Essay: The Embodied World—A Redefinition of “Emptiness” in Heart Sutra from the Perspective of Cognitive Science

Through the long course of history, Buddhism has captivated generations of brilliant minds with its enlightening but elusive discernment. Far from religious dogmas, Buddhism not only represents spiritual revelation, but also logical reasoning. In fact, it is Buddhism’s insight into cognitive science that leads Arthur Schopenhauer to consider it as “best of all possible religions,”(Urs 17) that causes Friedrich Nietzsche to praise it “hundred times as realistic as Christianity,”(Hoover and Nietzsche 75) and that renders Arthur C Clarke proud to call himself a “crypto-Buddhism” (“God, Science, and Delusion”). Among all of Buddhism’s concepts, emptiness is the most famous, and abstruse one. This word resulted from an inaccurate translation confuses both Buddhists and religious scholars who understand Heart Sutra based on its English version. In this essay, the idea of “emptiness” will be reinterpreted as “information,” leading not only to a clarification of the ideology of Buddhism, but also to greater correspondence between Buddhism concepts and cognitive science.

A Millennium Misconception

A verbatim translation of “Kong” as “emptiness” or “void” not only leads to a discrepancy with Buddhism’s doctrines, but also contradicts with basic rationale in philosophy. The following passage to be examined is extracted from one English translation version of Heart Sutra: “Also, there is no truth of suffering, of the cause of suffering, of the cessation of suffering or of the path…the unequaled Mantra which can truly wipe out all suffering without fail” (USA ShaoLin Temple). According to this translation, all the things are void, including the Buddha, and there is no truth or cessation of suffering, since everything is void. On the other hand, the statement unequivocally confirmed that the Mantra, which is composed by the Buddha, is able to eliminate sufferings, by stating “Mantra which can truly wipe out all suffering without fail”. Such sharp contradiction between the immutable nature of suffering described in first sentence and Mantra’s ability to terminate all sufferings stated in the last sentence manifests a clear discrepancy in the current understanding of Heart Sutra. To further illustrate the inconsistency, Aristotle’s law of identity and law of contradiction need to be applied. The essence of these two laws is that A should be equal to A and -A should not be equal to A. Emptiness can only equal to emptiness. Form is emptiness, so that form either equals to set void, or is part of void. Referred to the passage “The same [emptiness] is true for feeling, conception, impulse and consciousness,” feeling can either equal to or belong to set void. Since feeling is different from form, it can be deduced that form and feeling are different parts of, but both included in void. But it is then mentioned that in the void there are no forms and no feelings, which indicate neither form nor feeling belongs to void. Then comes to the paradox, form and feeling are included in the concept of void, but form and feeling both does not belong to set void. Law of identity has pointed out unequivocally that one subset cannot both be included and excluded in the same set. Therefore, the two arguments above should have at least one of them fallacious.

On the other hand, to consider everything as void is clearly nothing but purely mystic belief without scientific bases. Albert Einstein suggested that “what is essential is merely that besides observable objects, another thing, which is not perceptible, must be looked upon as real…”(Wikipedia). Though Einstein acknowledged that there is a possibility that “observable object” is unreal, he also pointed out the condition for this to take place is to first assert something as real. As a result, no matter how abundant emptiness is, there will always be things other than emptiness to enable any physical processes to take place. Such idea challenges the concept of “emptiness” in Heart Sutra. As there should be beings other than void, otherwise no physical process could take place, including the existence of the belief that “everything is void.” As the deduction from basic assumption that form is void finally proves to contradict the original assumption itself, it is then clear that the assumption is false.

New Meaning Lights the Way

Taking clues from modern cognitive science, the word “Kong,” which is currently translated as void or emptiness, can be interpreted as information. It is generally accepted and justified by modern anatomy and neuroscience that the way we sense the surrounding is through the packed beam of energy which is emitted by certain objects and received by particular sense organs. Muller’s law of specific nerve energies emphasizes that the response of a particular nervous system is the result of particular type of energy capable of triggering change in biochemical properties of particular neurons(Kalat 160).

