To be in harmony with emptiness is
to be in harmony with all things.
Background. Emptiness teachings are primarily associated with Buddhism and with Nagarjuna (c. 150–250 CE), the prominent Buddhist philosopher. The emptiness teachings are widely held to be a radical, powerful tool for liberation. They are said to be able to liberate us from delusion, clinging and suffering by fostering a compassionate, flexible, joyful engagement with life. Our everyday ways of relating cause us suffering because we think and feel and act as though we are separate, self-sufficient entities with an intrinsic nature.
The emptiness teachings are deeply emancipating. They allow us the life-changing discovery that we are not separate, but intimately inter-related with all things. Emptiness teachings accomplish all this by using the materials found in everyday life. The teachings do not deny the world or depend on essences, absolutes or eternal realities of any kind. Experiencing emptiness, even a little, is a movement towards open-heartedness, lightness, freedom and ease. Although it may seem like it at first, the emptiness teachings do not form a positive doctrine. They do not make a metaphysical statement about how things really are in themselves. Part of their purpose is to free us of views that there is a way that things really are in themselves!
Other directions. So far, this description may sound vague and generic, perhaps not especially Buddhist. In fact, there are analogous non-Buddhist approaches and insights that can also be liberating without relying on essences or absolutes. In particular, the works of Sextus Empiricus (c. 160–210 CE), Lugwig Wittgenstein (1889–1951) and Jacques Derrida (1930–2004) have been repeatedly compared with Nagarjuna's Madhyamika philosophy.
There are many other Western thinkers whose work is also analogous. In general they are non-metaphysical teachings, usually because they critique metaphysical assumptions (as Nagarjuna's Madhyamika does). Because the West loves its isms, there are a few general headings for these approaches: anti-realism, anti-essentialism, anti-representationalism, anti-foundationalism, fictionalism, pragmatism, Pyrrhonism, skepticism and many others. We plan to present helpful insights from many of these approaches.
Here's how the idea started. Allow me to quote Tomas Sander, one of my co-editors of this site:
I was studying with Greg as one of my spiritual teachers and had a yearning to understand more deeply the meaning of concepts such as nonduality, oneness and emptiness. I had tried some of the Eastern emptiness and nonduality sources ... but somehow I didn't get it. So I asked Greg if one could study these teachings with Western philosophical sources, in the hopes that they would be easier for me to grasp. Greg said: ‘It sure can be done!’
So I learned about emptiness mostly Western style, and only later went back to the Eastern sources. I found the Western arguments and examples to be clear and powerful. And when they helped me experience emptiness even a little bit, I found them to be transformative. Learning emptiness from Western sources worked well for me.
For those interested in the emptiness teachings, using this broader range of approaches can be very helpful. One can use the liberational know-how from Buddhism and combine it with specific insights from the West that are phrased in terms of modern issues that one may find easier to relate to. In addition to examining the self, the Western approaches examine many other dramatic issues as well, all of which have been conceptualized in Western history as independent and self-sufficient, as though falling pre-formed from the sky.
Realizing the emptiness of these things helps realize the emptiness of the self, and vice versa. Examples include personal identity, negative self-labeling, gender, sexual preference, culture, race and ethnicity, good and evil, ethical and political action, rules and laws, relativism versus absolutism, language, the mind, perception and cognition, the world and physical existence, meaning, knowledge, belief and certainty, and cause and effect.
You do not have to be Buddhist. Although the emptiness teachings are thought of most often in connection with Buddhism, this is not necessary. You do not have to feel aligned with Buddhism to stop seeing things as truly existent, separate and possessed of essential nature. There are many, many non-Buddhist flavors of the emptiness teachings. The emptiness teachings are not a belief system. They do not ask you to reject your spirituality, your practices or the world. You actually need these things to realize emptiness! You are not asked to swap your story of things for another more clever or more nondual story. What happens is that you try the meditations, and instead of coming up with definite new answers, you find yourself deeply transformed in the process.
You can help. If you come across any useful, reliable approach to realizing the interdependence of what is usually thought to be fixed and independent, let us know. You can help us present this approach.