Around a Philosophy of Emptiness


Strangely the origin of this book began in one of the emptiest places.  Not too far from the Grand Canyon, in a deserted café in the high desert country of the Navajo Nation, I picked up an email asking if I might be interested in writing a book on A Philosophy of Emptiness.  Having been accused many years earlier by the supervisor of my doctoral thesis of an obsession with emptiness it felt like a call I couldn’t refuse.
Two nights before the drive out into the high desert space, I had been in Las Vegas, possibly it seems to me, mans’ greatest monument to the avoidance and fear of emptiness – an oasis of noise, light, neon, crowds and streaming waters in what would (and perhaps should) otherwise be a geographic emptiness. The night sky that in the desert revealed against the darkness more and seemingly closer stars than I have ever seen, and a milky way that illuminated its name, in Vegas had been invisible behind the neon and the headlights.  Las Vegas or the desert.  It is a good, if perhaps too neat,  metaphor for different responses to emptiness. On the one hand, emptiness is a lack to be filled quickly with distraction: on the other, feeling the horror and vacuity of mindless agitation, to see the potential of space for clearing the mind and, by paying careful attention, discovering the complexity and beauty that exists in the desert clarity.
Two contemporary writers have expressed these two paradoxical aspects of the desert. Here is the first:
Increasingly, however, it is the sun-scorched emptiness of the desert, a place that is at once pre- and post-historic that exerts a hold on us.  Don De Lillo described the desert as “a container for emptiness” and, in a world stripped of transcendental values, we are drawn increasingly into that vacuum.
And then the second:
. . . but desert space is always a listener, its only voice a quiet so unbroken it hushes you, thereby making you fit to enter in. . . .  How delicious . . . to listen and be no one at all.  A ‘no one’ brimful, an emptiness who has become what there is.
Tellingly the first quotation is that of a metropolitan Londoner, the second that of one who has spent days in solitary exploration of uninhabited regions. Those who live in the desert, the wilderness or even the countrysaide and pay close attention to the surroundings of which they consider themselves a part, those that live close to the land, see emptiness differently from those in the urban areas.  Native American Luther Standing Bear said ‘there are no such things as emptiness in the world’, and similarly a testimonial from the worldview of the Koyukon of northern Alaska declares: ‘there is no emptiness in the forest, no inward solitude.’ Such philosophy arises directly from experience of the land and close attention.
As the quotations above show, emptiness may be felt as fearful or as a clearing to see more surely.  There is a distinction between emptiness as feeling and emptiness as philosophy. As a word emptiness denotes lack; as a feeling it gives rise to anxiety.  However a deeper, more contemplative and philosophic enquiry may allow us to move from raw feeling and conventional usage to a broader consideration that takes account both of lack and what is lacking, and also what remains, and, perhaps, what it is that encompasses all, a consideration that may lead us to an understanding that without emptiness there can be no fullness. To speak of emptiness challenges a lot of assumptions that form the unacknowledged background of our common ways of thought and perception, challenges habits we are unaware of having – the lenses through which we see and which themselves we fail to notice.  To speak for a philosophy of emptiness asks for a change of attention and perception.
Whilst the word emptiness would seem to point merely to lack, a philosophy of emptiness points to something different; to an other emptiness, that is empty of essence, definition, limit and necessity but not empty of existence: that is, in actuality, both potential and reality – experience, indefinable, untotalisable, un-folding. For a philosophy of emptiness, emptiness is not a ness, nor a noun, and it has nothing to do with nothing.  It is a verb, an emptying out.  It is an experience - of the infinite movement of things, of world worlding, undefinable, beyond theory, expectation, beyond position, definition and privilege.
So began a long exploration in open realms. I started with experience – the experience of emptiness as lack, which then calls for distraction, the Las Vegas of the mind.  Then I explored what happened if one avoided this emotional reaction to emptiness and continued paying attention to the experience itself.  Attention it seemed is at the heart of an alternative response to emptiness.
From the experiential I turned to follow a historical trail of philosophies of emptiness; first and inevitably that of Buddhism.  If you Google philosophy of emptiness you get several million hits.  I followed the first fifteen pages before time and patience flagged and found that approximately 99% were related to Buddhism.  For Buddhist thought provides probably the first, and still the most, fully formed philosophy of what has commonly been translated as emptiness.
That word, usually translated as emptiness in English, in Sanskrit is sunyata, and  etymologically it refers to hollowness and has connotations of the swelling of a seed, and thus in its root contains something more than lack.  In Buddhist philosophy sunyata does not refer to nothingness, it refers to the lack of essential essence and permanence in all phenomena.  It is one side of a coin, whose other side is interdependence.  Everything, including our self, is dependent on causes and conditions, the interdependance of parts and whole and on verbal or cultural designation. Thus, sunyata, which we translate as emptiness, is also a synonym for tathata or suchness: the way things are – devoid of essence, dependent on causes and conditions, existent. It provides a middle way, a track between eternalism and nihilism.  The 2nd century Indian philosopher Nagarjuna, said “The Buddha rejected both ‘it is’ and ‘it is not’

