Buddhism 102: Emptiness And Interdependence

Spider web with morning dew

“Listen, Shariputra, form is emptiness, emptiness is form, form does not differ from emptiness, emptiness does differ from form.”

–The Heart Sutra

The Buddhist term emptiness or shunyata is a concept that is hinted at in the earlier sutras, but attained much greater prominence in Mahayana Buddhism, especially through the efforts of the Indian Buddhist Nagarjuna (c. 150 – c. 250 CE). In early Buddhist literature, the Buddha would describe phenomena as arising through external causes and conditions:

“The instructed disciple of the noble ones, [however,] attends carefully and appropriately right there at the dependent co-arising:

“‘When this is, that is.
“‘From the arising of this comes the arising of that.
“‘When this isn’t, that isn’t.
“‘From the cessation of this comes the cessation of that.

–Assutavā Sutta (SN 12.61)

The implications of this, explored in Mahayana Buddhism, was that:

  • All phenomena lack an independent, static “self”. They are impermanent and their existence is contingent.
  • All phenomena are inter-connected with all other phenomena.

Thus, in the grand scheme of reality, all things depend on all other things in some way or another. A popular example in Buddhist literature is the “Jeweled Net” of Indra or sometimes Brahma. According to this tradition, the Indian god (Indra or Brahma) had a net hung within his palace containing an infinite number of jewels. Each jewel reflects the light of all other jewels, thus illuminating the palace.

Thus as it is written in the 30th chapter of the Flower Garland Sutra:

“The Buddha-lands on a hairtip are infinite.”

Because all things are inter-connected in some way or another, even the tip of a hair is said to contain within it an infinite number of lands, Buddhas, etc.

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