The logic of emptiness

The logic of emptiness

IS IT POSSIBLE to speak of “nothing” as “something” though not a particular thing? This proposition is blatantly a preposterous contradiction in terms. If by “possible” is meant a logical possibility, and if by “to speak” is meant “to equate or assert as identical in meaning” such that: There is an X ≡There is non-X, or conversely, There is non-X ≡ There is an X, then it simply does not make sense. To further maintain that the “X” which is “non-X” or that the “non-X” which is an “X” is not one single thing in particular amounts to confusion worse confounded.

When Lucretius held that nothing can be created ex nihilo; or when after a long meditation Marcus Aurelius came up with the assertion that nothing can come out of nothing any more than a thing can go back to nothing; or when Shakespeare wrote of an “airy nothing without a habitation and a name,” they were all of one mind as to what the word signifies, i.e., the conception of nothing not different from its standard dictionary meaning as a metaphysical entity or rather nonentity opposed to and devoid of being. Thus, the established signification of nothing is non-existence, non-being, vacuity, nullity. And in the context of this standard usage of the term, the question posed at the outset will no doubt be answered with a resounding “NO!”

There is a sense, however, in which one can talk of nothing as something, if not in fact everything (“non-X” ≡ “X”, or “non-X ≡ All”), such that the concept of nothing (nonbeing or what is not) and the concept of something (being or what is) cease to be mutually exclusive or contradictory. This will necessitate a complete transposition of the conventionally accepted meaning of the term “nothing”; and what is more, entail a complete turnaround in the mind—a radical change of perspective.

If, as Einstein has shown, all measurement is relative to the frame of reference in which measurement is being made1 so that ultimately it makes no difference to assert that the sun goes around the earth (Ptolemy’s geocentric theory) or the latter round the former (Copernicus’ heliocentric theory); or if the numerical value of digits depends upon the base and the place value assigned to them in a number system such that it is as much valid to say that four plus four makes ten (where ten stands for eight) as to say four and four equals eight in a base ten numeration, then it is equally legitimate to posit the existence of a dimension of meaning in which our apparently contradictory proposition (There is an X ≡ There is non-X) would be rationally resolved even if only the tools of dualistic logic are employed, that is, without having recourse to the higher logic of the infinite as expounded by P. D. Ouspensky in Tertium Organum.2

One might jestingly suggest that a little wordplay will do the trick here. But there is nothing trickish nor arbitrary nor new about the convention in which a non-standard use of the word “nothing” exists. True enough, it is a world that is not readily accessible to the common run of human beings such as they are, but nonetheless open to individuals who have awakened or come of age, as it were, in the flesh and in spirit. This sort of a rarefied world is as old in fact as its mystery tradition rooted in the wisdom teachings. It is within this mystical yet amorphous community of enlightened beings scattered across the four corners of the globe down through the ages that the term “nothing” acquires its nonstandard denotation. They look at phenomenal existence from the vantage point of a unitive consciousness, that is, they have awakened to the truth that the ground behind the concrete particularities out there is the One Supreme Reality which is in essence spiritual. The Hindus call it the Brahman, the Chinese call it the Tao. But these terms are but a mere designation or metaphorical nomenclature. In actual fact, the metaphysical Ultimate is unnameable. In other words it cannot be described at all in any linguistic category. As the Tao Te Ching puts it, the name that can be named is not the Eternal Name.3 At best it may only be referred to via negativa (negatively) and for the sake of convenience as the Name-less, the Un-created, the Im-mutable, the In-finite (Ein Sof), Not-this Not-That (Neti, neti) , etc.

