The Abundance of Emptiness


Surely an oxymoron? Yet, in its full traditional meaning – and that meaning reveals something both real and useful – emptiness signifies some thing, or better process, far from the mere negation that the term in everyday English language unthinkingly conveys.  Emptiness is Not Nothing: it stands in relation to fullness and presence.  In Taoist thought it is emptiness that enables, gives rise to all things; it is both the supreme origin and also the central element in the working of the phenomenal world. In Buddhism the term sunyata that is commonly translated by the English term emptiness, comes from the Sanskrit root svi which has connotations both of hollowness and swelling, related to the swelling of a seed.  Buddhist emptiness is not an emptiness of privation or of lack. It is not non-existence: it is the other face, the enabler of interdependence. Phenomena are not empty of existence; what they are empty of is independent, self-sufficiency since they are always inevitably dependent – upon causes and conditions, on the relationship of parts and whole and on linguistic or conceptual designation.  Thus, they are both empty and abundant.

Such inexhaustible emptiness may also provide a generative term or concept that can offer us escape from the dualisms that trouble Western thought. It may enable escape from “a relationship of frozen opposition’. French academician Francois Cheng has described the Taoist model as ‘a binary system that can be ternary and a ternary system that can be unitary: two equals three; three equals one’ . . . the seemingly paradoxical but constant mainspring of Chinese thought.’  

The original Tao is conceived as the supreme emptiness from which the one, which is the primordial breath, originates.  This gives rise to two, the two vital breaths of Yang and Yin, the active and receptive forces, which animate the existents of the world.  The three, he writes, ‘represented the combination of the vital breaths of yin and yang and the median emptiness’, which emerges from original emptiness.‘ Cheng writes of these three, the Yin breath and the Yang breath and the Breath of the Median Void, saying that ‘the Void is the place where the Breath orientates and is regenerated.’ The median emptiness also keeps everything in relationship with supreme emptiness. Thus emptiness is not nonexistent: it is dynamic and active. “Linked with the idea of vital breaths and with the principle of the alternation of yin and yang, it is the preeminent site of transformation, the place where fullness can attain its whole measure.’

French Sinologist and philosopher Francois Jullien, also writes of Chinese thought in terms of breath, describing a logic of breath, which runs through Chinese philosophy and aesthetics, supporting both poetry and painting.  In such a circular, and indeed experienced logic, the in breath is endlessly followed by the out breath, each being implicated in the other.  The yin/yang symbol illustrates this.  As Cheng describes it: ‘Emptiness introduces discontinuity and reversibility into a given system and thus permits the elements composing the system to transcend rigid opposition and one-sided development.’

Elements of this middle way, complementary perspective existed in Greek philosophy, in Stoicism, and Skepticism and Epicurianism. The French philosopher Marcel Conche has suggested that the Tao is nothing other than the river of Heraclitus, ever flowing, ever changing, without beginning or end. However, these were not the paths taken by the mainstream of Western thought. Despite all these philosophic, poetic and artistic pointers, Western philosophy politics, education and discourse took the course of presence, substance and certainty, which lead to the classical laws of identity, non-contradiction and the excluded middle, and the ensuing clutch of stark dualities, absence or presence, truth or falsehood, right or wrong.

Dualities proliferate: presence/absence, inner/outer, person/environment, nature/nurture, reason/emotion.  Then, on top of the first division springs the even more vital disparity between the valuations given to the divided terms, which then perpetuate further divisions. Such separation results in stark either/or categories rather than a more helpful and even realistic more and less.Distinction is different from rigid division.  Without a mediating middle termdistinctions are more likely to become divisions, staticand inflexible, lacking motion, relation and the idea of a spectrum.

These seemingly sharp divisions, however, when treated experientially with calm dispassionate attention, may be seen to dissolve into more blurred, more dynamic, if less certain form when seen in larger contexts. Phenomenologically, is not my experience related to the world?  Am I not in relationship with it – not entirely other, a part of me meing and world worlding.  A logic of breath would seem to make this easier to unite, easier to understand, might free one of the strict division of is  (this) and is not (that), and the unbending logic of the excluded middle.  It can underwrite a ground of complementarity rather than exclusion. As I breathe in, I take in the world, as I breathe out, I release air back into the world, in the interim important chemical transformations have occurred, without which I would die and my experienced world would end.

