Emptiness does not negate existence; it affirms it.

May 2, 2022



Dear Venerable Robina,


I’ve been watching your “How Attachment Pervades Our Lives” teachings for the Shantideva Center at Tibet House in 2015 (I think). It’s a really good discussion – so much to unpack there. But, in my attempt to understand emptiness, I get just so far and then there are questions. Here are the main ones I have by the beginning of the fourth session.


I apologize if there is a Dharma teaching I should be reading to address this. I am reading the teachings on the lamrim now but there is so much I don’t know that I might be overlooking the obvious teachings that would answer these questions — or reveal how far I am from a subtle understanding of emptiness. I do accept and begin to get that there is no separate “I.”



If there is no inherent “I” and if consciousness is beginningless and endless, impermanent and ever-changing, how is there a Robina and a me? What is it that personal karma sticks to from life to life? And what is the source of our delusion that we personally/individually exist, that who we perceive ourselves to be can be defined (and named)?


Hoping you are well and traveling more than Zooming, if being on the road is a relief from all the lockdowns.





Dear Y,


These are the usual questions we ask when we have the deep assumption that somehow emptiness negates existence.


But it’s the opposite: emptiness enables existence. Everything is empty because everything is a dependent arising. And because things are impermanent, ever-changing, they are certainly empty.


Our problem is that when we hear “empty” we hear nihilism. We have to get into the habit of remembering that it actually implies existence.


The I, for example, is empty not because you can’t find one – and we can’t! As His Holiness says, that’s not the real premise. The I is empty because it is a dependent arising. The ultimate nature of the I, its emptiness, is possible because the I exists conventionally, as a dependent arising. These support each other, not deny each other.


Second, there cannot be a first cause of anything; that’s just not viable. Cause and effect implies beginninglessness, as nutty as it sounds to us. If we can point to a first moment of something, cause and effect is contradicted.


The mind is beginningless and endless, which means it goes from life to life. Imprints are left on minds and go with the mind from life to life. 


Every millisecond of what mind thinks and then what the body and speech do on the basis of that just naturally program that mind, leaves seeds that will necessarily ripen at some point in the future as 1. A rebirth; 2. A tendency to think and do and say that; 3. An experience similar to it; and 4. An environmental result. We create individual beings all the time.


This is how there are universes; this is how there are trillions of individual beings, all creating their own realities and all experiencing those results. Minds create everything.


When we’ve realized that there’s no inherent I or anything else, we cut the root of the nonsense, and then when we add bodhichitta to the mix we become a buddha. Now our mind pervades the universe, sees all existence as it is; and because there’s no longer a separate sense of self has infinite compassion for all beings; and has the effortless ability to manifest in countless bodies throughout countess universes for the sake of countless suffering sentient beings.


If things were not empty, were not dependent arisings, none of this could happen.





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