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How Things Exist: Emptiness, Dependent Origination, and your Smartphone

how things exist

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Have you ever said a word over and over again until it lost its meaning and became just a string of sounds? You might have tried this with your own name, getting a dizzy feeling of dissociation. But you also feel a magical glimmer, a hint at how the way that you exist and the things around you exist transcends the everyday labels that we apply to them; that things are richer and more mysterious than they ordinarily appear.

You can do this with any object: a car, a dog, or a fork, and find a similar groundlessness that you begin to feel in your gut; a feeling that an arbitrary label has been randomly assigned to the object before you.

You also may have heard that all of the cells and subatomic particles in your body are replaced every seven years. But what does this mean for your sense of self: who you are today, who you were yesterday, and who you’ll become tomorrow? And are you even the same you who started listening to this podcast one minute ago?

These are some of the profound questions that Buddhism has grappled with for 2500 years. The Dalai Lama often emphasizes how, when Buddhism grapples with reality, it invites all the latest evidence from science including biology, neuroscience, physics, and cosmology. But the Buddhist view on reality then combines this scientific knowledge with inner, experiential knowledge that comes from meditation and critical reasoning to arrive at a feeling of awe and interconnectedness that transcends mere intellectual understanding.

This is Scott Snibbe, and in this week’s episode of A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment we begin to look at the ultimate nature of reality from a Buddhist perspective. We’re going to spend several episodes on this profound topic, alternating discussions on different aspects of reality with meditations that lead us toward experiencing them directly.

I’ve been looking forward to this part of the adventure with you. And in today’s episode, we start by talking about the benefits of looking beneath the surface of how things appear to exist.

The benefits of understanding reality as it is

From the perspective of personal development. the benefits of understanding the dependent nature of reality aren’t merely intellectual or for the purpose of increasing our power to manipulate reality like great businesspeople or politicians do. But, with the right motivation, it’s said that as we come to better understand how things truly exist, we also become intrinsically happier and of greater benefit to other beings and to the world around us.

This idea that understanding reality brings us closer to happiness is fundamental to the Buddhist point of view. Buddhist philosophy says that all our mental pain and suffering comes from seeing reality other than it is, wishing reality to be other than it is: both our inner and outer realities.

We experienced this in earlier episodes when we meditated on disturbing states of mind like attachment and anger, which rely upon the distorted, inaccurate view that I am more important than everyone else in the universe, even just by a little bit. We countered these self-centered feelings with meditations on love and compassion and equanimity.

We can also become misaligned with reality when we cling to impermanent phenomena as if they won’t ever change. As an antidote to such clinging, we meditated on impermanence to realize that the objects and relationships around us are not as solid and unchangeable as they seem.

The most advanced view of reality in Buddhism is called emptiness, and explores how things exist at their deepest level, including objects, living beings, minds, and even ideas. Emptiness is an active process, not a static concept.

Today’s episode, the first in a series on this topic, examines a first step in understanding reality by breaking down objects into their component parts. We do this not merely out of intellectual curiosity, but to question whether the solid, separate way we habitually see an object is the truest, deepest way that it exists.

This technique is especially powerful when analyze the strongly held external things that we crave or dislike, searching for their essential attractiveness or repulsiveness among their parts. And also, when we turn that analysis around to search for the self that so strongly craves or dislikes objects and people and ideas. What we find, both outside and within ourselves, is a way of existing that is more complex and interdependent than what appears on the surface.

Probing the complexity and interdependence of our existence serves to soften our strong disturbing emotions. Because these emotions are based on an inaccurate, exaggerated distinction between me and the things that I want or don’t want; between self and other.

When you probe reality by meditating on emptiness, the self-centered view starts to feel illogical, based on a misunderstanding of how you and the world and the people around you actually exist. If you do this analysis with the right motivation, it’s not only illuminating and awe inspiring, but it also opens your heart to others, as you see how we are all inexorably interconnected.

Emptiness is really fullness

If you are familiar with Buddhism, you may have heard this term emptiness used to describe the study and meditation on the ultimate and conventional natures of reality: the way things exist at their deepest level when compared to how they appear to our senses in everyday life.

