The scope of this research paper is the philosophical interpretation of emptiness, with a particular emphasis on the Tibetan Gelugpa perspective. The Essence of Eloquence by Tsongkhapa (1357-1419), the founding thinker of the Gelugpa School, is at the origin of the concepts and ideas discussed in much of this research paper. My principle sources for this paper were articles and books by Jeffrey Hopkins, one of the leading American scholars on Tibetan Buddhism. Hopkins’ work in translating and interpreting The Essence of Eloquence and its associated commentaries makes of him a definitive authority on the substance and meaning of these teachings. While Hopkins has been my main source, in the interest of balance I have also made a point of incorporating other points of view into my overall analysis. Specifically, I have included a useful reflection on emptiness and the theory of physical relativity, as well as thoughts on the applicability of emptiness to the study of world religions other than Buddhism.


The work of Jeffrey Hopkins provides a useful analysis of the meaning (or meanings) of ultimate reality from the viewpoint of the Gelugpa school of Tibetan Buddhism, and so it is on the basis of his work that I shall begin to put together a meaningful interpretation of this abstract concept. According to Hopkins, “the broadest possible meaning of ‘ultimate reality’ is what exists, as opposed to what seems to exist but does not.”[1] It is interesting to note how Hopkins first approaches this concept by emphasizing what must clearly be excluded from any definition of ultimate reality, as if to imply that an understanding of what ultimate reality is not will naturally lead to an understanding of what it actually is. In Hopkins’ broad definition of ultimate reality, “what seems to exist but does not” refers to the natural, almost unavoidable human tendency to qualify objects with inherent existence. Humans, as if unwilling at first to betray the obvious messages conveyed by their own senses, naturally assign inherent existence to the objects they observe. However, if we were to interrupt this natural tendency and call into question the evidence put forth by our own senses, the question then becomes, what is the criteria for existence, and how must we go about distinguishing ordinary existence from inherent existence?

According to Hopkins, “an existent is an established base, an object of knowledge, a phenomenon, an object of comprehension, an object, and an object of comprehension by an omniscient consciousness.”[2] That is to say, all objects and phenomena observed by a valid cognition must exist. Therefore, at this stage of Hopkins’ argument, the human perception of the existence of objects has not been discredited. Hence, existence is granted to conventional phenomena, although, as we will see, this existence cannot be qualified as “inherent.”  

Hopkins then introduces a crucial distinction between two truths: “conventional truths” and “ultimate truths.” According to Hopkins, “everything that exists is one or the other of the two truths, and anything that is either of the two truths necessarily exists.”[3] “Conventional truth” refers to the mistaken human perception of the inherent existence of objects, which is due to human ignorance of the “ultimate truth.” That is to say, the ignorant human’s perception is “conventionally” true insofar as we acknowledge that particular human’s limited or incomplete frame of reference. That being said, discovering the “ultimate truth” is the key to overcoming this ignorant state of mind. According to Hopkins, the “ultimate truth” is emptiness. “An emptiness is an ultimate truth in that it is a truth (satya), existing the way it appears in direct perception, for an ultimate (paramartha) consciousness.”[4] In other words, emptiness can be considered as the ultimate truth because it inherently exists exactly as it is perceived when it is perceived directly by an enlightened mind. In this way, emptiness is distinct from all other phenomena. It does not constitute some false appearance concealing a lack of inherent existence. Rather, it corresponds to the inherent existence that all phenomena lack.

Further to this, Hopkins goes on to explain that emptiness is a necessary prerequisite for any object to exist. “This emptiness, in fact, is the very key to an object’s existence; without it, the object would be impossible.”[5] The reason for this has to do with the unchanging nature of emptiness, which precludes it from any cause and effect relationship. Therefore, if objects inherently exist, such as emptiness does, they could not have been created, since that would involve change. From this way may then conclude that created objects cannot inherently exist, since the element of transformation that is proper to their creation is incompatible with inherent existence.

This same principle applies to the human mind and is accountable for its Buddha nature. “From this viewpoint, the emptiness of inherent existence of the mind is called the Buddha nature – that which allows transformation of an ordinary, afflicted mind into the altruistic omniscience of Buddhahood.”[6] The potential movement of the mind from non-enlightenment towards a state of enlightenment would not be possible if the mind itself existed inherently, due once again to the unchanging nature of objects that inherently exist (of which there are none). In other words, emptiness is what makes the transformation towards Buddhahood possible.


