Empty Words



Parchment fragment of the Heart Sūtra written in ancient siddham script. Bibliothèque nationale de France

It is right here, in the swirl  of our greatest aspiration–to become enlightened solely for the benefit of all sentient beings–that we are required to prove ourselves entirely pragmatic, for what we must do is embrace and employ what is immediately before us: none other than these examples of conventional truth called “words.” Mere words. Empty words.[1] As Nāgārjuna advises,

Without depending on the conventional truth,
The meaning of the ultimate cannot be taught.
Without understanding the meaning of the ultimate,
Nirvana is not achieved.[2]

The Samādhirājasūtra also says,

Without letters, how could the teaching
Be presented and heard, and by what teacher?
That which is fabricated is without letters,
And can neither be heard nor taught.[3]

Likewise, His Holiness the Dalai Lama observes, in relation to the question what is the relationship between the rational analytical and the non-verbal?: “In the scriptures, it is stated again and again that the profound experience of the definitive reality of the emptiness of inherent existence is unthinkable and inexpressible.” Yet he quickly qualifies, “However, it is also said again and again that in order to understand this very mode of subsistence, it is necessary to engage in hearing the great texts and engage in analytical thinking….It is important to know that there are three types of wisdom—the wisdom arisen from hearing, the wisdom arisen from thinking, and the wisdom arisen from meditation. At the time of wisdom arising from hearing and that arisen from thinking, reality could not be unthinkable and inexpressible. Otherwise, these two types of wisdom would not exist!”[4]

His Holiness goes on to explain how the Buddha did not remain “entirely silent,” and neither did the great Buddhist scholars, such as the Six Ornaments of the World,  remain “without saying anything…[i]t is not that they were explaining all these topics because there was not anything to explain; they spoke because there was something to speak about.”[5] Their purpose: after long study and contemplation, they wished to cause “a special type of experience to arise,” one that “is not at all like your previous verbal understanding or what you understood on the level of analytical understanding; it is inconceivable and inexpressible.”[6]


In the words of Nāgārjuna’s opening salutation in The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way: Mūlamadhyamakakārikā:

I prostrate to the perfect Buddha,
The best of all teachers, who taught that
That which is dependent origination is
Without cessation, without arising;
Without annihilation, without permanence;
Without coming; without going;
Without distinction, without identity
And peaceful—free from fabrication.[7]

Tsongkhapa in his Ocean of Reasoning presents how the master, Chandrakīrti, in his commentary on Nāgārjuna’s text called Clear Words (Prasannapadā) explains the last line:

The Commentary, commenting on “peaceful–free from fabrication” says:

When one perceives the way dependent origination really is, there is no engagement of mind or mental processes.

Engagement in this context, according to Madhyamakāvatāra-bhāṣya, is wandering as it is said that the wandering of mind and its mental episodes is stopped. Prasannapadā says in this regard:

Since conceptual thought is the wandering mind, the way things really are, being free from that, is not conceptualized. Sūtra says, “What is the ultimate truth? Where there is no wandering of mind there is no need to talk about words.” [Bodhisattvavapitaka-sūtra, dKon brtsegs ga 167a [120a]

As he quotes this sūtra he does not mean that there is no insight but instead demonstrates that the wandering of conceptual thought stops. The meaning of the statement that the conventional designation of subject and object stops is that the designation of these two stops from the perspective of meditative equipoise but it does not mean that the insight in meditative equipoise and the ultimate truth are rejected as subject and object. This is because their being subject and object is not posited from the perspective of analytic insight, but from the perspective of conventional understanding.[8]

The implication: realising the ultimate nature of a phenomena does not constitute repudiation of conventionally designated phenomena at that time, or any other time. After discussing how “this treatise” presents the view by “extensively” explicating “the selflessness of phenomena” Tsongkhapa adds:

The Prasannapadā also mentions the total absence of suffering like birth and death as the meaning of “peaceful.”[9]

Lama Zopa Rinpoche, commenting on the same line from the Salutation [trö pa nyer zhi zhi tän pa; this thorough calming of conceptual elaborations][10] explains how homage is made to the fully enlightened ones who:

reveal the peace, the creativity, creativity of the ignorance, mental fabrication, creativity of the ignorance. Having pacified that, realize all this [as] empty, so that’s the peace. So that can lead to the total liberation from samsara, the sorrowless state. So regarding truth, what was revealed by the Buddha, by  doing listening, reflecting, meditation, by actualizing that, so we can achieve that [sorrowless state].[11]


Shakyamuni (in teaching mudra). Ancient Kingdom of Gilgit, 714 AD.