Like many English translations for Buddhist ideas, the term emptiness is inadequate to convey a profound concept for which there’s no equivalent English word. Sunyata (shoon-yata) is the Sanskrit term for emptiness. Sometimes sunyata is translated as voidness instead of emptiness. But as you learn about the term, its meaning is almost nearly the opposite of its English definition, which can be associated psychologically with feelings of meaninglessness or pointlessness, and which is not what emptiness means at all from a Buddhist perspective.

I sometimes feel that “fullness” would be a better translation. Because the essence of the teaching on emptiness is that nothing exists on its own, nothing exists independent from anything else.

Emptiness says that everything we perceive or experience is dependent upon other things; that compounded things can be broken into parts, that nothing appears out of nowhere, but comes about due to causes and conditions.

Where this gets even more profound, is when we consider the role of the mind in how things exist; how the mind is an intrinsic, essential aspect of understanding how things exist. In Buddhism, the mind gets equal weighting with the parts and causes upon which objects and people depend.

Emptiness isn’t scary

The Buddhist teachings caution that emptiness can be a frightening topic for those unfamiliar with it. The reason for this is that emptiness can be misunderstood as a nihilistic view that you don’t exist at all, or that your actions don’t have any consequences. This is definitely not the case according to any authentic Buddhist teachers, and also to common sense.

The things and the people around you are genuinely “there.” And your actions, even tiny ones, have consequences on the people and the world around you. Doing good in the world profoundly benefits your everyday well-being, just as doing bad harms both yourself and others. Moral psychology is in no way negated by deeply understanding reality, but is only reinforced by an understanding of how interdependent our actions are with everyone and everything else; how even your tiniest actions affect your own well-being and the well-being of those around you.

Of course, if, as you listen to these episodes, if you find yourself feeling fear or nihilistic feelings, I’d encourage you to skip these episodes on emptiness and focus on the many other powerful practical meditation techniques that we’ve already explored like the preciousness of life, impermanence, cause and effect, letting go of suffering, and compassion.

Emptiness is a process, not a thing

The way we are going to look at emptiness today, in terms of analyzing the parts of objects, is relatively straightforward and easy to understand for anyone with a modest understanding of biology, physics, and the vast supply chains that bring us all the modern world’s miracles. If you can reason logically, you can understand emptiness intellectually.

But emptiness isn’t like a topic you learn in school, where you pass the test and then move on. Emptiness isn’t something to be merely intellectually understood, but a process that one repeats every day on the cushion in meditation.

As you develop the habit of seeing the world through the lens of emptiness, you start to spontaneously see objects’ parts and their dependence upon causes and conditions. And they say that eventually this interconnected understanding of reality becomes your spontaneous way of seeing everything around you all the time.

When I try and picture this, I sometimes imagine the scene from The Matrix where Neo sees through the people and objects of his illusory reality, where people and objects no longer appear as skin and metal, but as constantly changing bits of code.

Seeing through to the underlying reality of The Matrix is a good metaphor for using our reason and intellect and understanding of science to see through to the subtler way that things exist as trillions of active, always changing parts and particles.

This is also a good moment for me to say that, unfortunately, I do not have any direct realization of emptiness. There are living beings that do have this realization: great meditation teachers and spiritual leaders like His Holiness the Dalai Lama. And you can seek out videos of these masters teaching on this topic for a far more expert account. There are also some fantastic books on the topic that we list at the end of the podcast and on our website at skepticspath.org.

The main benefit of listening to me talk about emptiness is if you’re at a similar level, as an enthusiastic student of meditation. Or if you’re new to the idea of emptiness and you’d like an approachable friend who you can begin exploring this topic with. If you’re an expert in this type of meditation already, and you’re still listening, please send us any tips for improving our understanding of this topic!

How objects exist: parts, causes, and mind

We start exploring emptiness by looking at how external phenomena exist: everything from objects, to our environment, to the universe. Everything except ourselves and other living beings—objects that have minds—which we’ll look at in a separate episode.

One of the most straightforward ways of understanding emptiness is through the view of dependent origination. This is a deep topic and there are many ways to explain it. But we’re going to use one of the simpler formulations that is useful in day-to-day life, that requires no belief in metaphysical phenomena beyond what science currently understands, and that’s also easy to meditate on.

I’ve studied this topic several times with different teachers. And one of the most productive was a course given by Venerable Sangye Khadro (Kathleen McDonald) twelve years ago in San Francisco.

