Walk the Path Overgrown

Ann Oswald Laird: My mission is to empower and provide resources for every sentient being and to access the universal energy that flows in vast abundance.


November 2011

The Concept of Emptiness

There are concepts in the western philosophy that are unable to define those found in eastern thought.  Buddhist philosophy covers a large spectrum some of which are metaphysics, epistemology and ontology.  One must be aware that conventional western thought is ill-equipped to address certain, perhaps numerous Buddhist concepts.  One of those concepts is emptiness.  The Buddhist understanding of emptiness is unprecedented in western philosophy.  This is not to say that the western is inferior to that of the east, rather it claims that traditional western thinking is ill-equipped to understand the true nature of this concept.  There is no fault in being ill-equipped since the problem rests in one’s nature of thought.  The west has cultivated a formula of evaluation that is contrary to many eastern ideas. Perhaps this same argument is applied to the east.  Rightfully so, the east may not understand and/or translate western thought appropriately.

This essay is not an attempt to compare or contrast eastern and western thought.  However, it is important to understand that the basic tenets of philosophy between these distinct schools conflict with each other.  The use of western themes is used to illustrate the differences.  Furthermore, historically the description of eastern concepts has been proven to be a difficult endeavor worthy of extensive research.  This essay is an attempt to clearly communicate the understanding of “emptiness” in its appropriate context.

The traditional western thinker attempts to eliminate the dichotomy of cause and effect in exchange for an a priori justification of causality.  On the other hand, Madhyamika philosophy is not concerned with finding an objective, value-free truth, like its counterpart, regarding the causal relationship.  Its main concern is finding a pragmatic sense of purpose in the relationship between cause and effect.  The debates of whether or not an object is real differ in eastern and western philosophy.  Many westerners rely on the concept of platonic forms understanding that these ideas or forms are real, they exist.  Madhyamika philosophy states that things are not in reality produced, however, they do serve as objects that are readily perceived in our everyday experience.  This is to say that although one perceives an object, say a chair, it truly does not exist.  Rather the chair is merely a sum of reducible parts that only exists in the conventional world.  Furthermore, the concept of chair as a form does not truly exist.  This idea is in direct opposite to the western understanding.  Although some westerners may agree that the chair as a whole does not truly exist since it will someday deteriorate, they do maintain that the intellectual or conceptual form exists.  The thought that the chair really exists is merely an illusion, this concept with become clearer throughout the essay.

In order to understand emptiness it is essential that one understands dependent origination.  Dependent origination is presented as a universally valid pragmatic interpretation of causality.  Everything is subject to the concept of cause and effect.  This model has both a philosophical and soteriological understanding.  Philosophically speaking where there is a cause, there must be an effect.  And where there is an effect, there must be a cause.  The model of cause and effect truly has no meaning outside of each other.

In a soteriological understanding cause and effect teaches one about the true nature of things.  The understanding of the concept of interdependence as illustrated in the concept of cause and effect will bring one closer to the true nature of reality.  In Buddhist terms, when one realizes the true nature of things, including one’s own self, the illusion of the world will be dispelled.  Penetrating the illusion is liberating and core to the Buddhist tradition.  The penetration of illusion eliminates suffering, which is done by following the Four Noble Truths taught by the Buddha.  To clarify this concept it is important to understand the relationship between illusion, let’s use the term ignorance instead, and cause and effect/condition.

Buddhist thought identifies two significant principles: First, that as conscious human beings, none desire suffering and secondly, suffering originates from its causes and conditions.  Furthermore, Buddhism asserts that the root cause for ones pain and suffering is ignorance.  Pain and suffering do not exist independently; rather they are merely products of causes and conditions.  The ignorance of the nature of suffering becomes the catalyst for continuous pain and suffering through one’s life.

The continuous chain of cause and effect merely gives an illusion that things are real.  If one looks closely, it will become evident that object/things are comprised of a series of causes and conditions.  Returning to the chair as an example, the chair is merely an illusion comprised of countless causes and conditions.  However, the chair still has value serving a purpose in the conventional world.

Like the example of the chair, all objects in the external or conventional world appear to us as independent, self-sufficient entities.  However, if one looks closer they will discover that they are purely a spiraling collection of causes and conditions.  The question still stand, what does this mean?

This means that all objects, things and/or entities to include the human person are empty of intrinsic nature.  Nothing is absent of causes and conditions.  To say that an object exists, that object would have to be static.  However, we know this not to be true.  The human body for example is continuously changing, the blood moving through our veins, the movement of our muscles and/or the constant division of cells. Emptiness is the reality that objects as they are perceived are merely illusions.  Although the profound insight that both a material object and the self are empty of intrinsic nature, it is the realization of the absence of self nature that truly liberates an individual.  Realizing that one is empty of intrinsic nature is not an intellectual function, it is experiential.  As a result, the true concept of emptiness is truly ineffable.   However, words have been used to try to communicate, in a philosophical sense, an understanding of emptiness.  Ultimately, emptiness is a conventional designation.  It is simply an ordinary word used to accomplish a specific purpose.  Emptiness as a convention is also empty because of it own definition.

