Buddhism 102: How Does Emptiness Apply to Buddhism?

Bulguksageumdongbirojanabuljwasang (Seated gilt-bronze vairocana buddha statue of Bulguksa Temple)

In some Buddhist traditions, the concept of emptiness is embodied through a Buddha named Vairocana, shown above. Vairocana Buddha was not a Buddha in the usual sense, but encompassed the totality of reality, and the Dharma which describes it. This was also known as the Dharma Body: the true form for all of reality.

In any case, the notion of emptiness is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, all phenomena, even the pure lands of the Buddhas are impermanent and have a contingent existence. This is the understanding of emptiness that most Buddhists are familiar with, and is implied in the First Dharma Seal, and the First Noble Truth.

This notion of decline and impermanence even applies to Buddhism as a religious institution, though not to the Dharma itself. This notion of Dharma Decline is discussed in more detail in Buddhism 103.

When viewed in this light, emptiness seems to be entirely negative. However, on the other hand, as Nagarjuna himself wrote:

sarvaṃ ca yujyate tasya śūnyatā yasya yujyate
sarvaṃ na yujyate tasya śūnyaṃ yasya na yujyate

All is possible when emptiness is possible.
Nothing is possible when emptiness is impossible.

The implication here is that even a defiled and ignorant mind, through the right causes and conditions can change into the mind of a bodhisattva. The mind consumed with hatred or lust, can become the mind of goodwill, a person consumed with bad habits can eventually change under the right circumstances, and so on. This also helps to explain why all sentient beings have the potential to achieve Buddhahood.

Finally, the interconnectedness of all phenomena assures us that even in our most difficult times, we are still connected to such beings as Kannon Bodhisattva and Amitabha Buddha, and they in turn hold us in their thoughts.

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