The Emptiness of Existence

“Paradise is right beneath our feet, …”

In English, the word ‘emptiness’ often connotes a negative psychological state of numbness, depersonalization and isolation from the world. When a person says she feels empty inside, she might mean she feels useless, that her life has no purpose or that life itself has no purpose.(1) Most of us have felt this kind of emptiness at some point in our lives, at least to a degree. However, as a translation, emptiness carries another meaning, and is synonymous with ‘nothingness’ or ‘the void’, all approximations of the Sanskrit term shûnyatâ. In Mahâyâna Buddhism, this kind of emptiness is not a feeling about life, it is the very condition of all life and, indeed, existence itself. It is neither negative nor positive, for it is not a concept. As Maitreyanâtha, one of the founders of the Yogâchâra school of Mahâyâna, wrote: “Suchness, reality-limit, the signless, the ultimate reality, […] non-duality, the realm of non-discrimination, […] the inexpressible, that which has not been stopped, the Unconditioned, Nirvana, etc. […] These, briefly, are the synonyms of emptiness.” And further, “[T]he expressions are not figurative, but should be taken literally.”(2)

Nothing Lasts Forever

Original Buddhism recognized that nothing lasts forever: things arise, subsist, change, and pass away. Hence, the Buddha epistemologically deduced the “three marks” (trilakshana) of all conditioned phenomena: they are impermanent, characterized by suffering, and lack an ‘essence’ or self. This last ‘mark’, when applied to subjectivity, shows up ego/self/personality as an empty concept (anâtman). If the self is nothing but a grouping or ‘basket’ (skandha) of conditioned phenomena, i.e. forms, sensations, perceptions, cognitions, and consciousness, then there can be no such thing as an essential self, permanent identity, or an eternal soul. (While this understanding contradicts most of western philosophy and theology and its obsession with individuality, it is important to note that at least two western philosophers, Hume and Nietzsche, seem to agree with it, the former calling the self “a bundle or collection of different perceptions”(3), the latter, a “grammatical fiction”(4).) The Buddha saw suffering as resulting from a misunderstanding of ‘one’s own’ existence and viewing and living it as separate from the Other, or whole of existence. Not realizing my fundamental inseparableness from all conditioned phenomenon as a conditioned phenomenon myself, I feel the great existential lack – I suffer.

Form is Emptiness, Emptiness is Form

Early Buddhism stressed emptiness primarily in its understanding of ‘personhood’, but the Mahayana schools applied it not just to subjectivity, but to all phenomena. Emptiness is then the basis and mark of all conditioned things, it is the unconditioned ‘behind’ or ‘beyond’ the conditioned (perhaps vaguely analogous to Kant’s Ding an sich). ‘Nothingness’, another English rendering of the word shûnyatâ, serves as a coy expression of this understanding when we break it down into ‘no-thing-ness’.
If all phenomena are devoid of fundamental independent substance, they are nothing more than appearances.(5) Yet this does not mean that things don’t exist. We obviously perceive forms and act as if they were realities. The prajnâpâramitâ (‘perfection of wisdom’) literature, especially the Heart Sutra (one of the most important in Mahâyâna Buddhism) unequivocally states that “Form is no other than emptiness; emptiness is no other than form.” Hence, phenomena are both merely appearances and realities – ultimately, there is no distinction between them. The great Buddhist philosopher and founder of the Mâdhyamika school, Nâgârjuna, developed this understanding by examining the relativity of opposites. Opposites, such as hot and cold, depend upon each other, hence they are ultimately expressions of the same reality. We can say neither that things exist, nor that they do not exist, for the reality lies in between, in the ‘Middle Way’ of emptiness. Nâgârjuna’s discourses led to an even deeper understanding, to the realm of non-dualism and non-discrimination, where even emptiness is empty. The Diamond-Cutter Sutra, perhaps the most difficult in the Mahayana collection, states: “Thus then […] are all things to be perceived, to be looked upon, and to be believed by one who has entered the path of the Bodhisattvas. And in this wise are they to be perceived, to be looked upon, and to be believed, that a [person] should believe neither in the idea of a thing nor in the idea of a no-thing”(6).
To account for the apparent discrepancy between our ‘normal’ perception of the world and its ultimate reality, Nâgârjuna posited the thesis of the ‘two truths’: ‘Normal’ or relative truth (i.e. the perception of distinct, separate things that is the basis of ‘rational’ thought), which ultimately does not exist because it is based on conditioned arising; and the supreme, or absolute, truth of emptiness, which is beyond words and dualistic thought and hence can only be perceived from within a realization of emptiness itself, i.e. enlightenment.

Emptiness and Zen

In western critiques, the Mahâyâna understanding of emptiness has often been associated with nihilism. Yet, as we have seen, this is not the case at all. Things neither exist, nor do not exist. Form and emptiness are expressions of the same absolute reality. True experience, and not merely intellectual understanding, of emptiness leads us to the realm of absolute openness and freedom. Conditioned beings that realize their nature as conditioned beings can eventually become free of conditioning, i.e. enlightened, and hence contribute to the enlightenment of all sentient beings. Perhaps no school of Buddhism has stressed this point as much as the Ch’an/Zen school. Zen has gained much popularity in the West, yet it is still usually associated only with its austerity, minimal esthetic, and strong emphasis on meditation. While these are indeed some of its characteristics, they are only means toward a set of interconnected (in fact, non-distinct) ends, namely the realization of no-self or no-mind (Jap. mushin), emptiness, and enlightenment (Jap. kenshó, satori – “seeing one’s true nature” i.e. as also empty). These experiences (not ideas!) are the beginning and end of Zen practice. They require the transcendence of dualistic thinking and of the rationally thinking, ego-bound self. The point of Zen is essentially the same as of original Buddhism, namely liberation from suffering caused to oneself and others by overcoming the insatiable, yet illusory, self/ego through consis­tent practice.
Authentic Zen is not a casual activity. It requires discipline and perseverance, but also a deep commitment, faith in the process, humility, and a willingness to gradually relinquish attachment to every pretense and idea one has of the world and oneself by learning to see things as they are, objectively and without emotional binding. Zen practice may eventually lead to an utterly natural, unpretentious, ‘nothing special’ personality, but the process of giving up the ego is long and arduous and involves intense psychological pain. More mundane effects of Zen practice may include a calmer and more patient personality, the ability to concentrate intensely on (i.e. ‘lose oneself’ in) tasks and experiences, more energy, enjoyment of life, and open interaction with others, and less agitation in the face of adversity. Yet these are merely side effects. At the heart of Zen lies shûnyatâ – “Vast emptiness, nothing holy,” as Bodhidharma, its founder, is quoted as having told the Chinese emperor. To quote a modern Zen master, “Paradise is right beneath our feet, but we must go through hell to get there”.

1 Cf. Wikipedia, “Emptiness”.
2 Buddhist Texts through the Ages, trans. & ed. by Edward Conze et al. (Oxford: Oneworld, 1995: 170-171).
3 A Treatise of Human Nature, I, IV, vi.
4 Beyond Good and Evil, I, §16 & 17. Cf. On the Genealogy of Morals, I, §13.
5 Cf. The Shambhala Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen, “Shunyata”.
6 Buddhist Mahâyâna Texts, ed. by E.B. Cowel et al. (New York: Dover, 1969: 143).
Joshu Sasaki Roshi

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