            How we come to realise this is through practices of attention, ancient practices of mindfulness and meditation that reveal impermanence and dependence and also complexity and richness.  Practices that today are seen to affect the way our brains process material. It has been found that the patterns of neuronal firings connected to what we consistently pay attention to become instantiated in our brains. Thus if we are creatures of habit it surely behoves us to choose our habits carefully.  One of the major shifts also recently noticed during attempts at ceasng from doing, of mindful wide-focused attention to attention, is that from a self-centred form of attention, in which everything is seen from the perspective of our self-reference, to a more other-centred and all embracing vision. Little wonder that there is much talk in this 21st century of ‘neural Buddhism.’
From Buddhism I turned to Taoism, also concerned with emptiness as the foundation beyond being and non-being.  Such foundation is to be understood through the way of wu-wei: which means ‘ non-doing, without action, without effort, without control’, and following from that without will, empty of self. A philosophy of emptiness is at the heart of Taoist practice, and this strongly influenced Far Eastern forms of Buddhism, but its expression is perhaps more poetic and less polemic than that of Buddhism, and thus it is less noted today. I want to mention, however, a characteristic of Chinese thought pointed out by a French Sinologist Francois Jullien. He draws attention to a fundamental distinction between Chinese and Western thought; a distinction that underpins its approach to philosophy, painting and writing, and one that I think is relevant to discussion of emptiness in the context of contemporary life.  He suggests that Chinese thought is structured by a logic of respiration rather than the logic of perception that led to the ‘ontotheological’ choice taken by Greek and later Western thought.  Such a logic does not separate presence from absence, a separation, he notes, that ‘in its foundation leads back to that of being and nonbeing.’ The initial choice between ‘I breathe’ and ‘I perceive’ defines what constitutes reality.  The Greek choice of perception led to the priority of a conception of reality as an object of knowledge and to the division of subject and object, the first, or perhaps the second after the separation of presence and absence, of the many dualities of Western thought.  The Chinese choice, based on an experiential knowledge of breathing in and breathing out, led to the principle of a regulating alternation of emptiness and fullness from which the process of the world flows.  An alternation rather than an either/or that is much closer to the Buddhist understanding of the alternation of emptiness and fullness expressed in the Buddha’s rejection of both it is and it is not.
I then turned westward and a little closer in time, following the trail of echoes of emptiness into the writings of Greeks. Despite Julien’s distinction, perhaps before the choice of perception became fully instantiated, the echoes are fascinatingly strong.  In the fragments of Heraclitus, in Epicurean thought, in Stoicism and above all in Pyrrhonian Scepticsm the song of emptiness is to be heard.  This philosophy teaches, for example, the idea of ou mallon, or neither this nor that, saying about each single thing that it no more is than is not, or both is and is not, or neither is nor is not, that is so distinct from the harsh opposition of being and nothing, presence and absence of the Aristotelian excluded middle, and so much closer to the Buddhist Madhyamaka philosophy.  Moreover these Greek philosophies were also in rooted in practices.  Philosophy for the Greeks, as to Buddhists and Taoists, was a way of life; a way to cultivate happiness eudaimonia, flourishing: peace of mind, freedom from craving and despair, resilience in the face of the contingency of the world.
As western philosophy developed however, we find philosophies of presence, in which no middle ground exists: lack of presence = absence.  The hegemony of Christianity ended the concept and practice of emptiness. Philosophy itself became less a way of life, and became split into the practices of belief and faith, and discourse, which was the province of the academies. Mention of emptiness disappears except for the individual voices of mystics, such as Duns Scotus, St. John of the Cross and Meister Eckhart where the songs of emptiness are still to be heard. Later, the writers and thinkers of the Enlightenment challenged the hegemony of religion, and then poetry of the Romantics and the concept and experience of the Sublime carried forward resonances of a philosophy of emptiness. But it is not until Modern and postmodern eras in the west that the reintroduction of tropes and themes of emptiness become commonly heard. And they occur here both as description of loss and as a different way of seeing.
In all fields, traditional certainties, foundations and necessities were challenged.  There are three main ways of responding to this.  By turning away from tradition in a sometimes ungrounded search for some new and foreign Truth, holding to the old truths literally and in fundamentalist fashion despite all evidence to the contrary, or, by paying attention to experience, facing up to the new discoveries and finding ways through uncertainty to live resiliently with new discoveries and unknowing. Obviously a philosophy of emptiness is this third way.
Evolution, the death of God, the end of metaphysics, relativity indeterminacy, incompleteness, deconstruction - these become the themes of the modern and postmodern and have interesting links with a philosophy of emptiness and interconnection.  I have attempted to trace some of this through Philosophy; in the move from essence to existence underwritten by existentialism, in Heidegger’s search for Being, Derrida’s deconstruction, phenomenology’s return to experience, and Wittgenstein exploration of the relativity of our reliance on language.
Through Science; where relativity, indeterminacy, imcompleteness, dark matter, quanta, all have challenged previous views of the world.   Where scientists have sought for substance they have increasingly encountered emptiness. A recent comment at the time of the discovery of the Higgs particle describes a world full of emptiness.
Through Psychology, where, from the time of William James, through Freud Jung, Winnicott and many others, we have learned that our selves, our identities are not essential, but constructed and changeable. The distributed self, the reach of the unconscious have all shown selves to be more impermanent, more process than product, yet for all this, more resilient, more promising as shown in recent neuroscientific discoveries concerning neuroplasticity, the lifelong ability of the neuronal patterns of our brains to alter with experience. We can cultivate new habits and train our minds.
And perhaps above all through the Arts; for artists are those who pay attention most closely and invite us, their audience, to do the same.
In visual arts, we can trace the breakdown of forms from the indistinction of impressionism through the multi-perpectives of cubism, to abstraction, to conceptual art and performance.
In music we hear the loss of tonality and loosening of form;
In literature –in fiction the role of the god-like narrator has often given way to the multi perspectives of the various characters, to the reproduction of stream of consciousness, even to the surreal unconscious.  In poetry too, strict forms have been relaxed.
Even in contemporary dance and choreography I found artists and neuroscientists collaborating in exploration of  kinaesthetic intelligence from a place of unknowing.                                   
My choices, particularly in the Arts perhaps, are personal lists. Here are some names I would point to:
Rothko, Rauschenberg, Kiefer, Richter, Turrell, Eliason. Martin Creed, light on, light off, Klein’s Leap into the Void.  Music: John Luther Adams, Gubudailina, Part, Morton Feldman’s Music for Rothko’s Chapel. Writing: T.S.Eliot, both privation and potential.  Virginia Woolf, Samuel Beckett. 
These neither attempt nor succeed in being comprehensive.  The intention is rather to supply suggestions that may perhaps lead the reader to find their own, examples to point to a different way of seeing things through the lens of emptiness. 

