If there is one misconception that people (including myself) have about Buddhism its the concept of emptiness. Its been used by fundamentalist types for years to insinuate that Buddhism is nihilism or advocates people turning into emotionless, ego less drones. Anyone who has met a group of Buddhists or listened to a zen teacher can tell you that they may be a lot of things, but emotionless isn’t one of them!
The problem is that the Buddhist definition of ‘emptyness’ is far far more nuanced and subtle than our western definition of the same word. Unfortunately language, even when sublimely applied, is a crude tool to try to show something as delicate as a concept that, by definition, is beyond conceptual thought.
But ill try anyway heh heh. . .
When speaking about Buddhism emptiness is used to describe several different concepts, what has several definitions in Chinese, Sanskrit, and Japanese like Saotori, Kenshin, Nibbana, etc are all lumped into that one general word ‘emptiness’ in English. So when we read someone talking about ‘achieving emptiness’ it sounds a little frightening as if you are giving away or rejecting some part of yourself. Maybe even your personality or soul! Of course Buddhism isn’t about giving up anything that isnt actually part of the real you.
In fact one of the main definitions of Emptiness in Buddhism is simply the state where you see things as they really are, minus all the accumulated biases and fear and desire and modifiers that we have gathered in our lived up to this point. it means to be ‘empty’ of false views, of looking at the world with greed, aversion or ignorance. A state the Chan/zen Chinese used to call ‘seeing with your original face’, the you that exists underneath all the layers of junk we have learned to call ‘me’. When we strip that away and just experience the moment as it really is we are empty of delusion. Does that sound scary? It sounds pretty sweet to me.
When we live in the world this way we are not devoid of emotion, we are FULL of feeling! Rather we let the world (including how we feel) arise and pass away naturally. We don’t cling to the momentary happy bits or try to run away from the momentary sad bits. The result is a way of being in the world while empty of the suffering we cause to ourselves and others by that clinging. Its deciding to get off of the roller coaster of joy which turns into fear, its trading chaos for contentment.
The other kind of emptiness that is discussed is the ‘empty your mind” bit which really seems to frighten folks. The truth is that no form of Buddhist meditation will tell you to ‘empty’ your mind, actually its the very opposite! In zen sitting we are there to see things as they are, to experience the moment as it occurs, you cant do this by trying to have an empty mind any more than you could taste soup out of an empty bowl! What we do is to let the thoughts come and pass away without playing with them, we watch and feel without trying to make them go away or change them into something else. The trick isn’t to be free of all thoughts, its not to get caught by one thought over another, its like watching trees go past as you ride a train, we want to watch them go without one particular one catching our attention so fully we have to turn our heads completely around to keep it in view. What we learn is that our thoughts are just thoughts. they are not ‘us” and we don’t have to believe something just because our brain coughed it up, by sitting an observing our thoughts without trying to avoid some or hold onto others we learn to let them come and go without having to act on every single one!
It took me many many years of meditation to understand this. We think of ‘empty’ as such a negative thing that to ‘seek emptiness’ seems dangerous and bizarre, once you see beyond the word itself and the idea most of us have grown up it goes from sounding like something exotic and strange to simply the natural way things really are.
An old zen story tells of a famous zen master who was illiterate. A nun asked him to help with some literature she couldn’t understand.
“well, i cant read,” the Zen master said “but if you read it to me maybe i can help”
the nun was astonished, “If you cant read, then how can you understand what its about!?”
the Zen master simply pointed at the moon. “If I point at the moon this way you don’t mistake my finger to be the moon do you?”
“of course not” the nun answered
“well then, why do you mistake writing for the truth that it is pointing at?”
In other words, dont get hung up on the words, try to understand what they are pointing to. Sit zazen and you will see what we mean by emptiness, it wont happen overnight, but it will happen. Hell, it only took me 5 years to understand what that story about the illiterate zen guy meant! (then again, im pretty dense . . . *sigh* )