Notice that “conceptual elaborations” has been glossed here by Lama Zopa Rinpoche as “mental fabrication, the creativity of ignorance.” The  words “mental fabrication”[12] together with its explicit identification with ignorance seems especially evocative as it  proposes that ignorance mentally makes stuff up (excessively conceptually elaborates) and then projectively embellishes, dresses, adorns things with it. Hence Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s frequent associated use of the English word “decorates” as in the following: ” this hallucination–truly existent–decorated on that [phenomena] by the ignorance”[13] [Italics and bracketed material mine]. You will notice that ignorance  isn’t given here in a passive form. This is because it actively and dynamically engages in hallucinatory projection and vivid distortion that masks, or covers,  the way dependently arisen things exist.

In this context, the word  “creativity” also reveals a certain ironic humor: if ignorance’s fabrications did not seem so perpetually abundant, rampant even, perhaps we would get bored and ask them to go home. In short, we would not be entertained by saṃsāra any more. Our chronic infatuation would fade which means we might have become renounced and liberated well before now. This is because the novelty of our attachments and all our related (afflictive) deployments, would have disastrously failed.

So it is this decorating hallucination that comes to total rest in non-conceptual meditative equipoise on emptiness, a state of mind to which no conventional phenomena appear.[14] Again, as Tsongkhapa stresses (above), to say that “the conventional designation of subject and object stops” must be understood within the context and perspective (or purview) of non-dualistic meditative equipoise. It definitely “does not mean that the insight in meditative equipoise and the ultimate truth are rejected as subject and object. This is because their being subject and object is not posited from the perspective of analytic insight, but from the perspective of conventional understanding.”[15]

Both perspectives exist in general (as do conventional and ultimate truths), even if the meditator is not her or himself engaging in both at the time of their own non-dualistic meditative equipoise. Hence, though conventional appearances are stopped for that meditator at that moment, this doesn’t mean they are stopped in general i.e. for others, many of whom most certainly are not profound or great meditators. If it was otherwise, realization of emptiness would surely destroy, annihilate the world, and all the ordinary conventional things in it. And there would only be one truth. Therefore none.


What happens to the  (putative distinction of the) emperor’s new clothes if absolutely everyone is wearing them? And if realising emptiness destroyed conventionalities then in dependence upon what base could we establish emptiness i.e. what might be empty? And of what could things be empty? A cascade of other absurdities would follow. For example, what would or could appear when the meditator arose from their profound absorption? Certainly not a proliferation of any number of conventional things–including, for that awkward matter, the meditator–because she or he  would have been freshly destroyed by way of terrible mechanical implication of applying, in meditation,  this erroneous view.

Therefore to assert that “both truths exist for valid dualistic cognizers” does not require us to say they “both exist in ultimate analysis” [italics mine]. I quote Hopkins at some length on this subtle point:

All existents except emptiness are conventional truths and interdependent existents. They are conventional in the sense that they are conventions as consciousnesses or expressions or as objects of consciousnesses or expressions. They are interdependent in the sense that doer depends on doing and doing depends on doer, etc. However, the latter is only an etymology and not a definition for an emptiness is also interdependent in that it depends on the phenomena of which it is the final mode of being. Just as the nature of a phenomena depends on that phenomena, so the phenomena also depends on its nature. Furthermore, an emptiness depends on the meditative equipoise that certifies it, and it also depends on its basis of imputation, the non-inherent existence of an object. Thus, though all phenomena are interdependent, conventionalities are called interdependant existents in order to stress their false appearance as if they exist in and of themselves.

Since neither ultimate truths nor truths for a concealer inherently exist, the division of the two truths is not an ontological division. Both exist only conventionally (saṃvŗtisatya; Tib. kun rdzob tu yod pa) with saṃvŗti here referring to a valid dualistic cognizer; both truths exist for valid dualistic cognizers and not in ultimate analysis. The division of the two truths emphasizes two types of objects of consciousness, truths and falsities. Both, however, are falsely existent or falsely established because neither is independent; each depends on its imputing consciousness and on the other.