Perhaps John Cage’s infamous silent piano piece 4.33 could stand as the epitome of emptiness in art.   A pianist comes on stage, opens the piano lid, sits down at the piano stool and sits - playing nothing, Is it a joke? Does it annoy, or can one use it to notice how we are prisoners of our expectations, and sit listening to the sounds that naturally occur in the silence?  Can we also appreciate that no performance will ever be the same.
As I came to the end of the writing of this book the summer exhibition  (2012) at the Haywood Gallery was titled Invisible: art of the unseen.  Emptiness was appearing overtly in the at least semi-popular cultural arena. I read a wonderful phrase from the curator of this exhibition: ‘the complacency of the seen’. A philosophy of emptiness challenges our common sense complacency of the seen and, as John Cage demonstrated, the heard. It was Cage who described the white paintings of Robert Rauschenberg as ‘airports for lights, shadows and particles.”  These artists ask us to pay closer attention, to look beyond the form, beyond the frame, to the silence and sound that surrounds the music.
Finally I realized that in my year’s writing I had come to find the idea of emptiness as a guidline – a different perspective towards everyday life. The value of a philosophy of emptiness is inseparable from a practice of attention.  It is a Way.  The thirteenth century Tibetan scholar Tsong Khapa wrote ‘emptiness is the track on which the centred person moves.‘ It is a middle way.  This track offers an alternative to philosophies of presence/absence and to the dualistic thinking which when foundation and totality are challenged as the traditional certainties have been challenged in modern times, leaves us on the brink of the abyss of nihilism.  While a philosophy of emptiness may comport with the definition of nihilism as the absence of necessity and foundation, it can evade the emotional corollary of the absence of all meaning and value, since it is free of the stark theoretical division of presence and absence, and, as a practice involving mind, speech and embodiment, brings us back to experience.  

