The Emptiness of Emptiness: Deeper Down The Rabbit Hole Than The Matrix Dare Go

edited by O Society July 10, 2019

The Matrix is a deep film. Many point out how it represents an archetypal journey of spiritual awakening. Neo, the main protagonist, lives in the regular world but just cannot get past a feeling of existential incompleteness. He knows there is something deeper to reality. He has heard of a great teacher, who has the power to guide him to liberation – a liberation he doesn’t even understand yet, but intuits as real. This teacher is Morpheus. He finds Morpheus (or rather Morpheus finds him) and Neo comes to understand the world he is living in – the regular everyday world – is not as real as he believed it to be. He wakes up, realizes reality as it truly is, and then re-enters the world to bring liberation to all beings. Sound familiar?


Gautama Buddha anyone? Shankaracharya? Padmasambhava? Or any of the other great sages? Never heard of ’em…

Who’d you think these Wachowski people are? Brothers? Ummm…


Lilly and Lana or Lana and Lilly?

The producers/ writers of the film. Yah them.


Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum or Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee?

Do YOU think maybe there is some cistrans– adventure stuff going on in the Wachowski  film? Hmm…

The Matrix. They read some Buddhist stories and some Alice stories and their gender bender blender result of reading about Samsara in Wonderland is this being a girl in a boy’s body or something vice versa, maybe that’s the real Matrix and you projected your own interpretation.

After all, cis- and trans- are terms borrowed from genetics. None of this stuff is original material by now, folks….

Just sayin’ that’s Hollywood for you. Make a movie about your experience as a Trans-former BumbleBee and when people think it is about Buddha, why ask why?

If you’ve seen the Matrix, you’ll remember the scene in which Morpheus explains to Neo the world he has spent his whole life taking to be real is actually just a construction of his mind. As this information starts to fully land in Neo’s awareness, he basically freaks out. He can’t take it. It’s too much. He collapses, and is brought round by Morpheus and the new community he has entered.

The central teaching of Buddhism – emptiness – is very much like what Morpheus points out to Neo in this scene. For Buddhism, the outer world we experience is not ultimately real. It is a construction of mind, concepts, assumptions and habits of perception. This is conventional reality.

One difference between Buddhism and the Matrix is in the Matrix, reality behind the illusion of the world is a future where super-intelligent robots have taken over the earth and enslaved humanity to harvest their bodies as batteries to power their world. In Buddhism, the real nature of reality is very different to this. In Buddhism, the true nature of reality is buddha-nature – an ocean of infinite consciousness, wisdom, compassion, and presence, which has no centre, no end, no poles, and no limits whatsoever.

As different as these two are, in the Matrix, Morpheus points out the illusory nature of the apparent outer world perfectly. As Neo touches a chair in front of him he struggles to ask, “This isn’t real?” Morpheus replies with, “What is ‘real’? How do you define ‘real’? If you’re talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then ‘real’ is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.” This is empiricism.

What Morpheus points to here is what modern science makes clear. When we look out upon the world, despite our best instincts, we don’t see what is actually there. We see patterns of electromagnetic energy in the visible band of the electromagnetic spectrum that the photoreceptor cells in the back of our retinas can code for (reds, blues green and their various combinations). These electromagnetic signals are picked up by these cells (while the rest of the electromagnetic spectrum remains encoded) and then transformed into electro-chemical signals which pass to the visual cortex at the back our brain where they are chunked together and matched up with things we have previously seen.

We don’t see what is truly out there, which are essentially waves of electromagnetic energy and light. We see the tiny amount our brains can code for. A similar process happens for all the rest of the physical senses – hearing, touch, taste, and smell. Our brains interpret the ocean of energy, light and information we are surrounded by and construct it into our apparent experience. The outer world is a construct. As the Matrix and the Buddhists say, the outer world is empty.

