Emptiness and Existence

His Holiness the Dalai Lama takes us step by step through the famed logic of Madhyamika, the Middle Way that defeats all extreme views of reality.

The Dalai Lama
14 January 2019
A monk sitting on a rock in the ocean in meditation.
Photo by Moyan Brenn.

To generate the type of love and compassion that motivates you to seek buddhahood, not for yourself but for the sake of others, first you must confront suffering by identifying its types. This is the first noble truth. From the time we are born to the time we die we suffer mental and physical pain, the suffering of change, and pervasive suffering of uncontrolled conditioning. The second and third noble truths lead us to understand the causes of suffering and whether or not those causes can be removed. The fundamental cause of suffering is ignorance—the mistaken apprehension that living beings and objects inherently exist.

We all have a valid, proper sense of self, or “I,” but then we additionally have a misconception of that “I” as inherently existing. Under the sway of this delusion, we view the self as existing under its own power, established by way of its own nature, able to set itself up.

However, if there were such a separate I—self-established and existing in its own right—it should become clearer and clearer under the light of competent analysis as to whether it exists as either mind or body, or the collection of mind and body, or different from mind and body. In fact, the closer you look, the more it is not found. This turns out to be the case for everything, for all phenomena. The fact that you cannot find them means that those phenomena do not exist under their own power; they are not self-established.

Sometime during the early sixties when I was reflecting on a passage by Tsongkhapa [founder of the Gelugpa school to which the Dalai Lama belongs] about unfindability and the fact that phenomena are dependent on conceptuality, it was as if lightning coursed within my chest. Here is the passage:

A coiled rope’s speckled color and coiling are similar to those of a snake, and when the rope is perceived in a dim area, the thought arises, “This is a snake.” As for the rope, at that time when it is seen to be a snake, the collection and parts of the rope are not even in the slightest way a snake. Therefore, that snake is merely set up by conceptuality.

In the same way, when the thought “I” arises in dependence upon mind and body, nothing within mind and body—neither the collection which is a continuum of earlier and later moments, nor the collection of the parts at one time, nor the separate parts, nor the continuum of any of the separate parts—is in even the slightest way the “I.” Also there is not even the slightest something that is a different entity from mind and body that is apprehendable as the “I.” Consequently, the “I” is merely set up by conceptuality in dependence upon mind and body; it is not established by way of its own entity.

The impact lasted for a while, and for the next few weeks whenever I saw people, they seemed like a magician’s illusions in that they appeared to inherently exist but I knew that they actually did not. That experience, which was like lightning in my heart, was most likely at a level below completely valid and incontrovertible realization. This is when my understanding of the cessation of the afflictive emotions as a true possibility became real.

Nowadays I always meditate on emptiness in the morning and bring that experience into the day’s activities. Just thinking or saying “I,” as in “I will do such and such,” will often trigger the feeling. But still I cannot claim full understanding of emptiness.

A consciousness that conceives of inherent existence does not have a valid foundation. A wise consciousness, grounded in reality, understands that living beings and other phenomena—minds, bodies, buildings, and so forth—do not inherently exist. This is the wisdom of emptiness. Understanding reality exactly opposite to the misconception of inherent existence, wisdom gradually overcomes ignorance.

Remove the ignorance that misconceives phenomena to inherently exist and you prevent the generation of afflictive emotions like lust and hatred. Thus, in turn, suffering can also be removed. In addition, the wisdom of emptiness must be accompanied by a motivation of deep concern for others (and by the compassionate deeds it inspires) before it can remove the obstructions to omniscience, which are the predispositions for the false appearance of phenomena—even to sense consciousness—as if they inherently exist.

Therefore, full spiritual practice calls for cultivating wisdom in conjunction with great compassion and the intention to become enlightened in which others are valued more than yourself. Only then may your consciousness be transformed into the omniscience of a Buddha.


