The Wisdom of Emptiness

By Jim Belderis

Understanding "emptiness" is presented in Buddhism as the culmination of religious training. It is attained through the systematic practice of the perfect virtues, including the deepest kind of meditation, which leads to the enlightenment of supreme wisdom. When this practice is perfected, one gains insight into emptiness as the ultimate nature of existence.

The philosophy behind this insight is based on a fundamental idea in Mahayana Buddhism: all things are devoid of any independent lasting essence. They are impermanent and illusory; essentially, they are empty. This does not mean they do not exist -- rather it means that our dualistic perception of them is an illusion. We find this also in theosophical teachings:

From the moment when manifestation begins, it acts dualistically, that is to say that everything in nature from that point onwards is crossed by pairs of opposites . . . and that all these things are essentially mayic or illusory . . . The imperfect mind does not see perfect truth. (1)

In effect, all imperfect minds see an illusory world, so everything that exists in that illusory world is empty.

Yet what would a perfect mind see? According to the T'ien T'ai School of Buddhism, a fully enlightened mind would see "Three Levels of Truth": the Truth of Emptiness, the Truth of Phenomena, and the Truth of the Middle Way. The first truth is the realization that all phenomena are empty of reality. The second truth reveals that all phenomena fully exist, but their existence is dependent and temporary. The third truth embraces the other two in a "mutual identity": emptiness and phenomena are one. The truth of mutual identity is so pervasive that all parts of the whole interpenetrate each other. The entire universe is "immanent in a single instant of thought." All phenomena are expressions of Universal Mind, "and each manifestation is the Mind in its totality." (2)

We find the same idea in Zen Buddhism in the "Five Degrees of Realization." When the mind is first enlightened, it sees the Many within the One -- awareness is dominated by phenomena, but these are perceived as intimate expressions of the universal Self. The second degree sees the One within the Many -- the mind is intimate with the one true nature of all things. During the third realization, awareness of body and mind "drop away" and there is only Emptiness. Here one realizes an even deeper enlightenment -- Emptiness is now the Fullness of nature, and "every object is perceived at its highest degree of uniqueness." After this the mind is ready to embrace the One and the Many without any distinction -- Emptiness and Fullness interpenetrate each other so completely that one has the "perfect inner freedom" to work with nature. (3)

In many schools of thought, these visions of emptiness and fullness are experienced only through the most rigorous practice of meditation, which makes them seem unattainable in ordinary life. But there is a way to the "wisdom of emptiness" that we can access at any time -- through our natural self-forgetfulness. When we are totally absorbed in something we love, we empty ourselves of judgments and distinctions, and we are filled with what is happening. When we let go of how we want things to be and follow the will of nature, we are one with the flow of life. When the mind is completely open, empty of all separateness, life itself enlightens us with wisdom.

This is actually part of the philosophy of the Tao Te Ching -- "The Book of the Way and Its Power." The Tao is the Intelligence of the universe, the way nature works to bring things into being through every level of manifestation: from Emptiness to Fullness, from the One to the Many. It is the work that goes on before things take on physical form, as they are prefigured on the inner planes -- increasingly ethereal levels of "infinite profundity." (4) When we trust this universal Intelligence, when we open ourselves to what is happening outwardly, we begin to sense this "Inner Life," and "we are more and more brought into the depths of its mystery." (5)

It is here that we realize the power of the Tao. We sense the formation of events before they happen, and we know the Inner must be supported before the Outer can come into balance. We understand how balance is achieved, how opposing forces need to interact to find a way to come together -- and we let this process take its natural course. But most of all, we let the Tao work through us to deeply influence those around us -- not through our words or actions, but by an open-hearted attitude that supports the way their lives are unfolding -- and this helps to awaken the Inner Life within them.

Such is the wisdom of the Tao, which comes from forgetting our own will and trusting the will of nature. But how much of it is common experience? All of us have moments when we pour ourselves into something we love -- a favorite pastime or a skillful job, a piece of music or a work of art, or simply caring for those who are close to us. At these special times we have a sense of "emptiness": we are filled with what we love, we are one with what is happening, and without thinking we know what to do. As long as it lasts, even if it is only an instant -- the Intelligence of life is acting through us.

The problem for most of us is that this oneness doesn't last. We always get distracted. But the sage who wrote the Tao Te Ching does teach us a way to keep the power of the Tao alive: "I have just three things to teach: simplicity, patience, compassion. These three are your greatest treasures." (6) This does not seem like a very deep teaching, nor does it offer anything special to practice. How can these "treasures" be so great? How can they compare to the system of practicing the Buddhist virtues, the rigorous meditation training, the Three Levels of Truth, or the Five Degrees of Realization?

As with any spiritual discipline, it depends on how we use it. If its teachings are used to give us a sense of being better than others, we are actually reinforcing our sense of separateness. Any teaching that prevents this can indeed be called "great" -- and this is the virtue of the Three Treasures. Being simple, patient, and compassionate gives us no reason to think we are superior. The mind in this discipline cannot withdraw into sophisticated abstractions -- it needs to explore simplicity, patience, and compassion in everyday life, to study them in human relationships and in the workings of nature.

Studying the "treasures" in this way is the key to sustaining self-forgetfulness. It continually purges the mind of dead-letter judgments, so it can be filled with the living truth. There is nothing simpler than this kind of emptiness -- everyone can use it to "return to the source of being." (7) Flowing from this source is the Inner Life, and there is nothing more patient -- it gives us the wisdom "to remain behind" until all has been fulfilled. And when we embrace both the Inner and the Outer, there is nothing more compassionate -- it is "the love that protects and nurtures" the entire living process. (8)

Is this experience different from religious enlightenment, or is it only a matter of degree? What would happen if we cultivated "self-forgetfulness" as a universal way of life? Could this kind of "everyday emptiness" give us the most sublime insight into the nature of existence? Ultimately, all spiritual teachings can be studied in our ordinary lives. Whatever they teach -- no matter how lofty -- is always reflected in human nature and in nature as a whole. The more we explore these "everyday mysteries," the more they come alive in everything around us. They empty the mind and fill the heart, and life itself becomes a meditation. Simple things become fascinating. Waiting and watching become sublime. Fellow-feeling becomes sacred. And a common act of kindness is the Intelligence of the universe.

(From Sunrise magazine, October/November 1999; copyright © 1999 Theosophical University Press)

World Spiritual Traditions Menu


1. G. de Purucker, Occult Glossary, 1996, p. 104. (return to text)

2. A Sourcebook in Chinese Philosophy, trans./comp. Wing-tsit Chan, 1963, pp. 396-7. (return to text)

3. The Three Pillars of Zen: Teaching, Practice, and Enlightenment, ed./comp./trans. Philip Kapleau, 1966, pp. 330-1. (return to text)

4. Tao Te Ching, trans. Ch'u Ta-Kao, 1959, ch. 1. (return to text)

5. Tao Teh King, trans. Isabella Mears, 1983, ch. 1 note. (return to text)

6. Tao Te Ching, trans. Stephen Mitchell, 1988, ch. 67. (return to text)

7. Ibid. (return to text)

8. The Tao Te Ching, trans. Ellen Chen, 1989, ch. 67, note 2. (return to text)