Consciousness Is Empty (and so is love) by Susan Kahn

[ Teacher week continues with Susan Kahn. Enjoy ! ]

Consciousness Is Empty (and so is love) by 


From the perspective of emptiness teachings, to say that something is empty means that it is empty of inherent existence, neither self-created nor self-enduring, but existing interdependently like fire and fuel.

Deconstructing consciousness and seeing its emptiness takes a lot of examination, but is profoundly liberating.  For the idea of consciousness existing as its own thing, not only perpetuates the sense of an inherently separate self, but can maintain a belief in inherent existence in all other kinds of ways.

Who we are, is frequently viewed as a consciousness that transcends and trumps all phenomena.  This post briefly makes the argument that consciousness does not manifest independently and cannot escape the status of being phenomenal.

Instead, like all empty phenomena, consciousness lacks an independent nature or being, and depends upon a web of interconnections. Form is not only emptiness, but emptiness is form.

Consciousness is commonly viewed as being independent from everything else, existing with its own nature.  Within nonduality, this is often referred to as pure consciousness and is seen as a foundational reality, as the essence of everything.

This perspective does not recognize consciousness as dependent upon other phenomena to appear, but is seen as self-originated, self-created. However, such an argument runs into a problem.  In order to create or produce itself, consciousness would need to have already existed.

Additionally, consciousness is said to be conscious of itself as an undifferentiated unity.  But for consciousness to indivisibly know itself is a muddled notion in more than one way.  Consciousness must be conscious of something to be considered conscious.

If there is no content to be conscious of, how could consciousness be recognized as being conscious?  Conscious of what?  When it is seen that consciousness depends upon other (empty) things, then consciousness can also be seen as empty, empty of its own independent nature.

Furthermore, for consciousness to be conscious of itself, would require it to have an interior, making the additional claim that consciousness is an indivisible timeless, spaceless unity, impossible.  It would also take time for consciousness to be conscious of itself, to distinguish spatial parts with which to make an object of itself.

When consciousness is viewed as an inherently existent entity, it must be changeless and identical to itself. However, whatever is fixed and unchanging must be inherently dead, isolated from the flow of inter-relational continuation.

Alternatively, consciousness can be viewed as existing interdependently, as nondual inter-reflections, all empty of their own essence. This interdependence can manifest very subtly, as in non-conceptual meditative states.

For just as other mental aggregates such as thought and perception lack an independent self, so does consciousness.  It is mis-conceptualization that makes things falsely appear as if everything has its own solid core of being.

Buddhist and western emptiness teachings make the additional argument that consciousness is dependent upon content that is not even considered conscious. For it arises along with what does not think and does not perceive.

We are conscious of something, we recognize something, that is, consciousness is also dependent upon what we would call non-conscious elements.  And because consciousness does not exist solely as itself, it can function throughout the world.

Furthermore, consciousness is dependent upon a body, including the senses. So what sort of pure consciousness can this really be?  What intrinsic property can consciousness truly hold?  Consciousness is not an independent and objective witness waiting vacantly for phenomena to enter it.  It is not inherently separate from what is perceived.

A perspective of inherent separation would require consciousness to remain the same, while connected to other things.  Yet how could anything be connected to other things and remain absolutely unchanged, be both fundamentally separate and connected?

Instead of existing independently, it can be observed that consciousness is a mutually arising and dependent phenomenon, just as fire does not burn itself and is utterly dependent upon fuel.

Consciousness appears to exist in a self-created, self-powered way.  It is assumed that consciousness operates itself, but this is no more so than trees that are blowing, themselves intend to blow, or that magnets move by way of their own volition.  Consciousness is another interrelated movement of form, but is treated as if it is altogether separate and therefore altogether privileged.

In emptiness teachings, it is said that there is an equality among all phenomena because nothing can be truly separated out.  This is one of my favorite parts of this teaching, that nothing is ultimately privileged. This expands the meaning of love and compassion.  Yet, this is not to say that there exists an autonomous, undifferentiated loving unity either.

Love and compassion depend upon a relative otherness to be loving and compassionate in order to be recognized as such. For love does not love itself in a way that is identical to itself.  We don’t consider an act of love to be self-referring, just as consciousness must be conscious of what is not considered consciousness.

And as consciousness involves diversity, love is also of the world, rather than existing as an inherent sameness. As everything is without their own essence, things are neither the same nor different from each other. Neither consciousness nor love and compassion, nor any other characteristic or phenomenon can be a pure subject or pure object.

And too, as there is no inherently existent consciousness, there is no inherently existent “me.”  This implies that there is no ultimate identity to defend, or the need to desperately grasp and cling to things as “mine.” This lightens suffering.

For as everything interrelates, there is no place to fall. This understanding opens the heart to seeing unity within diversity, while embracing the diversity within unity.

Fear, intolerance and other afflictions, cannot securely withstand such a great embrace.    

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About dominic724

A former seeker starts blogging.
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4 Responses to Consciousness Is Empty (and so is love) by Susan Kahn

  1. She nails it, dominic. The ‘fire/fuel’ analogy is very good. In the end, because it shows up is all we need to see to understand that consciousness could never be anything other than phenomenal; empty, dependent, non-existent. I enjoyed this read immensely!

    • dominic724 says:

      “Foxes have holes and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to rest.” Matthew Chap 8, verse 19-22

      Nowhere to take as solid, durable, too comfortable, owned. Nowhere to settle down.

  2. Pingback: 30 years of teaching …. Sudden understanding | Many Little Drops

  3. This is one of my favorite posts from Susan’s ’emptiness cafe’ blog – such ruthless clarity!
    Thank you for sharing her wideawake wisdom, dear D.

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