiness


This post is a game of the mind:

Next to compassion, emptiness (sunyata) is an important keyword in Buddhism.

using physics to understand emptiness

Emptiness cannot be understood from the point of view of physics as we know it today in 2012. Atoms are indeed nearly empty, and so is space, but not completely, and it appears that we can subdivide the atom’s core in neutrons and protons and these can be subdivided further into quarks. Even if this were a world of endless subdivision this would not be an indication of emptiness. Moreover, there is something like the planck length beyond which we cannot go. In theory (like M-theory) we could go much deeper, but we would not be able to experiment beyond this scale. Besides, the empty space in the atom is full of energy levels. The universe is also full of energy everywhere. We have learned that matter is a special state of energy and is convertible into it, while energy is convertible into matter. In that case, neither the empty space in the atom, neither the empty space in the universe is really empty.

an object oriented approach

Is it possible to start from a logical object oriented approach and acquire some knowledge?

Every phenomenon or object has properties and methods. A method is an operation that can act upon the object or phenomenon (causes and effects). An object/phenomenon is an individual belonging to a class of objects with the same properties and on which the same methods can be applied. A class is an object in itself belonging to a class of classes, where from the class of classes itself is a member of its own class. (are you still there 🙂 ) Methods also belong to classes of methods.

First an example in geometry:

There is a class of squares.  There are an infinite amount of squares in this class. Many are exactly the same. We will focus on just two properties of squares: size and colour. For size we have to be more specific: do we look at the size of the sides, the circumference, or the surface area. In this example I will use the size of the side as a primary property, circumference and surface area can be derived from it. (A square has more properties than just size and colour, but this is not relevant in the example)

So we now have 2 properties: side_size, and colour.

What can we do with squares? Lots of things. But also here i will focus on just one method: enlarging by a given factor.

So we now have a method: enlarge_by.

One individual square could have colour purple and side_size 2 (its surface would then be 4) besides other properties that make it different form all other squares. There might be many purple squares, with size 2. But we just caught one. This identifiable one is called an instance of its class.

If we enlarge it by factor 3 using the proposed method,  then we would multiply its side_size by 3 and inflate that square to a side_size 6 and its surface would then be 36.

So we have classes of squares, and individual squares belonging to that class.

Our brain works like this. It will have a class of cars, and your neighbour’s car, a real car, will belong to this class of cars.

Another example: let’s have a look at the tree of  life with 8 sub-levels:
Life -> Domain -> Kingdom -> Phylum -> Class -> Order -> Family -> Genus -> Species
The “Class of Species” is not alive. Only its members are alive.
We humans, belong to the Domain of the eukaryota, Kingdom of animalia, Phylum chordata, Class mamalia, Order primates, Family hominidae, Genus homo, Species: homo sapiens. We belong to that class, but we are not that class. We share some characteristics (that could possibly further subdivide us into subclasses) but all our differences make us individuals.

We could say that this classification system is in fact a theoretical map or web of the mind without intrinsic existence. However the individual members exist as separate entities. The classification system tries to classify all individuals living on earth, and as such conceptualizes them, not unlike our mind. But an individual is alive, and the class he could belong to is not. All our knowledge is conceptualized, hence, it is not even a mirror of reality.

A periodic table of elements doesn’t tell us what gold looks like. Even if they put an image of a golden ring on it, your bracelet will not look like it at all. Seeing things as they are, and not filtered by our classifying minds, is that the Buddhist emptiness?

What is real? What is reality?

Is mathematics real? Mathematics is a system. Mathematics is a science of non tangible nature. Numbers, (or perfect squares) do not exists as objects in nature, however the number three is an individual object in number theory and a member of the class of natural numbers. Does the number three really exist? Is three an entity? Is three always a concept? Is this questionable existence linked to Buddhist emptiness? 

According to Kamalashila we have to go beyond concepts (classes of objects) to reach non-conceptual meditation: “It has been explained very clearly that through mere elimination of mental activity, without examining the identity of things with wisdom, it is not possible to engage in non-conceptual meditation.” And he also cites out of the Cloud of Jewels: “One [person] skilled in discerning the faults engages in the yoga of meditation on emptiness in order to get rid of all conceptual elaborations“.