Breath returns one to the body, it mediates between presence and absence, allows us to see things as process. On the other hand language, in its very structure in English and most tongues, endorses product at the expense of process, the stark duality of is or is not, presence or absence Our language is strong on nouns rather than verbs: nouns that reify and parse the teeming world into individual things, obscuring the processes and relationships that animate and link the things. It has the same effect on abstractions, truth, reality, existence. What is in process - becoming, in some ways indistinct, unfinished, even mysterious – is converted into some ‘thing’, reified, totalized, finished. Lacking a concept or privileged sign such as emptiness, western thought is traditionally caught between the jaws of various dualities, seemingly enforced to seesaw from one end of a spectrum to its opposite, always evading the balance of the middle

When I was studying at SOAS many years ago, my supervisor once accused me, during discussion of a text by the early Buddhist writer Nagarjuna, of being ‘obsessed with emptiness.’  This phrase came back to me decades later sitting in an empty WiFi café in the heart of the Navajo nation, when I opened an email from a friend wondering if I might be interested in writing a book on A Philosophy of Emptiness.

I wrote that book, and spent much time exploring ideas of emptiness, from Nagarjuna, and even early Taoist sources through to its appearance in different guises in the work of modern and postmodern western artists, philosophers and even musicians.  The trail begun on actual trails in Arizona led to paths of mindfulness and attention. Whilst traditional eastern views were founded on and fostered practices of attention, I discovered that those who embraced and valued ideas of emptiness outside these ancient traditions, had usually found their way to such appreciation through various forms of attention. Whilst the practices of meditation and mindfulness are being gratefully rediscovered by many in the 21st century, others, individually, had arrived at similar experiences and outlooks, if not full blown philosophies, through diverse, often untraditional practices of attention – in art, in language, in dance and landscape.

I found that attention like breath is so much part of our very being that it is rarely the focus of attention itself.  Like breath it is noticed in default; when it is challenged or urgently needed.  In the case of attention, when something surprising, unexpected or dangerous occurs: in the case of breath when we need a deep breath, or cannot take one, when we gasp or struggle.  It is telling that almost all voluntary practices of attention start with linking attention to breath.  We all breathe, we all pay attention, yet these processes are so fundamental to our daily being, that we rarely attend to their process.  It is by paying attention to awareness that we discover the idea and the experience of emptiness. Paying attention, understanding emptiness, can give us an altered relationship to reality as process, opening up the space around objects, the silence around sound, and the awareness surrounding thoughts.

As William James first pointed out, and today the writer, thinker and scientist Iain McGilchrist has described: how we pay attention creates the world in which we live. Neuroscientists tell us that what we experience routinely can become physically instantiated in the neuronal firings of our brains. Careful attention exposes a richer world beyond habits of thought and action. Objective only has meaning in dependence on subjective. Substance and form have need for and imply emptiness in the paradoxical chiasmus of nonduality.  ‘Truth’ as McGilchrist points out, ‘is not fixed and certain. It is a process, a relationship, a becoming.  God, infinity and truth are all processes, not things, becomings not beings.’

If a true understanding of emptiness requires attention, so the finest attenders have discovered that radical attention requires a kind of emptiness, a union of attention with openness, an emptying out of expectation, an opening of the shutters of convention and self, that the light may break in.  One of those with the keenest attention is the writer Annie Dillard. In the foreword to a recent collection of her writing, Geoff Dyer describes how ‘she opens our eyes to the world and to new ways of articulating what we see.’ Noticing that unless she called her attention to what is passing before her eyes, she did not see it, Dillard herself writes of ‘another kind of seeing that entails a letting go’.  She compares ordinary seeing to walking with a camera and reading the light on a meter, and heightened seeing to opening one’s own shutter, when ‘the moment’s light prints on my own silver gut . . . When I see this way I see truly.’  Such seeing cannot be positively willed, ‘All I can do is to try to gag the commentator, to hush the noise of useless interior babble that keeps me from seeing just as surely as a newspaper dangled before my eyes. The effort is really a discipline requiring a lifetime of dedicated struggle; it marks the literature of saints and monks of every order East and West, under every rule and no rule, discalced and shod.’ This secret of seeing she calls ‘a pearl of great price’ that may be found but not sought, that though it comes to those who wait for it, it is always, even to the most practiced, a gift.

