Skip to main content

About Nothing

By: Norman Fischer | 06/21/2016
Location: Samish Island, Tassajara Zen Center
In Topics: Everyday Zen, Uncategorized

Norman gives his third talk on June 21, 2016 at the Samish Island Session, “About Nothing.”

About Nothing

Zoketsu Norman Fischer

June 21, 2016

Abridged and edited by Anne Johnson, Barbara Byrum and Cynthia Schrager

Today I would like to talk about my favorite subject: nothing. Next month I am going to go to Tassajara and do a five-day retreat with Danny Matt, who is one of the great contemporary scholars of Jewish mysticism. He said, “You make up the title.” And I said, “Okay.” So the title is About Nothing. That’s the title of our retreat. Probably nobody will come (laughter). Now “nothing” doesn’t sound like much (laughter). But I do feel that nothing is very important.

In the fifth century, the Christian mystic Pseudo-Dionysius wrote, “Although God is the cause of everything, God is nothing. God isn’t something, because God is beyond all being, and so God can’t be any sort of thing. Therefore, God must be nothing.”

In theninth century, John Scotus Eriugena used the Latin word nihil, nothing,to describe God who created the world ex-nihilo—out of nothing. God’s own substance is the basis of the world. So essentially the world is nothing, and it is the job of religious practitioners to fully appreciate nothing.

The Jewish kabbalists were influenced by all of these thoughts. They had the word Ayin to stand for God, which means nothing and Yesh which means something. And so their project was to understand the mystery, and the practice was to discover exactly how did Yesh emerge from Ayin? Is it that Yesh was infused at all points with Ayin? They had the thought that everything is always changing, so that every moment of time and transformation came about through an encounter with Ayin. In this way, the world of something is constantly being renewed by its connection with nothing. The abyss of nothing, which maybe seems scary, is actually crossed every moment as something, or by what looks to us like something. Something is kissed by nothing so that it can appear in this world. The effort to forget is what the Jewish mystics were making in their practice of prayer and meditation. They called the practice forgetting—to forget or un-know—so they could fully merge their souls with nothing.

This might sound a little foreboding or weird—and I think that the mystics of the Kabbalah thought that it was foreboding and weird themselves—but I think they also saw it as something inherently necessary and positive. And they saw – and maybe we feel this way ourselves – that the world relentlessly being something, something, something every minute, is too much. The world without nothing is too oppressive. It’s too heavy and hard to bear. But the mystics felt that world isn’t the real world. It’s a world in exile from itself and in exile from its inherent divinity. And they thought it was their job, through their spiritual efforts and through their life-long endeavors, to wake up the exiled world: to bring it home, to liberate it, so that the impossible would once again become possible in this physical world.

By the eighteenth century or so, Jewish mysticism underwent a big change. It became democratic and less secret—it used to be really secret and esoteric—and it became moreso every day. It became more participatory, joyful, experiential. It became more psychological and less about philosophical or linguistic speculation. So that was the Hassidic movement, which was really a development of Jewish mysticism.

Here is a quotation from Dov Ber, the Maggid of Mezeritch, who was one of the great Hassidic Rebbes. He said:

“The essence of the worship of God is to attain the state of humility.” – The essence of the worship of God is to attain the state of humility – “Namely, to understand that all one’s physical and mental powers and one’s essential being are dependent on the divine elements within. One is simply a channel for the divine attributes. One attains such humility through the awe of God’s vastness, though realizing there is no one place empty of God. And then one comes to the state of Ayin—nothing, which is the state of humility—radical humility. One has no independent self and is contained, as it were, in creation.

So this is what the Christian and Jewish mystics were thinking about through the lens of the deep faith they had in their traditions. They were looking at the world, and the only thing they could see was God. They were trying to look into the face of God, and the only thing they could see was this world. They considered the process of seeing the world as God and God as the world as the same. They considered both vision and practice as the process of being human, of living in the world and acting in the world.

There is a sign over the garden at Gethsemane, in Kentucky, the location of Merton’s seminary, that says, “Nothing But God,” which means nothing but nothing. This means that all of our human problems, however compelling they may seem, actually amount to nothing. All of our problems, all of our challenges, are only God working out God’s destiny in us.