The mind about itself

As in the world of object oriented programming, mind creates concepts to enhance its grip on or understanding of the universe and its components, and works with these concepts as long as it is active. Doing so, the mind has also created concepts about itself.

In a real world without concepts, this mind is an alien. Mind is the mapmaker and map holder without ever really seeing reality as it is. Mind is constantly interacting with the real world, first by processing the information from the 5 senses into maps of reality conform to the concepts in its memory. (Neither is the eye capable of grasping reality, having only limited resolution and a limited spectrum. (resolution itself, however fine, is always a limiting factor, and the visible spectrum limits us to colours between red and violet. We don’t see radio waves, or microwaves or infra-red or UV or X-rays or gamma-rays and cannot know anything about everything concealed in it.)

Since the mind created its own concepts of its own existence and its own self, the least we can say about these concepts is that they cannot be complete, and that they are nothing but a mirage. Mind is nothing but a concept to itself. Mind is not capable of grasping reality about objects it conceptualizes. Then mind does not know much about itself to say the least. However mind has a real nature, we experience mind, like the objects it conceptualizes, so from our relative vantage point it does exists.

HH the Dalai Lama says: “The mind that is absorbed in selflessness discards the basis of all misconceptions.”

No Self can not be know by self, but if we turn this sentence around we could posit that concepts are the basis of misconceptions. Of course, a concept is never reality. All concepts are in the end only a map of reality lacking any depth.

This doesn’t mean that a mind without concepts about itself is selfless. But it could mean that a mind that does see how relative and limited its knowledge about reality really is, such a mind is one step closer to selflessness. This knowledge could tear down prejudices and preoccupations, or at least reduce them considerably.

Since the mind is conceptual, we can by reasoning only admit that the mind can never grasp reality itself. And it can never grasp its own self. It can only make maps of the world as it sees it, and of itself as it sees itself. So if you think that you are your mind, it appears that you know close to nothing about yourself.

On reason and logic

One step further: reasoning itself is based on concepts like “the implication”, “the and”, “the or”, “the reductio ad absurdum” (proof by contradiction), etc … ‘
If reasoning is based on concepts, and those concepts have not necessarily a connection with reality, then this implies that we cannot say anything with any certainty at all about the mind, nor about reality, period. Even the previous statement produced by reasoning might be completely empty.

However thoughts are to the mind what simple movements are to the body. Reasoning is to the mind like swimming or coordinated movement is to the body. We can conceptualize reasoning (and swimming), but what do we really know about logic itself? We really rely on logic all the time. But what is the nature of logic? My concepts about reasoning are useless. How can I know anything at all?

Updated November 20th, 2012
Updated June 7th, 2008
Posted first on Apr 29th, 2008

We have of course Nagarjuna. He is credited with developing the philosophy of the Prajnaparamita sutras. The sunyatasaptati (Seventy Verses on Emptiness) are the most interesting part of this in the view of my research. However, even reading him in my own language is not enough to understand the concept. We need to see with our own mind, senses or awareness what it is all about. If not, Nagarjuna’s words remain empty.

Ken Wilber pretends that emptiness is the paper on which we draw our maps.

In the west we have Immanuel Kant who wrote ‘Critique of Pure Reason – Kritik der Reinen Vernuenft’

There is a whole branch of philosophy related to these problems:
Phenomenology (exploration of phenomena as observed and part of consciousness)
Epistemology (theory of knowledge)
Ontology (theory of what exists, being, existence)
In fact philosophy cannot exist without answering the questions of ontology.


13 thoughts on “empty thoughts on emptiness

  1. This post is definitely deserving of another going over. Interesting ideas in it.

    “Seeing things as they are, and not filtered by our classifying minds”

    This is something, I think, that I am looking at. I am reducing/shedding my Self, with all its values, (perceived) needs, prejudices, etc. It seems that without those conceptual frameworks of the Self categorizing things as instances of whatever class (good/bad/useful to me/right/wrong…) I might see things as they are.

    I may have totally missed the point- your post is packed FULL of interesting ideas that require some pause to digest in between and after. Either way, I am going to keep an eye open for your next update.