Both Buddhists and non-Buddhists practice meditation to achieve pleasure and get rid of pain, and in both Buddhist and non-Buddhist systems the self is a central object of scrutiny. Certain non-Buddhists who accept rebirth accept the transitory nature of mind and body, but they believe in a self that is permanent, changeless and unitary. Although Buddhist schools accept rebirth, they hold that there is no such solid self. For Buddhists, the main topic of the training in wisdom is emptiness, or selflessness, which means the absence of a permanent, unitary and independent self or, more subtly, the absence of inherent existence either in living beings or in other phenomena.

The Two Truths

To understand selflessness, you need to understand that everything that exists is contained in two groups called the two truths: conventional and ultimate. The phenomena that we see and observe around us can go from good to bad, or bad to good, depending on various causes and conditions. Many phenomena cannot be said to be inherently good or bad; they are better or worse, tall or short, beautiful or ugly, only by comparison, not by way of their own nature. Their value is relative. From this you can see that there is a discrepancy between the way things appear and how they actually are. For instance, something may—in terms of how it appears—look good, but, due to its inner nature being different, it can turn bad once it is affected by conditions. Food that looks so good in a restaurant may not sit so well in your stomach. This is a clear sign of a discrepancy between appearance and reality.

These phenomena themselves are called conventional truths: they are known by consciousness that goes no further than appearances. But the same objects have an inner mode of being, called an ultimate truth, that allows for the changes brought about by conditions. A wise consciousness, not satisfied with mere appearances, analyzes to find whether objects inherently exist as they seem to do but discovers their absence of inherent existence. It finds an emptiness of inherent existence beyond appearances.

Empty of What?

Emptiness, or selflessness, can only be understood if we first identify that of which phenomena are empty. Without understanding what is negated, you cannot understand its absence, emptiness.

You might think that emptiness means nothingness, but it does not. Merely from reading it is difficult to identify and understand the object of negation, what Buddhist texts speak of as true establishment or inherent existence. But over a period of time, when you add your own investigations to the reading, the faultiness of our usual way of seeing things will become clearer and clearer.

Buddha said many times that because all phenomena are dependently arisen, they are relative—their existence depends on other causes and conditions and depends on their own parts. A wooden table, for instance, does not exist independently; rather, it depends on a great many causes such as a tree, the carpenter who makes it, and so forth; it also depends upon its own parts. If a wooden table or any phenomenon really were not dependent—if it were established in its own right—then when you analyze it, its existence in its own right should become more obvious, but it does not.

This Buddhist reasoning is supported by science. Physicists today keep discovering finer and finer components of matter, yet they still cannot understand its ultimate nature. Understanding emptiness is even deeper.

The more you look into how an ignorant consciousness conceives phenomena to exist, the more you find that phenomena do not exist that way. However, the more you look into what a wise consciousness understands, the more you gain affirmation in the absence of inherent existence.

Do Objects Exist?

We have established that when any phenomenon is sought through analysis, it cannot be found. So you may be wondering whether these phenomena exist at all. However, we know from direct experience that people and things cause pleasure and pain, and that they can help and harm. Therefore, phenomena certainly do exist; the question is how? They do not exist in their own right, but only have an existence dependent upon many factors, including a consciousness that conceptualizes them.

Once they exist but do not exist on their own, they necessarily exist in dependence upon conceptualization. However, when phenomena appear to us, they do not at all appear as if they exist this way. Rather, they seem to be established in their own right, from the object’s side, without depending upon a conceptualizing consciousness.

When training to develop wisdom, you are seeking through analysis to find the inherent existence of whatever object you are considering—yourself, another person, your body, your mind, or anything else. You are analyzing not the mere appearance but the inherent nature of the object. Thus it is not that you come to understand that the object does not exist; rather, you find that its inherent existence is unfounded. Analysis does not contradict the mere existence of the object. Phenomena do indeed exist, but not in the way we think they do.

What is left after analysis is a dependently existent phenomenon. When, for example, you examine your own body, its inherent existence is negated, but what is left is a body dependent on four limbs, a trunk, and a head.

If Phenomena Are Empty, Can They Function?

