Sunyata: an Unorthodox Experience

Increasingly, I live in emptiness.

To live in emptiness, I find, is not a deprivation, nor is it an attainment, nor is it salvation. It is simply to be surrendered to reality.

To live in emptiness is not deprivation, although it is disillusionment. As my friend Gary G. has pointed out, to be dis-illusioned should not be a bad thing for a sincere soul. Disabused of beliefs and notions, even against my will, forced into freedom, I am no longer abused by illusions and lies. When I do not confuse dream and reality, I am free to dream.

To live in emptiness is not an attainment, although it is in each moment a kind of kensho. It is an awakening to and in perfect darkness, the inability to deny my nothingness, the discovery of freedom from the desire for light and the need to be. When I do not require light or being, I am open to their transient graces.

To live in emptiness is not to be saved but to be lost, to be so thoroughly, irretrievably lost that all directions are equally perilous and promising. It is to see that the hope of salvation—of any sort—was a denial of life and death, a betrayal of my humanity, a soul-smothering resentment. If I find any salvation at all in emptiness, it is this unsought liberation from hope.

To live in emptiness confers neither uninterrupted happiness nor imperturbable inner peace. To the contrary, it cuts the root of the desire for those goods, of the illusion that happiness and peace are worthy of my seeking and holding. Nor, however, does it bring unrelenting sadness or turmoil. But it opens the heart, deepening the experience of compassion, and to be so opened is to feel the joy and the agony of the world. Happiness is but half of life, if that, but in emptiness is the fullness of feeling. I am joy and sadness, peace and turmoil, acceptance and horror, alternately, simultaneously, intensely. Seeing as I do, feeling as I do, I cannot be otherwise.

To live in emptiness is to live in death—not in the shadow, but in death itself. When I walk in the shadow of death, alone or with God, I am a shade, a half-alive being wandering in the half-light of an unreal world. But to walk in the perfect death-darkness of emptiness is to live fully in perfect light, because, perfection being completeness, darkness and light are an interpenetrative whole.

To find myself living in emptiness was not initially a welcome experience. The condition is not a desirable one, not something that a seeker would want. Nor is it a saleable commodity, perhaps especially in the religion/spirituality market. Who would pay for it? It seems, in fact, to possess no value whatsoever. And yet I would not trade it now for a life of happiness. I would not abandon the insecurity of emptiness even to be cradled in the arms of an omnipotent god. No, not would not but could not, cannot. For as I had no choice but to come into this condition, I have none but to remain. When one’s eyes have been opened, one may close them again, but the light shines in the darkness, and darkness is darkness no matter how bright.

How did I get to this here that feels like nowhere? I can’t say; I don’t even know where I am. This is neither home nor wilderness, here are no landmarks or signs, and roads I walked no longer exist. Nor can I recommend this condition to others: for all I know, being here could appear to turn out badly. In speaking or writing about it, I can only try to describe how it feels to be lost as I am lost, wandering in the noonday dark with a sad heart and a happy smile for little ones, irreversibly awakened to my essential and existential nothingness and learning to live more deeply in the emptiness of that deepening realization.

2 thoughts on “Sunyata: an Unorthodox Experience

  1. George, you are describing my condition as I see it, giving voice to an approach difficult to describe, often misunderstood, sometimes reviled.

    Lines in your essay that resonate for me include: “To live in emptiness, I find, is not a deprivation, nor is it an attainment, nor is it salvation. It is simply to be surrendered to reality.” And, “For as I had no choice but to come into this condition, I have none but to remain.” And, “To live in emptiness is not deprivation, although it is disillusionment.” And, “It is an awakening to and in perfect darkness, the inability to deny my nothingness, the discovery of freedom from the desire for light and the need to be. When I do not require light or being, I am open to their transient graces.” And, “To live in emptiness is to live in death – not in the shadow, but in death itself.” And, “Nor can I recommend this condition to others: for all I know, being here could appear to turn out badly. In speaking or writing about it, I can only try to describe how it feels to be lost as I am lost,…irreversibly awakened to my essential and existential nothingness and learning to live more deeply in the emptiness of that deepening realization.”

    Even lines I would phrase differently are a useful challenge. For instance, you write, “The condition is not a desirable one, not something that a seeker would want.” For me, although my every move seems as determined as every other move of the universe, I still have desires and wants and my empty condition is one I worked to appreciate and am glad for. And you write, “I would not trade it now for a life of happiness.” For me this is a life of happiness, along with many other motions. (To live happily need not mean partying all the time or hiding from sadness.)

    You have given voice to a life that is empty and still passionate and caring. This is devotional literature for a meaningless world, or a world whose meaning is there simply because we live as if it were, where meaning is in the living.

    Go well,
    Os

  2. Os, I think that we may be relating experiences that are close even when we express them differently. For example, your “the empty condition is one I worked to appreciate and am glad for” doesn’t seem to me to be far from my feeling that the condition does not appear desirable to a seeker: it’s been my experience, too, that I’ve needed to work to appreciate it. As a seeker, I had wanted some content, even if I’d also wanted to name that content “emptiness”; it took me a while to yield to the fact that, as I expressed it here back in August, “emptiness is truly empty” and already what I am. It’s quite true that initially I did not appreciate it.

    I love the phrase “devotional literature for a meaningless world.”

    Thanks, Os.

    — George

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