The way she taught emptiness involves breaking down our moment-to-moment experience of an object into elements of parts, causes, and mind.

Emptiness depends on an object that we analyze in order to observe its emptiness. Emptiness is not something that stands apart from objects or from the minds observing those objects. It’s slightly early to mention this, but this means that emptiness itself is also empty.

Typically, you choose a particular object when you analyze or meditate on emptiness. Historically, teachers often chose an object that is right in front of them, that was common to their audience. A cup is a typical example, or a rosary or mala, which every Buddhist practitioner would have on hand. The teacher would point out the parts of these objects like the handle, the clay, the beads and break them down.

Given our modern audience, however, I like the idea of a more modern object to examine, one that you most likely have in your hand or your pocket right now, and also an object that you have strong attachment to: your smartphone.

The psychological illusion of conventional reality

The first of this three-part analysis on the emptiness of an object is how it can be broken down into parts. Whether it’s an Apple, Samsung, or Google phone, it’s typically made up of the same kind of parts.

Before breaking down this object, though, consider how our phone appears to us conventionally. Conventional reality is the reality that appears to us in everyday life, where objects appear separate from one another, as they seem to exist in the moment without considering their origins, their parts, or the minds perceiving them. We have one of three reactions to objects, seeing them as intrinsically desirable or undesirable or feeling indifferent toward them.

Conventional reality is the way we normally experience reality, and it varies person-by-person based on our education and culture and biases.

The electromagnetic forces underlying all physical phenomena have no inherent color, visual form, sound, taste, tactility, or scent. These sensory experiences are psychological phenomena that create the attractive illusions within our minds of the color red, middle C, the taste of honey, or the touch and scent our lover’s skin.

According to science, physical reality is made only of invisible vibrating energy and particles within the vastness of empty space. Our psychological reality of sensory qualities and our strong reactions of craving some and being repelled by others are subjective illusions. This isn’t a new idea even to Western science. We’ve understood this on a scientific level for centuries.

Over the years I’ve saved quotes from famous scientists that support this illusory nature of conventional reality. As Westerners began to scientifically understand the underpinnings of reality in the 17th Century, geniuses like Newton, Galileo, and Descartes all came to realize reality’s illusory nature, coming to understand that things exist quite differently than they appear to us in everyday life. Sir Isaac Newton wrote in the 17th century:

…if at any time I speak of Light and Rays as coloured or endued with Colours, I would be understood to speak not philosophically and properly, but grossly. For the Rays to speak properly are not coloured. In them there is nothing else than a certain Power and Disposition to stir up a Sensation of this or that Colour. For as Sound in a Bell or musical String, or other sounding Body, is nothing but a trembling Motion, and in the Air nothing but that Motion propagated from the Object, and in the Sensorium ’tis a Sense of that Motion under the Form of Sound; so Colours in the Object are nothing but a Disposition to reflect this or that sort of Rays more copiously than the rest; in the Rays they are nothing but their Dispositions to propagate this or that Motion into the Sensorium, and in the Sensorium they are Sensations of those Motions under the Forms of Colours.

Sometimes I wish scientists still wrote with Newton’s elaborate, passionate flourishes that brings these abstract concepts vividly to life through poetic language. However, even in the 17th century, scientists were also able to write succinctly, like Galileo Galilee, who said:

“I think that tastes, odors, colors, and so on reside in consciousness. Hence if the living creature were removed, all these qualities would be annihilated.”

René Descartes is considered the first among Western philosophers to emphasize the use of reason in the development of science. And he used this reason to come to the same conclusions a few decades earlier than even Galileo and Newton, when he wrote in his Principles of Philosophy:

“It must certainly be concluded regarding those things which, in external objects, we call by the names of light, color, odor, taste, sound, heat, cold, and of other tactile qualities… that we are not aware of their being anything other than various arrangements of the size, figure, and motions of the parts of these objects which make it possible for our nerves to move in various ways, and to excite in our soul all the various feelings which they produce there.”

Despite our civilization being built upon these profound thinkers’ discoveries, I think most of us have forgotten this baseline principle of the natural world: that our internal experiences of our sense perceptions are wholly psychological phenomena and not external objective qualities of objects themselves.

This discussion of the interaction between our senses and physical reality begins to steer more deeply into the role of the mind in constructing reality, which we’ll return to a few episodes from now.

