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Emptiness as the nature of phenomena

Emptiness as the nature of phenomena

Part of a series of Bodhisattva’s Breakfast Corner talks given during the Green Tara Winter Retreat from December 2009 to March 2010.

  • Emptiness is not a substrate from which all arises.
  • The relationship between ultimate and conventional truths

Green Tara Retreat 015: Emptiness as the nature, not creator, of phenomena (download)

Someone was wondering how if everything is the nature of emptiness, and I said that we exist within emptiness, then that person was thinking that somehow we were produced by emptiness, that somehow emptiness was the cause of everything. That’s not what we’re talking about.

Emptiness is the nature of phenomena. It’s a permanent thing in itself. It isn’t produced by causes and conditions. Don’t think of emptiness as some big ultimate substance out of which everything comes. There are certain non-Buddhist groups who think that there is an ultimate reality that is some kind of mystical or cosmic substance, and from that all the phenomena arise. Buddhism completely refutes that. Buddhism refutes any kind of idea of some primal, cosmic substance that creates everything. That is a positive phenomena. It is under the influences of causes and conditions. Then you get into all sorts of logical entanglements with trying to see it as the ultimate reality.

Emptiness does not create anything, and it isn’t like emptiness is there and then out of it pops up a flower. Don’t think out of it [i.e. emptiness] pops up you and me and everything else. It is not like that either. It is whenever something exists, its ultimate nature is that it is empty of inherent existence. It exists within that nature of being empty of inherent existence.

What we are coming to here is that all the conventional truths of all the things that appear in our world and the ultimate truth, the ultimate mode of existence, are inseparable. It isn’t that one exists and sometime later the other one starts to also. It isn’t like first you have emptiness and then, like I said, the flower jumps out of it; or first you have the flower and then later the flower becomes empty of inherent existence—that is not it. It is: when anything that exists, from the moment it exists, it is empty of inherent existence. So the conventional truth, like the flower, and the ultimate truth, its emptiness, are said to be one nature in that one cannot exist without the other. They are also different, phenomenally different; they are not the same thing because the flower is just an appearance and the emptiness is its actual mode of being.

Venerable Thubten Chodron

Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.