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The Wisdom of Emptiness and Selflessness

The wisdom of "the void", or emptiness, is a very important subject in Buddhism, but also a very complex one. In fact, this sublime wisdom can hardly be classified, and is actually more of a direct experience, rather than merely an intellectual 'understanding' that can be learned. Different Buddhist traditions have therefore also developed different philosophical approaches to explain this vast topic of ultimate wisdom, but in the end, it is all about experiencing this wisdom directly yourself through a great deal of study and meditation.
Some basic questions and answers:

Do "selflessness" and "emptiness" mean the same thing?

In general, yes, but strictly speaking, selflessness is about persons (people and animals etc.), and emptiness is referring to all phenomena.

Why realize selflessness or emptiness?

As we familiarize our mind with the concepts of emptiness, we gradually remove from our mind all ignorance, anger, attachment, pride, jealousy and other disturbing emotions, because they are all based on inaccuracies of perception. Because of this, we also stop performing the destructive activities (negative karma) that result from these erroneous states of mind. When we are freed from the influence of our own ignorance, disturbing emotions and the activities that result from them, we are freed from the causes of all our problems and thus the problems themselves cease to exist. In other words, the wisdom that realizes emptiness is the true path to happiness. One who realizes the wisdom of emptiness is thus very close to permanently escaping the cycle of existence and achieving eternal happiness. Who wouldn't want that?!

"All people and phenomena are void of true existence or inherent existence" ...What does this mean?

This means that people and all other phenomena (tables, cars, trees, etc.) are empty of our fantasized projections. One of the most deceptive qualities we project onto people and phenomena is that they exist inherently, as if they exist independently of causes and circumstances, parts, and our consciousness that understands and labels them. In our normal, everyday perspective, they seem to have a true inherent nature, as if they are truly independent, as if we could find these real, independent phenomena if we were to search for them. They appear to exist, independently of their causes and conditions, independently of the parts they are made up of, and independently of our mind that understands and labels them. However, those phenomena are our projection of 'real existence' or inherent existence, and our mind assumes that they exist 'truly' as we perceive them.

However, when we carefully analyze whether things exist as independently as they appear at first glance, we discover that they do not exist in this way at all. They are empty of our fantasized projections, and we can only begin to see our own projections when we take the time to look at things from a different perspective. A Buddhist perspective. Where is that permanently beautiful man or woman or that stone building that one day won't turn to dust? The answer of course is that no person or phenomena exist in this way.

An analogy for this erroneous view is someone who watches a movie and thinks that the people on the movie screen are real. The viewer gets emotional and becomes involved in the fate of the characters, and he or she becomes attached to the hero and hates it when antagonists get in their way. However, movies are illusions that fully depend on specific causes and conditions such as film, actors, props, a writer and a director, and the projector and the screen on which the movie is shown. Understanding the void is similar to understanding that there are no real people moving about on the movie screen.
Another analogy is comparing life to a dream; you seem to experience everything that happens, but what you experience is only happening in your mind and not in reality itself. It's like walking down the street on a sunny day and thinking, "This is such a beautiful day." In reality there is no inherently existing 'beautiful day'. Someone else may have gotten fired on this day, or learned they were dying of cancer. That is why seeing through our habitual projections and gradually being able to fully see reality as it actually exists is also called awakening. It is this awakening that leads to enlightenment or full awakening.

Through the wisdom that realizes emptiness, we perceive how our self and other phenomena actually exist: they do not have (are empty of) an isolated, independent existence. They exist through causes and conditions, and they do not consist of our fantasized projections of them - especially not the projection of inherent (or independent) existence. All things are also subject to constant change, so what 'thing' are we talking about exactly? The moment our consciousness registers something, the thing itself has in fact changed again; so what exactly are we talking about?
When we possess the wisdom that realizes emptiness, we are freed from this ignorance that misunderstands reality and all of our erroneous projections.

If all people and phenomena are selfless and empty, does nothing exist?

No, phenomena and people do exist, but only in what Buddhists call 'conventional reality', not in what Buddhists refer to as 'ultimate reality'.
In the example of the movie in the cinema, images and sounds do exist in the auditorium in the sense of ultimate reality, but what appears to be happening on the screen (conventional reality) is not 'real'.

Emptiness means that people and phenomena are empty of our fantasized projections. They do not possess the aspects that we attribute to them with our wrong (limited) views. They don't exist in the way they seem to us now, but they do exist in conventional reality. So, emptiness is not the same as nihilism, thinking that there is nothing at all. This is an extremely important difference, because you have your current life and you can make real changes if you'd like to. That's the point of Buddhism.

If this all sounds very confusing, it's a good sign; something doesn't seem right, but what exactly? For most people, it takes many years or even lifetimes of intensive study and meditation to actually realize emptiness. However, even just spending a brief amount of time thinking about emptiness and how things truly exist can open your mind to other possibilities in life while giving you a profound sense of spaciousness. What is the point of clinging to old ideas about reality when they no longer serve you

How can we best realize emptiness?

The actual realization of emptiness is a very advanced stage on our path of spiritual growth and normally our understanding of it gradually grows and expands over time. The path to liberation and enlightenment is slow, methodical, and gradual, so we practice it in stages. First, we practice, study and meditate on the foundational aspects of the path, such as impermanence, karma, love and compassion, etc. We adjust our behavior accordingly so as not to harm others. Then we listen to and contemplate the lessons we've heard about emptiness. We receive these teachings from a trustworthy and knowledgeable teacher, and we can also study the commentaries from the great Buddhist masters who have realized these topics and can inspire us along the way. As we ponder and discuss these lessons with others who are similarly minded, our understanding becomes deeper and clearer. When we have a clear idea of the subject, we integrate it into our minds through meditation, and eventually we realize this profound subject in our own minds.

See the next page: Meditation