Communicating Emptiness
@Tergar Institute


The Four Noble Truths

All Buddhist philosophy and practice can be seen through the framework of the four noble truths, the first teaching of the Buddha.

The first noble truth is a diagnosis of our root disease: suffering or dissatisfaction. We suffer when we inevitably separate from the objects of our desire or face unfavorable circumstances such as sickness, old age, and death. Even when things are "going our way", we still feel insecure because everything is in a constant process of change—whatever state we feel like we have grasped is bound to disappear, because the same causes and conditions that came together to produce it at some point are bound to separate at another 1. The first noble truth is a very direct, precise, and concise insight into our predicament: if we analyze things carefully, we see that all we actually want is to be happy and free from suffering (and maybe we want this not only for ourselves but also for others). This—the Buddha said—is to be understood, because if we wish to eliminate our ailment, we first need to acknowledge it; otherwise, we will never seek a cure.

The second noble truth points out the causes of suffering: ignorance, attachment, and aversion. The root problem here is ignorance: not knowing how things actually are (more on this later). Due to ignorance, we cling to desirable things and have aversion towards undesirable ones, and we get stuck in this cycle of thirst (craving to have or not have something; to be or not be somewhere, etc.), and either temporary relief or disappointment (when we can or can't get want we want, respectively). Nothing is ever enough for very long; we keep going back to searching for bandaids, constantly trying to pile up our house of cards hopelessly hoping that it will one day be complete and never fall again. Because we do not understand the causes of suffering, we look for happiness where it cannot be truly found: career, status, wealth, relationships, sex, praise, trips, drinking, etc. When we look at these things carefully, honestly, we have to acknowledge that they can never really solve the problem because they are—by their very nature—impermanent 1. Ignorance manifests as a belief that we are attaining the causes of happiness when we are in fact feeding and perpetuating the causes of suffering. As Shantideva said: "We who are like senseless children shrink from suffering, but love its causes." Without understanding the causes of stress, a solution cannot be found.

The third noble truth is the truth of cessation: After diagnosing us and pointing out the causes of our disease, the doctor tells us that it is possible to completely cure our ailment (suffering or dissatisfaction). But for that to happen, we need to rely on their prescription—this is the fourth noble truth, the truth of the path.

In summary, if we are to be cured of suffering or dissatisfaction, we must first examine our predicament and acknowledge that we have a problem; second, we need to investigate the causes of our disease; third, we need to believe that it is possible to cure our ailment by eliminating its causes; finally, we need to take a medicine that actually eliminates the causes of dissatisfaction.

The View: An Antidote to Ignorance

Suppose we have been away from home for a long time—so much time in fact that we forgot where it is. Due to habit, we have conformed ourselves to driving in circles in an area that has become familiar to us, still believing our home is somewhere around. But, at some point, we have to face the fact that we might be searching in the wrong place; after all, we don't seem to have gotten any closer to finding our way back. We are ignorant about pretty much everything: we don't know exactly where to go, which means of transportation to use, what supplies we'll need for our journey, etc. We really need a strategy!

First, we have to get clear on where exactly our home is. We have been aimlessly going around for some time, so we might need to ask others for help. We might meet people on the road who have studied the map and are more well-traveled—they might have already found home. Then, we need find a GPS system that actually gets us there. We want to get there as quickly as possible, so ideally this system should calculate the best route, help us avoid roadblocks, give us alternative routes when needed, and warn us of dangerous sections of the road. So we need to search for GPS systems on the market, read the reviews, and purchase a few. Then, we need to develop real trust that our GPS system is reliable by studying the manual and testing it out in shorter trips. (We are heading for a long journey, so we don't want to have a malfunctioning GPS.) Only then are we prepared to embark on the trip. Of course, the GPS does not suffice to get us there: we have to make the trip ourselves. And when we're on the road, we need to constantly improve our poor driving skills, learn how to avoid accidents and recover from them if they do happen, learn when to refuel, etc. Moreover, we need to remember to follow the GPS and recalibrate it if necessary.

In this analogy, the philosophical view is the guide that proposes a destination and provides a GPS system, and the practice is the process of actually making the trip with all its joys and sorrows. In the words of Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, "The view not only gives us the reason to practice; it is also the result we seek to attain through practice. Furthermore, the view is also a safety railing this prevents us from going astray on the path. Without the view, the whole aim and purpose of Buddhism is lost. If we wish to reach a destination, it is fruitless to proceed aimlessly on the journey if we have not established our direction and destination. Likewise, meditation and action will not bear fruit unless we have established the view."

