Over the past number of decades, the West has been inundated by philosophical concepts pouring over us from the East. One idea we have grabbed hold of like a life-preserver is the concept of Emptiness. This idea is found throughout Buddhist literature especially as found in China (Chan) and Japan (Zen), as well as in the more indigenous tradition of Taoism. I would like to explore how the concept of Emptiness may be more fully understood philosophically by locating it within the language of Western phenomenology, and specifically in terms of analyses offered by Martin Heidegger and Maurice Merleau-Ponty.
We begin our excursion by retreating, going back to a myth-soaked past, to the murky beginnings of the genus Homo. One of the hallmarks of hominids, emerging as we did hundreds of millennia ago, was the central role played by kinship and the sharing it engendered among members of clan and tribe. In fact, it was a natural proclivity to share that distinguished our earliest hominid forebears from their pre-human primate cousins. As Morton Fried wrote in his classic work, The Evolution of Political Society,
The paramount invention that led to human society was sharing because it underlay the division of labor that probably increased early human productivity above the level of competitive species in the same ecological niches.
Elman Service makes similar claims in his work on Primitive Social Organization. “The more primitive the society… the greater the emphasis on sharing, and the more scarce or needed the items, the greater the sociability engendered.” Or, as Tim Ingold concludes in The Perception of the Environment, it is far more important “that food go around rather than that it should last out. Whatever food is available is distributed so that everyone has a share…”
Perhaps such primeval sharing, and the concern it demonstrates for members of clan and tribe, was neither mere convention nor the result of conscious intention, but rather the expression of a rather unique and autochthonous experience of presence. As Martin Heidegger might describe it, an authentic response to ‘Being-with-the-Other,’ a concrete affirmation of humankind’s fundamental Care structure. Meanwhile Heidegger’s later musings lead us to believe it may be embedded in the very structure of Being-outside-oneself or ek-stasis ~ that is to say, an element of our original self-transcendence toward the world. In either case, we can see in the concrete event of sharing this standing-out-into-the-world as the very ground of our participation in the Other. Or, perhaps in Merleau-Ponty’s phrasing, there is here disclosed a primal intertwining of self and world. As he writes in The Visible and The Invisible:
We have to reject the age-old assumptions that put the body in the world and the seer in the body, or, conversely, the world and the body in the seer as in a box. Where are we to put the limit between the body and the world, since the world is flesh? Where in the body are we to put the seer…? A participation in and kinship with the visible, the vision neither envelops it nor is enveloped by it definitively…There is reciprocal insertion and intertwining of one in the other.
Marshall Sahlins confirms this primitive apperception of being when he writes in The Western Illusion of Human Nature:
Ethnographic reports speak of ‘the transpersonal self ’ (Native Americans), of the self as a ‘locus of shared social relations or shared biographies’(Caroline Islands), of persons as ‘the plural and composite site of the relationships that produced them’ (New Guinea Highlands). Referring broadly to the African concept of ‘the individual,’ Roger Bastide writes: ‘He does not exist except to the extent he is outside and different from himself.’ Clearly, the self in these societies is not synonymous with the bounded, unitary and autonomous individual as we know him… Rather the individual person is the locus of multiple other selves with whom he or she is joined in mutual relations of being…
Now, as Heidegger has suggested in his Introduction to Metaphysics, what occurred with the emergence of thought from its mythologically-pregnant inception was a “flattening down” of a primal and overpowering experience of being.
The fundamental error that underlies [the modern sciences] is the opinion that the inception…is primitive and backward, clumsy and weak. The opposite is true. The inception is what is most uncanny and mightiest… The uncanniest is what it is because it harbors such an inception in which, from over-abundance, everything breaks out at once into what is overwhelming…
But it is Merleau-Ponty’s recognition of the body-subject that finally unveiled the source of this ‘over-abundance’ in the primacy of perception and the natural co-inherence of the world-as-lived-by-the-body. It is this lived-body-world that affords us the very possibility of sentient experience: of touching and being touched, seeing and being seen, hearing and being heard. It is this base intuition that I am at once subject and object concurrently, and that the world is both subject and object for me. It is in this very “reversibility” that we recognize the underlying intuition behind animism: that my flesh and the flesh of the world are one; my outline, the inline of the territory; my totem an instantiation of the same power that animates the forest, the river, the sun, the moon, the stars and me. It is here that we can grasp the concept of mythic participation. Like an umbilical cord joining us to mother earth, it is “the red thread that cannot be cut… Names — and even ‘me’ and ‘you’ — make a kind of cut in the flesh of [this] intimacy, in the wholeness of the world.” (Susan Murphy, Red Thread Zen, 10, 52).
In this light, it seems reasonable to suggest that our earliest hominid ancestors felt the attachment between what we call ‘self’ and ‘world’ in a way distinctly unlike how we see and feel it today. Their original sense of ‘self’ or ‘presence’ was not as a discrete and private entity locked-up within a bag of skin confronting an alien and external environment. Rather, we may infer that their’s was a more autochthonous perception of ‘self’ as ‘opening-on’ and intertwining with the whole, where ‘being-with-the-other‘ was an ek-static event of ‘being-outside-oneself’ participating the world.
