Who’s Afraid of Emptiness?

In the Diamond Sutra, the Buddha says that bodhisattvas are ones who when they hear these teachings (the Prajñāpāramitā, or “Perfection of Wisdom,” which is a goddess as well as a philosophy and literary movement) are not afraid. The heart of the Perfection of Wisdom is the teaching on emptiness, which is expressed in the summary of the path of the bodhisattva given by the Buddha: “However many beings there are … in the realm of complete Nirvana I shall liberate them all. And though I thus liberate countless beings, not a single being is liberated.” (DS 2, tr. Red Pine)

This slippery koan brings together the bodhisattva vow and the insight into emptiness that powers it. Zen makes much of the strange mechanics of the bodhisattva vow, particularly its impossibility. You vow to liberate all beings, which is manifestly absurd. So how does this work? It doesn’t, except “in the realm of complete Nirvana.” Emptiness is what makes it possible. Seeing with the eyes of emptiness reveals that there’s no such things as “beings,” no such action as “liberate,” and no such entity as “I” who is doing the liberating.

I have moments where this totally makes sense. Where the linguistic dead end opens to a strange magical land in which my heart just stops arguing about anything at all, and the individuality of all my suffering friends, neighbors, and enemies on our tiny spinning planet is no longer the theme of the story. There’s no story at all, really. In other moments, I refuse to take refuge in that good place—intentionally or habitually—and the stories demand attention, attunement, and creative engagement again. This happens again and again. It’s like something, or someone, really doesn’t want me to take refuge in emptiness. But why? What is it afraid of?

Emptiness inspires fear. Attachment is comfortable, and the objects, relationships, and identities that define our lives are all seeming refuges. The bodhisattva vow as expressed in the Diamond Sutra dismantles the last wholesome refuge of the good person: being in service of others. One of the things we do, as people trying to be good, is training ourselves in compassion and generosity. These are clearly good qualities, as the Buddha would say, “praised by the wise.” Of course the perfection of wisdom takes pains to remind us that both of these are empty. Compassion is deluded if it thinks that there are other beings to be saved by my heroic actions. Generosity is deluded whenever I am lost in the seeming importance of objects, wealth, gifts, and the identity that comes with being a generous person. 

To truly acknowledge emptiness, the sūtra says, would undercut everything we think about who we are, who others are, and what goodness even means. Of course I’m afraid!

Emptiness is amoral, dangerously close to nihilism, and cares nothing for the populist affirmations and new age humanist mealy pap that fills my feed. But “the bodhisattva who thinks there are beings to be saved is no bodhisattva.” If I pretend my practice is mature enough to assimilate this radical teaching before it truly is, I fall into spiritual bypass. But to ignore the teaching because it makes me uncomfortable, well, it’s too late for that.

Part of the wild mystery of Prajñāpāramitā—sometimes called the “pregnant void”— is contained, ever so slightly, by putting it in a human form. As a goddess, she is way beyond my ken, but because I have some affectionate reference for the shape of a woman, my heart is protected from really shattering as I listen to the uncognizable diamond music. The sūtra knows this, and devotes far more time to convincing us of the benefit of cultivating faith in the teaching than it does spinning out the philosophical implications in it. The Heart Sutra knows it, which is why it ends with a mantra, a magic spell, rather than any more existential conclusion. 

The thing to cultivate in bodhisattva practice is not the vow itself, but the fearlessness that makes vowing possible. I know, from a long life of being afraid, that I can’t will myself into being fearless. When conditions frighten me, I’m afraid. Before I can even confront my fear of the infinite void, I have to recover from my fear of relational things: failure, criticism, rejection, other people. So the vow can’t be real without compassion—inward and outward—becoming a truly palpable force in the heart, and faith. When faith becomes strong enough, fear starts to diminish, because it knows that whatever happens, there’s a deeper refuge waiting. And though that refuge will be empty in the end, as a hut along the pilgrimage trail, a vihāra, it’s shelter from the storm. Come in, she said. 

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