It can be a long and challenging journey to seeing that nothing is “real” in the way we normally think it is. But, Zen teacher Norman Fischer says, there is joy and freedom in realizing that we and our world are as passing—and beautiful—as falling snowflakes.
From the first time I encountered the word in English, I liked the sound of it: emptiness. Some would find it chillingly abstract, even scary. But I took to it immediately. I chanted the Heart Sutra (“form is emptiness, emptiness form …”) alone and with sangha every day for years before I ever bothered to find out what the great teachers of the past meant by emptiness. It didn’t matter to me what they meant. I knew what emptiness was.
Of course I had no clue. But intuitively I knew. I remember once, at the beginning of my practice, wandering in the woods during a blizzard, drifting snow piled two feet high, chanting the Heart Sutra over and over again. In the snow, with trees, bushes, and ground covered in white, white, white, and the sky white with whiteness falling down, the sutra’s meaning was perfectly clear. It wasn’t until much later that I plunged into the vast philosophical edifice of Mahayana Buddhism, from the Diamond Sutra and Nagarjuna on, that elucidates this saving and elusive teaching.
The logic of emptiness is wonderfully airtight. Like all simple truths, its clarity is immediately self-evident: we are. And there is no moment in which we are separate and apart: we are always connected—to past, to future, to others, to objects, to air, earth, sky. Every thought, every emotion, every action, every moment of time, has multiple causes and reverberations—tendrils of culture, history, hurt, and joy that stretch out mysteriously and endlessly.
As with us, so with everything: all things influence one another. This is how the world appears, shimmers, and shifts, moment by moment. But if things always associate with and bump up against each other, they must touch one another. If so, they must have parts, for without parts they couldn’t touch (they’d melt into one another, disappearing). But the parts in turn are also things in their own right (a nose, part of a face, is a nose; an airplane wing, part of a plane, is an airplane wing) and so the parts must have parts (nostrils, wingtips), and those parts have parts and so on: an infinite proliferation of parts, smaller and smaller, clouds of them. (This is true of thoughts and feelings as well as physical objects.) If you look closely enough and truly enough at anything, it disappears into a cloud, and the cloud disappears into a cloud. All is void. There is no final substantial something anywhere. The only thing real is connection: void touching void.
This simple but profound teaching is delightful. As a way of thinking and understanding it is peerless, impossible to confute because it proposes nothing and denies nothing. Appearances remain valid as appearances, and there is no reality beyond appearances, other than the emptiness of the very appearances. So there is nothing to argue for or against! In being empty, everything is free of argument. Lighter than air.
But it is the taste of emptiness in the body, spirit, and emotions that has meant the most to me. Knowing that what happens is just what happens. My body, my thoughts, my emotions, my perceptions, desires, hopes, actions, words—this is the stuff that makes up my life and it is never desperate because I feel its cloud-like nature. That cloud is all I am: it is my freedom to soar, my connection to all. I can float in it, and watch it form and reform in the endless sky.
This doesn’t mean I am disconnected from life, living in a Buddhist nirvana of disassociation. Quite the contrary, I know there is no way not to be connected, no person or place that is beyond my concern.
When I practice meditation I rest in emptiness: my breath goes in and out, a breath I share with all who have lived and will live, the great rhythm that began this world of physical reality and will never cease, even when the Earth is gone. It’s nice, in the predawn hours, to sit sharing that widely, knowing that this zero-point underlies all my walking and talking and eating and thinking—all activity—all the day through; in fact, it is it.
They say that wisdom (the faculty that cognizes emptiness) and compassion are like the wings of a great bird. Holding both in balance against the wafting winds allows you to float, enjoying the day. Really, though, the two wings are one wing. Where you can appreciate the flavor of emptiness on the tongue you know immediately (without mediation) that love is the only way, and that everything is love and nothing but love. What a pleasant thing to hold in mind! All problems, all joys, all living, and all dying—it’s love.
