Nothing is Sacred; Or,

The Concept of Nothing in Zen


Alan Gullette


University of Tennessee-Knoxville

Spring 1976

Religious Studies 3770: Zen Buddhism

Dr. Stan Lusby and Dr. Camp


Nothing is sacred in Zen:  it is a central theme, an essential concept in Zen thought. Yet it is not a concept, for there is no conceptualization in true Zen; and there is no Zen thought, for there is no thought in true Zen.  Nothing is, rather, something that is experienced and not merely conceptualized.  Yet nothing is no "thing" as all, for there is no "thing" to be experienced in Zen:  the experienced and the experiencer and the experiencing are all one and the same.  Sunyata, emptiness, nothingness is the heart of Zen.

Sunya means empty, and emptiness (sunyata) is, in Mahayana Buddhism, a necessary and essential quality of all phenomena, as is the quality maya (illusion)(Robinson, 49).  In earliest Indian (Vedic) thought, being (sat) was considered to be "the solid, reified state of things," and nonbeing (asat) was "their subtle, unmanifest state."  Shortly before the Buddha's time, "being came to mean that which endures as against that which changes, the ground in contrast to its modifications."  But the Buddha discarded both the idea of nonbeing ("seeing how the world arises") and the idea of being ("seeing how the world perishes").  Such is the middle Path (30).

The concept of a substance or substratum that is unchanging was thus rejected, and the Buddhist position was that no substance exists apart from its modifications or particular forms.  Existence and nonexistence are only relative to each other and pertain only to the world of the conditioned – absolute (nonrelative) being was thus denied.  Still, there is nirvana, absolute reality, the unconditioned, which transcends such relative categories as existence and non-existence (31).  Nirvana is the unmanifest source, yet is not a substance at all – it is only Nothing.  Emptiness (sunyata) is not "a stuff out of which all things are," Robinson writes.  "Rather, it is the fact that no immutable substance exists and none underlies phenomena."  This emptiness is a "descriptive law," not a "substantial entity" (52).  It is nothing at all.  The world of phenomena (samsara) is a phantom that is conjured up by a phantom (maya).  "These phantoms exist" only "insofar as they appear and act, but inexist insofar as they are insubstantial and impermanent."  Nirvana is changeless, permanent, yet not "substantial in any sense.  It is  dependent coarising, sunyata, that is the process of change" (52). Emptiness of all things is the fact of Nirvana, which is itself nothing.

Here we must carefully distinguish between terms. Nonbeing and being are dialectically interdependent, relative terms.  Nothing has usually been confused in the West with nonbeing, though in the east it is seen differently.  Nonbeing is "parasitic" on being; it is a negative term deriving its meaning from the positive.  But in the east, nothing is what gives meaning to the positive in the first place, as we shall see later.  Absolute nothingness is what is meant by "nothing" or "nothingness" or "no-thingness." (Although the latter term is somewhat derivative from the idea of "thing" and "thingness," I use it only because I am used to thinking of things, and like most westerners I can best understand Nothing in relative terms, all the while keeping in mind that this is not an exact understanding – but only an experiential understanding is a true one, so that all conceptual understanding is necessarily inexact.)  Absolute nothingness is thus distinct from relative nothingness or mere nonbeing (which is, again, parasitic).  Thus the westerner Paul Tillich understands nothing only as derivative nonbeing:


Nonbeing is dependent on the being it negates…. The ontological status of nonbeing as nonbeing is dependent on being.  The character of the negation of being is determined by that in being which is negated. (40)


Yet we must allow that not all of our sources use these terms strictly, and it is necessary to understand what is meant by their terms.  For instance, Alan Watts writes: "whether one looks longingly toward 'non-being' (wu) or cultivates 'emptiness' (sunyata), the principle involved is the same" (82).

Nothingness (wu-i-wu) is the same as emptiness (sunyata) and is true "purity" for Hui-neng.  According to D. T. Suzuki, "It is the negation of all qualities, a state of absolute non-ness" yet is not misconceived as a separate entity outside of a perceiver engaged in "the pure act of seeing." This "seeing" is quintessential To Zen.  It is satori – seeing into one's inner, true nature – and thus "seeing into the ultimate nature of things" – perceiving the true Mind.  This seeing is termed chien-hsing ("to look into the nature [of the mind]")(159-61).  Seeing is also called Prajna (wisdom), or at least seeing is with the "eye of Prajna" and Prajna is what enables one to see (178).  Prajna allows one to grasp sunyata, the emptiness of all things, and is itself "knowledge of the highest order permitted to the human mind, for it is the spark of the ultimate constituent of all things."  This ultimate constituent, the sine qua non, the quintessence, is hsing or Mind (172).

