On Knowing What There Is: Buddhist Emptiness


The question of ontology is not whether things exist. Of course things exist! The proper ontic question is, how (not why) do things exist? “Everything that exists lacks an intrinsic nature or identity” asserts Alan Wallace (2003) explicating Nagarjuna’s great Mulamadhyamaka karika with its selfless, centrist Prasangika ontology. The appearance of objects arising from basal primordial emptiness ground (the trikaya of the base, dharmakaya, dharmadhatu, mahabindu) are causally, interdependently related, that is to say, their reality is dependent upon other related events and processes in a vast, even infinite matrix of such “prior causes and conditions.”

For Prasangika, because phenomena arise in dependence upon these prior causes and conditions (pratitya samutpada), they can have no essential existence of their own; yet they exist relatively, conventionally. So things are empty. Empty of what? Empty or absent any intrinsic permanent self-identity or self-existence (svabhava). Existence of an essential, enduring, permanent self (atman) is utterly absent (no-self/anatman). Selves, things, all “production” are impermanent (anitya). Even emptiness is empty of intrinsic existence—thus the “emptiness of emptiness”. It’s not a particular; not a universal. There is no ontological ground. The conceptual dichotomy of existence/non-existence is a false dichotomy. “Non-existence” signifies absence of both existence and non-existence. This is the ultimate understanding—nondual “wisdom of emptiness”—liberation from the suffering of conditional existence. How do we do this?

Ultimate Truth—primordial wisdom of emptiness is accomplished only by way of Relative Truthdualistic practice of the Path to liberation from suffering, “full bodhi“, awakening of “complete enlightenment”. Discursive concepts and beliefs about the Path are provisional, yet contain great pragmatic value. These Two Truths are conceived and expressed as a duality, yet in the ultimate sphere of Dzogchen, beyond belief, they are a prior and present unity. The nature of the relative is the nature of the ultimate. Bodhi is wisdom realizing this truth. In due course, and by grace, the incredulity and confusion of this Path become the Wisdom Deep.

In Dzogchen view and praxis the primordial wisdom presence (vidya, rigpa, epinoia) of the ground, our already present Buddha nature (tathagatagarbha) abides always at the heart (hridyam) of the human being. Jesus told, “What you seek is already present, yet you do not see it”. For Chan master Hui Neng, “Wonder of wonders, all beings are Buddha”. Perhaps we are not yet fully awakened Buddhas, but the actual nature of mind is our always present Buddha mind (samatajnana), “already accomplished from the very beginning” (Garab Dorje). It is that to which we awaken from our slumber of ignorance (avidya). Why won’t we do this?

The ontologizing urge of human discursive mind recursively conceptually imputes, designates, then reifies/objectifies its arising appearances/experiences—gross and subtle—into independent, objectively “real” physical/mental spacetime existent realities of a permanent

self/ego-I acting in an emblematic RWOT, all constrained by our atavistic, pre-conscious cultural concept-belief reticulum. Thus arises what Quine (1969) terms our semiotic (syntax, semantics, pragmatics) socio-cultural “web of belief”. This concept-belief system is, on the Buddhist view, based in the ignorance (avidya, ajnana, marigpa, hamartia/sin) that causes the selfish, adventitious afflictive emotions—fear, anger, greed, pride—that cause suffering. What to do?


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