Traditionally, emptiness refers to the fact that phenonema have no “intrinsic existence.” This means not that phenomena don’t exist, but that they don’t exist as we think they do, as freestanding, independent, solidly real entities. This is as true of us as it is of the world around us: everything is contingent, not solid, ceasing the moment it arises, moment after moment. Everything is like space, real in its own way, and absolutely necessary, but not something you could put your finger on.
We, of course, don’t know this. We are, according to the emptiness pundits of Buddhism, deeply ignorant of the one thing we should not be ignorant of: the real nature of ourselves and the world we live in. “Ignorance,” unfortunately, doesn’t mean we don’t know. It would be better if we didn’t know. Ignorance means we know something very firmly, but it is the wrong thing: we know that things are solid and independent and intrinsically existent. But they actually are not. So ignorance is not not-knowing; ignorance is a form of knowing, but it is a mis-knowing. And spiritual practice is the process of coming to see our mis-knowledge and letting it go: to begin to experience, accept, and live the truth about how we and the world actually are. When we begin to understand and to live in this way, there is a great decrease in the fear and dread, so common in human experience, caused by the huge gap between our expectations and the way things actually are. With an appreciation of the empty nature of things, there are no more foiled expectations. There is a lot more joy, peace, and love.
The Buddhist literature on emptiness, the Prajnaparamita, is vast. It includes many sutras that run to many thousands of pages. On top of that, the commentarial literature on the sutras is also vast and intricate, as are the scholastic treatises on the subject. So many words to discuss the voidness of all phenomena—and the fact that words do not actually refer to things the way we think they do! Why so much talk about all this? For most of us, who are simply trying to live our lives with less suffering, all this complicated philosophical discourse is really beside the point. The Buddha said, in so many words, I am not a philosopher; I am a doctor, and the purpose of my teaching is not to explain the nature of reality but simply to offer a path that will lead to suffering’s end. Why then did the later Buddhists feel the necessity of producing such vast quantities of metaphysics?
Well, it turns out that it is naive to think that we can treat the human illness without having an accurate view of how things really are. Whether we are aware of it or not, we are all philosophers; we are all living our lives based on philosophical assumptions, however unexamined or even unconscious they may be, and this unconscious mis-knowledge is the root cause of our anguish. This mis-knowledge is not mere doctrinal incorrectness; it really matters to our lives.
In Buddhism, suffering means suffering of the mind, suffering that comes from the way we take things. Physical suffering is not preventable: if there is illness or injury there will be pain, and even the Buddha suffered pain. But pain is not suffering. Mostly what we call suffering is suffering of the mind. Even most of our seemingly physical suffering is mind-caused. It is emotional suffering, suffering due to our complaining and our disappointment and feeling of being cheated and ruined because we are experiencing pain. This suffering is worse than the physical sensation of pain, though we mistakenly think it necessarily goes along with the sensation of pain. Suffering is afflictive emotion—anger, fear, regret, greed, violence, and so on. When we exercise these emotions, no matter how justified they may feel, we cause suffering in ourselves, and that suffering has a way of spreading out all around us. But what’s the root of these afflictive emotions? How do they arise in the first place? They arise out of clinging—clinging to the self and to our opinions and to all that is external to us that we identify with. We take all of this as intrinsically existing, and so are naturally—spontaneously and convincingly—upset when any of it is threatened. But the truth is that nothing can be threatened, because it doesn’t exist in the way we think it does. Free of intrinsic existence, everything is free of all threat. When we really know this, through and through, down to the bottom of our souls, then the afflictive emotions don’t arise. Instead there is peace and there is affection, even in tough situations. There is no sense of fearing or hating or desiring what is intrinsically nonexistent, empty.
That things are empty doesn’t mean, as I have said, that they are unreal or that they don’t exist. Here I think we can trust our common sense: we know that things are, we know that something is going on. We go to the movies, we read or hear stories of various kinds, and these matter to us. They are, in their own way, real, but we know the difference between stories or images and real life. The emptiness teachings are not telling us that things don’t exist or that they are unreal. They are just telling us that things exist in a mode other than the one we think they exist in.