 The Mind is the Buddha.  It means "no-mind-ness" (wu-hsin), and its attainment is "the ultimate end of the Buddhist life."  Mind does not belong to the categories of being and nonbeing, but "is absolute thusness" or "suchness" (tathata)(216).  Suchness is "the Body of Consciousness, and Consciousness is the Use of Suchness," according to Suzuki, though this actually says little.  Better:  "Suchness means the Absolute… formlessness… the unconditioned… Emptiness (sunyata)," and is unattainable in that it is "beyond perception, beyond grasping" for our conditioned minds.  "All our relative knowledge is concerned with dualities," but "emptiness is on the other side of being and nonbeing" (190).  Perceiving as we know it, grasping, attaining must cease, for we are already "attained."  "It is Prajna which lays its hands on emptiness, or Suchness, or Self-nature" (191) and we are all endowed with a Prajna-eye.  "Seeing into nothingness – this is true seeing and eternal seeing" (Shen-hui, in Suzuki, 191).

The relationship between sunyata and tathata, being one of identity, can be clarified: sunyata is tathata "when sunyata is awakened to itself or becomes aware of itself, which is 'knowing and seeing itself.'"  Tathata, Suchness, is "the viewing of things as they are: it is affirmation through and through" (263).

Self-nature (Buddha) is nothing in the sense that it is not a thing (165).  This is one use of "nothingness."  If a being, a thing, must be distinguished from other beings, other things –i.e., if a being only has being within all of existence, Being – then the whole of Being is not-a-being, not-a-thing, since there is nothing (in the derivative sense) to distinguish it from.  Being is, therefore, non-being or no-thing.  Furthermore, if a thing is what is experienced dualistically (i.e., as an object in contradistinction from the subject and in contradistinction from the whole of Being, from which it is singled out), then for one who experiences oneself nondualistically (i.e., as an inseparable part of All) and who experiences things likewise (as inseparable parts of the whole) – for this one, there is no thing.  This enlightened one, this Buddha, experiences Nothing – sees Suchness with the Prajna-eye.


In the world of ordinary experience every experience is conceptualized, since this world is really our intellectual reconstruction and not reality as it is in itself, not in its 'suchness'… Sunyata is experience only when it is both subject and object. (262)


As such, it is neither subject nor object, but merely is.  Tathata is Being-as-it-is, it is Self-nature, Dharma (truth), suchness and isness, and is at the same time (again) "the viewing of things as they are."  Reality is self-conscious, introspective.  When a man discovers that his mind does not really exist (as separate), then mind and ego pass away, leaving only Mind.

While in this West nothing gains meaning only through the negation of something – is parasitic and derivative –, in eastern thought it is the experience of nothing that reveals the meaning of everything.  The exception in the West is found in mystics and certain existentialists; the understanding these thinkers have of nothingness is very much like the Zen understanding in many interesting ways.  I will now examine the similarities between Martin Heidegger and Zen concerning nothing.

Vincent Vycinas, writing about Heidegger's philosophy, notes that, "Just as death is that which gives life (in the sense of existence) its fullness and makes it stick out as an organized whole, so nothingness is presupposed to give Being its framework and graspability" (quoted in Lescoe, 240).  In Heidegger, anxiety or dread (Angst) is the psychological coefficient of the experience of nothingness.  It is not fear, for fear is always of something.  Angst is rather of noting, though this nothing is "something" very real, yet not a "thing" as we understand the world.  Nothing (Nichts), for Heidegger, is prior to logical negations rather than derivative from them – it allows us to say "there is no money," "I have eaten nothing," etc.  It is also, in James Collins's words, an "anterior principle" for "our understanding of particular instances of being" (quoted in Lescoe, 239). 