Again, from Sahlins, we read:
In kin relationships, others become predicates of one’s own existence, and vice versa… It is the integration of certain relationships, hence the participation of certain others in one’s own being. As members of one another, kinsmen live each other’s lives and die each other’s deaths…
In his work, Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry, Owen Barfield concludes, that even after the great transition to civilization, and…
[b]efore the scientific revolution, [man] did not feel himself isolated by his skin from the world outside to quite the same extent that we do. He was integrated, or mortised into it, each different part of him being united to a different part of it by some invisible thread…
Lucien Levy-Bruhl appropriately described this as “participation mystique,” a pre-conscious inherence of the self in the other, an almost invisible attachment to the surround. This is the intuition that rests at the heart of animistic sensibility. It is a mode of being realized by a visceral bodying-forth, whereby all elements, human and non-human, touch, co-mingle, and inter-animate one another in constituting a world. Here it becomes difficult to talk about nature vs. culture, self vs. world, or in terms of any other dualism; for the two poles are simply reciprocal instantiations of one and the same power, what the indigenous Melanesians may have called mana, or the Sioux, wakanda. As Dōgen Zenji, 13th Century founder of the Soto School of Zen put it:
I came to see clearly that mind is no other than mountains and rivers and the great earth, the sun and the moon and the stars.
So, reiterating Merleau-Ponty’s earlier question — Where are we to put the limit between the body and the world, since the world is flesh? — we unavoidably find ourselves reflecting upon his notion of chiasm. This is an image he uses to make sense of a micro-gap or divergence — he characterizes it as a dehiscence in the ‘flesh’ — that allows for a crossing-over or overlapping of body-subject and world-as-lived-by-the-body. As he reminds us, it is in the very reversibility of flesh that this chiasm shows itself.
…a sort of dehiscence opens my body in two, and because between my body looked at and my body looking, my body touched and my body touching, there is overlapping or encroachment, so that we may say that the things pass into us, as well as we into the things (Visible and the Invisible, p. 123).
It is the thickness of flesh between the seer and the thing [that] is constitutive for the thing of its visibility as for the seer of his corporiety; it is not an obstacle between them, it is their means of communication (Visible and Invisible, p135).
It is here, I believe, that we crack open the doorway to the Eastern concept of emptiness; where mind and self are no longer seen as belonging to “me” but, rather, to the flesh of the world in which “I” participate through my body-as-subject. Merleau-Ponty uses the concept of the flesh to evoke both dehiscence [separation] and chiasm [a crossing over], giving voice to that emptiness (Shunyata or Kong) from whence arises the experience of intertwining, participation, ecstasy.
In fact, Emptiness in this view is the simple realization that there is no separate “I” or “mine” — shunyata meaning that there is a lack of ‘one’s own-nature’ or that there is no independent ‘self.’
Considered a central text on Emptiness in the Mahayana Buddhist tradition, including Chan and Zen, The Heart Sutra states:
Here, O Sariputra, bodily-form is emptiness; verily, emptiness is bodily-form. Apart from bodily-form there is no emptiness; so apart from emptiness there is no bodily-form. That which is emptiness is bodily-form; that which is bodily-form is emptiness. Likewise (the four aggregates) feeling, perception, mental imaging, and consciousness (all are devoid of substance). (Verse 2)
These negations, of course, do not mean to suggest that sense experience and the flesh are nonexistent but, on the contrary, that they do not exist independently of a greater whole.
Or, as we read in the Tao Te Ching:
Is not the space between Heaven and Earth like a bellows?
It is empty, but lacks nothing. (Chap 5)
Finally, a central theme of the Tao Te Ching is the idea of wei wu wei or “action through non-action.” In this context we may also understand Heidegger’s idea of Gelassenheit — ‘repose,’ ‘waiting’ or ‘letting be.’ It is just such a posture (gelassenheit or wei wu wei) that allows Being to spring forth from Emptiness or Kong [空着]. I am suggesting, then, that Heidegger’s sense of ‘repose’ or gelassenheit is, at bottom, closely allied with the practice of emptiness in both Chan and Zen Buddhist traditions. As Heidegger himself queries us regarding to the process of meditative thinking:
Does man still dwell calmly between heaven and earth? (Gelassenheit, 48)
This imagery of ‘dwelling between heaven and earth’ forces us to examine the emptiness of being located in neither realm, but rather, feeling open to the mystery of Being’s un-concealment, a-letheia or truth. For Heidegger this is a way of thinking unlike any other. As he says,“We are to do nothing but wait” [Wir sollen nichts tun sondern warten] (Gelassenheit, 62). This is how one remains open to mystery, to possibility. And here we come to Heidegger’s idea of “waking up”— a mode of enlightenment attributable to meditative thinking that waits. He reminds us in The Question of Technology, to be “the one who waits, the one who attends upon the coming to presence of Being…”