Apart from the whole robots thing though, another difference between the Matrix and Buddhism is Buddhism doesn’t just understand the world as a construct of our minds, which is not ultimately real. It also understands the apparent self perceives the world as a construction – as empty. This is where Buddhism hangs out in wilder territory than the Matrix ever dared to go. The emptiness of emptiness…

Getting the fact our sense of self is not ultimately real, and is simply a construction, isn’t so easy as just being able to resort to science (though there are some fascinating neuroscientific findings point to it, such as studies looking at the experience of free will in decision-making. These studies show decisions actually happen in the brain before there is any conscious experience of us ‘making’ a decision). Getting the emptiness of self takes deep meditative practice. This requires a foundation in concentration, so our minds are actually steady enough to be able to really look at them.

When we do, we go beyond Neo’s awakening to a something vast mind blue sky. We see actually the entirety of our experience of our self and world is made of concepts – concepts such as “I”, “me”, “mine”, “you”, “we”, “it”, “they”, “the world”, “inside”, “outside”, “space”, “time”, etc. are fundamentally arbitrary. These don’t really exist in any real way. These are conventions we agree upon. This is called “this” and that is called “that” for no intrinsic reason; we just agree upon these terms for sake of convenience in discourse.

Ask yourself, would these concepts exist in the same way for people of another culture with totally different language? Would they exist if you had never been taught? Would a non-human sentient being have these concepts? What are these actually but just labels? Are you really the label “I”? Is the world really the label “world”? What is the relationship between our conceptualisation of reality, and reality itself? Are they the same or different? If they are different, what is reality behind the conceptualised chunking of our experience into the apparent experience of self and other?

When a trained meditator thoroughly investigates these patterns of perception and conceptualisation, in Buddhism, this may be called vipashyana. It is using the mind to investigate the mind, and bring down the two pillars which hold up dualistic experience – self and not-self. For Buddhism, suffering, pain, and getting so caught up in our stories we hurt each other and ourselves happens when we forget these are empty of constitutional meaning. The eventual outcome of vipashyana is the collapse of the apparent outer world and apparent inner self, with both being realised as simple constructions of experience which do not stand up to investigation.

What is revealed is reality as it truly is, deeper than the limitations of a human brain and mind. The mind is that which cognizes… or is it? What is revealed is an ocean of infinite consciousness, clear light, intelligence, compassion and wisdom, arising as the entire cosmos. What is revealed is buddha-nature. Such would be a very different film.

Now dive in…

Two Truths of Buddhism: Emptiness of Emptiness

There are two truths in Buddhism, conventional and ultimate truth.  This penetrating insight dates back to the original Buddha.  Understanding the two truths and the relationship between them is vital in seeing through the illusion of inherent existence and realizing emptiness or Śūnyatā.
Nagarjuna’s philosophy of the Middle Way or Mahyamaka school of Buddhism shows how the two truths are different and yet despite this difference are critically the same.  An understanding of this paradox is a journey of remarkable insight and clarity.  Nagarjuna’s doctrine of the emptiness of emptiness is imperative on this account.
The references used for this article focused on the brilliant works of Jay Garfield, Professor of Philosophy, Buddhist scholar and translator.