Generally, one can only sense the particular physical properties of the surrounding world – or “form,” as said in Heart sutra. As a result, world in the scope of our consciousness is purely the result of the activities of our nervous system. This fact, on the other hand, indicates that our idea of world, which we can see, hear and feel, is formed entirely by our brain, mainly the interaction of visual vertex, auditory vertex, somatosensory system and insula. Sensory organs provide information which can be further processed and combined in these regions, and all the sensory input from sense organs is in the form of information, or, in the case of human anatomy, the ordered forms of energy capable of being interpreted by sensory receptors. Therefore, form, according to Buddhist’s explanation, means the physical environment (Varela, Thompson, and Rosch 63). The essence of the physical world we perceive is information. Deriving from the two conditions using a simple syllogism, form is information. Then, if we replace the world void with information, the sentence in Heart Sutra, “form does not differ from information, and information does not differ from form. Form is information, and information is form,” becomes reasonable — with a modern elucidation “The world is inseparable from the subject, but from a subject which is nothing but a project of the world”(Varela, Thompson, and Rosch 63). Here the subject means nothing but form. So that between form as information and subject as project of world lies a conspicuous correspondence. This comparison between statement from cognitive scientists and the “new” translation version of Heart Sutra finally justifies the rationality of translating emptiness as information, with the elimination of paradox and contradiction presented in the first part of the essay.

Western philosophies also systematically expounded the relationship between our recognition and the world as information. In Critique of Pure Reason, Kant suggested that there are two basic sources of our knowledge: one is the ability to perceive phenomena(receptivity of phenomena), another is the ability to recognize object through phenomena(spontaneity of conception) (Kant 51). The idealism proposed by Kant explains that the way one has access to the world is to access the phenomena of the world. Here, the phenomenon, which is nothing but the perception of information, is thought by Kant to be the only relationship between us and the world. As a result, the world is purely a phenomenological existence, from the perspective of Kant’s logic. Granted that the sum of one’s knowledge is the sum of one’s understanding of the world, the mind of a human being is nothing but perceived and recognized phenomena. Then all of one’s thoughts and volition could be considered as lying purely in the field of phenomenology. Being that phenomena is defined as a state or process that is sensed to happen or exist, it is basically information which can be understood by its observer. Kant’s idealism, which has been time-tested, represents one successful branch of Western philosophy, and endorses this interpretation of Buddhism. The similarity between Buddhism’s view on form, under the premise that “form is information,” and Kant’s view on human perception adds to the credibility of understanding emptiness as information. The other four aggregates in Buddhism, which are feeling, conception, impulse, and consciousness, could all satisfy the explanation of “Kong” as information instead of void. In The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society, it is argued that Man is immersed in a world which he perceives through his sense organs. Information that he receives is coordinated through his brain and nervous system until, after the proper process of storage, collection, and selection, it emerges through effector organs, generally his muscles (Wiener 18)

This illustration above is, in my opinion, the very expository statement of five aggregates from the perspective of science. Since the Heart Sutra states that “The same [emptiness] is true for feeling, conception, impulse and consciousness,” the other four aggregates should be essentially understood as information. And the process from perception to consciousness, demonstrated explicitly and scientifically by Wiener, shows a great correspondence with the idea that five aggregates are information. As previously explained, form represents the physical world sending all kinds of information to us.