According to William Richardson, Heidegger's Nichts is "Non-being… that renders possible the manifestation of beings as beings."  Egon Vieta adds: "Nothingness, being the absolute opposite of being, puts a limit on being, by isolating it and making it a unified whole" (quoted in Lescoe, 240).  It is in this sense that Nothingness is an essential part of being, necessarily intertwined with it. Besides being merely a part of Being, Nothingness is, in a sense, Being itself:  "In the state of anguish [Angst], nothingness exhibits itself to us simultaneously with the totality of being" (241).  In this experience of dread, the individual's attention is drawn to things in the world, which are seen to form a unity but which are also seen to slip away, and nothing is left to be experienced.  "Against the background of 'nothingness,' a background of horror and awe, the things in the world begin to stand out as what they actually are" and reality itself is grasped (Werner Brock, quoted in Lescoe, 242).  And so Nothingness brings the individual (Heidegger's Dasein) "face to face with what is as such" (Heidegger, in Lescoe, 242).  The parallel here is obviously with Suchness.

The relationship between Nothing and Being (Everything) is problematic.  Thinking logically, nothing cannot really exist – it must be outside of existence.  If it is to be thought of as being outside existence yet as giving Being, in effect, its being – rather than Nothing "being" derivative from Being – then it is more or less nirvana as understood by Buddhists.  Yet here we have arrived, through a process of logical thinking, at a dualism between Nothing and Being, and dualisms are not allowed in Zen thinking (even if thinking itself is allowed)!  The solution seems to lie in the equation of Nothingness and Being hinted at in the discussion of Heidegger above.  This equation is affirmed in the equation (already mentioned) of sunyata, nothingness, emptiness, with tathata or the Buddha-nature, reality, Being-as-it-is.  This equation is also found explicitly in the ideas of Nishida and the modern Kyoto school of philosophy.  But an easier solution is found simply in the negation of the problem (!) as it were: Nothing, in itself and in relation to Being, is to be understood experientially and not conceptually.  If there is a contradiction found in the concept of sunyata (in itself and in its equation to Being, as in the equation of nirvana with samsara – which is basically the same equation), then, says Suzuki, "we are out of sunyata.  As long as we live in it, there is no contradicting, and this is where Zen wants to be" (261).

Nishida Kitaro, according to Hans Waldenfels, is "the father of modern Japanese philosophy" (378).  His idea of nothing began with the concept of place (cf. Plato's topos and Aristotle's hypokeimenon).  Place (basho) is beyond being and relative nothingness (364).  It is the place of Absolute nothingness, a certain place wherein everything exists, "the substratum within which all forms become actualized" (356).  According to Takeuchi, another of the Kyoto philosophers, "the philosophy of Absolute Nothingness" is the common concern of Nishida and Tanabe (a third Kyoto thinker) – that is, " the absolute must be considered first as Absolute Nothingness" (quoted in Waldenfels, 355).

For Nishida, the starting point of a philosophy must be a "pure experience," an experiencing of things "just as they are" (356), with is tathata.  This fundamental religious experience is "the immediate realization of Absolute Nothingness" (378) and becomes the principle of a philosophical system, thus combining "eastern religious experience with western philosophical thought, mystical experience and logical structure" (373).  Absolute nothingness here takes the place of the God of mystical experience, but Nishida goes on to equate God, "the foundation of the universe," with this Nothingness:


God is absolute nothingness (mattaku mu).  However, if one says that God is merely nothingness (tan ni mu), this is certainly not so.  At the base of the establishment of reality there is the unifying function which clearly cannot be moved. … God… is the basis of reality, and only because He is able to be Nothingness, is there no place whatsoever where He is not. (357-8)


Nishida resorts to some interesting terminology in delineating his idea of the absolute.  "That which is called the true Absolute, must… be self-identical in an absolutely contradictory manner.  When we express God in a logical manner, there is no other way to say it than this" (378).  For "the final experience of the Absolute is… beyond any philosophical expression, and, therefore, is the 'absolute contradictory self-identity.'"  Absolute Nothingness is "unity of opposites," is "(absolute) contradictory self-identity," is "identity of self-contradictories" (369, 362).  Nishida develop this single idea in examining the relationship between self and world.  The concept was


used to probe the problems of a philosophy of religions:  the contradictions of man's existence, where the satisfaction of desire means the extinction of desire and the will makes it s own extinction its object… In these problems religion is established, for in the awareness of the absolute contradictoriness and nothingness of the self-existence we first touch the absolute and God. (Edwards, 519)


The experience of nothingness for Nishida is satori for Zen.  It


springs from your laboring thinking, and you find 'satori,' enlightenment.  The Universe has being nothing, and the Ego has become nothing.  But in the same spark of Nothingness you regain the world and yourself in wonderful self-identity.  In the experience of Nothingness, everything is as it is.  (Waldenfels, 368)