Conventional Truth

Conventional truth involves our everyday experience and understanding of the way the phenomenal world appears and functions.  If our senses and cognition are in working order we recognize that fire burns, that dark clouds foreshadow rain and that birds and not elephants fly.  Conventional truth is our agreed upon identification of things and how they work, and this understanding directs our worldly activities.
Conventional truth includes what is called valid cognition because it is able to distinguish conventional truth from conventional falsehood, an important difference. For example, there are consequences in distinguishing a snake from a rope and that sense of being right matters.1  If there was no reliability to our everyday assessments our activity would be senseless.  There is a coherence, so that conventional truth cannot be constructed randomly or simply as we choose.
However, our conventional reality is also deceptive.  Objects, both coarse as in a rock and subtle as in thought, appear as distinct entities when they are not. Phenomena are mistakenly perceived and conceptualized as self-established, each with their own core nature that makes them what they are.  In Buddhism, this deception is called inherent existence and is identified as the root error responsible for suffering.
Through examination and analysis, the Middle Way school asserts that no independent phenomena exist whatsoever.  While objects appear to exist as separate things, this sensory-cognitive appearance is illusory.   Phenomena are neither self-created nor self-enduring, but arise in dependence upon conditions without a nature or essence of their own.  The example of fire is classic in illustrating what it means to depend upon conditions, one of the key types of dependencies in emptiness teachings.
Fire, which is seen to fundamentally exist, depends upon oxygen, fuel, heat, friction, and other innumerable conditions to appear, and does not exist intrinsically, as a thing in itself.  If the conditions for fire are removed, there will be no fire. Fire cannot ignite itself or burn itself.  The characteristic of fire depends upon conditions that are not considered to be fire and that are also dependently arisen.  For instance, air is not considered to be fire because fire is not found in air.  Nor is fuel such as wood, that also depends upon sun, rain, soil, etc., considered to be fire either.  Fire, like all phenomena, is unfindable because it has no separate nature.  Because fire does not independently exist, it appears under certain conditions and no longer appears when conditions change.
The assumption that objects inherently exist does not hold up upon deeper examination. This does not mean that fire does not exist at all, but that there is no independent nature or essence that is fire.  If things existed in and of themselves rather than dependently, everything would be isolated and unchanging and nothing would relate to anything.  It is the illusion of the inherent existence of phenomena that Buddhist philosophy targets and its nonexistence is the meaning of the word emptiness.
The Buddhist insight that form is empty is not an outright denial of phenomena but of their independent status.  It is the understanding that the only kind of reality phenomena can possibly have would be interdependent and thus essenceless, empty. This leads to a central realization regarding the meaning of conventional truth.  To recognize that phenomena dependently exist is to see that because they cannot ultimately be singled out, they can only be conventionally designated and conventionally true.  This difficult and subtle point will be elaborated upon throughout the article.

“We do not say that because things are empty they do not exist; we say that because things exist they are empty.”   A Prasaṅgika-Madhyamaka   Tibetan saying 2

Because everything is empty of an essential, definable nature, conventional truth not only depends upon conditions but upon thought.  The conventional designation of phenomena does not point to inherently existent things, but are relative, relational characterizations, like large is to small, or as smooth is to rough. What we consider to be different things, depend upon other things to be considered different.  When characteristics are seen to exist independently, they deceptively appear to have their own inherent nature.  Such reification is a conceptual overlay that gives the false impression that characteristics stand outside of thought as their own separate things.
This reification process also mistakes empty, relative characteristics to be the properties, as they are literally called, of an object or objects, as init’s solid or they’re shiny.  It mistakes relative descriptions as being owned by or belonging to an object, or to a subject as in the case of a self.  But there are no objects hiding behind these characteristics, collecting or harboring them, no concealed core in which to find the essence of things.  There are not two objects, one with characteristics and one without characteristics.  Instead, all objects are designated on the basis of relationally described characteristics and to be an object is merely to be characterized.
We call a table a table because the top is characterized as firm rather than pliable, because it has legs or a base for height, and functions in one way relative to another, not because it possesses a table nature or essence.  For if it was taken apart it would no longer be identified as a table.  This same understanding can be applied to a person. There is no core nature that establishes a separate self, no center to which mind and body parts or characteristics belong.  Tables, fire, people and all phenomena are designated by thought in dependence upon relationally characterized parts.  They do not exist objectively, from their own side.
This is why conventional truth is referred to as nominal truth, as true in name only.  It is to point out that what depends upon conditions cannot have an essential nature or existence that can be pointed to, so that all objects of knowledge can only be nominal designations.  This does not mean that everything is only a name in the sense of being reducible to independent and imaginary mental activity.  If that was so, whether something was said to be a snake or a rope would make no difference and what was conventionally designated would have no rhyme or reason.  To exist nominally means that as everything is interdependent and boundaryless, nothing can ultimately be identified.  To say that phenomena are nominal is to say that they are conventionally constructed by what works, by what yields reliable results, not by what is, as in identifying real, self-grounded things.
We do not end up with objective truth in which our observations reference truly definable phenomena.  There is no observer that is separate from the observed and vice versa.  Like fire and light, subject and object are co-arisen and thus, both are empty.  But this is not to suggest that we are left with nonexistence or nonsense either.  A snake is distinguished from a rope amid the coherence of interdependent existence, but not because a snake and rope have their own self-nature.
This is the teaching of dependent arising, the teaching of the Middle Way, neither reifying conventional phenomena nor dismissing them as nonexistent.  Phenomena appear, function and exhibit consequences, but do so dependently and conventionally. We need to engage in a vision of the essenceless interdependence of things, of the empty interrelatedness of what is neither thing nor nothing, like objects in a mirror or like echoes, like interreflections rather than entities.