    • thx for your encouraging comment. be patient for the next update, 🙂 it took me 4 years to update the previous version. But then, it might only take a few months before inspiration strikes.

  2. I like this: We belong to that class, but we are not that class.
    Russell’s paradox comes to my mind: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russell's_paradox

    As for physics – I believe it is an issue of the notion “empty” as such. It seems to imply that there is space, a kind of background or matrix-like grid, and space is filled with stuff. However, space is entangled with matter / energy (general relativity: matter curves space and curvature in turn affects the motion of masses) and thus it is more something emergent than mere background.

    • Russel’s paradox is a bit different as it only talks about classes or sets and less about its ‘ordinary’ instances or elements. Maybe it applies to the Universe that contains everything including itself. 🙂
      We could indeed see space as the empty canvas, unfortunately, there is no empty corner in the universe. There is however access to non-conceptual awareness.

  3. Here is an extract from “The Milk Is White” which may shed some light on this in a simpler way – perhaps 🙂

    ‘Inside’ and ‘Outside’ the Universe.
    The universe consists, primarily, of particles of energy. These particles coalesce to form progressively denser matter from energy fields to rocks, planets, stars etc. These primary particles are dimensional and, because all other matter is comprised of them, and the universe is comprised of this matter, the universe is dimensional. As anything with dimensions has external limits the universe has external limits. It is, therefore, not infinite.
    However, what is ‘outside’ the universe? Stillness – “nothing” ……. as we know it. That stillness or nothing is ‘Thought’, ‘an intelligence’, or Spirit. It is non-dimensional and timeless; that is, not of time and space. It is Peace, and the essence of Love – an indescribable, all pervasive Love – something that can only be experienced.
    In the realm of matter, motion and, therefore, time, that which exists as it does ‘outside’ the universe is Thought or Spirit, which is omnipresent, omniscient and omnipotent. Omnipresent because everything and everyone on this Earth and in this universe is composed of Spirit and, therefore, Spirit is present everywhere; omniscient because Spirit, having created everything knows everything; and omnipotent because it is Its creative power (thought) which created everything and set in motion the principle of birth and death/creation and destruction which governs all matter. This Spirit is called The Great Spirit or God, or whatever, according to one’s choice.
    Thought, as we usually know it, is a force; a force not subject to time and space.
    In reality there is no ‘inside’ and ‘outside’. Spirit pervades everything and is everything, including that which comprises us both in our Spirit and physical forms. There is no separation, no duality ………… all is, in fact, One. It is only in our state of ‘mind’ and our state of being at present that there is separation or duality.
    One way to attempt to conceptualise this oneness is to look at a sheet of graph paper of 1 mm grid (a sheet with a mixed grid is not as illustrative). Select any number of sections of this grid as a unit. These may be one within another, separate, overlapping, any shape etc. No matter what you select, or how many, they are all an intrinsic part of the whole – of the one. Now, to complicate matters even further visualise that sheet folded, scrolled or otherwise altered from its two dimensions and you will get an idea of the complexity of the relationship of one with any other.

    • I can imagine. The process in my mind leading to knowledge can be a road with many sideways. In this post the main idea is that the conceptual world in our mind is far away from reality. Even logic has to be scrutinized as it is itself conceptual by nature, just like maths.
      There are other aspects of emptiness that i didn’t touch in this post, like existence out of nothing. Nothing exists by itself. It is always a consequence of something else, and itself it is often a cause of new things. A chair is a consequence of a tree, a carpenter, some glue and maybe paint. But all those 4 causes themselves are the result of other causes. And so on, and so on, … so nothing/nobody exists in and by itself. The universe is part of a multiverse, and even that multiverse might be part of something else.
      But the underlying aspect of this post is process. The way my mind tries to grasp reality, and how chaotic this process is, and how painfully incomplete and incorrect.

      • Well, that I followed and agree with mostly. I have always been one to play the Devil’s Advocate, so I would pose questions and/or situations to test people’s (esp. student’s) ideas. Not used to that level of thinking since no school. lol I may have to get back into it.

    • I do program now and then (Perl, PHP, Bash), but most of the time i’m a linux system/cisco network engineer. I prefer to solve problems that require interaction with the end-user.

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