A Letter from the World of Emptiness

The word “emptiness” has come to have an uncomfortable, foreboding quality.

Rest assured it does not mean nothingness, a void, or a vacuum!

Mingyur Rinpoche says, “When Buddhists talks about emptiness, we don’t mean nothingness, but rather an unlimited potential for anything to appear, change, or disappear.”

He also equates emptiness with “the sense of openness people experience when they simply rest their minds” in meditation. - quotes from The Joy of Living, Unlocking the Secret and Science of Happiness.

A letter from the world of emptiness

For this week’s reflection, I’ve chosen two amazing quotations on emptiness from the Zen master Shunyru Suzuki-roishi.

“All descriptions of reality are limited expressions of the world of emptiness.  Yet we attach to the descriptions and think they are reality.  That is a mistake.”

“Although we have no actual written communications from the world of emptiness, we have some hints or suggestions about what is going on in that world, and that is, you might say, enlightenment.  When you see plum blossoms or hear the sound of a small stone hitting bamboo, that is a letter from the world of emptiness.” - from Not Always So, Practicing the True Spirit of Zen, Shunryu Suzuki

I hope these quotations give you a glimpse of emptiness with all its potential.  I would love to hear any thoughts or insights you would like to share.

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If you liked this article, please share the link with others.  Thanks very much, Sandra

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27 thoughts on “A Letter from the World of Emptiness

  1. I like to think of ‘emptiness’ in the context of spirituality as being like zero point energy… even though I don’t know quite what that is, but I think it’s an absolute physical vacum that creates a huge amount of energetic potential.

    In the stillness the grass will grow :) – the saying doesn’t really make sense actually as grass grows pretty well anyway, but whatever, it’s good.

    The mind is another layer around the soul, the soul being the everlasting and true self. So when the mind shuts the hell up for a bit, the consciousness can be permeated with soul, and soul can change our lives and the world and make both more like heaven.

    • Hi Ali,

      Your last paragraph is so beautiful and stunning! And so true. Different traditions use different words. The word “soul” is not used in Buddhism; “pure awareness” is used to describe that which continues and is beyond birth and death. But in essence the meaning is similar and the point remains the same – there’s a whole lot more going on beyond the chattering of our mind.

      It’s useful to use analogies like zero point energy since we can’t understand emptiness with the conceptual mind. Analogies can give us a feel for it and that is how the masters teach. I don’t know anything about zero point energy, but there are many parallels (as well as distinctions) being made like this between science and Buddhist philosophy. I’ve read about some in Mingyur Rinpoche’s book and also through the dialogues that have taken place between scientists and the Dalai Lama sponsored by the Mind and Life Institute.

      Your comment on the first Sunday reflections (we are what we think), really encouraged me. I was too exhausted to write and post the reflection last night, but with your encouragement got on it this morning. I’m so glad I did because reflecting on Suzuki-roishi’s words again seemed to deepen my understanding. Thank you so much! ~ Sandra

      • Haha. Okay, buddha nature. Whatever! Words don’t change reality. Almost everything that differentiates religions can be put down to language differences, or human misunderstanding. Not knowing the reality, we only have the words – and the words are different.

        Oh and then we pile on what we WANT to be true and add mistranslation and stuff to that.

        Glad you made it :)

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  3. Emptiness teachings demonstrate that the “I,” as well as everything else, lacks inherent existence. Through meditation one learns no thing exists on its own, apart from dependent arising conditions. Through meditation one realizes we and the world are empty, and that frees us from unrealistic expectations. We find peace and freedom in the spaciousness of emptiness.

    The main problem I faced prior to learning to meditate was ignorance and fear of the unknown. Learning to meditate revealed to me that my mind is a constantly chattering monkey reviewing, planning, what it will do and what it has done. That monkey mind evokes a non stop parade of thoughts, images, past events, and speculative future scenarios, some of which are laden with fear, and all of which are generated by data from my senses and my memories.

    Meditation is a complete emptying of the mind and the dissolving of ego and the practice brought me to a place and space where I no longer clung to what my monkey mind produced. It brought me to a place of peace and spaciousness within the emptiness. In the deep awareness that results from meditation, I witnessed the arising, the dwelling, and the passing away of thoughts, scenarios, and emotions generated by my monkey mind without grasping them until they simply subside and fade into the emptiness. Being in the emptiness lead me to discover the truth — my fears are self-created. Practicing meditation helped me to able to face the fears in my monkey mind and travel beyond fear.

    There are many methods of spacious meditation in the different schools and traditions of Buddhism. I have learned and followed several of them. There are several ways to approach emptiness. We can approach emptiness by dwelling in peace and harmony between moments of movement in the mind, and even expand the scope of that emptiness.

    • This is simply beautiful, timethief. You have a profound understanding of the Buddhist teachings and you articulate them so well. It is joyful to see all the benefits that meditation coupled with this deep insight into the nature of reality and the nature of mind has brought into your life. Thank you for sharing so profoundly with us. I won’t say too much more because you have already captured the essence in your comment. I appreciate you so much. All the best, Sandra

  4. Dearest Sandra, this is soooo meaningful to me. I am writing about emptiness (or nothingness) in my second book. I teared up reading this because it was in the “Nothingness” that I heard the voice of love. It was in my greatest emptiness that I experienced my deepest peace and oneness with all of Existence. It was in the Emptiness that I saw the brightest light.