The dangers of the term emptiness rest in the misunderstanding and misrepresentation of the word.  Often in the west it has been associated with annihilation and nihilism.  Emptiness is misrepresented in these two definitions.  The root of this problem relates back to what was discussed earlier.  The paradigm for what is real, ultimate or true is very different in the east than the west.  Because of the cultural divide it is more likely that these errors were not committed out of malice, but out of ignorance.

The realization of emptiness is a profound and liberating experience in Buddhism.  To realize emptiness is to realize the ultimate nature of all things.  This experience is called enlightenment.  As mentioned, the understanding of emptiness is not an intellectual function; it is an experiential and/or spiritual function.  The Buddha was enlightened after years of meditation and spiritual practice.  The Buddha cultivated and developed wisdom according to the Four Noble Truths.  Through his persistent investigation into the nature of the reality of things as they are, the Buddha discovered the secret of emptiness.  Once one is enlightened there is no more illusion.  The concept of emptiness is a medicine for a specific ailment, the disease of clinging.  Cling simply relates to the attachment to the illusion that things are real, that they have intrinsic nature and are capable of supplying happiness.  Unfortunately, this is not true because clinging only results in suffering.  Emptiness is the cure that allows one to discover the cause of the problem.

Accordingly those who have attained enlightenment are the happiest beings in the world.  They are free from complexes and obsessions that torment others.  The one who is enlightened is in the pure service of others since there is no thought of the self.  The Buddha ministered for forty-five years after he was enlightened.  He taught others the way toward enlightenment.  He taught the emptiness of all things therefore capable of penetrating and experiencing the true nature of all entities.  Conversely, how does one operate in the world after experiencing such a profound reality that nothing has intrinsic nature?

One can only speculate what the Buddha experience each day after realizing emptiness.  Certainly, it is apparent that his thoughts were clear and concise.  He was able to articulate his experience into a conventional designation as one looks to the numerous sutras written.  Historically it is obvious that the Buddha fully participated in the convention world, but was he also somewhere else?  Could he transcend dimensions? Could he see the atomic structure of all animate an inanimate entities?  Where does one begin to answer these types of questions?  In short, the Buddha was the greatest quantum physicist able to see the nature of all things.

Works Cited

 Gethin, Rupert.  The Foundations of Buddhism.  Oxford Univ. Press:  Oxford, 1998.

Huntington, C.W.  The Emptiness of Emptiness:  An Introduction to Early Indian 

Madhyamika.  Hawaii Press: Honolulu, 1989.

Rahula, Walpola.  What the Buddha Taught.  Grove Press:  New York, 1959.

Authoritative Leadership

To be an effective leader in pastoral ministry one’s disciplines should develop from within. Consequently, as a pastoral leader in ministry it is important to understand that individuals can positively and or negatively effect how one responds to the environment, the workplace, associates and to one’s self.  Therefore, in order to understand what it takes to be a minister in today’s world one should develop their understanding of many insights in order to be effective.  In doing so one might encounter a more holistic approach to what it means to be an effective leader, an authority in ministry.  The Greek root of the word authority is translated as “the ability to enable one to grow.”  Therefore, one ought to consider that a holistic approach as an authority in ministry leadership results in empowerment for all, creating independence, fostering creativity, unifying the commitment to reach goals and utilizing the knowledge and experience of the group.

This paper is no more than an insight into essential interests that a pastoral leader seeking a holistic approach to leadership with the intent to provide growth for his/her members as opposed to controlling and dominating them in today’s globalizing world.  First, due to the paradigm shift from human resource development to principle-centered leadership the way in which we approach the concept of leadership needs to be addressed.  The human resource development paradigm was formulated on competition and control.  This set the groundwork for a hierarchical structure that permeated all facets of society.  Leaders were the dominant roles in society.

In ministry the dominant players were the church authority, the Pope, cardinals, bishops, and priests.  Further, this hierarchy resulted in the dominance over the uneducated, the poor, women and children within the church.  The new paradigm, principle-centered leadership, fosters mutual shaping and symbiotic relationship between leaders and followers.  It encourages shared responsibilities and an exchange of goals and values of all parties.  Further, the integrity of the group extends beyond the leader through its members and the effects on society.  For the church this perspective opens the door for the laity and more so for women of the church to be educated, recognized and involved in the goals of the church.  The awareness of this paradigm shift is essential for all leaders in ministry to be effective in their work.  This enables them to move beyond the Baltimore Catechism of ministry to embrace the works of Vatican II and contemporary theology.

Second, for leaders to be effective they must first be a servant to those they wish to lead.  Robert K. Greenleaf author of Servant Leadership, states that “The servant-leader is servant first” (27).  This idea is based on the premise that the leader wants to serve first.  The key relationship here is between the leader and the people focusing on the “peoples highest priority needs.”  Greenleaf portrays the servant leader as someone who leads within his/her own community but leads with the understanding of how their leadership influences all of humanity.