Buddhism first proposes a destination: freedom from suffering, not only for ourselves, but for all sentient beings 2. We are free to reject this proposal and try out other ones instead, such as trying to maximize pleasure and comfort in life, believing they will get us back home. But if we conclude such destination is a reasonable one, then we can rely on different GPS systems that were crafted and fine-tuned by Buddhist manufacturers through exhaustive studies of the terrain (mind and reality), proof tests, and field tests 3.

Madhyamaka Philosophy

Note: This section heavily draws from Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche's commentary on the Madhyamakavatara, sometimes quotes it verbatum.

The view of Madhyamaka (Middle Way), otherwise known as the view of Emptiness, is the skeleton of Mahāyāna Buddhism—the most common form of Buddhism in the world. Understanding of this view is said to directly cut through ignorance and therefore uproot the causes of suffering 4. From the point of view of Madhyamaka, enlightenment is equivalent to a complete and stable experiential recognition of emptiness.

We perceive phenomena as being solid, independent, permanent, and as having an essence, a 'self'. But, according to Madhyamaka philosophy, this is an illusion: if we analyze phenomena logically and experientially, we verify that nothing can be said to exist independently, solidly, and permanently, and that all compounded phenomena lack intrinsic existence, a truly existing 'self'. Because of this discrepancy between how we perceive reality and how it actually is, we suffer.

These ideas seem preposterous at first; when we look at a table, we have a deep-seated certainty that we know what a table is, that there is something that makes it a table. But when we study Madhyamaka philosophy, we find that when we are pressed for further explanations, we are left with nothing substantial: what seemed so certain becomes like sand slipping through our fingers. This process is like the peeling of a banana tree: first, it looks very solid, but when you start "peeling it", layer after layer, you end up finding there is nothing inside. As Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche puts it, "When we say this is a tent, what are we referring to? Is it this iron beam, or this piece of fabric? If we cut one piece and then another, we will not find the tent. There is no base, but we still have an idea that this is a tent, and we cling to it."

The purpose of Madhyamaka philosophy is to dismantle our assumptions through an extensive and precise sequence of questionings and argumentations. Is the tent the collection of its parts? Is it a support for its parts? Is it a specific configuration of its parts? It it defined by its function (e.g., a place where you can things)? Each of these possibilities is logically disproved, such that we are left with the completely counter-intuitive conclusion that what we call a tent does not have a substantial existence, that there is no real, solid substance there, that it is a mere conceptual imputation. Under scrutiny, the existence that we ascribe to phenomena completely falls apart—what seemed so real and solid becomes like shaving foam, a bubble. In this context, ignorance is believing in the intrinsic existence of things, which, in reality, are fundamentally ungraspable. As Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche states, "Here we are talking about the situation where there is nothing solidly existent in reality, but your mind thinks there is something. That is avidya [ignorance]. So, in buddhism, ignorance has nothing to do with evil or misunderstanding. It is a hallucination, a mirage. [..] When we look at this teabag, our habitual mind thinks that this is a solidly existent external phenomenon. We think there really is a teabag there, which is separate from my mind that thinks, This is a teabag. But according to buddhism, especially the Mahayana, there is no teabag if there is no knower, one who gives this type of label. So this is why, if I ask you whether you see the cup of tea that I see, you would normally say yes, but in fact you never see my idea of this cup of tea—you only see your idea of this cup of tea."

Apart from rejecting the extreme of existence (eternalism), Madhyamaka (translated as the Middle Way) also rejects the extremes of non-existence (nihilism), of both existence of non-existence, and neither (hence the name). So, Madhyamaka does not just say that phenomena are not truly existent—it also disproves the statements that they are non-existent, and so on. As Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche states, "When the Mahayana says a flower does not exist, it actually means that the flower is free from the four extremes: it is not existent, nor is it non-existent, nor both existent and non-existent, and not neither existent nor non-existent. If you understand this, you will not ask questions like How can the Mahayana say this table does not exist? I can see it." So, Madhyamaka never tells us what ultimate reality is (i.e., how things actually are); it just tells us what is is not—that it is free from all conceptual extremes, the extremes of existence, non-existence, both, and neither. This makes it an interesting GPS system: One that never tells us where to actually go, but only where to not go. If we are working to avoid all of the paths that we're advised not to follow, then we are on the right path back home.

The Worst Offender: The Ego

Of all conceptual imputations, there is a particular one to which Madhyamaka gives special attention because it is said to be the root of all suffering: the idea of "I". We have a sense that we have a solid, independent, permanent, and truly existing "I", and we see the world in relation to this notion of self, craving objects that give us pleasure and comfort, and having aversion towards those that cause us pain. This propels the feedback loop of suffering and causes of suffering. As Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche states: "The Madhyamika finds that the problem is ignorance, the ego, clinging to the self as truly existent. Simply speaking, this selfishness is the problem. Then it embarks on a thorough study of where this selfishness comes from. Can we actually overcome it? Can we overcome it permanently, or just for a few years? Is it really something that we can purify? For questions like this, there are studies, meditations and contemplations. And based on these, all sorts of religious-sounding terms and techniques came, such as the notions of guru, discipline, ethics, generosity, and so on."

