The World as Emptiness

June 28th, 2006, 11am

My brushes with Buddhism have been few and far between and yet profoundly important for me. I associate these encounters with three specific words that represent very particular concepts.

The words are these: compassion (which, though not without its intricacies, is perhaps the most readily understandable of the three), mindfulness (which is surely the most popular Buddhist notion in vogue these day), and emptiness (which without doubt has been the most difficult of the three for me to comprehend). In this sketch I want to discuss only this third concept.

I first delved into Buddhism, because of the emptiness I felt after a day at school, or a day at work, or indeed a day at church. At the time I was working as an usher at the Chief Movie Theater in Enid, Oklahoma, and so, I happened to share these concerns with a young man who worked behind the candy counter. Like me, this guy was never without a book somewhere near at hand. I told him I was reading the Heart Sutra to understand my condition of emptiness.

“No, no”, he said, “you’ve got the wrong end of the Buddhist stick, you must alway pick up a snake by the tail if you don’t want to be bitten. Emptiness is nothing but form, and form is emptiness.” I stared at him blankly.

From this unpromising start, he went on to point to the paper cup in my hand, saying “Your cup is empty, and its value as a thing lies in its emptiness; because it is empty, you can always fill it up with coffee.” This little exchange cured me of my interest in Buddhism for several years, though now I realise there may have been more than a crumb of truth in his comments.

Indeed, every time I fill the bird bath in the pic above, I think of my candy and popcorn man’s idea of emptiness. The bird bath’s form is emptiness which allows it to hold water, which brings the delightful birds. “Emptiness is the true nature of things and events,” said the Dalai Lama.

Fifteen years later in 1968, as a member of academic staff at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, I acted as host to Alan Watts, an important Western interpreter of Buddhism, scheduled to give a lecture on Emptiness. “First of all”, he said, “emptiness means transience. Nothing to grasp, nothing permanent, nothing to hold on to. But it means this with reference to ideas of truth, ideas of god, ideas of the self or concepts of things and of events. What it means is that reality goes beyond all concepts. Always your concepts will prove to be attempts to catch water in a sieve or to wrap it up in a package or to express it in mere words, or to take its picture with a camera.”

These concepts do not have a separate independent existence. Nothing we see. or hear. or think, or say, or are, can stand alone. Every concept, every thing, every event is a transient expression of a single yet multivariate, seamless and interconnected reality. A landscape through which streams flow, winds blow, trees grow. So although no individual person or thing has any permanent, fixed identity, everything taken together is what Thich Nhat Hanh calls “interbeing.” This term is, perhaps, a more positive expression of emptiness.

Thich Nhat Hanh also explains emptiness through a piece of paper. Where is the paper if we take away the rain, the earth, the sun, the logger who cut down the tree? Without these and many, many other conditions, the paper would not exist. It is empty of a separate self but full of all of the other things that make it up. Notes on the Heart Sutra

If you have another seven minutes to dwell on such ideas, you can do much worse than attend this teaching of Thich Nhat Hanh.

Stephanie, Ken, Lloyd, Shu and 14 others said thanks.

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David Wade Chambers

Born in Oklahoma: 30 years in US. 6 years in Canada, 40 years in Australia. Academic field: history and philosophy of science. Currently, teach indigenous studies online at Institute of American Indian Arts (Santa Fe, NM) and Brandon University (Manitoba). Come visit our B&B on Australia's Great Ocean Road. Mate's Rates for Hi community! (

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