Whenever we think about objects, do we mistakenly believe that they exist in their own right? No. We can conceive of phenomena in three different ways. Let us consider a tree. There is no denying that it appears to inherently exist, but:

1. We could conceive of the tree as existing inherently, in its own right.
2. We could conceive of the tree as lacking inherent existence.
3. We could conceive of the tree without thinking that it inherently exists or not.

Only the first of those is wrong. The other two modes of apprehension are right, even if the mode of appearance is mistaken in the second and the third, in that the tree appears as if inherently existent.

If objects do not inherently exist, does this mean that they cannot function? Jumping to the conclusion that because the true nature of objects is emptiness, they are therefore incapable of performing functions such as causing pleasure or pain, or helping or harming, is the worst sort of misunderstanding, a nihilistic view. As the Indian scholar-yogi Nagarjuna says in his Precious Garland, a nihilist will certainly have a bad transmigration upon rebirth, whereas a person who believes, albeit wrongly, in inherent existence goes on to a good transmigration.

Allow me to explain. You need a belief in the consequences of actions to choose virtue in your life and discard nonvirtue. For the time being, the subtle view of the emptiness of inherent existence might be too difficult for you to understand without falling into the trap of nihilism, where you are unable to understand that phenomena arise in dependence on causes and conditions (dependent-arising). Then for the sake of your spiritual progress it would be better for now to set aside trying to penetrate emptiness. Even if you mistakenly believe that phenomena inherently exist, you can still develop an understanding of dependent-arising and apply it in practice. This is why even Buddha, on occasion, taught that living beings and other phenomena inherently exist. Such teachings are the thought of Buddha’s scriptures, but they are not his own final thought. For specific purposes, he sometimes spoke in nonfinal ways.

In What Way Is Consciousness Mistaken?

Because all phenomena appear to exist in their own right, all of our ordinary perceptions are mistaken. Only when emptiness is directly realized during completely focused meditation is there no false appearance. At that time, the dualism of subject and object has vanished, as has the appearance of multiplicity; only emptiness appears. After you rise from that meditation, once again living beings and objects falsely appear to exist in and of themselves, but through the power of having realized emptiness, you will recognize the discrepancy between appearance and reality. Through meditation you have identified both the false mode of appearance and the false mode of apprehension.

Let us return to the central point: All of us have a sense of “I” but we need to realize that it is only designated in dependence upon mind and body. The selflessness that Buddhists speak of refers to the absence of a self that is permanent, partless, and independent, or, more subtly, it can refer to the absence of inherent existence of any phenomenon. However, Buddhists do value the existence of a self that changes from moment to moment, designated in dependence upon the continuum of mind and body. All of us validly have this sense of “I.” When Buddhists speak of the doctrine of selflessness, we are not referring to the nonexistence of this self. With this “I,” all of us rightfully want happiness and do not want suffering. It is when we exaggerate our sense of ourselves and other phenomena to mean something inherently existent that we get drawn into many, many problems.

Summary for Daily Practice

As an exercise in identifying how objects and beings falsely appear, try the following:

1. Observe how an item such as a watch appears in a store when you first notice it, then how its appearance changes and becomes even more concrete as you become more interested in it, and finally how it appears after you have bought it and consider it yours.

2. Reflect on how you yourself appear to your mind as if inherently existent. Then reflect on how others and their bodies appear to your mind.

This selection is from How to Practice: The Way to a Meaningful Life, by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Translated and edited by Jeffrey Hopkins, Ph.D. Excerpted with permission of Pockets Books, a division of Simon & Schuster. © 2003 by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Jeffrey Hopkins, Ph.D.

The Dalai Lama

The Dalai Lama

Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, is the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people and a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and the US Congressional Gold Medal. Unique in the world today, he is a statesman, national leader, spiritual teacher, and deeply learned theologian. He advocates a universal “religion of human kindness” that transcends sectarian differences. The Dalai Lama is universally respected as a spokesman for the peaceful and compassionate resolution of conflict. He has also been actively involved in bringing together Western scientists and Buddhist meditators, and is a founder of the Mind & Life Institute where such meetings of the minds can take place.