In Zen practice we are fond of not knowing. The not-knowing mind is the mind that knows that all phenomena, in being empty, are unknowable. Which means that all phenomena are marvelous, connected, magical. To see things in this way is to wake up from the dream of intrinsic reality: to walk out of the darkened movie theater into the light of day. In the dream, in the movie, various solid and menacing separate independent monsters are out to get us. When we walk outside, we see that this was never really true. We have awakened to the connectedness and indescribable meaning that is and has always been our real life.
The emptiness sutras speak of these things in magnificent ways and promise fabulous rewards once we become enlightened to this truth. In Zen practice too there’s an emphasis on the experience of enlightenment, which is, more or less, the immediate experiential recognition of emptiness—seeing emptiness with your own eyes. All the things that are said about this in Zen and other forms of Buddhism are extravagant and idealistic. This extravagant idealism is perhaps helpful: it gives us some faith and enthusiasm. After all, if we stick too much to the so-called real world, to being mired in identity and all our emotional and physical problems, that’s no fun, is it? Although all this is taken for granted as life, in fact it is a kind of narrow-minded and naive metaphysical assertion we could do without. On the other hand, to take literally all this talk about enlightenment and emptiness, about becoming omniscient buddhas (omniscience is a key concept in the emptiness sutras) may be going too far, especially if it causes us to be frustrated with our progress in practice or to imagine that other people have become enlightened and that we should therefore abrogate our personal responsibility and listen to what they tell us about our lives.
Practically speaking, there’s a progression in our appreciation of the emptiness teachings. In Zen practice, we begin with some modest, everyday experience. We sit. We practice zazen. Maybe even one period of sitting is enough. When you sit, something always happens. Maybe you don’t know what, maybe you cannot identify it, or you barely notice it, but something does happen. You can feel that sitting is real, powerful. I travel here and there and sometimes I go into a room in a hotel, or some other institutional setting, maybe with doctors or businesspeople, not faithful sutra-reading Buddhists, and I say, “Breathe and sit up straight and be quiet,” and in a few minutes something happens; something always happens. So there is some experience. What it amounts to is a faint glimmering that the world one has always assumed to be the world, the only world, the whole world and nothing but the world, may not be as it seems. The mind, the self, may not be as it seems. So our appreciation of emptiness begins with something that is really very common. It’s common not so much because sitting is a magical practice but because it really is the nature of the mind to be empty of intrinsicality. So if you give it even a small chance it will sense that, even if only a little bit.
The appreciation of emptiness begins there. Then you sit some more and experience it repeatedly. Possibly you sit long sesshins and retreats, experiencing it more deeply and more frequently. Then you hear teachings and reflect on them, and little by little you become more and more convinced that this is really how it is. You may begin to notice—maybe with some frustration—that you persist in giving rise to afflictive emotions anyway, that you persist in seeing being as intrinsic. But still, you are beginning to know better. You are beginning to see how unsuccessful, how painful, that old knee-jerk way of living is. And so in this way you are beginning to train yourself in emptiness.
Then you might work directly with afflictive emotions, trying to let go of anger and greed and jealousy and so on, to begin to reduce their grip on you. Meanwhile you continue with your sitting and your study of the teachings and the verification of the teachings by your own experience. Someday you may or may not have a powerful experience of seeing directly, immediately, and powerfully that indeed things are empty, that they are like smoke or mist, like space, like the blue sky, like the movie, the dream: free and non-different from yourself. This would be lovely and it is certainly possible. But even if you don’t have an experience like that, you continue to study and learn and experience; you apply the teachings of emptiness, of selflessness, of love and compassion, to your daily experience and to your relationships; and you see the results of this: that there is more peace, more affection, more happiness, more clarity in your life.
You probably still experience confusion and afflictive emotion, but after a while it doesn’t bother you so much. You are not tempted to be caught by it because you know that just leads to suffering and you have gotten over your long-term love affair with suffering. So in this way, little by little, you develop an understanding of and a grounding in emptiness. You don’t need to call it emptiness. In fact, it’s better if you don’t. “Emptiness” is just a word you can repeat to yourself in a blizzard. But you know how things are and you are happy to live in accord with them.