Emptiness is So Full

by | Mar 21, 2024 | Buddhism for All

“The farmer’s carrot-and-stick approach will cease to work once you perceive the emptiness of both carrot and stick.”

There is a very important teaching closely related to dependent origination and non-self that gained a position of preeminence in many schools of Buddhism: the teaching on emptiness (Sanskrit: śūnyatā; Pali: suññatā)[1].

The person most credited for expanding and formalizing the teaching of emptiness is the great second century Buddhist Master Nāgārjuna, whose work had a deeply profound influence on Buddhism.  Thanks to him, emptiness became a huge thing (and I’m pretty sure there is a pun in there somewhere).  His most famous book is titled Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, the Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way.  I’m going to use the common abbreviation MMK out of compassion for the person narrating our audiobook.  Buddhist teacher Leigh Brasington jokes that the whole MMK reads like somebody’s debate notes.

Emptiness, as espoused by Nāgārjuna, in essence refers to essence-less-ness (yes, there is a pun somewhere here too).  It means that all phenomena are empty of essence of self, empty of inherent existence.  Nāgārjuna did not make it up, the Buddha had already famously stated that, “all phenomena are non-self (anatta)”[2], with non-self here meaning not having a separate, permanent essence.  Sāriputta also clarified that seeing all phenomena as “empty of self or of what belongs to a self” will result in “liberation of mind through emptiness.”[3]  So Nāgārjuna was just expanding on the Buddha’s teachings.

Emptiness means that there are multiple streams of dependent origination processes going on all the time, and all phenomena, including all physical objects, arise and cease merely as the result of these process streams and their interactions.  A popular half-humorous, half-poetic way some modern Buddhist teachers articulate this teaching is: all nouns are really just slow-moving verbs.  The noun mountain, for example, is really just a collection of very slow-moving geological verbs.

One major consequence of emptiness is the interdependence of everything.  If you recognize all phenomena as the interaction of multiple streams of dependent origination, then you gain the insight into how everything is interdependent on everything else in order to manifest.  Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh famously calls it “interbeing”. 

In MMK, Nāgārjuna gave many examples of emptiness.  One example: in the simple act of moving, the mover and the movement are not the same thing, yet there is really no such thing as a mover without movement, nor movement without the mover, therefore movement and mover must occur together, and therefore you cannot say they are separate phenomena[4].   He gave many other examples relating to seeing, hearing, and so on, but they are all of the same nature, just replace “mover/moving” above with “see-er/seeing”, and so on.[5]  He also gave the example of fire on fuel, making essentially the same argument that fire and fuel are co-dependent: it is the fuel that enables the fire, but it is also the fire that makes the fuel fuel.[6]

More important, Nāgārjuna examines the self itself with the same lens:

If the self were the aggregates,
It would be arising and ceasing as they do.
But if self were different from the aggregates,
It would not have the characteristics of the aggregates.[7]

In other words, this is the realization that self too is empty of essence, and is dependently originated with the five aggregates.  And from here, Nāgārjuna leads us to some profound practical consequence: the full understanding of the emptiness of self leads to freedom from “I” and “mine”, which leads to freedom from the unceasing and compulsive proliferation of thoughts (Sanskrit: prapañca, Pali: papañca), which leads to freedom from “action and misery”.  And then, “action and misery having ceased, there is nirvana.”[8]  Woah.

Nāgārjuna devoted Chapter 18 of MMK to the exploration of the emptiness of self.  Leigh Brasington has a rendering of its conclusion that is not strictly literal to the original text, but expresses the content faithfully in a beautiful way:

You are not the same as or different from
Conditions on which you depend;
You are neither severed from
Nor forever fused with them—
This is the deathless teaching
Of buddhas who care for the world.[9]

The teachings on emptiness are truly profound.  The Buddha says if people fail to study the “teachings dealing with emptiness”, Dharma will decline.[10]  While the many teachings on emptiness are ultimately based on the realization of non-self, they offer a vast array of subtlety and wonder.  We hope this short introduction encourages you to eventually take up a deep study of emptiness.


  • Reflect on this post with Angela:
    • One common misunderstanding of emptiness is that emptiness is nothingness. The danger of this wrong view is that it can lead to futile hopelessness, depression and nihilism.
    • The Heart Sutra sums it up in a pith manner:  “Form is emptiness. Emptiness is form. Form is not other than emptiness. Emptiness is not other than form. Likewise for the other four aggregates of sensations, perception, volitional formations, consciousness ”.
    • Emptiness is not empty. In fact, as the title says, emptiness is full. Emptiness is full of possibilities. Precisely because phenomenon is empty, that is why they can change and become anything, including yourself. That emptiness is full, should be uplifting and inspiring (instead of being depressing and nihilistic!). It gives you hope that if you work hard, you can overcome bad habits. At its deepest essence, emptiness also means you are not just you, the ego you. You are the purity of awareness, wisdom and compassion.
    • What insights, reflection, and learnings do you have from this article? 


[1] The reason I gave both the Sanskrit and Pali words here is because the teachings of early Buddhism, which constitutes most of this book, was mostly preserved in Pali, while the teachings of later Buddhism, such as the MMK, was mostly preserved in Sanskrit.

[2] Dhammapada 279.

[3] Majjhima Nikāya 43.

[4] This sentence is the summary of Chapter 2 of Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, but please do read the whole thing yourself.

[5] Mūlamadhyamakakārikā 3.

[6] Mūlamadhyamakakārikā 10.

[7] Mūlamadhyamakakārikā 18, Jay Garfield’s translation, with minor edits by me.

[8] Mūlamadhyamakakārikā 18.

[9] Brasington, https://www.buddhistinquiry.org/article/emptiness-and-freedom/

[10] Saṃyutta Nikāya 20.7, among other places.

All images by Natalie Tsang.

Chade-Meng Tan

Meng is an award-winning engineer, international bestselling author, movie producer and philanthropist. His work has been nominated eight times for the Nobel Peace Prize. (Read Meng's story)

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