Part of the information can be collected through receptors and processed by sensory vertexes like V1 or A1 vertex. The result is that information is coded, transmitted, and processed, leading to inner representation of stimulus, which is known as feeling. As a result, feeling is just the processing of information collected. Everything we feel is not the object itself but the information captured and comprehended by our nervous system. On the other hand, conception, also known as perception in some versions, refers to “the moment of recognition, identification, or discernment in arising of something distinct, coupled with the activation of a basic impulse for action.” (Varela, Thompson, and Rosch 64) In the system of modern neuroscience, it is known that the information does not undergo only single processing. In fact, when seeing an object, human beings can not only sense the existence of this object, but also describe its shape, color, motion, and its similarity or uniqueness to anything they have seen. For visual recognition a healthy human has five functional vertexes, each interpreting different aspects of visual images and contributing to a holistic visual recognition. Human’s complex brain allows the efficient combination of processed information from each vertex. Moreover, the human brain could even associate different types of stimulus together — relating the color to the thermal state, and linguistic symbols to emotion, for instance. Back to the very beginning of this paragraph, Wiener pointed out that information collected, after processing, will finally emerge through effector organs. James-Lange theory also describes the effect of input into autonomic nerve as leading to the movement of muscles(Kalat 368).

The word “impulse”, which means the tendency to move, unequivocally matches the theories presented above. In the modern anatomy of the brain, three multimodal association areas are concerned with integrating different sensory modalities and linking them to action.(Kandel, Schwartz, and Jessell 351). As outer stimuli are projected in our mind, both simple reflexes and complex behaviors are just the result of information sensed and processed. Therefore, it is clear that even impulse, the tendency to move, is the result of body’s response to the processed information. Finally, Buddhism explains consciousness as mental experience containing all other four aggregates( Varela, Thompson, and Rosch 64). The consciousness here, when explained by neuroscience, is closely related to all complex development such as memory, learning and volition. These changes involving the long-term alternation in the structure of both brain and thought, are the result of combination of all the four processes (four aggregates) before. In conclusion, all the five aggregates in Buddhism can be understood as certain process taken in our body in an effort to extract, organize, and integrate information.

Conspicuous Truth in Arcane Words

Given that emptiness means information, it will be much easier to understand more elusive concepts in Buddhism, the truth of suffering, Nirvana, and ultimate happiness. Looking at the next part of Heart Sutra:

O Sariputra, the characteristics of the void[information] is not created, not annihilated, not impure, not pure, not increasing, not decreasing.

Therefore, in the void[information] there are no forms and no feelings, conceptions, impulses and no consciousness: there is no eye, ear, nose, tongue, body or mind; there is no form, sound, smell, taste, touch or idea; no eye elements, until we come to no elements of consciousness; no ignorance and also no ending of ignorance, until we come to no old age and death; and no ending of old age and death. Also, there is no truth of suffering, of the cause of suffering, of the cessation of suffering or of the path. There is no wisdom, and there is no attainment whatsoever. Because there is nothing to be attained, a Bodhisattva relying on Prajnaparamita has no obstruction in his heart. Because there is no obstruction he has no fear, and he passes far beyond all confused imagination and reaches Ultimate Nirvana. (Heart Sutra)

Based on modern information theory in the field of cognitive science, entropy is the main measurement describing information. And for specific information, entropy is constant, regardless of the way of observing or describing this piece of information. As, a result, it is apparent why characteristics of information are not created or annihilated — the entropy of a certain piece of information is independent from the way we calculate it; in other words, it is the intrinsic quality of information. For information itself, adjectives modifying the quality of objects cannot be applied since information is innately different from objects. So, despite the fact that five aggregates and six senses are all information, no specific qualities, or characteristics, can be found in pure information. All the five aggregates are germane to the way humans receive information, if the observers “we” are eliminated, then five aggregates and six senses will no longer apply to anything. Knowing the essence of us and information, it could be concluded that all humans strive for, fear of, or wonder about, are certain types of information. One example is that while one is hungry, he or she is not seeking for food but for the information “food is presented and digested” sent by all kinds of receptors in his or her body. Though it sounds incredible, patients suffering from malfunctions in the prefrontal lobe become unable to make decision because of hardships in judging feelings, which are necessarily information of satisfaction or dissatisfaction(Kalat 375). Suffering, on the other hand, is also caused by particular information which triggers the internal sense of dissatisfaction. To alter the way of perceiving or processing information clearly alters the feeling of suffering. In favor of this point is the application of stimulant and hallucinogenic drugs, which magnify the feeling of happiness(Kalat 78) by either increasing receptivity of receptors responsible for satisfaction, or inhabiting receptors triggering sense of horror.