Since the real Reality is transcendent, it is way beyond the bounds of the phenomenal world of appearances—at the same time that it inheres in it in its immanent aspect without in any way limiting itself. It is NOT A THING existentially conditioned. It is NO-THING. It is unmanifested and unspecified, beyond all forms of distinctions or differentiations. If to specify is to particularize, and if to particularize is to differentiate one manifested thing from another, then that which is the Non-dual Reality (“One without a second” according to the Upanishads) defies description verbally or symbolically since the Absolute is Nothing. Not one among the many. Words cannot be predicated of it. It simply IS. Or to put it another way, it is All in All simply because it is NO-THING—detached, unconcerned, not humane, impersonal. The Kabbalah, which is the core of the Jewish secret wisdom, says much to the same effect, thus:

The depth of primordial being is called Boundless. Because of its concealment from all creatures above and below, it is also called Nothingness. If one asks, “What is it?” the answer is, “Nothing,” meaning: No one can understand anything about it. It is negated of every conception. No one can know anything about it—except the belief that it exists. Its existence cannot be grasped by anyone other than it.4

What is humane, personal, and particularized belongs to the domain of the phenomenal, visible world. After things were caused to be, they come within the ken of man and thus could be talked about, named, quantified, pinned down. In the realm of material things and individualized consciousness, one entity can be distinguished from the other. Right here and now, in the present order of existence especially of humans whose mind is governed by the logical categories of dialectics, the Aristotelian laws of thought—the law of identity, the law of excluded middle and the law of contradiction—are primarily operative.

However, the moment human reason grounded in the logic of Aristotle (Organon) and of Francis Bacon (Novum Organum) attempts to apply itself to extra-mundane matters or the hidden dimension of things, it proves to be hopelessly inadequate. This is the case because that which is outside the sphere of a three-dimensional world eludes our finite human mind that cannot help but think in linear, Euclidian terms. Will Durant, commenting on the philosophy of the Upanishads, wrote:

The first lesson that the sages of the Upanishads teach their selected pupils is the inadequacy of the intellect. How can this feeble brain that aches at a little calculus ever hope to understand the complex immensity of which it is so transitory a fragment? Not that the intellect is useless, it has its modest place, and serves us well when it deals with relations and things; but how it falters before the eternal, the infinite, or the elementally real! In the presence of that silent reality which supports all appearances, and wells up in all consciousness, we need some other organ of perception and understanding than these senses and reason. 5

To the extent therefore that we remain hemmed in by time and space and continue to think in mental constructs woven by a mind conditioned in Aristotelian logic, to that extent are we doomed to failure in coming to grips with the problems of the spirit. The constricting confines of rational thought must be transcended by realizing that there are approaches to the Absolute other than the discursive or analytical faculty.

The light on the path of the Absolute is more successfully glimpsed through the inner eye, through insight or the intuitive mode of inner knowing. For Spirit can only be known through the eye of spirit, not the eye of the flesh or the eye of the intellect. The editors of The New Oxford Annotated Bible put it this way: “The Spirit we have received is God’s own Spirit who knows what is in God, as our own spirits know what is in us.” 6 To know Spirit or Reality is not the same as understanding it conceptually as though it were some kind of an intellectual abstraction. To know Spirit or Reality is to directly experience it. Those who have attained to it are however hard put to discursively verbalize their mystical experience. (That is why it is presumptuous of those who so glibly claim and proclaim that they know the Truth when as a matter of fact they do not really know whereof they speak. No one has any right whatsoever to talk about God, who has no direct experience of God in the center of his own being.)

It is in this respect that Lao Tzu said: Those who know [the Absolute] do not speak about it and those who speak about it do know [it]. Such supra-rational knowledge the Hindu sages refer to as Samadhi, the Zen masters calls it satori. To the Christian mystics it is the beatific vision; and to the modern-day mystic-sages it is called cosmic consciousness.7

It is said of Gautama Siddharta called the Buddha (meaning the Enlightened One) that all he did in handing down the Dharma to his possible successor was hold in his hand a lotus flower before the whole assemblage of monks. He did not utter a single word. This must be so because the heart of the Absolute Reality (The Supreme Spirit) plumbed by his expanded consciousness is metaphysical, beyond words, beyond particulars, beyond contradiction, beyond time and space. And it is in this non-ordinary realm where dualism ceases to apply, where there is the coincidence of polar opposites. Here is the point in which Euclid’s parallel lines meet at last; the point in which a thing can both be A and Not-A at the same time, the point in which one can hear the sound of one hand clapping or swallow the Pacific Ocean in one gulp. The language of paradox in this paraverbal context becomes profoundly expressive of the ineffable Truth as, for instance, when Lao Tzu says:

