One of the many sincere efforts by mankind has been to try to understand "Emptiness" sometimes by scientific methods, sometimes by religious doctrines. Recently, we are trying to investigate "Quantam Vaccum" and all to propose new theories of the origin of the universe. But, here is my question. If we define "emptiness" as absence of everything, then we have to give our constant effort to understand everything. And if we try to perceive "Everything", then how are we gonna perceive "nothing". So this seems to me a contradiction and we are running in this loop constantly.

Buddhism and Upanishadic philosophies have different stand-point on this. One of famous idea I remember from Kena-Upanishads, One can understand this only if one understands that it can not be understood, and one is not able to understand this if one thinks it can be understood.Vedas goes on to say, Nothing exists, everything is just a construction of conscious human mind. Now, my point is that will we ever be able to understand the nature of Emptiness? Or, is it, by definition of emptiness, a bad to effort to understand?

And, also I want to know what people think about the text I have summarized from Kena-Upanishad.

  • I have a suspicion there's a linguistic issue at play, here. Why define emptiness as the 'absence of everything' instead of the 'absence of anything'? This argument hinges on the unknowability of the first term, so if we don't use that term what happens to the argument? Commented Oct 25, 2020 at 13:23
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    emptiness as a mystical or religious concept has nothing whatsoever to do with quantum vacuum or physics. physics is a collection of intelligible concepts while the upanishads state they are concerned with a Something that cannot be understood or conceptualized. yet it seems you do not quite believe them, coming here for advice, as if the opinion of anyone here on this matter is any better than that of the authors of the upanishads. funny...
    – nir
    Commented Oct 25, 2020 at 13:23
  • @nir please, don't get me wrong. Always, I am in a position "I don't know enough, I want to know more". I just quoted the text to know how people interpret that statement and is that any good to get hold of this "Emptiness"? Commented Oct 25, 2020 at 16:16
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    @SoumyadipSarkar Emptiness implies something is empty, e.g. a glass, a box or even space or time. Given what you say, the word "emptiness" seems not the one you should use. Maybe "nothingness"? Nothingness implies absence of anything, and absence of everything that happens to exist. There is a vaste literature on this in Western philosophy. But nothingness is antinomic to science, by definition, including Quantum Physics. What you present as a summary of something in the Upanishad seems complete nonsense to me if it was to be interpreted literally, which I doubt very much. Better not do that. Commented Oct 25, 2020 at 17:30
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    @nir: Sometimes words spoken casually would be enough for taking a person to the ruts of what he is seeking. I mean, even your words may be very useful for that purpose. Sometimes repetition of some ancient scriptures or a group of words would be enough. Sometimes it would take time to understand what one first treated as nonsense. Just 'Time' would be enough in such cases. For a true aspirant in this path, nothing is trifle. Commented Oct 26, 2020 at 5:49

4 Answers 4


One can understand this only if one understands that it can not be understood, and one is not able to understand this if one thinks it can be understood.

Yes, this is the ultimate Truth. But this is not where the story ends -- that is where it really begins! Before we can know anything, before we can define the concept of "truth", before we can have the freedom to, finally, get on the trail of discovery, we had to find the trailhead.

That same concept was proposed many times later under different names. Here are a few examples by Western philosophy:

  • All of Immanuel Kant's "Critique of the Pure Reason"
  • Socrates' famous quote, "The only true wisdom is in knowing that you know nothing"
  • The proposal by René Descartes, known henceforth as "Cartesian doubt", echoed by
  • Søren Kierkegaard's "leap of faith"

... just from the top of my head. Put in plain English, it means that your own existence, while self-evident, is the only truth you will ever know.1

Call it the Ultimate Truth, 'cause you won't get any further by staying rational and relying on pure reason alone, as the title of "Critique..." suggests.

And that's how we "understand that it can not be understood".

Bottom line, no one was particularly impressed with the pure reason's performance, because, ultimate or not, ignorance a lousy final destination for purely practical reasons. Which is what the second "Critique(?)..." was about --because in the end, "To Be is to Do",3 and knowing nothing isn't much to go by, is it?

So what for a rational person to do in this situation? Well, that's what faith is for -- when there is no reason, one must have faith.

Yes, we are ditching rationality, but we are doing it for rational reasons, and, otherwise, we stay rational about it -- about being irrational.

"One can understand this only if one understands that it can not be understood" -- it's no wordplay, and, hopefully, you will see it too.

So staying rational is not an option -- on the one hand. On the other hand, abandoning rationality for good is not an option either (I mean being rational, acting rationally -- that WAS the whole point, isn't it?.. to understand, to know the truth -- so we can see clearly and, maybe, even know what in the world we are doing?).

That makes it about finding the right balance -- rather than replacing rationality with blind faith, we must make it a leap. Just this one time, we are going to act on faith and simply assume that we, well, can be rational.4 The tenets of our faith, if true, must allow for a strictly rational system of beliefs from that point onward. I'm only aware of one such set -- these days we call it "the objective reality", but in pre-civilization cultures, we referred to it as "God".

Specifically, the "objective" part means:

a) we all share the same, one and only reality,
b) we ourselves are a part of it,
c) we perceive it in very much the same way, and
d) it is explainable

The first three conditions allow for a valid definition of truth -- and it is only valid if it also defines what is not true.5 It also must make the truly objective and universal: what is true for one must be true for everyone else (we can have differences in opinions, even tho it doesn't reflect well on us).