This Project, Explained

The aim of this project is to convey madhyamaka philosophy (also known as emptiness) to the general public in an accessible, effective, and engaging manner using modern tools. The exploration of this topic will encompass various dimensions, from its philosophical underpinnings, to its relation to other ideas and its presence in other fields, to how it can be used to reframe societal systems and modern challenges. The pipeline for this project will comprise two stages: research and communication.

In the first stage, I will begin with a philosophical deep dive into Madhyamaka philosophy, reading the seminal works of Nagarjuna and Chandrakirti, and their commentaries, contemplating on their meaning, and consulting experts for clarifications. Then, I will explore connections between emptiness and other ideas and topics: In philosophy, I will compare the view of Madhyamaka with those from western philosophers such as David Hume and Derek Parfit, and analyse the importance that space is given in Taoism in light of this philosophy. In psychology and neuroscience, I will explore optical and cognitive illusions, recontextualization and metaphor, the problem of wanting vs liking, and the connection between emptiness and Bayesian models of the brain. In art, I will explore works that, in some way, convey emptiness. Finally, I will look into practical consequences of emptiness, viewing different modern challenges (e.g., climate change) and social systems (e.g., the financial system) through the lens of Madhyamaka philosophy 5. Moreover, I will try to make the connection between suffering and a lack of insight into emptiness salient.

In the second stage, I will use all the insights that resulted from the research phase to produce educational content which, for now, will take the form of a series of narrated animation videos and interactive visual examples. Ideally, these videos will cover different levels of complexity: some will target the general public and therefore be more didactical in nature, while others will be more philosophically inclined for those who would like to engage with the content in a deeper and more rigorous manner. Here, I will make use of different technologies, visual tools, and teaching methods to convey the important points (what Buddhists call skillful means).

I will take a depth-first approach to this project, focusing on efficiency and certainty rather than completeness. That is, instead of studying the whole subject and only then starting to produce educational content, I will restrict myself to studying specific sections—while still trying to get enough context—and go through the whole pipeline (ending in content production), before moving onto studying other sections. To me, this seems to be the only practical approach given the high density of the topic at hand.

The Motivation

We are often working within a limited paradigm, not realizing (or ignoring the fact) that the foundations that we're building upon are fundamentally flawed and need to be revised. In a world increasingly focused on hyper-specialization and "productivity", it's easy to loose the bigger picture and therefore intrinsic problems become difficult to see. Moreover, major revisions are unpredictable, lengthy, and have the potential to shake what has become familiar and habitual. So, we hopelessly continue to look for real solutions where they cannot be found... This is not only a waste of time, but also carries great dangers. When our philosophy, paradigms and beliefs are not aligned with reality, all sorts of problems arise: racism, speciecism, war, genocide, climate change, etc. (Ultimately, Buddhists would say that all suffering comes down to clinging to wrong beliefs.) This where and foundational philosophical work is necessary. Although cumbersome, working with the foundations has important and widespread consequences.

Through a holistic study of the foundational concept of emptiness, the exploration of its application, and its communication to others, I hope that this project can shed some light into the flaws of the systems that we're working with. As Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche states, "In the Madhyamika, we are studying the cause that makes a society dysfunctional. Why is our society not good? What is it that makes everybody go through endless pain? Economists talk of business recessions and failures in economic policy as the cause. Here in the Madhyamika we are also trying to understand what makes this society not function properly both temporally and permanently."

Current Work

This presentation shows the current structure of the project and gives a sample of the work that I hope to develop in the upcoming years.


I would like to thank Justin Kelley for his guidance in this project.


[1] One of the main teachings of the Buddha is that 'All compounded phenomena are impermanent'. Something is compounded if it originated at some point through the coming together of causes and conditions.

[2] This is actually a Mahayana destination.

[3] In Buddhism, the view is commonly crafted using reasoning and logic. Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche says, "Strictly, from the point of view of Buddhist logic, reasoning is even more important than the Buddha's words, because the Buddha's words are open to interpretation."

[4] This is symbolized by the image of Manjusri with its wisdom sword.

[5] For example, although straightforward, it is important to understand that physical or digital currency does not have any intrinsic value—it's value is merely an idea that we mutually agree upon. Because of this, it is very vulnerable. The same thing goes for the banking system, whose whole existence is based on collective trust. In fact, the whole system would collapse if—for some reason—a small percentage of people (~10%) decided to withdraw their money.