Understanding Emptiness — in 50 Words or Less

“Emptiness.” It’s a fundamental Buddhist concept — but what does it mean? And how could you explain it to someone else?

Rod Meade Sperry
17 February 2016
Glass, Emptiness, Brad Warner, Lion's Roar, Buddhism, Rod Meade Sperry
Photo by Camilo Rueda López.

Emptiness. It’s a fundamental Buddhist concept — but what does it mean? And how could you explain it to someone else? I’ve wondered about that, not least of all because I have had someone dear to me say, more than once, “Buddhism is okay and all, but you lose me with that emptiness stuff. I don’t get it.”

But here’s an explanation of emptiness that, I think, can help just about anyone begin to “get it.”

“Emptiness in Buddhist terms doesn’t mean nothingness. It means that every single thing we encounter — including ourselves — goes beyond our ability to conceive of it. We call it emptiness because nothing can ever explain it. Reality itself is emptiness because we can’t possibly fit it into our minds.”

That’s how Zen teacher Brad Warner explains emptiness, in his next book, Don’t Be a Jerk. (Subtitle: And Other Practical Advice from Dogen, Japan’s Greatest Zen Master.)

I’ve been reading Don’t Be a Jerk slowly, here and there, enjoying and learning from it a good deal. It’s a helpful, clever book. The concision found in that definition of emptiness is one example of why. You can tell, Brad really wants you to understand the concepts he’s unpacking. When we realize that emptiness is beyond normal comprehension, we’re free (or at least freer) to not struggle to “make sense” of it. And that helps us make sense of it.

OK. So now you’re ready to read more about emptiness. Here are two great places to start:

…Or perhaps you’d like to read more from Brad Warner. Don’t Be a Jerk comes out in March. And we’ve got more from Brad here on Lion’s Roar:

Rod Meade Sperry. Photo by Megumi Yoshida, 2024

Rod Meade Sperry

Rod Meade Sperry is the editor of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Guide (published by Lion’s Roar), and the book A Beginner’s Guide to Meditation: Practical Advice and Inspiration from Contemporary Buddhist Teachers. He lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia, with his partner and their tiny pup, Sid.