The explainable part means that things never happen at random -- tho "not at random" does not necessarily mean they happen for a reason. Rather, it means we can always, at least in theory, trace their cause to some past events. In fact, our brains are hard-wired with that capacity, the capacity to understand the logic behind events.

The Koine Greek word for that faculty was "lógos":
Through it7 all things were made; without it, nothing was made that has been made.
  -- John 1:3

And if only we had the will to use it! But, for many thousands of years now, we just don't.

The lógos holds always, but humans, always time and again, prove unable to ever understand it, both before hearing it and when they have first heard it.
  -- Heraclitus, circa 450 BC


1 ... slightly complicated by the fact that most people simply do not deal in knowledge (so if my "plain" English isn't really... well, you are not alone)

2 looks like an ivory tower... otherwise totally unintelligible, and so even more imposing

3 ... and I don't even know whose quote is that anymore (though I'm pretty sure it's Socrates')

4 BTW, rational means explainable ;) For example, a belief is rational if you can explain why it is true.

5 Because we need to know what is not possible in order to know our options, to have a choice, and, therefore, freedom.

7 Koine Greek "lógos", Aramaic "miltha", or Sanskrit "ātman" refer to the same concept, but no modern language has a word for it. Latin was already too modern, so in the Latin translation of Gospels "lógos" simply turned into "verbum" ("the word"). Probably meant as a placeholder, until they figured out a proper translation, but (in the rush?) things slipped through the cracks, as they often do.

  • People used to say "word" when they were agreeing that someone had said something true.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Aug 3, 2022 at 10:36

It is amazing! After reading Kena Upanishad you are still pursuing emptiness!

Ask yourself: "What should be the thing that separates emptiness from everything?" If emptiness prevents everything, that 'emptiness' is 'something'. So, in my opinion pursuing emptiness (I didn't mean consciousness) is a futile effort. Again, to perceive something that is outside, your sense organs need stimulation. How emptiness stimulates your sense organs to attain your goal?

A word in your question in bold letters (-- 'Nothing exists') is confusing. It makes a feeling that 'something called nothing, exists'. Without proper understanding of the ancient science, you tried to assimilate modern science. That caused the problem.

Scientists would retreat from 'emptiness' when they discover more things from 'this emptiness' and would call it by some new name.

You read, "Everything is just a construction of conscious human mind." Then you could change your statement like this, "Scientists perceive the presence of Quantum Vacuum through sense organs. If so, everything -- including quantum vacuum, is just a construction of conscious human mind."

If you are still seeking emptiness while following Kena Upanishad, try to read from page 12 of this publication that begins with "Yan Manasa Na Manute": Kena Upanishad [Sanskrit-English]. Then you will understand why one can understand this only if one understands that it can not be understood, and one is not able to understand this if one thinks it can be understood.

In short, consciousness transcends what you call emptiness and it has already been realized / it can be realized.

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    Yes, I should have said "nothing exists except consciousness." Commented Oct 26, 2020 at 3:57
  • I have added a reference for you in my answer. Commented Oct 26, 2020 at 4:30

Your query is is reminiscent of Carnap's quibble with poet-philosopher Heidigger, whose "das Nichts selbst nichtet," was [in]famously translated as "the nothing itself noths" (misleadingly likening it to propositions like "the cat meows.") Carnap believed that this poetic element of Heidigger's thought depended upon misusing language to create the illusion of an edifying profundity.

Carnap was not buying it, pointing out that when we say that "nothing is outside," what we really mean is that "there does not exist anything which is outside." That is, that the term "not" can be used only to negate a proposition, and that to use it as the subject of a proposition is at best a sign of cognitive confusion, and at worst a deliberate attempt to mislead by obfuscation and mystification.

And as Wittgenstein concluded his Tractatus, "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent."


One answer reminds us of

Socrates' famous quote, "The only true wisdom is in knowing that you know nothing"

I am minded too of a Goon Show gag built on "Little does he know that I know...", elaborating each line until it concluded something like "Little does he know that I know that he knows that I know that he knows that I know nothing!" but several iterations longer.

Such issues bedevil our attempts to distinguish the idea of nothing from the (non)-existence of nothing, and indeed from the idea of the (non)-existence of nothing.

They are only compounded when the mystical experience of nothing enters the stage; has the mystic experienced a subjective idea of nothing or a subjective idea of the nothingness of the nothing which does (not) actually exist?

Our minds run in self-defeating circles, creating insoluble paradoxes. The cycle must be cut off by concluding something like:

  • The thing simply cannot be understood.
  • "Not nothing" is a double-negative and the whole thing collapses into misguided sophistry.
  • Since no useful understanding can be drawn, none should be attempted.

We can at least create and manipulate symbols which denote nothing, such as zero, the members of the empty set, and of course the word "nothing".

Ancient Taoists observed that to create an idea is to simultaneously create its opposite; the two cannot be disassociated. Our understanding of emptiness arises as an inseparable corollary of conscious experience being "something". Consequently, human languages typically treat "something" as a primitive and derive nothing as "not something".

However a logician or a mystic might equally choose "nothing" as their primitive and derive something as "not nothing". Thus, from the perspective of our understanding, the choice of either approach remains a purely subjective one. To seek an absolute choice between the two is to restart the cycle of paradox.

  • "Things can be, and their being is grounded in nothing's ability to noth." - Kenneth Burke
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Aug 3, 2022 at 10:40

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