l'm re-re-reading a book about Buddhism that is wonderfully mind-blowing, Introduction to Emptiness by Guy Newland. Yes, that wasn't a typo in the previous sentence, I'm on my third reading of the book, each time with a different colored highlighter in my hand.
So I may not completely understand what emptiness is all about in Buddhism, but I definitely have a colorful book on this subject.
I've shared links to six previous posts I've written about Introduction to Emptiness at the end of this post. If you aren't able to grasp all that Newland says in the passages below -- and I sure don't -- read those posts and some things likely will become clearer.
A basic notion is the distinction between ultimate and conventional truth. Here's how they are defined in an appendix to the book:
Conventional truth -- objects found by conventional minds that are not analyzing the ultimate nature of things. This includes everything that exists except emptiness. Nonexistents are not included.
Ultimate truth -- the object known by a mind discerning the final nature of things -- emptiness
So what is emptiness? Here's the definition, along with that for a related term, inherent existence.
Emptiness -- the sheer nonexistence of intrinsic nature. For example, the table's emptiness is the table's lack of existence by way of an intrinsic nature.
Intrinsic nature -- an essential nature whereby something comes to have an independent way of existing without being posited through the force of consciousness. The sheer absence of this is emptiness.
Here's challenging, though fascinating, passages relating to how the world is created by our minds, though it also exists in an objective fashion.
We usually suppose that the world is already and always fully real, independent of our minds, out there waiting to be revealed by the searchlight of consciousness. In fact, our minds are actually collaborating in the creation of the world, moment by moment.
This does not mean that hallucinated snakes have the same status as people and cars and tables. Snakes falsely imputed to be ropes do not in fact exist, while tables and people do exist because they have a valid, conventional existence. This is a vitally important distinction.
Suppose I very much want gold. I may see a rainbow and, affected by my desire for gold, think, "Over there I will find a pot of gold." This is rather in the nature of seeing a rope and, out of fear, believing it is a snake. There is no snake, no gold, in those places at all.
But there is a rope; there is a rainbow. These things exist conventionally. We can appropriately impute them, saying, "There it is." They function.
Another way to make this clear is to consider the case of dreams. The objects that appear to our minds in dreams, under the influence of sleep, are not able to perform the functions that they appear to have. A dream cup does not hold functioning water.; a dream gun does not shoot deadly bullets.
The water and the bullets that appear in the dream cannot quench or kill. The dream mind to which a gun appears is impaired by sleep and is not a conventionally valid consciousness. Likewise, if my eyes are bad and I see two moons in the sky over the earth, I have not thereby created a second moon.
...So we can recognize that this idea -- that things depend upon minds -- does not destroy conventional existence. At the same time, it is definitely not just another way of talking about what we already know. It does not leave our usual sense of the world unscathed.
To take the snake example: When a person sees a rope and imagines a snake, there is no snake at all in the rope. But even when there actually is a snake and we perceive a snake, the snake as we perceive it is also completely absent. It is just as nonexistent as the rope-snake.
This is profound and important to reflect upon. As we perceive it, the snake is inherently existent. It appears to our minds as something objectively real, existing in and of itself. Such a snake does not at all exist right now -- and it never could exist.
Thus when we feel that Tsong-kha-pa's emphatic validation of conventional reality is pulling us too far in the direction of affirming the ordinary way that things appear, we can recall: snakes and ropes are equally devoid of the kind of snakes I perceive, believe in, and fear.
Tables are utterly devoid of the kind of table that I believe in. People exist, but people just as I now conceive of them have never and could never exist to the slightest degree.
Unlike some Buddhist systems, Tsong-kha-pa's Prasangika Madhyamaka system does assert that there is a fully functioning external world, a world that exists outside of our minds. However, in the same breath it emphasizes that this external world is utterly dependent upon consciousness.
For example, when a god, a human, and a ghost each look at a bowl of fluid, the god sees nectar, the human sees water, and the ghost sees a mixture of pus and blood. Each being correctly perceives the fluid in accordance with the constitution of her respective sense and mental faculties.
We cannot talk about what is really in the bowl apart from the correct perspective of the various perceivers.
...When I teach this, sometimes I point out the tiny spiders clinging to the corners of the room. We are present together with them, here and now. We each have healthy minds and sense faculties. Our perceptions of the immediate environment are both correct, and yet they are so radically different as to be mutually incomprehensible.
Which of us sees what is really there?
Or think about taking a dog for a walk. Going down the street together, there is only a partial overlap between the dog's valid perceptions and my valid perceptions.
We living beings all inhabit functioning worlds that arise through the unimpaired operation of our respective mental and sensory faculties; these worlds are external to -- but never independent of -- our minds. Thus it is that the worlds of our experience intersect and overlap in astonishing ways, in infinitely complex patterns.
All of this would be completely impossible if in fact each thing actually existed objectively, out there on its own, by way of its independent and intrinsic nature.
Here's the links to my previous posts about Introduction to Emptiness.
In Buddhism, ultimate reality is an absence, not a presence
Emptiness is ultimate reality: nothing, including us, has an intrinsic nature
How consciousness is related to Buddhist "emptiness"
Buddhism: the illusion of life is believing in a fixed reality
Religious belief: a delusion about an elephant in the house
Why Buddhism doesn't believe in self-realization