“Whatever is dependently co-arisen
That is explained to be emptiness.
That being a dependent designation,
Is itself the middle way.

 Something that is not dependently arisen,
 Such a thing does not exist.
 Therefore a non-empty thing
 Does not exist.” 3    


When phenomena are understood as dependent, conventional designations, this constitutes a conventional truth and not a conventional falsehood.  Deconstructing deceptive appearances involves another kind of insight as well, a non-conceptual mode of apprehension that Buddhism calls ultimate truth.  There are two truths, and one cannot be understood without the other.


Ultimate Truth

Conventional truth is truth about phenomena that is inferred through cognition. When conventional truth asserts the emptiness of phenomena it does so conceptually and linguistically, through the abstract construction and analysis of conceptual objects. Ultimate truth is different in this regard.  It is the direct, non-conceptual perception of the emptiness of phenomena.  It is like realizing that something you were looking for is not there, and right then, directly perceiving the absence of the object.  The ultimate truth of emptiness is not mediated by thought at the time of the apprehension.  It is not a conceptual realization. There is no reification involved, no subject-object duality present.  The absence is objectless, non-deceptive, free from conceptual construction.
When the inherent existence of an object or property is looked for using ultimate analysis, as in a pot, it cannot be found.  A shift then occurs and the meditator experiences a vacuity, directly perceiving the absence.  With practice, as one continues to negate the inherent existence of all kinds of objects, as well as processes such as cause and effect and motion, emptiness becomes global. The illusion of inherent existence is dispelled.  When one is no longer ruled by the attraction and aversion that accompanies the reification of phenomena, equanimity is finally possible.
From the ultimate standpoint, there are no phenomena or for that matter standpoints. Being dependently arisen, phenomena are ultimately unfindable, which includes finding that they are empty.  The conventional designation of objects requires conceptual boundaries in which to single things out and ultimately there are no boundaries, no independent things to designate.  Objects are a conventional construct. Only the conventional can name things, as conceptual abstractions amid a sea of interdependencies, without that sea being a definable whole either.
Emptiness is an absence, a negation of inherent existence, nothing more substantive or eliminative than that.  Ultimate analysis does not negate conventional existence or truth.  It is merely the superimposition of inherent existence upon conventional, phenomenal appearances that ultimate analysis targets.  After all, the conventional is conventional by definition, nothing more.  When objects cannot be found from an ultimate perspective it means only that they do not inherently exist, not that they do not conventionally exist and in a way that works in everyday life.  Conventional existence yields reliable causes and effects and works precisely because it is dependent and empty.
When inherent existence is globally negated through ultimate analysis, conventional images do not then disappear, but no longer deceive.  There is no need to withdraw from objects, for they are directly and immediately recognized as illusory-like.  In order to experience the direct, non-deceptive force of emptiness, the liberating role of ultimate truth is required.  It is not enough to conceptually infer the emptiness of things. Deception cannot be penetrated through conventional analysis alone.  However, without the role of conventional truth there could be no liberation.  Conventional truth is the ladder by which the deceptive structure of its own conceptuality is ultimately undermined.
The direct perception of emptiness depends upon conventionally designated phenomena to discover that they are empty.  Conventional truth provides the conceptual force necessary to subsequently perceive the ultimate emptiness of phenomena.  Ultimate truth is not more than the emptiness of phenomena.  If ultimate truth did not depend upon phenomena to be empty, then our reasoning becomes an absurdity. For an absence or negation must be an absence or negation of something. Furthermore, we risk falling into nihilism by equating emptiness with nothingness. This is why it is so important to identify the object of negation to be only the inherent existence of phenomena, not their conventional existence, and to recognize ultimate truth as only that absence.  Liberation requires a well-reasoned path.