Whether understood by a particular being or not, emptiness is forever established as the nature of objects, which do not gain non-inherent existent through being cognized as lacking inherent existence. They never did, never do, and never will inherently exist. Emptiness is validated by a consciousness of meditative equipoise, and there has always been someone cognizing emptiness. Though each person needs to validate it for himself, this does mean that because it is not validated for someone, it is not validated in general. If this were the case, it would be difficult to establish the existence of anything.”[16]

To return to the question of words and how empty words, especially when strategically strung together,  might nonetheless effectively work,  that is to say, validly labor as expressions that we comprehend, make to successfully signify: though appearances of [empty] words utterly subside in the sphere of, or to the bare face of uncontaminated exalted wisdom, this doesn’t mean that they have subsided, dissolved away, in general. On the contrary, it is only because they (empty words) are characterized by the eight attributes that are the essence of dependent origination (without annihilation; without permanence; without coming; without going; without distinction; without identity, and peaceful–free from fabrication)[17] that they are able to function, work as interactive (because relational) purveyors of meaning.[18]

That sometimes this meaning is successfully conveyed and at other times surely not (leaving the expressive skills of the poor current writer aside), speaks directly to the same reality: if their function was inherently existent they would be permanent. This means their import  would thus be perfectly stable, their presence totally immanent and what they signified absolutely transparent, or available, to perception. There would be no requirement or even possibility of interpretation. No possibility of other or associative meanings. They could neither come nor go, nor be the basis of any distinctions. For example, one word could not modify another (as when we hyphenate, for example, or modify a noun with an adjective or indeed, be rendered to form a sentence, an idea,  or passage of speech.   Unrelated to anything, they couldn’t bear/have/carry any identity because we impute meaning to words and thus they are vehicles of meaning only through association and this is precisely what is disallowed if they exist in and of themselves i.e. without or beyond the need of imported or applied attribution. So, ensconced in perpetual  isolated stasis, they would be found eternally unpeaceful because prevented (by dint of being entirely self-sufficient; self-supporting) any access to liberation which is free of fabrications and thus of exactly contradictory or diametrically-opposite nature to ignorance’s hallucinatory, projective  creativity. This is to say, they could never be realised as empty, and, in this sense, liberated (as inherently existent) in the sphere of emptiness. The sphere, indeed, of final reality: everything is in the space-like nature of emptiness.

The crunch: if existing from their own side, neither the meaning, nor value, nor patterns of use of words could perform, in sentences, in spoken language, indeed, in any context. This is because they would be no context at all. What then would it then mean for a word to be a word? How might a word be?

Considered the other way, it is  only because words are empty and because empty, are dependent arisings, that  we can invent and use new words, even ones as un-euphonious, as peculiar, as Swiftian, as “yahoo” and “blog.”


The Houynhnms slave-driving the Yahoos

Well, to be frank, Swift (in Gulliver’s Travels) didn’t make up the last but, in a swoop of his magnificently poisoned pen, he might well have. But to work, succeed as a new word,  Blog (just as formerly did Yahoo) would still have to be incorporated into a consensual lexicon and be transmitted knowingly, culturally, through the centuries. Any linguist or language historian will admit as much. And it was always clear that Yahoos, subjected as they were to the gracious and ever so-rationally smart Houyhnhnms, were incapable of that. Transmitting smart language that is. In fact, that’s what made them, by acute contrast to those masterful horses, into unreasoning and, dare I say it, “smelly” brutes. Fit only for their skins to be made into sails! Swift’s satire on class practice and the colonial enterprise was witheringly shrewd. So the eugenic moral of the story: Blogs (a more recent invention), like Yahoos, if to be even partially respected, must never be found heavy-footed. As for Yahoos, one wonders: could they ever be computer- literate? There’s a joke here, somewhere.


Note the aristocratic gestural delicacy  of the Houyhnhnmian hoof- craft. 

Nor could “words” for the same reason, fall out of favor, of perhaps, even worse, fall out of fashion. Like “damsel” or “rake” or “bathing costume” or “swim suit.” If you used the last in contemporary Australia you might be laughed out of town. Not even make it to the beach: that zone otherwise deeply partial to carefree behaviour and the play of  happy sun- scorched, or some might say beer- sodden, vernacular.

Indeed, let’s face it, it’s because words lack inherent existence that we have glossaries and dictionaries and any number of literary and conversational styles and decorums that, if misjudged (say we are at a job interview) might give ourselves very cheaply away, or even do us in.

And it is because words are composed, at least at the level of the material signifier (those physical marks we call, in English, letters of an alphabet, or those learnt and rehearsed noises we deliberately and knowingly shape and emit from our throat), that we can cobble them together in those ingenious puzzles we call crosswords. But we need to first fish the words from the buzzing semiotic ether with cleverly-designed clues cast as hooks. Only then have we any chance of getting them–not fish, but words, words like “pisces” (an obsolete taxonomic term for fish) to descend, and obediently settle there in delightfully articulated skeletal (because bare bones) concert with the other words who may or may not be their normal associative companions due to the perverse manipulations  of those macabre taskmasters who manufacture crossword puzzles. Within the special economy of a crossword, the meanings words signify are superceeded by the importance of how well their component parts physically fit spaces as well as mechanically intersect and lock with the spelt-shapes of other words to form two- dimensional patterns.


In a forthcoming post, Lama Zopa Rinpoche  will do extensive logical analysis on a single letter of the alphabet to prove that, for example, the letter “M” cannot exist from its own side. To a Yahoo, it would be a scribble or scrawl.  Or it might resemble a scar caused by a random scratch on the skin.

Even as we read the words of this postal forecast, they seem to exist independently of thought. They appear to jump at us  already self-established as words, together with their signified meaning, as though really existing in-and-of themselves. In the same way so do the letters that compose them. Therefore an entire analysis of emptiness can take place upon just one word. Or just one letter.

And if we can establish a single letter’s emptiness of inherent existence, then it is easy to do the same with a sentence, a book, a language, a system of communication, communication itself, communicating beings, thought, signification, meaning, reality, a tree, the world, all phenomena, etc.  But, again, being practical Bloggers as we are, its best to commence with something that is staring back at us . Like, literally.


[1] Amongst other things, this is a play upon the title of Jay L. Garfield’s book Empty Words (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002). But it also refers (as does Garfield’s title) to Nāgārjuna’s Vigrahavyāvartanī in which Nāgārjuna refutes, or rather, demolishes the opponent’s argument that if a statement is itself void of intrinsic nature it is “incapable of denying the intrinsic existence of all things.” That is to say: if language is empty, how can it refute anything? It is clear that this problem arises for them because they are unable to posit how empty things can function. Moreover, they hold/conclude that inherently existent things must be non-existents and nonexistents cannot perform any activity. They illustrate: “A fire that does not exist cannot burn, a weapon that does not exist cannot cut, water that does not exist cannot moisten; similarly a statement that does not exist cannot deny the intrinsic nature of all things. In these circumstances, your statement that the intrinsic nature of all things has been denied, is not valid.” See Kamaleswar Bhattacharya, E. H. Johnston and Arnold Kunst, The Dialectical Method of Nāgārjuna: Vigrahavyāvartanī (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1998), 95.The objector’s opening verse reads: “If an intrinsic nature (svabhāva) of the things (bhāva), whatever they may be, exists nowhere (sarvatra na vidyate), your [very] statement must be devoid of an intrinsic nature (asvabhāva). it is not, therefore, in a position to deny the intrinsic nature [of the things]” Ibid., 95.

[2] Quoted and glossed in Tsongkhapa, Ocean of Reasoning (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 498.

[3] Ibid., 318–19.

[4] The Dalai Lama, The Dalai Lama at Harvard (Ithaca: Snow Lion, 1988), 33. His Holiness further details the need to read “inexpressible” within its cognitive context: “when it is said that reality is unthinkable and inexpressible, the reference is to a state that has passed beyond the range of objects of conception and analysis, since reality as it is experienced in meditative equipoise by a Superior cannot be expressed by terms and cannot serve as an object of a conceptual consciousness of a common being” (ibid).

[5] Ibid. For detail regarding The Six Ornaments (Nāgārjuna, Āryadeva, Asaṅga, Vasabandhu, Dignāga and Dharmakīrti), see ibid., 22–23.

[6] The Dalai Lama at Harvard, 33–34.

[7] Nāgārjuna’s salutation to the greatness of Lord Buddha. See Tsongkhapa, Ocean, 24–25.

[8] Tsongkhapa, Translated by Ngawang Samten and Jay L. Garfield, Ocean of Reasoning (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 25-6.

[9] Ibid, 26.

[10] Expression of Worship from Arya Nagarjuna’s Mulamadhyamikakarika:

He who taught dependent origination –
no ceasation and no origination,
no annihilation and no permanence,
no coming and no going,
neither different nor same –
this thorough calming of conceptual elaborations:
To you, who is supreme speaker
among all fully enlightened buddhas, I pay homage.

See Prayers for Jangchup Lamrim Teachings (Jangchup Lamrim Committee: Gaden, Drepung and Sera Monasteries, 2012-14), p.2. This salutation is commonly recited following recitation of the Heart Sutra as traditional part of preliminary prayers to remove obstacles and for reasons of auspiciousness prior to a discourse or teaching commentary.

[11] Golden Light Sutra in Portland (Audio and Unedited Transcripts) by Kyabje Zopa Rinpoche, Portland, USA, 2007 (archive #1667). Lightly reedited. For the original see  

[12] Fabrication (Tib: sgro btags pa/rgo ‘dogs/spros pa). See Jay, Glossary in,Tsongkhapa, Ocean, 577. Elaborations (Tib: spros pa) seems a frequent alternative translation. Ibid, 576. This is favored by Thubten Jinpa. See Dalai Lama, Essence of the Heart Sutra, page 123 where it reads “”this thorough calming of conceptual elaborations.” This was apparently the version used in the Prayers for Jangchup Lamrim. See footnote above.

[13] Golden Light Sutra in Portland, op cit.

[14] “There are two ways of settling, or delineating, emptiness. The usual way–Jang-gya is about to describe here–is to present “a view of the bases”. This is an explanation of an emptiness–a negative of inherent existence–as a quality of a basis or object. All phenomena are bases–substrata of the predicate, emptiness. The other way to describe emptiness is in the context of its realization, how emptiness appears at the time of direct cognition during meditative equipoise. At that time, there is no base, or subject, appearing at all, only emptiness–all elaborations have ceased. From this point of view an emptiness is an absence of the object it qualifies. Within the context of meditative equipoise it is suitable to present emptiness this way, but it is not suitable in general. Emptiness must be understood as a quality of a base, of an object, its final mode of being.” Jeffrey Hopkins, Emptiness Yoga: The Tibetan Middle Way. Edited by Joe. B. Wilson (Ithaca: Snow Lion Publications, 1987, 1995), 61. [Italics mine]. 

[15] Tsongkhapa, Ocean, 26.

[16] Hopkins, Meditation on Emptiness, 418.

[17] For Tsongkhapa’s detailed account of the individual meaning of the eight attributes, see Ocean, 26-33. Tsongkhapa summarizes: “with respect to the development and degeneration of things, arising and cessation are demonstrated; with respect to time, permanence and impermanence; with respect to destination, coming and going; with respect to relata, identity and difference are demonstrated.” Ibid., 32.

[18] His Holiness the Dalai Lama, in discussion of the same verse notes that when we say that “all things “they are not born, they do not cease” etc. “[i]t is important to understand that things and events do come into being and have origination–but these characteristics do not exist as ultimate natures of those things. Again, from the perspective of a person immersed in the direct realisation of emptiness, characteristics such as origination and cessation are not found: such characteristics do not inhere in things in an ultimate sense.” After quoting the salutation verse His Holiness continues: “Here Nagarjuna pays homage to the Buddha for teaching that a dependently originated thing lacks eight characteristics and is thereby free of intrinsic existence. These eight characteristics do exist as qualities of things and events on a conventional level; that is, phenomena do conventionally cease and are conventionally born, and so on, but these characteristics do not inhere in them on the ultimate level. On the ultimate level there is only the absence of defining characteristics–namely, absence of intrinsic nature, absence of defining characteristics, absence of origination, absence of cessation, absence of defilement, absence of non-defilement, absence of decrease, and absence of increase.” His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, Essence of the Heart Sūtra: The Dalai Lama’s Heart of Wisdom Teachings. Translated and edited by Geshe Thupten Jinpa (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2005), 122-3.





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