At this point it is worth mentioning an insightful comparison between the Madhyamika concept of emptiness and physical relativity, as put forth by Victor Mansfield.[7] As Mansfield makes clear in his essay, there are striking similarities between the physical theory of relativity and the Buddhist concept of emptiness. For example, under the physical theory of relativity, the physical dimensions of an object traveling at close to the speed of light will vary from their initial dimensions, as observed by an external reference. However, from the perspective of someone traveling along with the same object at the same high speed, the object retains the exact same dimensions it had when it wasn’t moving. Hence, according to the physical theory of relatively, the same object could appear differently to separate individuals, depending on the circumstances each individual finds himself in. In the example of the two individuals described above (i.e. one traveling along with the object at high speed and the other observing this from a distance), it is important to note that, although their respective perceptions of the same reality contradict each other, both perceptions are equally valid. That is to say, neither has been misled by what they observed. Reality, effectively, has put forth several possibilities of itself.

Now, it is difficult to argue that an object with specific observable physical dimensions at a precise point in time inherently exists, when a separate observation of the same object at the same point in time, but from a different perspective, would reveal it to have completely different physical dimensions. So, physical relativity accords nicely with the Madhyamika theory of emptiness, since the plurality of possibilities put forth by physical relativity seems to call into question any “inherent” quality of the object’s existence, since such inherency would necessarily imply a single, unchanging physical state.


At this stage of our reflection, it is clear that objects lack inherent existence. It has also been suggested that “ultimate reality” and “ultimate truth” correspond to emptiness, or the absence of inherent existence. But what happens when we analyze emptiness in isolation of the object that it qualifies? According to Hopkins, emptiness itself is subject to the same lack of inherent existence as every other object or phenomenon. This is referred to as the emptiness of emptiness. Hence, “just as when a phenomenon qualified by an empty nature is analyzed, it is not found, so too when this phenomenon’s empty nature itself is analyzed, it is unfindable as well.”[8] This is due to the fact that emptiness depends on the object that it qualifies. That is to say, if there were no objects to analyze, then emptiness as such could not be realized. In other words, if we understand emptiness to be the lack of inherent existence of objects, then we must admit that without objects, there can be no emptiness. Hence, “all phenomena, including emptinesses, are dependent-arisings; not even ultimate truth can withstand analysis into whether it exists from its own side.”[9]

Hopkins further goes on to explain that the emptiness of phenomena is both the cause and consequence of the dependent nature of phenomena. That is to say, phenomena are said to lack inherent existence due to their dependence on the causes and conditions of their arising, while it can also be said that this lack of independence of phenomena is caused by phenomena’s lack of inherent existence.


The fact that humans misperceive emptiness, naturally tending instead to find inherent existence in objects, is what traps humans in cyclic existence. In Hopkins’ words, “the existence of an object right in its own basis of designation never did nor could occur, but beings conceive the opposite and thus have been drawn begininglessly into cyclic existence.”[10] To combat this undesirable predicament, humans must come to the realization that objects do not have the inherent existence they seem to have. The goal is to perceive the emptiness directly, unobstructed by the qualities and characteristics of the object it qualifies. This can be achieved through the regular practice of meditation. “Meditation on emptiness is the medicine that, when accompanied by compassionate method, can clear away all obstructions such that unimpeded altruistic activity is manifested.”[11]


According to Hopkins, the realm of ultimate reality is not limited to emptiness. While emptiness is considered the “object” of ultimate reality, the “realizing subject” or “wisdom consciousness” realizing emptiness is also included within the scope of ultimate reality. Furthermore, the so-called “nirvana”, which is the state of calm peacefulness achieved when a Bodhisattva fully realizes emptiness, is also equated with ultimate reality. Hence, there are three dimensions of ultimate reality, emptiness constituting only one of these dimensions. The following citation by Hopkins from Maitreya’s Differentiation of the Middle and the Extremes usefully illustrates this point:

“The ultimate is asserted as of three aspects – Object, attainment, and practice.”[12]


Compassion, rather than the pursuit of personal enlightenment, is the ultimate goal of the Bodhisattva. As Hokpins’ citation of Tsongkhapa illustrates, “the chief aims sought by both types of Mahayanists are those of others, not the enlightenment that is the aim of one’s own attainment. For, seeing Buddhahood as a means to achieve others’ aims, they seek highest enlightenment as a branch of the aims of others.”[13] This altruistic purpose of enlightenment is therefore derived from the knowledge and understanding proper to Buddhahood of:

a) The needs of ordinary sentient beings, and

b) The techniques used to assist ordinary sentient beings in their journey out of cyclic existence.

