Emptiness vs interdependence in Buddhism

I’ve often wondered about the difference between the terms emptiness and interdependence in Buddhism, and came across this excellent Accidental Buddhist blog post recently, which includes this paragraph about a conversation the Dalai Lama had:

“In the course of one of these conversations, His Holiness tells Victor Chan that for decades he has meditated every day on interconnectedness and emptiness. He said that there are two types of reality. Firstly, there is ‘standard’ reality. He gestures towards a mug of water. When we look at it we see water. When we touch it we feel water. We know it is water. But then he described how we can look at it with ‘ultimate’ reality in which the mug is a combination of particles, atoms, electrons and quarks — none of these particles can be described as ‘a mug’. The term mug is just an every-day label for this collection of particles. The mug has come into existence because of a complex web of causes and conditions. Therefore it does not and could not exist independently. It cannot come into being by itself, of its own volition. It is empty of intrinsic, inherent existence. In other words, ‘empty’ is another word ‘interdependent.’”

We all tend to see ourselves as distinct entities; we are different from our friends and family. Due to our conditioning we believe we are distinct and independent, but in fact our existence depends on an infinite, intricately linked series of events, causes and conditions. (Your parents, grandparents, friends, where you were born and lived, and millions of other things.) If any of these conditions had varied, we would exist in a wholly different way. From this perspective, ‘self’ and ‘others’ makes sense only in terms of relationships. In fact, your interests and my interests are inextricably connected in a tangible way. The Dalai Lama concluded his discussion by emphasizing that anyone could obtain happiness and fulfillment by focusing on two main elements: compassion and emptiness.

He continued, “Normally we tend to see things in a solid, tangible way. Therefore there is a tendency to grasp at things, to become attached to things. We cling to the idea of a separate self and separate things. We strive for new experiences, new acquisitions. Yet as soon as we possess them, the buzz is gone and we look for something new. This endless cycle of craving causes suffering”.