Form is emptiness, emptiness is form
-- Heart Sutra

Emptiness is one of the most important and poorly understood concepts of Eastern philosophy. To Westerners, conditioned to prefer things full and rich, empty usually has a negative connotation and often conveys apathetic, worthless, nihilistic or lacking. But, in several Eastern traditions, emptiness is highly valued. It can be used in various ways to state that everything is empty of absolute identity, permanence, or self. This is because everything is inter-related and mutually dependant - never fully self-sufficient or independent. All things are in a state of constant flux where energy and information are relentlessly flowing throughout the natural world giving rise to and themselves undergoing major transformations with the passage of time (ref: Wikipedia “Śūnyatā”). The subtleties that underlie this simple explanation of a complex concept have given rise to various schools and lineages of Eastern philosophy and academic debates.

Thus, "living in emptiness" may describe living with the realization of impermanence or lack of absolute identity. My layperson’s practical understanding of emptiness is concerned more with a state of stillness of mind. During meditation, we notice how active and proliferative the mind can be. Thoughts constantly arise and subside like overlapping wiffs of smoke. As we notice the emptiness of our thoughts, the mind settles and the chatter subsides. There is more available energy, it seems, to see things in their true nature. The mind empties its thoughts and delusions and space is created for clarity, insight and awareness to arise. The reactive mind becomes a mind interactive with the true nature of things around it.

Much of the insight gained during meditation is also empty -- afterall, we're just watching our mind turn as we sit on a cushion. We can investigate and contemplate, but it's only a “practice”. The higher intention is to live in emptiness. This is a quality that most highly sufficient people seem to have to varying extents. The best scientists, musicians, and artists hold a noticable noble stillness that manifests in the skillfullness of their work.

A bucket that is intended to carry water will not perform its function if it is filled with sand or gold.


We join spokes together in a wheel,
but it is the center hole that makes the wagon move.
We shape clay into a pot,
but it is the emptiness inside that holds whatever we want.
We hammer wood for a house,
but it is the inner space that makes it livable.
We work with being,
but non-being is what we use.

Tao Te Ching
- Lao-tzu
S. Mitchell Adaptation


  1. The Dali Lama, probably a higher authority on the topic, described it this way: "One of the most important philosophical insights in Buddhism comes from what is known as the theory of emptiness. At its heart is the deep recognition that there is a fundamental disparity between the way we perceive the world, including our own experience in it, and the way things actually are. In our day-to-day experience, we tend to relate to the world and to ourselves as if these entities possessed self-enclosed, definable, discrete and enduring reality. For instance, if we examine our own conception of selfhood, we will find that we tend to believe in the presence of an essential core to our being, which characterises our individuality and identity as a discrete ego, independent of the physical and mental elements that constitute our existence. The philosophy of emptiness reveals that this is not only a fundamental error but also the basis for attachment, clinging and the development of our numerous prejudices. According to the theory of emptiness, any belief in an objective reality grounded in the assumption of intrinsic, independent existence is simply untenable. All things and events, whether ‘material’, mental or even abstract concepts like time, are devoid of objective, independent existence. To intrinsically possess such independent existence would imply that all things and events are somehow complete unto themselves and are therefore entirely self-contained. This would mean that nothing has the capacity to interact with or exert influence on any other phenomena. But we know that there is cause and effect – turn a key in a car, the starter motor turns the engine over, spark plugs ignite and fuel begins to burn… Yet in a universe of self-contained, inherently existing things, these events could never occur! So effectively, the notion of intrinsic existence is incompatible with causation; this is because causation implies contingency and dependence, while anything that inherently existed would be immutable and self-enclosed. In the theory of emptiness, everything is argued as merely being composed of dependently related events; of continuously interacting phenomena with no fixed, immutable essence, which are themselves in dynamic and constantly changing relations. Thus, things and events are 'empty' in that they can never possess any immutable essence, intrinsic reality or absolute ‘being’ that affords independence." (ref: Dalai Lama (2005). "The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality")

  2. "Emptiness the starting point. — In order to taste my cup of water you must first empty your cup. My friend, drop all your preconceived and fixed ideas and be neutral. Do you know why this cup is useful? Because it is empty. " Bruce Lee

  3. Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912), received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen.

    Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor's cup full, and then kept on pouring.

    The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. "It is overfull. No more will go in!"

    "Like this cup," Nan-in said, "you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?"