Tongpanyi (སྟོང་པ་ཉིད་) or Emptiness is the central philosophy of Mahāyāna Buddhism. Thus, it has a pervasive presence in the Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna systems of thoughts which inform the main religious cultures and traditions of Bhutan. As a philosophical topic, it is studied and discussed by the scholars and monks in the Buddhist monastic institutions across Bhutan. It also forms a fundamental topic of practice and meditation among Buddhist practitioners including both monastics and lay followers. Thus, the theory of Emptiness, as abstruse and sophisticated as it may be, has impacts even on the worldview and outlook of ordinary Bhutanese people, who are familiar with idea of viewing life and the world like a dream or illusion.
The concept of Emptiness has its earliest roots in the teachings of the Buddha on the absence of self and what belongs to self (བདག་དང་བདག་གིར་འཛིན་པ་). According to the mainstream Buddhist traditions, the Buddha is said to have denied the existence of a self or person beyond a conventional designation given to the cluster of psycho-somatic constituents. All phenomena are empty of self. It is the mistaken notion of the self or I, which gives rise to the notion of other and leads to dualitic fixation, which in turn leads to likes for oneself, dislike for others, attachment, hatred, jealousy, pride and such other impulses and emotions. These emotions then lead to negative actions, and the actions give rise to rebirth in this cycle of existence.
The Buddha, thus, taught the path out of the suffering of cycle of existence by cutting the root of all evils, i.e. the mistaken notion of the self. To eliminate attachment to the self, a person must realize the non-existence of the self. Using reductive analysis such as the chariot reasoning, the Buddhist thinkers negate the existence of the self and argue that it does not exist either as identical, heterogenous, locus, located or possessor of the physical and psychological parts of a person. They claim that nirvāṇa or liberation from suffering can be attained only by fully realizing the state of non-self. Thus, the understanding and realisation of emptiness of self is an essential Buddhist path. Without the realisation of the emptiness of self, no one can escape from the cycle of existence.
When the Mahāyāna movement started some 2000 years ago, the Mahāyāna thinkers took the understanding of non-self and emptiness to a new level. The idealist philosophers of Mahāyāna tradition argued that not only are things empty of a personal self but all external things are empty of real existence. Material world, they argued, did not have an independent self existence. Applying the deconstructive analysis to even the smallest units of matter, they claimed that the essence of the mind is the foundation of all existence and empirical experience; the material world is empty of true existence and only an illusory projection of the inner mind. Thus, the Buddhist idealists proclaimed a emptiness which referred to the absence of mind-matter duality.
However, it was the proponents of the Middle Way school founded by philosophers such as Nāgārjuna who championed the exposition of emptiness. Using the large collection of sūtras known as the Perfection of Wisdom sūtras, the Middle Way philosophers argued that nothing exists in real terms with their own being. Using a wide range of deconstructive rational analyses, they argued that all phenomena lack real existence and is therefore empty of true existence. All things exist as a result of independence and causality as the Buddha proclaimed; nothing exists on its own. Thus, they concluded that all things, including indivisible moments of consciousness and atomic particles which are building blocks of the empirical world, are mere illusions and empty of self existence. Whatever existed through dependent origination cannot have its own being and is necessarily empty of real existence. They declared that everything is empty of its own being and exists only in relative or conventional terms.
The Middle Way philosophers explained that attachment to existence and fixation on being, which are fundamentally mistaken notions, led to craving and apprehension. In order to attain enlightenment and overcome grasping which leads to rebirth, one must realize the emptiness of all things. Moreover, not only must one give up the notion of existence and being, one must also give up grasping non-existence and non-being. Just as existence is empty of itself, non-existence is also a thought construct and ultimately empty of itself. Thus, they propounded a concept of emptiness which transcended existence and non-existence, being and non-being and eschewed all forms of fabrications such as is, is not, both or neither. Such idea of emptiness void of all mental fixation and conceptual construction was called the emptiness free from all extremes and elaborations. The realisation of such emptiness from all elaborations is considered vital to the path to Buddhahood. Thus, the Mahāyāna practices are all imbued with this theory of emptiness.
The philosophy of Emptiness saw further elaboration and implementation with the development of the syncretic Vajrayāna tradition after the middle of the first millennium. The tantric traditions introduced a wide range of expedient and powerful practices to instill the realisation of emptiness. Blending meditation on emptiness with the use of physical energy and vitality, the Vajrayāna thinkers promoted new and radical ways of generating the experience of emptiness coupled with bliss through its powerful techniques. The Bhutanese Vajrayāna traditions is rich in meditation instructions and techniques to actualise the experience of emptiness and bliss. Both the Kagyu and the Nyingma schools of tantric Buddhism in Bhutan proclaim the efficacy and swiftness of Dzogchen and Mahāmudrā practices to stimulate the experience of emptiness and cut off clinging to the conceptual constructs.
Although most people do not fully understand the theories and practices of emptiness, emptiness as a central philosophy of Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna Buddhist systems pervades most of Bhutan’s religious and spiritual practices.
Karma Phuntsho is a social thinker and worder, the President of the Loden Foundation and the author of many books and articles including The History of Bhutan.