The Boddhisattva’s purpose is said to be motivated throughout by great compassion and the desire to relieve suffering. According to Hopkins, it is therefore only logical that once Buddhahood has been achieved, the Boddhisattva’s innate compassion should manifest itself in the most powerful way. “As the goal or fruit achieved through practice of the paths that realize the actual basis devoid of fabrications, “ultimate reality” in this sense is fully active and efficacious love and compassion.”[14]

This point, as put forth by Jeffrey Hopkins, was subsequently challenged Julia Ching of the University of Toronto, who asks “is it only after much arduous striving to overcome ignorance that the Buddhist develops love and compassion? Why should the cognitive plane necessarily lead to the other volitional plane?”[15] Ching here suggests that the practitioner’s evolution from the cognitive to the volitional plane is in fact a transformation that occurs as part of the Tibetan Gelupga process of purification. In other words, she suspects there may be a certain sequence to the transformation process, the first step being the realization of emptiness, and the second step being the arising of compassion towards others.

As part of the “discussion” section of Julia Ching’s response to Hopkins, Professor Napper offers some clarification on this point. According to Napper, “The practical situation is that the two levels are occurring continuously, simultaneously, but, at this level, separately though mutually supportive.”[16] In Napper’s view, therefore, it is incorrect to assume there should be any element of sequence disjoining the realization of emptiness and the development of compassion. Both these things occur simultaneously throughout the life of the practitioner. However, it is only at a very advanced level of enlightenment that these two aspects are combined into a single consciousness or “ultimate deity”.


In 1967, Frederick Streng wrote an insightful study of emptiness as a basis for approaching the study of all religions, titled Emptiness: A Study of Religious Meaning.[17] I have included this section on Streng’s study in this paper with the intention not of taking a firm position either for or against Streng’s proposed use of emptiness as a base for apologetics, but rather simply to enhance or further illustrate the meaning of emptiness by introducing the perspective of a religion scholar who is not as intimately involved with the teachings of the Tibetan Gelupka school. In his study, Streng emphasizes the transformational power of emptiness as it is understood from the Madhyamika perspective. The object of this transformation, as explained by John P. Keenan, is “the way in which one judges the validity of religious truth claims.”[18] That is to say, religious claims are to be understood within the context of their cultural specificity and validity rather than as ultimate truths. According to the Madhyamika theory, the ultimate truth, of course, is emptiness.

As we have seen in previous sections of this paper, the co-dependency of phenomena precludes it from inherent existence since inherent existence has had no cause for being and is not the result of some transformation from a prior state. Applying this logic to religious traditions, we immediately come to the realization that all religious traditions are co-dependent or “dependent-arisings”, since any given tradition is always the transformed product of an earlier tradition. In this way, Streng establishes the lack of inherent existence of religious claims to truth, thereby reducing them to the realm of mere conventional phenomena.

The purpose of this attack on the ultimate validity of religious claims is not to disqualify them totally or to reduce them to irrelevance, but rather to re-orient the purpose of religion from the definitive to the transformational. By understanding the true effect of religion as the ongoing transformation of individual mindsets rather than the manifestation of an absolute claim to the truth, our study of religion can progress on a more solid ground.  


Emptiness, it seems, draws its importance as a concept from its ability to captivate the minds and imaginations of thinkers from such a wide array of backgrounds. The concept of emptiness at first glance may seem to some as trivial or unrevealing. However, the deeper one goes in attempting to analyze the concept, the further from the truth these preconceptions seem to be.

Ultimately, the constraints of language may pose a serious obstacle in fully expressing or understanding the true meaning of emptiness. Indeed, emptiness is not something you understand so much as experience through the repeated practice of meditation. Nonetheless, the widespread mental grappling with this concept inside and outside the walls of the Buddhist world has, in my opinion, produced some constructive results. 