One of the greatest of all Christian mystics was Meister Eckhart, who was a fourteenth century German preacher—fiery and eloquent. He was in this profound tradition of reflecting on nothing.He said a lot of pretty outrageous things about this, so that after he died, he was ex-communicated from the church. Here is a quotation from Meister Eckhart:

Before there were any creatures, God was not God. Now I say that God, as far as God is God, is not the perfected end of created beings. So, therefore, we beg God to rid us of God, so we may grasp and rejoice in that everlasting truth in which the highest angel and the tiniest fly and the soul are equal. I pray to God that God will rid me of God for my real being is more than God.

This is shocking! No wonder the church fathers didn’t like this.

So I don’t know what you think of all this. Maybe you don’t like all these quotations. Maybe the God language is a little offensive to some people, because in these days we’ve come to a time in which so many people have experienced pain from the word God, while so many other people have been saved from their despair and their addiction by God. But we can barely mention the word God in mixed company without creating a stir. But, anyway, let us not forget that it’s just a word, after all. It is absolutely nothing to worry about.

Perhaps you might have felt, as I did, some similarity in our practice to all this. To me it seems quite similar. We understand our life as being just our life. Nothing special. But at the same time, we know that our life is beyond our life. And we understand death as being unforgettable and terrible news, and at the same time, also good news. We also feel, from time to time, quite touched by the sacredness of each and every thing.

In Zen we call this suchness—tatha—T-A-T-H-A—just this. And this, this, is not something out there. Thinking there is something more real out there somewhere is a big problem. It causes a lot of suffering. And that’s why Meister Eckhart prays that God will rid him of God, will rid him of the concept that there is something outside of him, more than him. It’s noteworthy that he doesn’t get rid of God himself; he prays that God will please get rid of God (Norman chuckles). Well, anyway, that’s what he means: Please bring me to just this. Just this breath. Just this moment. Just this bird song. Just this wind. Because there is nothing else. Everything is here.

So as we know, an epithet for the Buddha is Tathagata, which means: One who comes-goes in suchness. And that’s Buddha. And that’s God, coming-going. Right here, wherever you are. Forever. Just like this.

In this moment of your life, it absolutely could not be any other way. And in that sense, our life is always absolutely perfect. But we have these wonderful verb tenses. I don’t know what you call them exactly, subjunctive maybe. We can say: it could be, it could have been, it should have been, it might have been. And we have this wonderful word with two little letters: if. Sometimes we use it with another word: if only. If only. And these are brilliant inventions of the human mind. They expand and complicate our world. But they also send us scurrying in painful pursuit of dreams.

Actually, there is no other place than here, and there is no other time than now. Every place that we could ever visit is here. Every time in which we could experience life is now. Even if, here and now, we are wondering about what might have been. Even then we are Tathagata.

Of course, as we all understand, Buddhism is not a theistic religion. When Buddhism was first introduced to Western cultures, people were confused, and I think even to some extent, people are confused today: Is Buddhism a religion or not? As we understand it, religion is a belief in a Supreme Being of some sort, and the different religions have different ideas about which Supreme Being and how the Supreme Being is, and so on. So could Buddhism be a religion if there is no Supreme Being? Buddha somehow never got into the idea of whether there was a Supreme Being and what kind of a Supreme Being it was.

In the early suttas there are all kinds of gods appearing to the Buddha, but somehow it doesn’t seem all that important. It’s not what the Buddha was concerned about. The Buddha was concerned about suffering. He was concerned about the suffering of regular people like you and me. He was not concerned with ultimate and important questions. He considered them, in the light of the problem of human suffering, profoundly distracting. And as we know, when he was asked these sorts of questions, he would simply remain silent. This is not to say that Buddha had no views or ideas—he did. He had counter views; that is, he identified important views that human beings typically held, views that kept us chained to our suffering, views that we held without even knowing that we held them, and he proposed counter views. Views that would undo the pain of the views we already held.

Of course, when you propose counter views, this can backfire on you, right? And you can contrive to bind yourself up in the counter views just as nicely as you bound yourself in your previous views. This is something that the Buddha mightily tried to avoid, and something that the Zen masters tried even more mightily to avoid. But in the end, sometimes nothing works. Because as we all know, human pain is incredibly persuasive, incredibly persuasive. Even if in the end there is nothing to it, it doesn’t matter. It’s very persuasive to us.