    I remember reflecting in the forest that we humans run from the very things that we desperately hunger for….Emptiness. I think we instinctively know that is where we will find peace, and even find ourselves. Our deepest most authentic selves.

    I love the intimacy of this line: “When you see plum blossoms or hear the sound of a small stone hitting bamboo, that is a letter from the world of emptiness.”

    Gosh, I love the beauty you share here. I find a most healing reflection. Bless you dear Sandra for allowing the world in, living with an open heart. It makes you naturally wise. Hugs, Robin

  5. For me, emptiness is the state of letting go of all the information the material world is constantly reporting to my physical senses. When I empty my thinking of this ephemeral data, my awareness fills with that which is real, with spiritual sense. Some days, it may seem that I have to work harder for this realization, but it is comforting to know that regardless of my own, sometimes feeble efforts, spiritual reality is a constant. It is where I am.

    Thank you for today’s reflection.

    Kathleen

    • Hello Kathleen,

      This is a beautiful description of your sense of emptiness and simply release all the unnecessary stuff. It’s inspiring to hear your confidence in the constant of a spiritual reality. That really gives life a different perspective.

      Thanks so much for sharing your perspective with us.

  6. Hi Sandra, your text made me think of emptiness in a new way. I have usually thought of emptiness as we are missing something. Now I see it more like we need to have spaces of emptiness that we can fill with spirituality, calmness or any other goods. How could we let all of these things come to us if we don´t have room for them? That is why we need emptiness and open spaces inside us. I´m not sure this is exactly what you mean with emptiness in your text but it was a reflection I made reading it.

    Thank you!

    • Welcome Tom,

      I’m really happy the reflection inspired you to see emptiness in a fresh and positive way. Thanks so much for sharing your insight with us. It’s very nice to connect with you. Be well!

  7. Hi Sandra,
    Emptiness to me is what I experience when I turn my mind off and allow my senses to lead..a label would be a state of ‘nothing’ –I don’t think there are accurate words to label it..yet a state of pure “everything”. When the boat is anchored at the islands at night..nothing but darkness, sky, water, islands…I can sense the vastness of it all even if I cannot see it..Empty but oh so full…and very very fulfilling..

    • Hi Joy,

      This is such a beautiful description of spaciousness! Thank you for sharing it here. The last point you make, I find to be very important – empty but full. Even the thoughts are fundamentally empty. Nice to see you, Joy.

    • Hi JD ~ Yes, space is a wonderful thing! Emptiness is often compared to the sky although it’s not the same as the sky. Thanks for the analogy from the business world.

  8. Hey Sandra, I am glad you cleared up some of the confusion with the word “emptiness.” I think too many people interpret it as a form of nihilism, and that the world has no meaning or value whatsoever.

    I personally understand emptiness best in the context of interconnectedness. Things don’t have “intrinsic meaning,” but instead their meaning is defined by their surroundings. The world is like a big reservoir of resources (potential meaning), and we humans come along and we create stuff out of it, and define it in a way that suits us.

    For example: take a simple object like a baseball. Typically we think of it as something used to play a game on a field. The pitcher throws the baseball, the hitter hits it and tries to score, etc. But then there are other uses of baseballs. For example, my favorite baseball player when I grew up used to be Mike Piazza. When I got his signature on a MLB baseball I framed it in a glass box and put it up in my room. That baseball has a different meaning to me than the baseball as it is used on the field. You know what I mean? In a way, a baseball is “empty” because its value is dependent on the human interacting with it.

    Great post!

    • Hi Steven,

      Interdependence is definitely a fact of understanding emptiness. Everything occurs due to causes and conditions. Therefore, we are interconnected.

      The example you use is a good example of how we use labels to define the world. Then we take labels as an accurate representation of the world. But as you point out, labels are highly subject to change! This speaks precisely to the first quote from Suzuki-roishi.

      I like your point about nihilism. This is an important reason why it helps to understand the true meaning of the word “emptiness” and teachers are beginning to use different words to capture more accurately the meaning in Sanskrit and Tibetan.

      Thanks very much for sharing your thoughts.

  9. That may have not been the best example in the world – I just thought it up as I was writing. But I think you get the point how different “objects” in our world take on different meanings depending on their context. It’s value is interconnected with different factors and viewpoints.

  10. Emptiness…my home after the last box has been packed and loaded on the truck after selling our home;)

    Seriously, emptiness isn’t that what’s left after letting go of expectations and attachments? If I can do that it’s serious growth for me and space to grow for the other.

  11. Hi Sandra, I’ve just recently stumbled across this idea of purposeful emptiness and I’m intrigued by it’s possibilities. I came across a Buddhist teaching not too long ago that talked about the importance of emptiness in our ability to gain wisdom. When we create emptiness, we allow room for insights and experiences to pour in. If we keep ourselves too full, there will be no room to grow and gain wisdom.

  12. I relate to what Tess has said. Yes I know that I am growing when I can feel the emptiness of the stillness that comes from within when ones just learns to allow what is
    hugs
    Suzie

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