Widely in popular presentations of Buddhist thought, one hears that emptiness (śūnyatā) and the absence of essence (anātman) are deep, obscure, difficult teachings, profound and confusing, with authors and speakers then going on to something else supposedly more amenable to ordinary people with their immediate day to day concerns. At times the implication appears to be that the teachings of emptiness and absence of essence need not be understood in order to gain the practical benefits of meditation. Indeed, it sometimes seems as if it is being recommended that one actively avoid the ideas. Such a move evidences an intellectual elitism, and effectively serves as an open invitation to ignore the teachings of emptiness and the absence of essence. At first glance, this may look to be just another instance of good old American anti-intellectualism. But then, that fails to account for academic treatments that follow a similar course.
In his “Ethical Thought in Indian Buddhism,” (in A Companion to Buddhist Philosophy, ed. Steven M. Emmanuel, Wiley-Blackwell, 2013) Christopher W. Gowans imposes a distinction between metaphysical and practical, which appears in the following—
A partial explanation of the absence of such investigations [i.e., systematic theoretical investigation into the nature of ethical concepts and principles that is common in the Western philosophical tradition] is that Buddhist thought was always oriented towards a practical aim, overcoming suffering, and the wisdom that was thought to be necessary for achieving this aim was primarily a metaphysical rather than an explicitly practical wisdom: the realization that there is no self or that all things are empty of inherent existence. (432, insertion from 431)
Setting aside the questionable assertion that the aim of Buddhist thought was always overcoming suffering, and not awakening, the semiotic opposition between metaphysical and practical immediately suggests that metaphysical is impractical.Yet, if—as Gowans indicates and as seems accurate to me—it is insight into the teachings of emptiness and absence of essence that are necessary for achieving
the overcoming of suffering awakening, then what could possibly be more practical?
Aside: We should also note the historical and cultural contingency of the opposition of the categories of practical and metaphysical, and ask whether they are appropriate for Buddhist thought.
It has, however, long seemed odd to me that emptiness and the absence of essence are treated as somehow mysterious, difficult, obscure. They are in fact, the most obvious characteristic of our immediate experience—nothing that exists is unchanging. Right there in front of your face, in your immediate daily very practical experience is this truth. What could be simpler, what could be more obvious? What could be more practical?