Sunday, 4 November 2012

We Step With Fascination: A Few Thoughts on Non-being

Buddhists all over the world have this interesting fascination with nothingness, or non-being, or void, or whatever word you would like to use there. 

[I should like to point out that all of those words occasionally mean something different, especially void, so when using them around people that know differences, I should caution you!]

So why is it? What is it that Buddhists hold on to so dearly when they hold onto Nothingness? That is incredibly paradoxical and the application of it in Zen turns out to be quite fascinating but we will have to get there slowly.

Is it actually Nothing?


And Utter...


Being a slightly more western minded person I actually assume we exist (which is not something some Buddhists do, which I find fascinating and a little tiresome occasionally.) Existing, etymologically, means to “stand out.” Naturally the question then moves onto standing out from what? We use it in English to say somebody stands out from the crowd so he/she is above average. Philosophically the term can be seen in a few different ways but originally it meant to stand out from Non-being. We are here so we are not not here and so we exist. Yet there is a foot that we still hold in Non-being and the reason is that we have potential.

Mr. Aristotle had a really complicated idea of actuality and potentiality as he proposed in Metaphysics and Physics. There are 4 (or really 3) ways of existing.
  1. First Potentiality.
This is linked with having the material capability of doing something such as learning a language.

2)   First Actualization
This one is also linked with Second Potentiality and it is the acquiring of knowledge that leads to a person’s  actualization. So after I learned the English language the final step can come into Being.

 3) Third Actualization
This is when I actually speak the language. This one is specifically situational. If I am not using English at any given moment, I go back to “step” two. 

As a whole, as philosophy progressed, it suggested that we live constantly in a potential state due to the creativity and process of the world and that our entire essence is finite, so to dust we shall return. Most world religions love this idea, a humbling of the human, but Buddhism runs with it, why?

To be quite frank, I’m not really entirely sure. Being seems easier to be a part of and to praise but Buddhism suggests that Non-being is even more fundamental and praise is almost an empty word. 

I’d like to think “out loud” if you will allow me and we shall maybe shed some light on this topic. 

If we are existing, which we are, but also constantly living in a state of potentiality, in other words, having our foot still in Non-being, what good does it do to continue to focus our entire lives on this Non-being?

Almost in its entirety, compassion is a central virtue and principle of Buddhism which is often linked to Non-being. Is there a relationship between Non-being and Compassion? 

Is the knowledge that we will eventually almost in our entirety return to Non-being the reason we find Compassion so central to our thought and nature?

(A quick disclaimer: I don’t think there is a chance of reaching anything “essential” in human nature that is completely universal. I reject that modernistic and romantic notion. Please see my other post on Zen and Language for more on that.)

Wait a second, what did I just say? “Almost in our entirety?” Why almost and not entirely? Our bodies and such will decay and because I don’t believe in a soul, I won’t state where I think that is going. Yet our influence continues on and since we have touched the pond of Being, our ripples will never completely die out, even if the initial wave is long gone. Even then we are in a state of potential. 

Is that it then? That we somehow are constantly in a state of somewhat death that fascinates the Buddhist so much? Again I have no idea because distinctions also begin to disappear in things such as Being and Non-being. We do not in the state of Being but we live with, through, in Being. Non-being becomes this Being and the best thing we can do is say that there is a dynamic going on between both.

Being follows Non-being logically but yet we have noticed there is some sort of game going on between the two. Western religions are more concerned with Being, and for good reason since it is much easier to tackle, praise, and think about. 

(I use terms such as “East” and “West” for simplicity’s sake. I am fully aware that these distinctions are beginning to fade away and I am glad for that.)

The East takes a different route however, the world as it is, is Non-being or at least a part of Non-being. To notice this one must sit for a very long time and just stare at something and this realization will come to them. When we sit and meditate for a really long time we discover that this world is actually contentless and nothing at all. 


To some yes. To me, absolutely not. 

The furthest I am willing to go in such route is to suggest that the content which “is” is. A simpler way of saying that: it is what it is. The world and another gazillion things has made it such but I will attempt to look at the flower in its own way seeing that it, too, rests in the dynamic of Being and Non-being. It’s potential is far less than ours yet the beauty is still there simply because it is. This beauty and ideas of the flower shift with every age and that notion should be invited, things change and they need to continue to do so. 

Alright, so basically....what?

We, as flowers too, Are but also a part of Not. By participating in both Are and Not we come to appreciate both, the beauty and the complexity Are and Is and the mystery and the strangeness of Not. There is no good way to really talk about it because if Are and Is is so complicated, our touching Not will only lead us into further meditation and so we learn how the monks do it, for hours and days on end occasionally. We see that we are not entirely Are and not entirely Not but a good mix of both, appropriately praising both for what they have given us, a really complex world to analyze and the honor of smelling the flower one has just become so intimate with for the last few hours. 


  1. When we sit and meditate for a really long time we discover that this world is actually contentless and nothing at all.

    1. Through what means and I would ask as to how is that not a sort of content: there seems to a paradox there that I may not be willing to grant, as I state above in the post, I am able to go as far as suggesting we are a part of non-being and that it even has ethical implications (which we must still formulate). Whether those are constructions or illuminations is up for debate.

  2. One simple but effective definition of shunyata (poorly translated as emptiness or void) is 'free of permanence and non existence.' So emptiness does not refer to nothingness, but to the fact that things are, in reality, empty of both permanence and of not existing. This is the middle way between nihlism and theism. If we think it means that nothing exists then we fall into nihlism which is not Buddhism.

    Another simple way to look at the meaning of emptiness is that it means empty of concepts. All our concepts about things are just concepts not reality. Reality is free of concepts, our perception of reality, however, is distorted by our conceptual mind.

  3. That's right. Emptiness as 'nothingness' is a common, nihilistic understanding of Sunyata. But that isn't what it means at all. And the idea that the universe is actually without content, or is literally nothing seems hard to support.

    Sunyata means that phenomena lack an essence, a self, or self-nature, that is they are not independent and permanent. Instead they are deeply interdependent and part of an ever-changing flux.

    This is relevant as holding onto something that is inherently unholdable, unpredictable and impermanent can cause suffering.

  4. Read this: