In Buddhist philosophy, "void" means emptied of phenomena as we normally see them. It does not mean absolute nothingness.

3.9 Describing Cosmic Reality

Original Text in Chinese


Literal Translation

    Next, Zhen Ru, if described in words, may be classified into two meanings. What two? One, truly Void, which can ultimately reveal reality. Two, Non-void, the body of which is full of purified merits.


Next, if we use words to describe the Supreme Reality, it may be explained in two ways. What are the two ways? One, the Supreme Reality is truly the Void, which actually reveals what Cosmic Reality is. Secondly, the Supreme Reality can be seen as Non-void. The actual body of the Supreme Reality is void to those who have purified their minds and have acquired spiritual merits, but to ordinary people whose minds are still shrouded by defilements, it appears as the phenomenal world.


The Supreme Reality cannot be adequately described in words; it has to be experienced directly. Nevertheless, for those who are not ready for such a spiritual experience, a description, despite its setback, is still helpful.

The Supreme Reality, if we attempt to verbalize it, may manifest as Void or Non-void. Void and Non-void are not two different realities; they refer to the same reality. When we experience the transcendental aspect of Cosmic Reality in our Enlightenment, it is Void. When we experience the phenomenal aspect of Cosmic Reality in our ordinary consciousness, it is Non-void. Hence, in Buddhist philosophy there are two levels of truth, namely the empirical truth (samurti-satya) of the phenomenal world, and higher truth (paramartha-satya) of transcendental reality. The second century master, Nagarjuna, stresses that this distinction is very important:

    Those who do not know the distinction between these two truths cannot understand the deep significance of the teaching of the Buddha.

3.10 The Void

Original Text in Chinese


Literal Translation

    It is called the Void because since the timeless beginning there has been no differentiation of any dharmas, devoid of all characteristics, free from any thought.


It is called the Void because since the timeless beginning there has never been any differentiation of phenomena, all the atomic particles and forces are devoid of any individual characteristics, and the whole Cosmic Reality is free from the illusion caused by defiled minds of sentient beings.


It is a common misconception among many non-Buddhists and some Buddhists to think that "void" here means emptied of anything. This is one important contributing factor why many uninformed people mistakenly think that Buddhism is nihilistic. Actually, in Buddhist philosophy, "void" means emptied of phenomena as we normally see them. It does not mean absolute nothingness. When a Buddhist says that in his deep meditation he experiences the void, it means that he has dispersed his illusion and sees reality as it is, undifferentiated and devoid of phenomena. This void is actually full of life and consciousness; it is Cosmic Reality in its transcendental aspect.

Again it is amazing how ahead of modern science is Buddhist philosophy. Listen to what Michael Talbot has to say about the latest discoveries in modern science:

    Inspired by work Wheeler did in the 1950s as well as by recent advances, many physicists believe that at its ultramicroscopic level, empty space is really a turbulent and frothy storm of activity. Moreover, it is now accepted by science that in these violent upheavals in the nothingness, new particles are constantly being created and destroyed. Most of these particles have lifetimes so incredibly brief that they are virtually non-existent, and hence are known as "virtual particles".

    However, physicists know that virtual particles are more than just abstractions that pop up in their equations because, ghostly and short-lived though these particles may be, they still jostle around the atoms in our own world a bit when they appear, and these effects can be physically measured. Indeed, a growing number of physicists are coming to believe that everything we know as real in the entire universe may ultimately have sprung out of this empty but seething vacuum ‑- perhaps reality is what "no-thing" does when it gets bored.

3.11 Neither Nor

Original Text in Chinese


Literal Translation

    Should know the nature of Cosmic Reality: it is not with characteristics, not without characteristics, not not with characteristics, not not without characteristics, not both with and without characteristics, not undifferentiated, not differentiated, not not undifferentiated, not not differentiated, not both undifferentiated and differentiated. To sum up, because all sentient beings live under delusion, separate thoughts arise in them, and these thoughts are not unified. Hence, it is called Void. If away from deluded heart, reality is not void.


We should know the true nature of Cosmic Reality. Cosmic Reality is not with characteristics, nor is it without characteristics. The negation of the above two descriptions is also not true. That means neither is Cosmic Reality not with characteristics, and neither is it without characteristics. Moreover, neither is Cosmic Reality both with and without characteristics.

The same situation applies to the nature of Cosmic Reality regarding differentiation. Cosmic Reality is not undifferentiated, and is not differentiated. Neither is Cosmic Reality not undifferentiated, and neither is it not differentiated. Also, neither is it both undifferentiated and differentiated.

To sum up, because all sentient beings who are not yet Enlightened, live under delusion, they conceptualize Cosmic Reality in terms of countless phenomena existing as separate, individual entities. These phenomena appear disunited, although transcendentally Cosmic Reality is one unified consciousness. Hence, to an Enlightened being, Cosmic Reality is called the Void, because, at moments of spiritual realization, it is emptied of illusory phenomena. If we have purified our mind so that it liberates itself from delusion, Cosmic Reality is not literally void; it is full of life and consciousness.


This passage illustrates the typical dialectic pattern Buddhist masters often use to refute any attempt to identify the Absolute with the phenomenal. It demonstrates systematically that any verbalization that is based on empirical knowledge or intellectual speculation cannot be adequately used to explain the Absolute, not just because of the limitation of language, but also because of our insufficient understanding due to our lack of direct experience.

This dialectic pattern, formulated by the great Nagarjuna, is based on a four-level refutation, as follows:

  1. not "yes"
  2. not "no"
  3. not "not yes"
  4. not "not no"
The dialectics is followed up by further refuting both yes and no, neither yes nor no, and their negation:
  1. not "both yes and no"
  2. not "neither yes nor no"
  3. not "not both yes and no"
  4. not "not neither yes and no"
Some of us may wonder why negation instead of affirmation is used in the dialectics, and may wrongly conclude that Buddhist philosophy is negative or pessimistic. The reason is that since the unenlightened inquirer has no direct experience of Cosmic Reality or any profound topic which requires higher wisdom to comprehend, he will be in no position to know any relevant features for confirmation. If he has direct experience, he is Enlightened, and will have no need for questioning. This mode of answering or refuting is similar to that in Vedanta wisdom when a master describes or answers questions on Brahman or any profound topic by saying "Not this, not that ...".

We shall have a better idea if we illustrate with a simple, prosaic example. A child wishes to know about the joy an adult feels when he helps others selflessly. Any description of the noble act of helping others and its consequent satisfaction will have little meaning to the child or even another adult who has never helped someone before. And if the child tries to compare this joy with the childish joys in his experience, the following dialogue represents the range of their inquiry and response format (though in practice, only the negation of the positive is usually used).

    Child: Is it like eating sweets?
    Adult: No, it is not like eating sweets.
    Child: Is it like not eating sweets?
    Adult: No, it is not like not eating sweets.
    Child: Is it unlike eating sweets?
    Adult: No, it is not unlike eating sweets.
    Child: Is it unlike not eating sweets?
    Adult: No, it is not unlike not eating sweets.
The child may then go on to other questions, such as "Is it like playing with my friends?", "Is it like going to the park?", etc.

The following questions concerning Cosmic Reality may demand much knowledge and wisdom, but the pattern of refutation is similar:

    Is Cosmic Reality heaven?
    No, it is not heaven.
    Is Cosmic Reality not heaven?
    No, it is not not heaven.
    Is it not that Cosmic Reality is not heaven?
    No, it is not that Cosmic Reality is not heaven.
    Is it not that Cosmic Reality is not not heaven?
    No, it is not that Cosmic Reality is not not heaven.
Cosmic Reality is not heaven because it is all-inclusive, whereas heaven, as normally conceived by most people, is apart from hell and therefore not all-inclusive. Cosmic Reality is not "not heaven" because the bliss of its experience is "heavenly". While Cosmic Reality is not heaven, and not "not heaven", the negation of these two statements also applies, i.e. it is also not true that Cosmic Reality is neither not heaven nor not "not heaven".

Like the child who still will not know what the joy in helping others selflessly is, we still shall not know what Cosmic Reality is, even we have asked many intelligent questions. The aim of the above dialectic method is not to provide definite answers, but to refute any attempt to describe the Absolute in relative terms. We shall, nevertheless, have some idea of what Cosmic Reality is not, so that we can better appreciate the futility of trying to identify it with phenomenal examples. As great teachers have always emphasized, Cosmic Reality cannot be merely understood intellectually; its realization is direct experience.

Interestingly, modern science is using similar language, and is perhaps best described with the classic thought-experiment involving Schrodinger's Cat. To demonstrate the "absurd" implications of the "new" reality revealed by modern physics where nothing is real until it is observed to happen, the great scientist Schrodinger thought out an experiment in which an imaginary cat was placed in a closed box with a vial of poison and some radioactive material. The radioactive material has a fifty-fifty chance of decaying at any time, and if it does, its emitted electrons will break the vial setting off the poison to kill the cat. Hence, at any time, the cat is either dead or alive, or neither dead nor alive.

So, if you ask a physicist whether a particular sub-atomic particle exists, he would tell you that it exists and it does not exists, either it exists or it does not exist, and neither it exists nor it does not exist. If you press him further, he might say that every one of his answers can be true or not true -- but we can be assured that all his answers are correct!

3.12 The Non-Void

Original Text in Chinese


Literal Translation

    What is called Non-Void has revealed the dharmas and the body of the Void when free from illusion. It is the Real Heart, permanent, eternal, unchangeable, immanent and omnipresent. So named Non-Void. It has no characteristics for identification. When free from realm of thought, in harmony with realization.


When we are free from illusion we realize what is called the Non-Void has revealed that it is actually the essence and the sub-atomic particles and forces of the Void. The Void is the Real Mind or Universal Mind, which is permanent, eternal, unchangeable, immanent and omnipresent. But when we are in our ordinary consciousness, we experience the Void as the phenomenal world, which is therefore called the Non-Void, though in reality there are no individual characteristics that seemingly differentiate it into separate entities with their own apparent identities. If we are free from the realm of verbalization and conceptualization, we and the Non-Void merge harmoniously into one undifferentiated reality in moments of spiritual realization.


Earlier Asvaghosha explained that the Void is experienced by ordinary people as the Non-Void. Here he reiterates this great truth from the opposite perspective: the Non-Void is the same as the Void, and can be experienced by us as such when we attain spiritual realization.

Buddhists regard the phenomena in the Non-Void or the phenomenal world as transient, momentary, forever changing, separate and localized. But these phenomena, when experienced in transcendental reality, are actually manifestations of dharmas (sub-atomic particles and forces) which are immanent and omnipresent. Understood in this light, many things in our daily life may take on a new meaning. We may, for example, realize that our loved ones who have passed away from this phenomenal world, are actually still with us, if seen from the transcendental perspective. This is why Jesus said in the Bible, "Before Elijah was, I am"; and why Sri Krishna told Arjuna in the Bhagavad-Gita, "There was never a time when I did not exist, nor you nor any of these kings. Nor is there any future in which we shall cease to be."

Buddhist masters gave a comprehensive explanation of how the phenomenal world is composed, an explanation that modern chemists, physicists and psychologists may derive rewarding food for thought. Most Theravada schools, like the Sarvastivada and the Chu She schools, classify all the dharmas that make up the phenomenal world into seventy five types. The great master Vasubandhu (c.420-500), who was converted from Theravada to Mahayana Buddhism, developed these seventy five types into a hundred, which are accepted by most Mahayana schools, like the Yogacara and the Fa Xiang schools, whose main objective is to investigate into the nature of all existence. These hundred types of dharmas are listed below. Although it may need some effort to study them, the attempt is worthwhile as these terms are often used in Buddhist literature.

The hundred types of dharmas that explain the existence of the phenomenal world are divided into two broad groups, as follows (with the Sanskrit and the Chinese terms in brackets):

    Mundane dharmas (Samskrta-dharmas, yu wei fa), and Supramundane dharmas (Asamskrta-dharmas, wu wei fa).

Mundane dharmas are categorized into four classes:

  1. Mind (Citta-dharmas, xin fa),
  2. Mental Functions (Caitasika-dharmas, xin suo fa),
  3. Form (Rupa-dharmas, se fa),
  4. Non-Association with Mind (Citta-viprayukta-samskara, xin bu xiang ying xing fa).

Together with Supramundane dharmas, there are five main classes of dharmas that make up the phenomenal world.

Mind dharmas are divided into eight classes:

  1. eye-consciousness (caksur-vijnana, yan shi),
  2. ear-consciousness (srotra-vijnana, er shi),
  3. nose-consciousness (ghrana-vijnana, bi shi),
  4. tongue-consciousness (jihva-vijnana, she shi),
  5. body-consciousness (kaya-vijnana, shen shi),
  6. intellect-consciousness (mano-vijnana, yi shi),
  7. sub-consciousness (manas, mi na shi),
  8. storehouse-consciousness (alaya consciousness, a li ye shi).

Mental Function dharmas are divided into six classes, with each class further divided into numerous sub-classes:

  1. General (Sarvatraga, bien xing)
  2. Special (Viniyata, bie jing)
  3. Good (Kusala, shan)
  4. (Evil (Klesa, fan nao)
  5. Minor Evil (Upaklesa, sui fan nao)
  6. Indeterminate (Aniyata, Bu Ding)

General (Sarvatraga, bien xing)

  1. touch (sparsa, chu se)
  2. sensation (vedana, shou se)
  3. thought (cetana, si se)
  4. idea (samjna, xiang se)
  5. volition (manaskara, zuo yi)

Special (Viniyata, bie jing)

  1. desire (chanda, yu)
  2. resolve (adhimoksa, sheng xie)
  3. remembrance (smrti, nian)
  4. concentration (samadhi, ding)
  5. wisdom (prajna, hui)

Good (Kusala, shan)

  1. belief (sraddha, xin)
  2. shame (bri, can)
  3. bashfulness (apatrapya, kui)
  4. non-covetousness (alobha, wu tan)
  5. non-hatred (advesa, wu chen)
  6. non-ignorance (amoha, wu chi)
  7. energy (virya, jing jin)
  8. repose of mind (prasrabdhi, qing an)
  9. vigilance (apramada, bu fang yi)
  10. equanimity (upeksa, xing she)
  11. non-injury (ahimsa, bu hai)

Evil (Klesa, fan nao)

  1. covetousness (raga, tan)
  2. hatred (pratigha, chen)
  3. ignorance (murdi, chi)
  4. arrogance (mana, man)
  5. doubt (vicikitsa, yi)
  6. false view (drsti, e-jian)

Minor Evil (Upaklesa, sui fan nao)

  1. anger (krodha, fen)
  2. enmity (upanaha, hen)
  3. concealment (niraksa, fu)
  4. affliction (pradasa, nao)
  5. envy (irsya, ji)
  6. parsimony (matsarya, qian)
  7. deception (maya, kuang)
  8. fraudulence (sathya, zhou)
  9. injury (vihimsa, hai)
  10. pride (mada, jiao)
  11. shamelessness (ahrikya, wu can)
  12. non-bashfulness (anapatrapya, wu kui)
  13. restlessness (auddhatya, diao ju)
  14. low-spiritedness (styana, hun chen)
  15. unbelief (asraddhya, bu xin)
  16. sloth (kausidya, xie tai)
  17. negligence (pramada, fang yi)
  18. forgetfulness (musitasmrtita, shi nian)
  19. distraction (viksepa, san luan)
  20. non-discernment (asamprajanya, bu zheng zi)

Indeterminate (Aniyata, Bu Ding)

  1. repentance (kauktrya, hui)
  2. drowsiness (middha, sui mian)
  3. reflection (xun)
  4. investigation (vicara, wen)

Form dharmas are of eleven types:

  1. eye (caksur, yan)
  2. ear (srotra, er)
  3. nose (ghrana, bi)
  4. tongue (jihva, she)
  5. body (kaya, shen)
  6. form (rupa, se)
  7. sound (sabda, sheng)
  8. smell (gandha, xiang)
  9. taste (rasa, wei)
  10. touch (sprastavya, chu)
  11. phenomenal form (dharmas-yatanikani-rupani, fa chu sou she se)

There are twenty four types of dharmas belonging to the group called Non-Association with Mind:

  1. acquisition (prapti, de)
  2. life (jivitendriya, ming gen)
  3. nature of similar species (nikaya-sabhaga, zhong tong fen)
  4. nature of different species (visabhaga, yi sheng fa)
  5. meditation on heaven without thoughts (asamjni-samapatti, wu xiang ding)
  6. meditation on extinction of phenomena (nirodha-samapatti, mie jin ding)
  7. effect from meditation on no thoughts asamjnika, wu xiang guo)
  8. name-attribute (nama-kaya, ming shen)
  9. word-attribute (pada-kaya, ju shen)
  10. description-attribute (vyanjana-kaya, wen shen)
  11. birth (jati, sheng)
  12. stability (stbiti, zhu)
  13. age (jara, lao)
  14. impermanence (anityata, wu chang)
  15. becoming (pravitti, liu zhuan)
  16. distinction (pratiniyama, ding yi)
  17. union (yoga, xiang ying)
  18. speed (java, shi su)
  19. succession (anukrama, ci di)
  20. space (desa, fang)
  21. time (kala, shi)
  22. number (samkhya, shu)
  23. totality (samagri, he he xing)
  24. differentiation (anyathatva, bu he he xing)

Supramundane dharmas are classified into six types:

  1. supramundane space (akasa, xu kong wu wei)
  2. extinction of phenomena by higher wisdom (pratisamkhya-nirodha, ze mie wu wei)
  3. extinction of phenomena not by higher wisdom but by nature (apratisamkhya-nirodha, fei ze mie wu wei)
  4. extinction of phenomena by quiescent meditation (cninjya, bu tong mie wu wei)
  5. extinction of phenomena by cessation of idea and sensation (samjna-vedayita-nirodha, xiang shou mie wu wei)
  6. true suchness (tathata, zhen ru wu wei)

While modern science uses ninety two elements to describe the composition of the world, Buddhism uses a hundred dharmas, but whereas the scientific approach is mainly unidiscipline, usually in chemistry, the Buddhist approach is holistic, involving chemistry, physics, psychology and other disciplines. Strictly speaking, according to Buddhist thinking, the dharmas, being undifferentiated in reality, are not the ingredients of the phenomenal world; but their manifestation in a hundred ways tricks us to see undifferentiated reality as differentiated phenomena.

Hence, when we see a particular collection of atoms as an elephant, it is not just because of the chemical or physical properties of the relevant elements, but also because of many other factors like the eight mind dharmas (types 1 to 8) as well as the dharmas of space and time (types 90 and 91). If we are advanced in our spiritual development, the operation of the dharmas concerning supramundane space (type 95) may enable us to see through the physical elephant into its molecular structure.

On the other hand, other sentient beings with the dharmas operating in different ways, will see the same reality differently. A cell in the elephant, for example, would have a vastly different experience. That same collection of atoms we refer to as an elephant, would probably be a universe to the cell. If we extend our analogy towards the other scale, and imagine a being bigger than us in magnitude as we are bigger than the cell, then what we regard as our universe may be some form of a cosmic elephant to this being.

But don't be unduly disturbed by our comparative insignificance; this cosmic being as well as the cell in the elephant and all other phenomena are just an illusion, a cosmic play of our mind! This does not mean that phenomena are imaginary, that they would disappear if we do not think of them. They "really" exist as long as we live in illusion. Asvaghosha's "Awakening of Faith in Mahayana" is meant to help us overcome this illusion. The next few chapters explain how this illusion arises.



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