Hopkins, Jeffrey. Reflections on reality: the three natures and non-natures in the mind-only school. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.

Lusthaus, Dan. Rev. of Reflections on reality: the three natures and non-natures in the mind-only school, by Jeffrey Hopkins. The Journal of Asian Studies 62 (2003): 950-952.

Hopkins, Jeffrey. “Ultimate Reality in Tibetan Buddhism.” Buddhist-Christian Studies 8 (1988): 111-129.

Ching, Julia. “1. Response to Jeffrey Hopkins.” Buddhist-Christian Studies 8 (1988): 130-149.

Foster, Durwood. “2. Response to Jeffrey Hopkins.” Buddhist-Christian Studies 22 (2002): 150-168.

Williams, Paul. “Tsong Khapa’s Speech of Gold.” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London 49 (1986): 299-303.

Keenan, John P. “Emptiness as a Paradigm for Understanding World Religions.” Buddhist-Christian Studies 16 (1996): 57-64.

O’Leary, Joseph S. “Emptiness and Dogma.” Buddhist-Christian Studies 22 (2002): 163-179.

Mansfield, Victor. “Relativity in Madhyamika Buddhism and Modern Physics.” Philosophy East and West 40 (1990): 59-72.

[1] Hopkins, Jeffrey. “Ultimate Reality in Tibetan Buddhism.” Buddhist-Christian Studies 8 (1988): 112.

[2] Hopkins, Jeffrey. “Ultimate Reality in Tibetan Buddhism.” Buddhist-Christian Studies 8 (1988): 113.

[3] Hopkins, Jeffrey. “Ultimate Reality in Tibetan Buddhism.” Buddhist-Christian Studies 8 (1988): 113.

[4] Hopkins, Jeffrey. “Ultimate Reality in Tibetan Buddhism.” Buddhist-Christian Studies 8 (1988): 114.

[5] Hopkins, Jeffrey. “Ultimate Reality in Tibetan Buddhism.” Buddhist-Christian Studies 8 (1988): 115.

[6] Hopkins, Jeffrey. “Ultimate Reality in Tibetan Buddhism.” Buddhist-Christian Studies 8 (1988): 117.

[7] Mansfield, Victor. “Relativity in Madhyamika Buddhism and Modern Physics.” Philosophy East and West 40 (1990): 59-72.

[8] Tenzin Gyatso, The Buddhism of Tibet and The Key to the Middle Way (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1975), pp. 75-76. Quoted in Hopkins, Jeffrey. “Ultimate Reality in Tibetan Buddhism.” Buddhist-Christian Studies 8 (1988): 120.

[9] Hopkins, Jeffrey. “Ultimate Reality in Tibetan Buddhism.” Buddhist-Christian Studies 8 (1988): 120.

[10] Hopkins, Jeffrey. “Ultimate Reality in Tibetan Buddhism.” Buddhist-Christian Studies 8 (1988): 123.

[11] Hopkins, Jeffrey. “Ultimate Reality in Tibetan Buddhism.” Buddhist-Christian Studies 8 (1988): 123.

[12] Madhyantavibhanga, III. 11ab and 12cd. Quoted in Hopkins, Jeffrey. “Ultimate Reality in Tibetan Buddhism.” Buddhist-Christian Studies 8 (1988): 125.

[13] Tsong-ka-pa, Tantra in Tibet (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1977), p. 114. Quoted in Hopkins, Jeffrey. “Ultimate Reality in Tibetan Buddhism.” Buddhist-Christian Studies 8 (1988): 125.

[14] Hopkins, Jeffrey. “Ultimate Reality in Tibetan Buddhism.” Buddhist-Christian Studies 8 (1988): 126.

[15] Ching, Julia. “1. Response to Jeffrey Hopkins.” Buddhist-Christian Studies 8 (1988): 133.

[16] Ching, Julia. “1. Response to Jeffrey Hopkins.” Buddhist-Christian Studies 8 (1988): 135.

[17] Frederick J. Streng, Emptiness: A Study of Religious Meaning (Nashville: Abingdon, 1967).

[18] Keenan, John P. “Emptiness as a Paradigm for Understanding World Religions.” Buddhist-Christian Studies 16 (1996): 58.


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