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Confronting Nothingness

Just as some children are scared of the dark, mainstream Western thought has historically been scared of the concept of nothingness. The absence of thought, the stillness of matter, seems to be terrifying to Western philosophy. The concept of “zero” has existed in India for almost two millennia and was brought to the West via Arabic algebra – but the use of zero was initially banned by the Christian Church as heretical.

Much later, in the nineteenth century, some maverick European philosophers stumbled upon Buddhism and the Indian Upanishads. One of them, Arthur Schopenhauer, came to the conclusion that stilling our will is the only way in which we will be able to cease our suffering in this world. He argued that the world we see around us is given substance and value by the mind or will. It follows that negating one’s will would cause the universe to dissolve into nothingness. Schopenhauer concludes Volume 1 of his masterwork The World as Will and Representation by declaring that for someone who achieves that state, this “world of ours, with all its suns and milky ways, is – nothing.”

Commenting on this passage, the great 20th century thinker and historian of philosophy, Bertrand Russell, writes: “There is a vague suggestion here that the saint sees something positive [in nothingness] which other men do not see, but there is nowhere a hint as to what this is….”1 Western thought finds it very difficult to imagine anything positive in nothingness or emptiness. Since emptiness is the absence of everything we can lay our hands and minds upon, there isn’t much left for empirical science or philosophy to work with. Russell quipped that if nothingness is the goal, suicide and drunkenness might be just as good as mystic practice.

Eastern thought is much more positive about the concepts of nothingness and emptiness. In a witty passage, the 2,500-year-old Chinese text, the Daodéjing, points out that nothingness is often the key to positive results:

Thirty spokes share the wheel’s hub;
It is the center hole that makes the wheel useful.
Shape clay into a vessel –
It is the space within that makes it useful.
Cut doors and windows for a room;
It is the holes which make it useful.
Therefore profit comes from what is there;
Usefulness from what is not there.2

If our goal is to learn, emptiness is a great tool. Empty space is required to hold things. The absence of walls helps us see new things. If we believe that what we know now is not all there is to know, perhaps we should make space for new knowledge?

Writing about a hundred years after Schopenhauer, the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre reasoned, in his famous book Being and Nothingness, that nothingness was, in fact, logically required for conscious knowledge. All animals think. But maybe only humans think about thinking! We reflect on our thoughts, desires, and goals. But we have to put some distance between ourselves and our thoughts in order to reflect upon them, and this distance is nothingness. This nothingness lets us rise above ourselves and gain focus and perspective. It leads to the unmistakable insight that we are not our thoughts. But, as is typical in the Western tradition, this emptiness was frightening, even repulsive, to the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. He wrote in his book Being and Nothingness that “nothingness lies coiled at the heart of being, like a worm” and felt that it rendered life pointless and absurd. The result was “nausea.”

By contrast, the Buddha argued that only the journey to nothingness could cure life’s nausea. He said to a disciple:

For the sake of those people stuck in the middle of the river of being, overwhelmed by death and decay, I will tell you where to find solid ground. There is an island, an island which you cannot go beyond. It is a place of nothingness, a place of non-possession and of non-attachment. It is the total end of death and decay, and this is why I call it Nibbæna [i.e. Nirvana, the extinguished, the cool].3

The 13th-century Sufi mystic, Rumi, similarly compares our bodies, thoughts, emotions, and hopes to veils for the real self. And when all the veils are removed there is no-thing underneath.

All veils were rent and my self saw Itself.
That which no tongue could speak was heard by no ear.
Your skin will split from joy when love appears,
but the joy felt when He makes you vanish
is beyond compare.4

That secret can conquer the world
when the heart is purified.
Then no one will die in No-Place.5

So both Eastern and Western philosophers agree that nothingness is part of the human experience. And we have seen that in the East, whether in the Chinese, Indian or Islamic classical traditions, the norm is to assign positive value to nothingness, while in mainstream Western philosophy, we tend to find the opposite view. So who is right? Whom should we believe? It is a very Western notion that, faced with two opposite points of view, one should conduct an experiment to determine the truth. We should not accept anything not experienced for ourselves. Who has the pedigree to guide us to conduct such an experiment? In the recent Jewish Hasidic tradition, the master, holy man, or “tsadik”…

…was understood as simultaneously embodying the opposites of Being (yesh) and Nothingness (ayin) – two important kabbalistic concepts adopted by Hasidism. His body is Being – it has substance and is physical – while he actually is Nothing, without substance; he exists in the divine eternity, in the realm of spirit.6

The suggestion is that there are Masters who have access to both Being and Nothingness, who are able to explain the technique that will allow us to gain experience of the “divine eternity.” Indeed, Maharaj Sawan Singh, in the 20th century, said:

Saints’ foremost argument is “Come with us and see.” Few are ready for it. So the saints come down to the intellectual plane of men and talk to them in their terms. By their superior intellect, they give people’s beliefs a little shake up and make them think afresh. Slowly and slowly they bring them up to the point of experimentation. They give Initiation, and the experiment begins.7

In many ways a living saint is like a walking argument, convincing us to travel the mystic road. If we encounter such a saint, we might feel that he or she has something – some quality, majesty, serenity or love – that we would like to imbibe. And saints tend to say that we should practice emptying our minds in order to reach such a state. Baba Gurinder Singh Ji, the present teacher at Beas, is no exception. He says that we have a neglected spiritual dimension and that we can strengthen that dimension through the practice and experience of stillness. That practice will also make us more content, more serene, more efficient, and more giving in everything that we do.

This encouragement and guidance from a modern authority is crucial, as practicing stillness and emptiness requires a lot of effort and commitment, and we need to have some confidence that the effort is worthwhile. But ultimately it is our own experience which will give us true faith in the Master’s words and true bliss from emptiness.

If a fact has been stated by some reliable authority in the past, one can believe it. If some modern authority (Guru) supports it, the belief becomes firmer. When the same fact has become one’s personal experience, the element of doubt that always accompanies belief disappears, and what was fact to modern and past authorities is a fact to him also. The value of authority or belief to a believer lies in making an experiment on the lines recommended by authorities, and testing this belief. If the result comes out to be as expected, the belief becomes a fact to the experimenter.8

The first essential thing, therefore, is to enter this laboratory within ourselves, by bringing our scattered attention inside the eye focus… There are many ways of doing this; but from experience, Saints find that “repetition” called “simran,” done in the manner explained at the time of Initiation, is the best and most effective way, as well as the simplest way.9

To extrapolate from Maharaj Sawan Singh, all the beautiful poetry and talk from the Guru about nothingness is pointless unless we take action to make our own journey into nothingness. Mystics sometimes compare themselves to mutes, trying to explain the taste of sweets. It can’t be done, but the way they describe the futility is nevertheless most encouraging:

No one can describe the glory of the moment when the mind is still and the soul is in a state of complete absorption.10

  1. Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy, 2008, p. 787
  2. Lao Tsu: Tao te Ching, ch. 11, tr. Gia-fu Feng and Jane English
  3., p. xvi
  4. Jalal al-Din Rumi, Divān-e Shams-e Tabrizi (Selections), tr. Maleki, p. 171
  5. Ibid, p. 341
  6. Miriam Caravella, The Mystic Heart of Judaism, p. 421
  7. Maharaj Sawan Singh, Spiritual Gems, #116
  8. Ibid
  9. Maharaj Sawan Singh, Spiritual Gems, #157
  10. Soami Ji, Sar Bachan Poetry, p. 233