As the poet Mary Oliver also noted: ‘An openness — an empathy — was necessary if the attention was to matter’, to enable us to ‘seeing through the heavenly visibles to the heavenly invisibles.’ Before we can see freshly, allow ourselves to be touched, we must open up, empty out, turn the programmed movement of the training field into the spontaneity that only comes after much practice. We must allow ourselves to touch and be touched, to become open to the relational way of life that Heidegger called ‘presencing’. McGilchrist interpreting attention from the side of neuroscience and brain process, also believes that presencing requires an idea of emptiness. He has explored from many angles the ways in which we interact and create our worlds attempting particularly to bridge that gap between what we experience and how we experience, and the roles of the two hemispheres of the brain in these processes. He believes that the dominant mode of the right hemisphere, which sees the larger, if less certain, picture should be the Master and the currently predominant (and more valued) left hemispheric mode, attached to precision, abstraction and certainty, the emissary.  Living in a contemporary culture in thrall to the point of view of the left hemisphere, we now overvalue precision at the expense of ambiguity and emptiness. On what McGilchrist calls ‘the other side of the leap ‘ (from certainty to ambiguity, from the left hemispheric mode of attending to the right), ‘ things can only be defined negatively: finite becomes infinite, divisible becomes indivisible, quanta becomes non-quanta.”

He writes: ‘Saying “yes” depends on something to say “yes” to, which has not yet come into being.  We therefore say “no” to the already known.  In creation “no” comes first.’ And also ‘Unknowing is not ignorance.  It is an awareness of the superabundance of meaning in the world in relation to our ordinary manner of conceiving. ’ To start in emptiness, by withdrawal rather than action, reflects the way that things come into being for us phenomenologically through the interaction of the hemispheres. ‘The first “act” is not the making of something happen, but an open receptive attentiveness by the right hemisphere in which all new experience begins.  It creates a space for something to be.’ In this neurological manner, unknowing aligns with ideas of emptiness to enrich our seeing.  Emptiness is the door to abundance.

Over the past century, certainties and single truths have been (rightly) deconstructed, but the western way of either/or has produced a corollary to the postmodern theories that problematise certainty - by moving from the notion that no truth is certain to the notion that there is then no truth at all.  Rather than an enriched concept of reality than is superabundant, beyond the certain parsing of left hemisphere dominance, without a concept of emptiness and its relation to interdependence, we are left with only an emptiness of privation, a draining away of truth and reality. This is far different from the ‘negative capability’ that John Keats described to his brother, ‘that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.’ Shelley too aspired to the dissolution of the self, wanting to be as an Aeolian harp so that the wind could play on the receptive strings of his body and mind.

It is easiest perhaps to see this understanding of emptiness, of Keat’s negative capability, of Coleridge’s willing suspension of disbelief in the arena of the arts where we meet it in various guises.  Obviously in Chinese scroll paintings, in the white paintings of Rauschenberg and the black of Ad Reinhardt and Malevitch, and in the silence of John Cage’s 4’33”. Less obviously perhaps, it is there in the pictures of Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman, in the empty spaces in a late Cezanne oil painting, and today in James Turrell’s light watching spaces.  Musically emptiness sings in Morton Feldman’s response to Rothko’s Houston Chapel and the works of John Luther Adams inspired by open landscape.   In the field of the written word the understanding of the necessity of emptiness as the foundation of the space between words, the foundation of grammar, resonates in poems of Jane Hirshfield, William Bronk, Seamus Heaney, T.S.Eliot among others.  Edmund de Waal has taken pottery into the field of fine art in installations that echo the centrality of the emptiness at the centre of the pot in the placing of many pots in careful sequence.

The traces of a necessary emptiness and its understanding of interrelationship are also to be found in other fields; from the disparate worlds of qualitative science following Goethe, through phenomenology and the neuroscientists and philosophers of mind called 4E, upholding the view that consciousness must be considered as embodied, extended, embedded and enactive to neurophenomenology. The working of Mirror neurons, Merleau-Ponty’s ideas of ‘flesh’ and chiasmus, psychologist J.J. Gibson’s idea of affordances, the metaphorical investigations of Lakoff and Johnson, and the strange world of contemporary physics as beautifully described by Carlo Rovelli, in Reality Is Not What It Seems, all point to different nondual and holistic ways, physical and conceptual, of trying to connect, to evade dualistic gaps. Neuroscience today is reiterating many of the tropes of the first Buddhist psychology, exposing the unfindability and relationality, the emptiness of the self, in a different language. Concepts of emptiness are also to be found amongst the works of Heidegger and Wittgenstein, and Bergson and the neuropragmatic approach uniting the work of James and Dewey with current neuroscience.   Bringing together worlds of philosophy, psychology, neuroscience and creative fiction, whilst never touching the concept or word ‘emptiness’, Siri Hustvedt has written illuminatingly and persuasively of ‘The Delusions of Certainty’ and many of the other essays in A Woman Looking At Men Looking At Women that range widely through all of these fields..