We look at it and do not see it;
Its name is The Invisible.
We listen to it and do not hear it;
            Its name is The Inaudible.
            We touch it and do not find it;
            Its name is The Subtle (formless).
            Infinite and boundless, it cannot be given any name;
            It reverts to nothingness.
            This is called shape without shape,
            Form without objects.
            It is The Vague and Elusive.
            Meet it and you will not see its head.
            Follow it and you will not see its back.8

It should be evident by now that the “nothing” or “nothingness,” (what is not, non-being, nonentity, emptiness) which we have been referring to in this essay is not the same as the Western nihilism which denies all reality. Yasunari Kawabata himself emphasized this in his Nobel Prize acceptance lecture when he said that the Eastern counterpart of Western nihilism has quite a different spiritual foundation. Nor is it to be equated with the nothingness which the existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre speaks of in ponderous prose as coiled in the heart of being like a worm.9 French existentialism juxtaposes being and nothingness as mutually exclusive opposites forever at odds with each other. Sartre thinks of nothingness as a complete negation of being, of that which IS.

The mystical mind, on the contrary, conceives of nothingness (what is not or nonbeing) as the unmanifested noumena behind the multiplicity of manifested phenomena. Hence, being (what is) and nonbeing (what is not) are in the final analysis not antithetical concepts but two facets or expressions of the same Reality. They are the two sides of the same coin, interpenetrating each other, so that in it are reconciled all the contradictions that befuddle man’s mind in his spatio-temporal condition.

It follows that from the standpoint of consciousness attuned to the infinite and the timeless, the old conflicting dualities of matter and spirit, good and evil, life and death no longer hold true. What is the body but the expression of the spirit, and the spirit the form-giving principle? Good and evil are not in a deeper sense incompatible with each other. Hence, the criminal is not the future saint. In the sinner, in the words of Hermann Hesse, is already the saint [in potentiality], just as there is in the saint the streak of the sinner.10 “The good,” says Euripides, “is never separated from evil. The two must mingle, that all may go well.” Nothing is wholly good nor wholly evil. There is always something of one in the other in the same manner that there is always a yin element in the yang and vice versa. Life and death, too, are relative, not absolute. They should be viewed just like the succession of the seasons, or of night and day. Both belong to the same category in the light of eternity, though indeed distinguishable in the field of time.

If that is the case, the Sartrian dialectic of being and nothingness, subject versus object, would become telescoped or synoptically resolve itself in this rarefied context into one and the same unity in such a way that the knower is at the same time the known, the observer is the observed,11 and in the end not really two incompatible nor separate entities. “What is immortal and what is mortal are harmoniously blended, for they are not one, nor are they separate,” says Ashvaghosha. It is this truth that makes it sensible to say, “That which is sin is also wisdom, the realm of Becoming [samsara] is also Nirvana.”

Only in the universe of discourse of nothingness or emptiness thus far considered may the old Hermetic principle “What is below (earth) is like what is above (heaven), what is above is like what is below” or simply “As above, so below” be more fully understood. And so with Lao Tzu’s claim that the world can be known without going out of the house. Again, if the assertion of another Chinese sage is true, that he and universe were made together of the same stuff, that man was kneaded of the same stardust as the innumerable celestial spheres out there, then it is equally true that what is without us is also within us. This is the philosophy behind the Delphic oracle’s command to “Know thyself.” For in knowing oneself one comes to know the universe. And the way beyond is within. This is so because man is the microcosm even as the universe is the macrocosm.