            What might this mean in terms of experience - in daily life?  It is a call to question the capitalized complacency of the big words so easily used, - Truth, Essence, Reality, even Self, and notice them with attention that will find they are more complex more subtle, more unknown.  To see that space is a necessary part of form, silence of sound.  Defocus the mind, take a wider attention beyond the narrow tunnel of task and self reference, walk out into nature, see world beyond the human, look up at the stars and feel deep time.  If we can move beyond fear of uncertainty to embrace it, see emptiness as the profound expression of interdependence, then foundations and absolutes become redundant. As the poet Louis MacNeice wrote in his poem Snow many years ago:
World is suddener than we fancy it.
World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural.
There is another wonderful quote from writer Terry Tempest Williams on seeing the first photographs of earth taken from the moon:
If in fact we are in free fall, we can relax, because we also know that there is no ground, so no need for a parachute. If we are a part of the whole, what more do we want?
I had begun the writing from the philosophical perspective of a grounding in Buddhist thought and the experiential one of working as a psychotherapist; exploring the wider resonances, the idea of emptiness has become more and more replaced in my thinking with the idea of openness, that is openness to contingency and a challenge to all conceptions of essence, foundation and the priority of being.  Many days spent writing in California in a hillside garden that on winter morning often looked out onto nothing but mist, giving the feeling of living within a Chinese ink painting, provided me with an apposite image, truer than the contrast of Las Vegas or the desert.  The process of emptiness and fullness of interdependence is complicated, more a misty intertwining than a stark either/or. Emptiness is fullness, Fullness is Emptiness.

            A philosophy of emptiness must provide an acceptance of contingency and a way to live with uncertainty, similar perhaps to the negative capability described by the poet John Keats, a way to live an engaged and meaningful life despite or rather within unknowing, a way that evades the seduction of complacent certainty.  Yet within uncertainty we do need some guiding threads even as we speak of the end of the great metanarratives.   I see emptiness as that guiding thread, that may helpfully keep us from closure and yet steer us through indeterminacy on the middle path between is and is not, in the understanding that experience, existence and language are all thoroughly relational, plural and interconnected.
If the concept of emptiness appeared initially alien to Western sensibility, perhaps now we can acknowledge the value of this strangeness as a new lens through which to see things afresh.  Emptiness has nothing to with nothing. Paradoxically emptiness, rather than being negative, may act as an antidote to loss of ultimate foundations if it is considered, as presented in early philosophies, together with reliance upon interdependence.  Stephen Batchelor has described it most neatly, writing of ‘the emptiness of necessity and the embrace of contingency’. The definition of contingency is: ‘depending on something else:  Happening by chance.’  In other word: tathata, suchness, the infinite movement of things, the way the world worlds.  Existence and experience.
I can do no better than end with the words of Nagarjuna from the 2nd century:
When emptiness is possible
Everything is possible;
Were emptiness impossible,
Nothing would be possible.

G. Dyer, Otherwise Known as the Human Condition.

R. Saner, Reaching Keet Seel. (Utah, 1998) p 70

Both of these quotes are to be found in J. Griffiths, Wild, An Elemental Journey, (London, 2008 ).  The quotation from Luther Standing Bear is also to be found in many places online, while the second comes from R. Nelson. The Island Within. ( New York,  1991 )

F. Jullien, The Great Image has No Form or on the Non-Object through Painting. (Chicago, 2009) p.5

T.T. Williams in Writing Natural History, ed. E. Leudars, (Salt Lake City, UT, 1989) p.50

Personal communication, quoting from his own Living With the Devil

Batchelor, Verses, p. 21