“Since objects do not exist through their own nature, they are established as existing through the force of convention.” 4  Je Tsongkhapa     

Ultimate truth does not point to a transcendent reality, but to the transcendence of deception.5  It is critical to emphasize that the ultimate truth of emptiness is a negational truth.  In looking for inherently existent phenomena it is revealed that they cannot be found.  This absence is not an entity, just as a room without an elephant in it does not contain an elephantless substance.6  Even conventionally, elephantlessness does not exist.  Ultimate truth or emptiness does not point to an essence or nature, however subtle, that everything is made of.
Together, conventional and ultimate truth give us insight into the two different, yet corresponding modes of apprehending emptiness.  Conventional truth explains emptiness as dependent arising and ultimate truth demonstrates the “unfindablility,” the emptiness of phenomena.7  Conventionally, phenomena arise, have location and function, without such arising, location or function being actual in the realist sense, which is their ultimate truth. This is the emptiness of phenomena and thus, their mere conventional existence, the only existence we can know or speak of.
Conventional and ultimate truth are interrelated ways of understanding emptiness.  Yet there is another vital insight needed to explain why conventional and ultimate truths are not dualistic and this takes us to the doctrine of the emptiness of emptiness.


The Emptiness of Emptiness

Nagarjuna’s doctrine of the emptiness of emptiness involves many reasonings that interrelate in deep and comprehensive ways.  To begin with, to be empty is to be dependently arisen and emptiness is no exception.  Ultimate truth is fully dependent upon conventional phenomena to perceive their emptiness.  And as entities are ultimately unfindable, this absence that is emptiness, cannot be non-empty and findable.  This recognition uncovers the ultimate truth that emptiness is empty.  But there is more to the argument.
It can also be deduced that if the emptiness of inherent existence is ultimately true, then emptiness must also be empty.  If emptiness existed in the independent self-established sense, then emptiness would not be empty but inherently existent.  And since everything is empty, that would make everything inherently existent too. So if phenomena were empty, but emptiness was non-empty, the ultimate truth of the negation of inherent existence would itself be negated.  Instead, the teaching that emptiness is empty is consistent with emptiness as an ultimate truth.
Nagarjuna’s reasoning extends into an eloquent somersault that completes the analysis. If emptiness is empty, as in an absence, then it can only conventionally exist.9  For there is nothing that can be identified about the emptiness of things, as in the example of elephantlessness.  What is not conventionally designated does not exist in any positive sense, is not an object, hence its emptiness. Therefore, to be empty is to only conventionally exist and likewise, to conventionally exist is the only way to be empty. Furthermore, as there are no true objects to know, conventional truth is also the only truth there is.  This is the ultimate truth of emptiness and thus, a conventional truth.10  The doctrine of the emptiness of emptiness culminates in the insight that the two truths, the ultimate and conventional are ontologically the same, like two different sides of the same coin.
To recognize emptiness as conventional is to thoroughly refute inherent existence and to underscore the recognition that emptiness is the emptiness of conventional phenomena, nothing more substantive than that.11  This insight undermines a contradictory and dualistic reality where emptiness is totally real, while the conventional is totally unreal.  Nagarjuna’s doctrine negates ultimate truth as an independent base from which to assert an objective, non-empty view.  All views can only be conventionally true.