So “nothing” in Buddhism is called “empty” or “emptiness”: shunyata. The word shunyata actually means something like “swollen,” in the sense of a big balloon that is swollen and round and looks substantial, but actually there is nothing inside. And it’s the very nothing inside that makes the balloon what it is. If there weren’t that nothing inside the balloon, you wouldn’t have the balloon, right? So the balloon looks like something to worry about, but there is nothing to worry about, because there is nothing there. And the analogy, of course, is not perfect, because, inside the balloon as we know now, there is not nothing, there is air, and air is already something. But emptiness means there isn’t anything inside the balloon. And that’s what makes it a balloon.

You have this kind of formula all the time in the Diamond Sutra, where it says many times: Giving, there is no such thing as giving; that’s why we call it giving. You know “x” is not “x.” “X” is nothing and that’s why we call it it “x.” It’s thanks to nothing that everything is. Thanks to nothing, things can grow, can develop, can change. Change is completely inevitable, of course. Where there is being, there is change. Change is the definition of being. And change is wonderful and terrible. Change is growth and development and exciting new things. And change is loss and abandonment. And these things are exactly the same thing. Growth, development, is loss. Loss is growth and development. The only reason we give them different names is because we like one and we don’t like the other, so we have to have different names. But they’re the same. They’re nothing. They’re emptiness.

Of course, in Buddhism, it’s not exactly that emptiness in nothing. In Buddhism, they call nothing, nihilism. And they call something, eternalism. And these are considered to be extreme views. Emptiness is something that is neither nihilism nor eternalism. It is something in between. It is neither nothing, nor something. And, of course, there also is no emptiness either. Right? Emptiness isn’t a state or an insight or an ontological reality. It’s just a word used to indicate how the world of our experience, of our living, actually is. It’s not as we see it. It’s not as we grasp it. It’s not as we worry about it. It’s not as we are oppressed by it. It’s not like that. It’s empty. Free of any binding. Free of any pain.

Emptiness is connection. That’s why things are empty, because when you look for something, you can’t really find it. You can sit for the rest of the week and try to find you, but you don’t find you. You find thoughts, feelings, sensations, perceptions. You find some consciousness, but you don’t really find any you. You only find connection, because everything causes everything else. There is nothing that could ever arise without everything else. Of course, this is totally obvious. You know, if there is no universe, there is no you right? If there is no earth, no sky, there is no you and there is no me. And there is no me without you and all of those who have made me. And there is no you without me.

There is no language in the world that has the word you and not the word me. And this is exactly emptiness. If you look for yourself, you will not find yourself. You will only find everyone else and everything else that made you. So emptiness is the opposite of cold and distant and foreboding and philosophical. Emptiness is the most intimate possible thing. And emptiness is compassion. It’s ease and kindness and caring and absolute continuous belonging.

So here’s a Zen story about emptiness. This appears as the 248th case in Dogen’s Collection of 300 Zen Stories. It involves two monastics whose names sound almost the same. My Chinese pronunciation is probably all off, so I can hardly make them sound different, so just bear with me. One is named Shigong and the other is name Zhigong.

So Shigong asks Zhigong, “Do you know how to grasp emptiness?” And Zhigong said, “Yes, I know how to grasp emptiness!” And Shigong says, “How?” So Zhigong went like this (Norman grasps the air). He grasped the air. And Shigong said, “No you don’t know how to grasp emptiness at all.” So Zhigong said, “Well how do you grasp it elder Brother?” And Shigong stuck his finger in Zhigong’s nose and yanked his nose. And of course Zhigong yelled out, “OW, geez that hurts! You are pulling off my nose!” And Shigong says, “This is the way you grasp emptiness.”

So this is how we practice emptiness. How do we do it? We bow and receive the tea treat. We somehow manage to lift up our weary, aging body from off the floor so we can do kinhin. We complain, when there is something to complain about. We cry when our friend dies. And we understand that every small thing that we pick up, we are picking up the whole world and nothing. That’s how we practice emptiness.

Download file

Click to stream and listen immediately, right-click and pick "Save Target As" or "Save Link As" to save to your hard drive.