What’s This Whole Emptiness Thing?

"Listen, Shariputra, form is emptiness, emptiness is form, form does not differ from emptiness, emptiness does not differ from form. The same is true with feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness."
The Heart Sutra

"All Buddhas preach emptiness. Why? Because they wish to crush the concrete ideas of the students. If a student even clings to an idea of emptiness, he betrays all Buddhas."

Mystics talk about emptiness. Or maybe they don’t. When they do, they are likely not well understood. The knowledge of emptiness is not attained through words. Words can only point the way. They say, look, there’s this thing you need to understand, but it’s not a thing. It’s nothing really. The mystic might try to explain:

Emptiness is like a dial tone, only quieter.
Emptiness is the trough between waves.
Emptiness is the writer’s mind, not blocked, but waiting for an idea to present itself.
Emptiness is the 0s in computer logic. 1 is a switch that’s on. 0 is a switch that’s off. Without the 0, the state of non-electricity, there is no bit, no byte, no word, no picture. The computer does not compute without absence of electricity. 0s and 1s, both are required.
Without emptiness you could not fill a pot. You could not walk into a room. You could not take a breath. Without emptiness of mind, all our thoughts would run together.

We are attracted to the world of things. We sense form. We feel substantiality in things. Emptiness is less easy to grasp. When we perceive things, we naturally experience them as separate from ourselves. When we understand emptiness, the separation is gone. There are no things in the experience of emptiness, not because things do no exist in the experience, but they are not experienced as separate from us and from our experience of them.

We sit in a chair and the chair sits us. If you had never seen a chair, it would be an interesting form without meaning. Once you had sat in a chair its chairness would become clear. The form of a chair is meaningless without the participation of a human’s posterior. Any separation between chair and sitting is illusory. When we press a key on the keyboard an image appears on the computer screen. The thought, the choice to press the key, pressing the key, the key, the computing, the appearance of a letter on the computer screen are all one thing/process/action/experience. The perception of separation between the thought, the action and the result is illusion.

We don’t have words for these phenomena. The experience of emptiness is beyond words. Words can’t do it justice, because it must be experienced to be understood. So if these inadequate words have not communicated the essence of emptiness and you wish to understand, here is what you might do:

Sit quietly.

Breathe in and breathe out. Notice the space between breaths. What is that?

Observe your mind. Thoughts come into awareness, and if you let them go, they will leave your awareness. What is happening between your thoughts?

If you stop analyzing, wishing, worrying, blaming, or predicting, what happens?

What happens if you just let what’s happening happen?

Allow your awareness to open up. Become more aware of yourself in space and time. When you become more aware of yourself in relation to the world, what happens to the separation between you and the world? When you become more aware of yourself in the passage of time, what happens to time? When you become aware that you are inextricable merged with the rest of the world, what happens to the concept of self?

"Attain the climax of emptiness,
preserve the utmost quiet:
as myriad things act in concert,
I thereby observe the return.
Things flourish,
then each returns to its root."
Lao Tsu, Tao Te Ching, 16

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© 2002 Tom Barrett