This is Prajna seeing tathata, sunyata experiencing itself in its "self-identity." Again,


In one who is really overwhelmed by the consciousness of absolute nothingness, there is neither 'Me' nor 'God,' but just because there is absolute nothingness, the mountain is mountain, and the water is water, and the being is as it is." (Waldenfels, 367)


For Tanabe, "absolute nothingness belongs to the realm of eastern religious self-realization," which "consists of seeing by being nothingness" (Waldenfels, 387).  Suzuki also speaks of being as seeing and seeing as knowing with respect to sunyata, where we are (Suzuki, 262-3).  Takeuchi, who designated absolute nothingness as "the place of encounter," asks, "How are being-itself and absolute negatively related in God or in the Absolute?"  He answers:


God is at once Being-itself and Absolute Nothingness.  It is understandable that I prefer the latter designation, because absolute nothingness as Absolute Negativity (that is, the negation of negation) at the same time implies the former, the affirmative. (Waldenfels, 388)


Suzuki also stresses that sunyata is not negative but positive, and that sunyata as tathata is obviously "an affirmation through and through" (261, 263).

God as nothing is also found in certain western mystics.  Harry Weinberg surveys this equation in the west:


As the Christian mystics state, 'God is Nothing' He is Utterly Other; He is the VOID.' Eckhart proclaims, 'Thou shalt love God as He is, a Non-God, a Non-Spirit, a Non-Person, a Non-Form.'  Tauler describes God as 'The divine darkness, the nameless, formless nothing.'  In Jewish mysticism we find frequent reference to the conception of God as Nothing.  It is when these mystics proceed to making affirmative statements about the nature of God that misevaluation occurs.  God cannot exist in the sense that we normally mean existence.  As with things, whatever we say God is, he is not. (Weinberg, 248-9)


Returning, finally, to Zen, let me quote from Huang-po and Alan Watts on nothingness, its significance, the experience of it, and its significance.  Huang-po said: "Men are afraid to forget their minds, fearing to fall through the void with nothing onto which they can cling.  They do not know that the void ids not really the void but the real realm of the Dharma" (in Watts, 141).  Watts writes that the dharmakaya (the body of the Buddha, the cosmic body of the universe, the Absolute) "is the void itself" (71).  Watts goes on to talk about Hui-neng.  In opposing the false dhyana (meditation) of mere "empty-mindedness" (the idea "that the highest state of consciousness is a consciousness empty of all contents, all ideas, feelings, and even sensations"), Hui-neng


compares the Great Void to space, and calls it great, not just because it is empty, but because it contains the sun, moon, and stars.  True dhyana is to realize that one's own nature is like space, and that thoughts and sensations come and go in the 'original mind' like birds through the sky, leaving no trace.  (93-4)


This calls to mind the famous, beautiful couplet from the Zenrin:


The wild geese do not intend to cast their reflection;

The water has no mind to receive their image.


As Watts points out, "The true mind is 'no mind' (wu-hsin), which is to say that it is not to be regarded as an object of thought or action, as if it were a thing to be grasped and controlled" (94).  That is to say, the mind is no-thing.





Edwards, Paul et al, eds. The Encyclopedia of Philosophy.  New York: Macmillan, 1967. Vol. 5.

Lescoe, Francis.  Existentialism: With or Without God.  New York: Alba House, 1974.

Robinson, Richard. The Buddhist Religion. Belmont, CA; Dickerson, 1970.

Suzuki, D. T.  Zen Buddhism. Garden City: Doubleday, 1956.  Ed., William Barrett.

Tillich, Paul.  The Courage To Be.  New Haven: Yale University Press, 1952.

Waldenfels, Hans.  "Absolute nothingness: preliminary considerations on a central notion in the philosophy of Nishida Kitaro and the Kyoto school."  Monumenta Nipponica 21 (1966): 354-391.

Watts, Alan.  The Way of Zen.  New York: Pantheon, 1957.

Weinberg, Harry.  Levels of Knowing and Existence: Studies in General Semantics.  New York: Harper & Bros., 1959.




Nieda, Rokusaburo.  "'Nothing' in Zen in comparison with Christian eschatology and 'Nothing' in European philosophers."  Numen IX (1962): 37-44.

Novak, Michael.  The Experience of Nothingness.  New York: Harper & Row, 1970.



Professor's Comments: Grade A.  A really superior paper, probing central Zen motifs in a substantial manner. [Dr. Camp.]




Alan Gullette > Essays