All of these point to a different orientation to world, a subtle, or less than subtle, rearrangement in our alignment with world, a dynamic and pluralistic approach that deeply understands the falsity of the Cartesian dualities. There is a profound and necessary shift away from inevitable duality towards an enquiry based on complexity, participation and engagement.  For as Stephen Talbot of the Nature Institute perceptively wrote;
We are all dualists now – often none more so than those of us who loudly refuse the “Cartesian mind-matter dichotomy.” For the dichotomy is built into our experience at such a fundamental level that academic thoughts have little bearing on it.  It has become our common sense . . . If I imagine I am free of dualism at the level of my experience, chances are I merely confirm that I haven’t yet become aware of the depth of its hold on me.’

Hustvedt quotes the early 20th century philosopher and neurologist Pierre Janet, writing “In reality definiteness does not exist in natural phenomena; it exists but in our systemic descriptions.  It is the men of science who cut separate pieces out of a whole that nature has made continuous.’   I would only add that it is not only the men of science who parse nature this way: we all do it.  And it is necessary; otherwise the world would be just as William James described it, a blooming, buzzing confusion.  What is troubling is that methods of science of extreme value in understanding our world have become items of faith in all fields. Those methods of left-brain analysis, which McGilchrist believe should be the emissary, have currently mastered the more holistic right brain modes of engagement.

Embodied disciplines of attention expose the shiftiness behind the usual parsing of thing and event. Different philosophies, acknowledging uncertainty, impermanence and absence, attempt to balance our prejudices toward substance and presence and our psychological bias towards certainty.  It is interesting that one of the first books, still much cited, that introduced the idea of then called enactive cognitive science was one that arose from writers deeply founded in Buddhist philosophy and awareness practice.   Just as mathematics needed the concept of zero as a value, (introduced by Indian mathematicians, arising from Indian philosophy and translated by the term sunya, empty) to flourish, so the understanding of sunya might help Western thought and understanding in today’s changing world. The idea of emptiness and the practices of attention and awareness might provide an ungrounded ground for a world that wants to move from certainty but whose current alternative is often nihilistic.

Cheng, Empty and Full, trans M.H. Kohn, (1994, Boulder, Co), p. 50

F. Cheng, Empty, p. 51.

Cheng, Empty p. 50.

F. Cheng, The Way of Beauty, trans, J.Gladding,  (2009, Rochester, VT). P.62

Cheng, Empty, p.36


Lao Tsu, Tao Te King, trans. M. Conche, (2003, Presse Universitaire  de France, Paris), p. 33.

For deeper discussion of this see, Watson A Philosophy of Emptiness, (2014, Reaktion Books, London). Chapter  4.

I saw this phrase ‘more and less’ in Siri Hustvedt’s superb  essay The Delusions of Certainty  (in S. Hustvedt, A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women, (2016, New York) and it struck a loud bell.  It was not either/or or even more or less that concepts of emptiness enable, but rather more and less. So I thank her.

I. McGilchrist, ‘The Power of No’, Laing Lecture 3 np p.13

A. Dillard, The Abundance (2016, New York), p.xvii.

Ibid, p.168/9

Ibid, p.169/70 Maria Popova,  “Mary Oliver on What Attention Means…’ access 6.112016

McGilchrist, Power, p. 5.

Ibid, p .6

Ibid, p.9

  Ibid, p.6

J. Keats letter In a letter to his brothers George and Thomas Keats. 22.12.1817

Cited in A. Harris, Weatherland, (London, 2015), pp. 251-2.

See M. Johnson, The Aesthetics of Meaning and Thought, (Chicago, 2018)

S. Hustvedt, A Woman

S. L Talbot, ‘Reframing the Mind-Body Problem,  access 25th January 2017.

P. Janet, The Major Symptoms of Hysteria, p.18, cited in Hustvedt, A Woman, p.482.

F.Varela, E. Thompson & E. Rosch, The Embodied Mind,