How your phone appears to you conventionally

For the moment, though, we go back to talking about your iPhone. How does your iPhone appear to you conventionally? Many of us have never given a thought to its insides, its parts, and where they all came from beyond the vague slogan printed on the box: Designed in California, assembled in China.

Your phone appears as a solid, singular object just the way Apple advertises it: a gateway to the world’s knowledge, a way to flirt over text messages, snap selfies with your loved ones, educate through videos and courses, entertain through social media and music and videos, and pursue our work and obligations and obsessions. Our phones are now the portal through which we control, discover, and navigate the world.

Most of us get nervous when we’re parted from our phone even for a few moments. It means a lot to us. And if it broke or if we lost it we’d likely drop everything to immediately go buy a new one.

The parts of your phone

But let’s look at our phone objectively for a moment, from this first analysis of emptiness by way of its parts. If you know a little bit about electronics, then you know that the phone is broken down into a variety of components:

  • The screen made of glass and special coatings
  • The case made of glass, aluminum, steel, and plastic
  • The microprocessors inside made of silicon and various trace elements
  • Wires made of copper, silver, and gold
  • Resistors, capacitors, and other electronic components and subsystems

When you think of all the phone’s component parts, it can be fascinating, but also a little confusing. Why do I have this strong emotional attachment to a collection of glass and metal and plastic?

The analysis I’m describing isn’t something you do just once, but is the outline of a meditation you can do whenever you see an object, particularly with objects to which you hold a strong attachment.

And your analysis doesn’t stop at these components, but continues to whatever depth you are able to go based on your knowledge of the natural world. I found a great video online that breaks down all the elements that go into an iPhone.

What’s in an iPhone? 70 of the 88 naturally occurring elements in the universe. It’s an incredible fact that we have this little science museum in our pocket. But what makes us feel so attached to these few grams of lithium, silicon, aluminum, and tantalum?

The most astonishing thing I learned from this video is that 70 of all the 88 naturally occurring elements in the periodic table are in your phone. Almost every element that exists in the universe has been organized, concentrated, and put to productive use in this small object that each of us carries around all day. Your phone is like a little science museum in your pocket, a nearly complete periodic table of the universe’s elements.

  • Indium, tin, and oxygen coat the touchscreen display.
  • The processor is mainly made of silicon, but also includes phosphorous, antimony, arsenic, boron, indium, and gallium.
  • The screen is made of a special glass composed of silicon dioxide, aluminum, magnesium, sodium, and potassium.
  • Gold, silver, and copper are the metals that make all the electrical connections inside that electrons zip along encoding all our data.
  • Tantalum fills the capacitors that regulate energy flow.
  • The rare earth metals yttrium, europium, terbium, and gadolinium have almost magical magnetic and conductive abilities that are used to form the colorful pixels of a phone’s screen.
  • The battery is made of lithium, cobalt, and nickel.
  • Praseodymium and neodymium are used on the phone’s tiny but powerful speakers that create the illusory vibration of air that your ears perceive as sound. And they also create the vibrations in your pocket from motors that spin when something new and exciting arrives with an alert.
An excerpt from Tom Lehrer’s wonderful “The Elements” song with visuals from Theodore Gray’s The Elements app and book.

The point of this analysis is to go as far as your mind can take you. In the twentieth century, we learned that elements can be broken down further into their subatomic components. If you know a little about particle physics, you can recall that atoms are made of a nucleus containing protons and neutrons with electrons that spin around it. The vast majority of an atom is empty space. A hydrogen atom is about 99.9999999999996% empty space. That means that if a hydrogen atom were the size of the earth, the proton at its center would be about the size of a football stadium.

In our lifetimes we’ve discovered that these subatomic particles are made up of even smaller particles with super cute names like muons, neutrinos, leptons, bosons, and quarks. And who knows what we’ll discover in the future.

Subatomic particles explained in 3 minutes including ones with super cute names like muons, neutrinos, leptons, bosons, and quarks.

You may have a headache right now from thinking about this, or feel awed by this combined wonder of the universe and human ingenuity. But that’s how you break down an object’s parts, which is the first step in meditating on the dependent origination of an object.

It’s a little easier to break down one of the classic objects that monks and nuns used for meditating on emptiness, like a cup, where you only need to think about the handle, the clay, the glaze. Or a table, where you reflect on the top, its legs, the tree it was cut from, the oils used to finish its surface.