To say, therefore, as the Hindus maintain, that the little self that resides in the heart of man is not different from the Supreme Self encompassing the whole universe is after all not idle talk. The wisdom of the Hindu sages embodied in the Upanishads teaches the essential identity of the spark and the Flame, of the human and the Divine. Tat Tvam Asi, That Thou Art.12 Here is a parable from the Chandogya Upanishad:

“Bring hither a fig from there.”
“Here it is, Sir.”
“Divide it.”
“It is divided, Sir.”
“What do you see there?”
                        “These fine seeds, Sir.”
                        “Of these please divide one.”
                        “It is divided, Sir.”
                        “What do you see there?”
                        “Nothing at all, Sir.”
            “Verily, my dear one, that finest essence which you do not perceive—verily from that finest essence this great tree thus arises. Believe me, my dear one, that which is the finest essence—this whole world has that as its soul. That is Reality. That is Atman. Tat tvam asi—that art thou, Shvetaketu.”13

This is to say that the seed of the Eternal is found within man himself. Here is the supreme yet perennial wisdom disclosed to the mystics, the seers, the saints, the gnostics, the cabbalists, the rishis, the contemplatives, Bodhisattvas, etc. Jesus Christ Himself equally reveals the same mystery. In the Gospel of Thomas, He is recorded as saying:

If your leaders say to you, ‘Behold, the kingdom is in the sky,’ then the birds in the sky will get there before you. If they say to you, ‘It is in the sea,’ then the fish will get there before you. Rather, the kingdom is inside you and outside you. When you know yourselves, then you will be known, and will understand that you are children of the living Father. But if you do not know yourselves, then you live in poverty, and embody poverty.14

“The kingdom of God is within you,”15 Jesus told the Pharisees who asked Him as to when the kingdom was coming. Joseph Campbell, echoing Jesus, wrote: The kingdom of the Father is not going to come through expectation. We bring it about in our own hearts.16  This truth is likewise demonstrated in the Hindu everyday greeting of respect “Namaste!” when giving a namaskar. It means: I recognize or bow to the Divinity that dwells within you. In our deepest essence, we are one and not separate.

With those considerations in mind, it should not be difficult to see by now that NOTHING IS SOMETHING, or “non-X” is “X”, and insofar as the referent of “something” is the transcendent Reality, it cannot be any particular thing circumscribed in a label or concept. The logical validity in form as well as matter, of the axiom that nothing comes from nothing (“non-X” ≡ “non-X”) remains absolutely correct within the system of traditional syllogistic reasoning. On the other hand, in the convention of meaning within the realm of mystical reality just described, the seemingly contradictory statement, “Nothing is Something,” or even “Nothing is All,” becomes an expression not of fallacy but of a truth as inexorable, if not more so, as two and two makes four. In point of fact, “being” (“X,” or “what is” or “form” ) is but the manifestation of “nonbeing” (“non-X” or “what is not” or “emptiness”); and “nonbeing” is the quintessence of “being.” The latter is never outside of the former. Philosophic comprehension of this truth constitutes the wisdom of the enlightened sages. Experiential realization of it constitutes their immortality.


1 Albert Einstein, Ideas and Opinions (NY: Crown Publishers, 1982), passim.
2 P. D. Ouspensky, Tertium Organum (NY: Vintage Books, 1970), pp. 236-237.
3 Gary E. Kessler, Voices of Wisdom, A Multicultural Philosophy Reader (CA: Wadsworth, Inc.,
     1992), pp. 225-226.
4 Daniel C Matt, The Essential Kabbalah (NY: Book of the Month Club, Inc., 1995), p. 67.
5 Will Durant, Our Oriental Heritage (NY: Simon and Schuster, 1963), p.412.
6 The New Oxford Annotated Bible (NY: Oxford University Press, 1991), p.231.
7 Richard Bucke, Cosmic Consciousness (NY: E. P. Dutton, 1923), passim.
8 Kessler, p. 222.
9 Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness (NY: Washington Square Press, 1966), passim.
10 Hermann Hesse, Siddharta (NY: Bantam Books, 1971), passim.
11 J. Krishnamurti, The Awakening of Intelligence (NY: Avon Books, 1976), passim.
12 Upanishads, trans. F. Max Muller (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1988), passim.
13 Ibid.
14 The Gospel of Thomas, saying 3.
15 Lk 17:21
16 Joseph Campbell, A Joseph Campbell Companion (NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 1991), p. 169.

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