Servant leadership moves away from command and control toward individual participation from the leader.  Leaders are held by an ethical and social responsibility to the community.  It is within the community that values are shared by short and long-term goals and visions.  Servant leadership is empowering for all involved.  Responsibilities are shared due to the participation of the leader.  It is easy to say then that a servant leader is effective because it is through their actions that they lead.  It is by their word that they are seen.  They are the Gospel that speaks to the community and by doing so their commitment to service of others extends globally.

For leaders in ministry it is not difficult to look to the life of Jesus as an example of true servant leadership.  The Gospels eloquently express the true meaning of servant leadership.  For example, the Gospels share stories of Jesus washing the feet of the apostles, breaking bread, healing the sick and respecting the poor.  Jesus’ life was a ministry of servant leadership.  As we are called to ministry it is imperative that we indulge in discipleship.  Discipleship engages an individual to imitate the practices of Jesus.  As one is called to discipleship he/she engages within the world as leaders who serve first and therefore lead righteously both ethically and morally.  Furthermore, as servants we are always in the process of change and renewal and open to that change.  Greenleaf eloquently states, “If one is servant, either leader or follower, one is always searching, listening, expecting that a better wheel for these times is in the making” (23).

Third, for leaders in ministry to be effective they must have an awareness and/or vision.  A vision provides direction and purpose that is imperative to identify with.  In creating a vision the vision is clarified by the mission statement.  A mission statement is actively engaging the leader to be contributive toward society in a specific way.  It propels an individual into making a statement about what one’s goals, purpose and principles are.  A mission statement speaks of intent, commitment and the end results desired.

Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People suggests that in organizations “everyone should participate” and “to be effective, that statement (mission statement) has to come from the bowels of the organization” (139).  According to Covey this fosters teamwork and honest relations between employees and management.  In other words for leaders in ministry a mission statement should engage the people within the community.  This would address the dis-ease of the community or unifying point.  Without this type of focus ministers continue to treat symptoms and never achieve effective steps in ministry.  Without a mission statement that yields the wisdom of the community a minister can lose sight of his/her vision and begin to care for individuals without direction and purpose.

Creating a mission statement is important.  It creates a unity with the individual and/or the group.  It confirms the vision, the purpose, the commitment, the reason and the solution.  A mission statement reminds the participants of what they are trying to achieve.  Establishing the grounds to proceed enables the participants to remain on task to success.

Fourth, for leaders in ministry to be effective they must be able to listen.  Covey calls the art of listening “principles of empathic communication.”  Covey encourages his readers to listen to understand and not to just reply.  Empathetic listening enables the listener to “fully, deeply, understand that person, emotionally as well as intellectually” (240).  For Covey listening involves your ears but more so it involves your eyes and your heart.  Listening is engaging all five senses to be fully engaged with the speaker.  In ministry empathic communication is essential to be effective.  This form of communication strengthens the bond and creates an atmosphere of trust and honesty.

For leaders to be effective in ministry they must be able to effectively listen.  This key element is essential in the art of communicating with others.  First it is important that people feel like they are being heard.  That someone is paying attention to them builds trust and commitment. Second listening is a skill that an individual can improve on. Thirdly, it is important that personal emotions and biases do not get in the way of listening effectively.  One ought to question if listening is so important in the way humans communicate why are we not trained to listen effectively and with compassion for the speaker?

Just imagine if leadership within the Church practiced empathetic listening from the community.  Can you visualize the importance this would be for women, minorities and the environment?  You can even extend that to undeveloped countries, natural resources, the use of contraception and pluralistic viewpoints.  The list does not stop there.  The art of empathetic listening breaks the barrier a hierarchical structured society.  It tears down the walls of ignorance and prejudice to open the mind and the heart of the listener to be humbled.  It is there that humans can effectively relate and change the hierarchical structure to a co-determination mind shift.

This leads us to the fifth and last characteristic of an effective leader in ministry, the collaborative process.  The most effective way to create an energizing resource of individuals is to engage them in the collaborative process.  The collaborative process is designed to engage each participant equally.   It creates an environment that is open, friendly, organized and creative.  The collaborative process fosters communication, team-building, creativity, and empowerment for all participants.  The process encourages respect for each person.  In other words, each individual has the opportunity to speak to the group without being interrupted.  This gives everyone an avenue to get their ideas across, to be able to effect changes and/or to voice their opinion on policies that should remain in place.

In ministry the relationship is much different from the traditional relationship where one is more influential than the other.  In other words, in a traditional group setting there is a leader to the group who dominates over the participants.  Once this relationship is dissolved the leader is seen as a facilitator and equal to the individual or the group.  The collaborative process creates intimacy and a level of trust between all individuals.  This allows for those who genuinely do not speak to express genuine ideas and concerns which in many cases are very productive to the resolution.

Furthermore, one not ought to question the importance of a leader to foster a holistic approach to leadership in ministry.  Here the importance resides in the principle authoritative relationship between the leader and the followers.  This relationship is then grounded “in the ability to enable someone to grow.”  Therefore, the disciplines of the leader encourage the group to create, to be empowered, to engage in dialogue, to commit and to share equally experiences and knowledge.

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