Yes, one can believe too much in emptiness. But let’s clarify how the term is being used here. Emptiness is the most common English word used in translations to convey the meaning of the Sanskrit term, sunyata. In conventional Buddhism sunyata refers to a fundamental and factual quality that everything has in common. This fundamental quality has no characteristics, really, so the only way to discuss it is metaphorically. Some might argue that calling sunyata a quality, or saying that its quality has no characteristics, are, blatantly, two characteristics right there. Of course, they would be correct so there’s no need to belabor that linguistic limitation. We can work around that, as our forebears were likewise required to do. Therefore, words such as void, space, emptiness, spaciousness and openness metaphorically describe the indescribable quality that Buddhism teaches is the basis of everything.
Believing in something means trusting that it is true. If something is true, it would seem that there should be no problem with trusting in that truth. But let’s look into that. Belief, or trust, is a mental state. It is generally considered to be a positive mental state compared to doubt or suspicion but, if we are ultimately interested in realizing the truth of the matter, neither belief nor doubt will prove satisfactory. Religions allege that belief is indispensable because without it we will not be inclined to approach the truth. There is some wisdom in this view but the actual histories of religions indicate that the usual result of belief is just strong belief, not so much the realization of truth. Although doubt and suspicion (cynicism) are advocated by some who also seem sincere about realizing truth, there is not much evidence of that approach being any more useful than conventional religion. To be fair, the elements of logic will suffer some corruption if these ideas are applied to all notions of truth. That is not the subject here. The truth being referenced here is the ultimate truth that is the ultimate concern of self-aware beings.
The Buddhist approach to realizing the ultimate truth is centered around understanding and experiencing sunyata. It is not about believing in sunyata, but often the “understanding” of sunyata, that is, the reasoned mental analysis of it, solidifies into a belief-system about it. This believing in it constitutes a detour away from realizing it. There is also a pitfall associated with the “experience” of sunyata and its consequence can be extremely more problematic. The details of this error would require a somewhat lengthy discussion of Buddhist cosmology and Dzogchen cosmogony. The point is that, although experience is necessary, there is an important distinction to be made between experiencing sunyata and realizing it. One of the most important subtleties of the Dzogchen teaching concerns this distinction. Experience involves an experiencer. However, the experiencer is actually a mentally posited psychic construct having a somewhat arbitrary setup and specifically designed to remain distinct from everything else. So, regardless of how profound an experience may be – the experience of sunyata being one of the most profound – experiences always have a tendency to be upstaged by this not-truly-existing mental phantom that we identify as “I”. Consciousness, however, does not reside in, nor is confined to, the mental construct that functions as our “I”. So, the truth that we are essentially sunyata can be realized directly, consciously, without the interceding (and unrealizing) perspective of an experiencer. To become capable of realizing ourselves, sunyata, which is actually our true essence, needs to become tolerable. Why is it presently intolerable, and who (or what) can’t tolerate it?
As we began, the essential quality of sunyata can be understood as meaning void, empty or spacious. Dzogchen teachings make it clear however that this essential quality of sunyata does not imply a state of being vacuous. On the contrary, rather than meaning devoid of everything, it means that its space can never be reduced by anything. In fact, sunyata is empty-ness but is not at all empty. It is full of all that can ever possibly be; namely, infinite varieties of light-values, energy-fields and cognizance. Light-values, energy-fields and cognizance don’t take up any space, so, the spaciousness that is metaphorically the characteristic of sunyata is never altered. An unrealized person remains unrealized because ever since being born, the process of becoming and remaining conscious has mostly been associated with events that seemed to challenge well-being. The mental/psychic structures of ego, self-image and personality developed in response to these challenges and by now, completely dominate our consciousness. When the essential nature of spaciousness starts to penetrate through our imaginary but strongly controlling ego-fortress, it is interpreted/experienced as threatening. If we are not well trained to recognize and understand this process, or if our self-image is still not very permeable, we may experience dizziness, mental confusion or disorientation. If we understand this process and know how to allow it, then we can experience great fear. These negative states occur because our minds interpret everything based on the very limited set of parameters that make up the ego structure. So, when our own, un-limiting sunyata nature seeps through our limit-setting ego structure, that which is actually the profound spaciousness of our true nature is often experienced, at first, as a deficiency rather than an opening up to our unlimited potential.
The experiencer of this great fear is the mental structure of our unreal self. If we understand this, and the experience of fear (or disintegration) can be tolerated without blocking it, the fear will dissipate and profound essential qualities such as strength, knowledge and capacity will spontaneously arise. Of course, this requires training. The positive qualities do not belong to our ego or our personality. They arise from our real nature. But they are experienced at first by our unreal self which instinctively restructures in an effort to gain control of these qualities. The process of realization involves allowing our real nature to manifest, completely unaltered, until our mind offers no resistance and settles comfortably into its natural state. All positive qualities are natural aspects of our essence. Because the ego has experienced many positive qualities it can imitate their actions. However, there are always limits. We can manifest positive qualities in some situations but not all situations. The real meaning of being realized then is to be without any limitations. This means that our essential qualities, which are all entirely positive, are never limited. Our real nature is devoid of limitations so we could rightfully say that it is, essentially, an absence. Although this emptiness quality is not the only essential quality, it constitutes the context for all qualities. In conventional Buddhism sunyata is emphasized so much that many have come to misinterpret its meaning as a term for The Absolute. This is an exaggeration of reality.