After all the expository illustrations above, it becomes easier to understand what is meant by “passes far beyond all confused imagination and reaches Ultimate Nirvana.” The confused imagination originates from the inability of human to realize that they are immersed in a world of pure information. The ultimate nirvana, on the other hand, is just the moment one realizes that the whole world is information, and starts to change the way of looking at the world.

Like stated in Heart Sutra, “there is no wisdom, and there is no attainment whatsoever. Because there is nothing to be attained, a Bodhisattva relying on Prajnaparamita has no obstruction in his heart”, understanding that what is there to be attained is information, the obstruction and worry of inability to attain can be reduced, and further negative outlook derived from those obstructions and worry, such as egoism and greed, may be eliminated. According to this interpretation, the Nirvana excogitated by prominent idealist is not destruction of live but alternation in attitude. To abandon this incomplete information processing mechanism apparently results in a more holistic and subjective understanding of the world. Ideally speaking, the elimination of subjectivity should pave the way for an undistorted reception of all the information available, and the aftermath should be amelioration in understanding of the world and annihilation of sense of unhappiness, or “beyond all confused Imagination” in Heart Sutra.

Historically, like what is said in Atlas Shrugged, “spiritual mystics rely on our[materialistic] world to imagine their own paradise,”(Rand 1264) Buddhists are usually criticized for imagining ideas too elusive, “everything as void”, for example.

Nevertheless, so clear is my point that a translation of emptiness as information will help people forming a better understanding of Buddhism’s ideology. As emptiness is reinterpreted as information, the correspondence between Buddhism’s views and rationales underlying cognitive science will be much greater. And Buddhism will certainly be able to find its parallels in science, philosophy and literature. As science fiction writers like Mr. Arthur C. Clarke proposed in the prophecy, in which future humans are not driven by their own interpretation of information, “long ago it left the tyranny of mater behind. It is conscious of intelligence, everywhere”(Clarke 177), the figure of being of pure information has already been widely viewed and appreciated. Therefore, it is not hard to imagine the day when Buddhism’s idea of the world based on information can be widely understood and accepted.

Works Cited

“Absolute time and space”. Wikipedia. n.p. 12 Sep. 2014. Web. 12

Sep 2014. .

Hoover, A. J., and Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche. Friedrich Nietzsche:

His Life and Thought. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1994. Questia School.

Web. 20 Sept. 2014.

Clarke, Arthur C. Childhood’s End. New York City: The Random House

Publishing Group. 1953. Print.

“God, Science, and Delusion.” Free Inquiry Spring 1999: 36+.

Questia School. Web. 16 Sept. 2014.

Kalat, James W. Biological Psychology. Trans Su Yanjie. Beijing: Posts

and Telecom Press. July 2012. Print

Kandel Eric R, James H. Schwartz, Thomas M. Jessell. Principles of

Neural Science. New York: McGraw-Hill Companies. 2000. Print

Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Pure Reason. Trans Deng Xiaomang. Beijing:

People’s Literature Publishing House. 2004. Print

Rand, Ayn. Atlas Shrugged. Beijing: Trans Yang Ge. Beijing Alpha Books

Chongqing Publishing Group. 2012. Print

“The Heart Sutra English Translation”. n.p. n.d. Web. 10 Sep. 2014


Urs App. Richard Wagner and Buddhism. University Media. 2011. Print.

Varela, Francisco J Varela, Evan Thompson, Eleanor Rosch. The Embodied

Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience. Cambridge: The MIT

Press. 1993. Print

Wiener, Norbert. The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and

Society. Fress Associated Books. 1989. Print.

Author: KE MA

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