Spirit Grooves Blogs

Published on July 6, 2014

When I was coming up this whole idea of "emptiness" was so mysterious. To my knowledge none of the people I knew had any idea what it was. Back then emptiness was called by its Sanskrit word "Śūnyatā," which is pronounced in English Shunyata. I would read and read about Shunyata, which was translated as emptiness, vacuity, voidness, hollowness, and sometimes simply as openness, but I was no closer to understanding the term, much less having experienced it consciously.

This was back in the late 1950s, before the advent of the Tibetan Buddhists in America. It was mostly used in conjunction with Zen Buddhism, which itself was considered very cool, much like recently it is considered cool if we have some Native American blood in us or at least some indigenous philosophy.

I am not sure how the term "emptiness" is fairing these days, but perhaps some of you might like to be more clear what it means, practically speaking. With a little detective work on our part, we can see that we already have real-time experience with emptiness.

The easiest way to actually see emptiness at work in our own life is when something that was full goes empty. This can perhaps best be seen with our own attachments, no matter whether they are positive, negative, or indifferent. And perhaps the best way to experience emptiness directly is through impermanence. I like to say that impermanence is the smelling-salts of the dharma. It wakes up. By impermanence I mean just what you mean by the world, death, dying, and the fragility of life. It's no mystery, but it seems to be kept hidden.

We study our own mindstream not like we study a book, but by actually observing our mind in real-time. It is also possible to examine our past attachments for signs of their impermanence, and this does not have to include death, but often just the natural effects of change. And I will start with some fairly low-level examples.

Back in the 1950s high school kids, especially we boys, liked to get together and drink alcohol if we could find some, and we could. In particular we had chugging contests where we would challenge each other to drink a full glass of whisky straight down – 16 ounces! We got terribly sick. You could say that we were very attached to doing this even though the actual experience was horrible.

Years later, when we were young adults in our late teens or early twenties, we would come across younger guys still were doing the same thing. However, we had zero interest in joining them. Whatever attachment we had to chugging whisky had gone empty. We were unmoved by the younger guys invitation. We had vacated that attachment totally. That is kind of a crude example of how attachments can go empty.

If we examine our past even a little, there are countless examples of attachments that we once had, but that we no longer have. It could be our old bike, the Lego set, our hot-rod car, a first job – you-name-it. We might have some nostalgia, but many things we were attached to in the past now come up empty. We all have these experiences.

Now, let's get a little closer to what the Buddhists call emptiness, just a little mind you. And this next example strikes a little closer to where we live. In most lives some tragedy or real loss occurs, sooner or later. We may lose a loved one, a family member, or a close friend. We all know that we can't replace what there is only one of. That experience is what I am pointing at here.

Typically we are humming along in life and suddenly death or misfortunate strikes, usually without warning. In a moment we are devastated. Our self is shattered and many, many things that we only moments before were totally attached to come up empty. Now this is real emptiness. What was full is suddenly empty, not important. We can lose our appetite not just for food, but for doing almost anything. And usually it takes some time for the self to gather up the pieces and reanimate itself. I have written about this extensively.

Take note how something we were so full of, our Self, can go empty at a single word that strikes us wrong. How else to do we explain the sudden loss of self, but by our vacating what was only moments before so important and full. That is a second example of emptiness, one that we can verify in real-time.

Now we come to what the Buddhists call Shunyata, which is emptiness. Emptiness in Buddhism is often related to the emptiness of the Self, something I have written about here ad nauseam. Very briefly, Buddhist point out that the Self (our self) has no permanent existence. A common misunderstanding is that some say that the Buddhists believe there is no self. That's not correct.

What the Buddhists do say is that our Self has no independent existence. In fact, it is made up entirely of our own attachments, likes, and dislikes. We create our own little Frankenstein self and then proceed to animate it. Worse we forget or are unaware that we created it in the first place. It would be like a ventriloquist taking direction from his own dummy – that idea. Anyway, I don't want to argue all of this self-stuff here.

And this whole discussion gets more and more impossible to put into words until there are no words. Obviously I am not going there. Perhaps the most famous statement on emptiness is that found in the Heart Sutra, which comes from the Prajnaparamita Sutra. The mantra for this goes like this:

"Gate, Gate, Paragate, Parasamgate, Bodhi-svaha!"

Which translated goes something like this: "Gone, Gone, Gone Beyond Going, Completely Gone, Oh What an Awakening, So-Be-It!"

And the following lines are most often quoted from this sutra:

"Form is emptiness,
Emptiness is form.
Emptiness is not separate from form,
Form is not separate from emptiness.
Whatever is form is emptiness,
Whatever is emptiness is form."

The point to grasp here, at least as I understand it, is that appearances (form) and emptiness are not a duality, i.e. two things. They are the same thing, as this poem says:

"Appearances are …
Not only empty.
Appearances are …
The emptiness itself,

I am no expert in this, but only grateful for whatever I can understand. Perhaps we could discuss this here a bit. Here is another poem I wrote on this:


The power of emptiness,
Is its purity.
And it tames,

The result of emptiness,
Is compassion:
Working with things,
Just as they are.

Emptiness loves,
Including me.

[Photo not by me.]