But these days most of us are more familiar with our phone than even a cup or a table. So I think it’s meaningful to think about this strong object of our attachment. If you do this analysis enough, you may start to see your phone all the time in this dual way, as both the illusory whole and also its millions of parts comprised of nearly every element in the universe.

Extending this analysis as you go through your day

Breaking down objects into their parts is only the first step of the three-part analysis that shows objects to be dependent not only on parts, but also upon the causes and conditions that bring them together, and on the minds that perceive them.

Next week we’ll go through a guided meditation on breaking down objects into their parts like this, the first step of an emptiness meditation. And then in the following two weeks we’ll do a discussion and meditation on analyzing the causes and conditions that bring an object’s parts together. But even before next week’s meditation on breaking down objects into their parts, as you go through life this week, see if you can’t get a head start by trying to mentally take apart objects as you encounter them.

You could examine all the parts of a bicycle as you’re going for a ride; or your car or a train or bus. Think about all the parts that make up your apartment or home. Or think about all the parts that go into a meal: the different foods and spices and oils. And how they break into sub-parts of cells and molecules; ultimately, how food is composed mostly of carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, hydrogen, spiced with bits of phosphorous, sodium, chloride, sulfur, and calcium.

Fullness, not emptiness

Hopefully this introduction to this topic of emptiness—of how objects exist from the Buddhist point of view—has left you feeling full and not empty: full of the rich changing nature of objects and phenomena.

Breaking down objects into parts like this in no way denies the reality of their existence, which is an important refrain to repeat again and again. Reality is not an illusion, but illusory. Conventional reality—reality as we see it—does exist. But it is illusory in that, when we examine our perceived reality with scientific knowledge and analytical thought, this conventional way of existing proves to be inaccurate. The way things appear to us is, in fact, not as rich and complex and interdependent as things really exist.

Even as we come to understand things as more subtle and interdependent than they seem, we need to always remind ourselves that people and objects do exist. People and objects accomplish actions and serve functions. Our phone functions and conventionally brings us pleasure and pain. Our actions, even the tiniest ones, have consequences on the world and on others, and mental consequences in shaping our own minds.

This analysis by parts is wholly logical. Yet when you break objects and people down like this, there can be an emotional effect as well. It’s harder to feel strong attachment or aversion to the few grams of lithium, silicon, aluminum, and tantalum in our phones or to the cloud of protons and electrons that make up our partner. Yet that’s what these things that cause us so much excitement and grief and addiction boil down to: our mind projecting desirability or disgust onto a cloud of particles.

But meditation on emptiness isn’t in itself virtuous, it doesn’t necessarily have a beneficial result. You can analyze reality in a clinical or intellectual or even a malicious way, seeking to understand reality better so that you could manipulate it to your own selfish purpose or even to harm others.

So as a closing note, it’s important, from this Mahayana Buddhist perspective, to color your analysis and reflection on the nature of existence with a wish to become your best self and to create a better world, and not to pursue knowledge of the nature of realty out of mere intellectual curiosity, to seek personal gain or power, or with the worst motivation of harming others.

This may sound silly at first. But this idea of abusing our intellectual knowledge for selfish gain or even harm is not at all theoretical. We need go back no further than some of the first people that investigated reality down to the subatomic level, who used that knowledge to construct the first nuclear weapons.

In the coming weeks we’ll share guided meditations on dependent origination of both objects and the self that color the meditation with a positive motivation to be of benefit to both ourselves and others; to create the causes of happiness through more deeply understanding reality; to be a force for good in the world.

If you’re interested in reading more about emptiness as we go through this series of episodes, we recommend a book called Insight into Emptiness by Khensur Jampa Tegchok. The book is a clear modern introduction to emptiness by a master of Tibetan Buddhism. You can find a link to the book on our website at skepticspath.org.

There, you can also find links to our social media accounts, where we go by the name skepticspath on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIN, and where we share information on past and upcoming episodes and events.

You are also invited to join our private meditation discussion group through the link on our website.

Thanks, as always, to Stephen Butler, my partner and producer of A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment, who not only produced this episode, but has helped structure the content to be true to its original sources, and accessible to a modern audience.


Hosted by Scott Snibbe
Production by Stephen Butler
Theme music by Bradley Parsons of Train Sound Studio


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