“Therefore it is said that whoever makes a philosophical view out of emptiness is indeed lost.”  Nagarjuna

Nagarjuna’s doctrine unifies the two truths as mutually dependent, as the ultimate absence of inherent existence and of the corresponding conventionality of all truth.  The doctrine boldly reaffirms emptiness by asserting ultimate truth as dependent and conventional despite the importance of the different lens and different purpose of the two truths.  For the ultimate truth of emptiness is non-deceptive only as an absence, not in the positive sense of existence or truth.12 Relatedly, conventional reality deceptively appears because it is empty, because ultimately all designation involves a kind of fabrication, though conventionally true.
The doctrine consistently upholds a non-foundational, empty relativity.  To realize emptiness is to recognize that there can be no ultimate reference points and therefore no ultimate positions or views.  It is to appreciate the negative assertion that as soon as anything is identified, it can only be a conventional designation as nothing can truly be located or pointed to.  The doctrine reveals that the ultimate truth about reality is that it is empty of any ultimate nature and thus of any ultimate truth. This penetrating and paradoxical insight reaffirms the emptiness of inherent existence including objects of knowledge.
The emptiness of emptiness refutes ultimate truth as yet another argument for essentialism under the guise of being beyond the conventional or as the foundation of it. To realize emptiness is not to find a transcendent place or truth to land in but to see the conventional as merely conventional.  Here lies the key to liberation.  For to see the deception is to be free of deception, like a magician who knows the magic trick.  When one is no longer fooled by false appearances, phenomena are neither reified nor denied. They are understood interdependently, as ultimately empty and thus, as only conventionally real.  This is the Middle Way.
The two truths are different aspects of the same emptiness, the ultimate emptiness of phenomena and their mere conventionality.13  Nagarjuna’s doctrine uncovers the ultimate truth of emptiness as empty, as conventional, nothing more substantive, a complete and consistent deconstruction of inherent existence. The doctrine of the emptiness of emptiness reclaims a world where mountains are mountains, but no longer are they inherently existent mountains.  They are empty and conventional, the only way there could be mountains.



1.  Jay Garfield. Moonshadows, “Taking Conventional Truth Seriously.” 2011,
pg. 26.
2.  Jay Garfield. Empty Words: Buddhist Philosophy and Cross-Cultural Interpretation, 2002, as cited on pg. 71.
3.  Arya Nagarjuna. The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way. Translation and Commentary, Jay Garfield. 1995, pg. 69
4.  Je Tsongkhapa.  Ocean of Reasoning, 2006, pg. 39.
5.  Garfield. Moonshadows, pg. 36.
6.  Garfield. Empty Words, pg. 50.
7.  Jay Garfield. “Madhyamaka is Not Nihilism,” 2012, pg. 12.
8.  Garfield. Empty Words, pg. 51.
9.  Garfield. Moonshadows, pg. 37.
10.  Garfield. Moonshadows, pg. 38.
11.  Garfield. Empty Words, pg. 39.
12.  Garfield. Empty Words, pg. 64-65
13.  Garfield. Empty Words, pg. 64.


Garfield, Jay L. Empty Words: Buddhist Philosophy and Cross-Cultural Interpretation. Oxford University Press, 2002.

Garfield, Jay, L., Priest, Graham. “Mountains Are Just Mountains.” Article from Pointing at the Moon: Buddhism, Logic, Analytic Philosophy. Oxford University Press, 2009.

Garfield, Jay L. “Taking Conventional Truth Seriously: Authority Regarding Deceptive Reality.” Article from Moonshadows: Conventional Truth in Buddhist Philosophy. Oxford University Press, 2011.

Garfield, Jay L. “Madhyamaka is Not Nihilism.” Smith College, University of Melbourne, Central University of Tibetan Studies, 2012.

Nagarjuna, Arya. The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way. Translation and Commentary, Garfield, Jay L., Oxford University Press, 1995.

Je Tsongkhapa.  Ocean of Reasoning: A Great Commentary on Nagarjuna’s Mūlamadhyamakakārikā. Translated by Jay Garfield and Geshe Ngawang Samten. Oxford University Press, 2006.

Dependent Arising and the Emptiness of Emptiness

Zhuangzi and Nagarjuna on the Truth of No Truth


6 thoughts on “The Emptiness of Emptiness: Deeper Down The Rabbit Hole Than The Matrix Dare Go

  1. Garfield is excellent commentary on Nagarjuna. Remember this is practice, a praxis, we must engage not just read as a bookstore Buddhist to realize wisdom. The Heart Sutra is a wonderful tool for this:


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