Buddhism talks a good deal about shunyata, emptiness. What is this emptiness? The earliest Buddhist texts provide a psychology of what we could call the point mind - a mind without content. Our modern (and later Buddhist) psychologies speak a lot about the content of the mind and much therapy and education is devoted to filling the mind up with supposedly good things. So is the mind full or empty?

The Japanese psychologist Tomoda who translated the works of Carl Rogers into Japanese and then went on to develop a system of psychology closely related to Buddhist and Taoist thought was particularly struck by the way that Rogers’ method (if not his theory) provided the client with a safe space in which he could be entirely alone, even though in the presence of the therapist.


To my way of understanding, the idea of shunyata can well be approached through this matter of aloneness. When one dies one is alone. One is alone facing a complete unknown. Whatever your belief about the afterlife, now what is happening for real and you know that something very powerful is taking place that you actually have no knowledge about. You can enter it in fear or in faith, but either way you do so alone. This is emptiness. Whatever connections, relations, loves, achievements or projects you have accomplished in your earthly life, all are left. You are alone. This is shunyata.

Buddhist enlightenment - spiritual awakening - is like this: to die before you die, to find that utter aloneness while still hale and fit for action here in this world. That is also faith, for you dare not enter such a state without great faith. It is a kind of fearlessness, which is not really to say that one never experiences the feeling of dread as a sensation, but rather that one has access to something that carries one through all difficulties. This something may be called the bodaishin or bodhichitta. It is not something that one can possess, but it is never unavailable.


Buddhism has a multitude of methods for helping people to approach such a state, but the final step - that in which one is seized by an other power - one must, as at death, take utterly alone, and, as at death, it is not something one can contrive nor be in control of.

Such aloneness does not mean that the person ceases to relate to others in the ordinary way - though, in a certain sense his or her relations do cease to be “ordinary” because they take on what Dogen and many earlier masters refer to as the mirror mind. The mind becomes a mirror because of this emptiness. Like a pool of water, one minute it is transparent, the next it is a mirror. One moment the person of awakened faith appears to be just another ordinary person, perhaps a bit more open than most, but with ordinary likes, dislikes, emotions, feelings and so on, then the next minute they are not at all an ordinary person, but manifest a power that is not really their own. Here one can speak of power, but it might be slightly more revealing to call it a non-resistence. The ordinary person has all manner of resistances that the awakened person has shed.

In Pureland, one approaches this state through the three basic teachings. One realises that one is a foolish being of wayward passion. This cuts away the conceit of self-specialness. Then one has faith that Amida Buddha saves even such poor beings as oneself, without even needing to know who or what Amida Buddha may be. This faith cuts away grasping after self-power and control. Then thirdly one accepts that only the nembutsu is real and true. This gives one a practice that one can surrender to in the same way as one will, when the times comes, surrender into death. In other schools of Buddhism there are other methods, but they all lead to the doorstep of shunyata one way or another.


In Buddhism we say that mind is “clear and cognising”. In other words, in essence, it is completely empty, but always perceiving something. One’s mind alights upon this and that. When one has discovered real aloneness, one has no sense of needing to exploit what one perceives. One does not cognise in a spirit of greed, nor in one of hate. One is blessedly relieved of many troubles as a result. This is why one may say that Buddhism is a path to happiness, though not at all in the sense that most people probably have in mind when they hear this phrase. In the same way, we could say that the mind of aloneness is not trying to manipulate others and is equally, therefore, immune to being psychologically manipulated by them, since all manipulation is some kind of illicit trade.

I started this essay with a comment about Tomoda and psychotherapy. As I understand it, psychotherapy is a process in which a therapist provides some approximation to this empty mirror mind such as will enable the client to find the real nature of life. The client will have at least a fleeting experience of shunyata. He may have no theory or cognitive understanding of what has happened, but he will have experienced it. This might well provoke considerable outpouring of emotion, since the client feels freed, or at least paroled, from a prison of his own making in which he has been trapped for a long time. It is a kind of catharsis or cleansing. This, I think, is what Tomoda realised. Of course, the client might scurry straight back to his prison afterwards, but the sheer fact of having experienced another possibility is apodictic - he can never really go back totally to how he was before.


This matter is not, however, by any means limited to psychotherapy. We are simply here talking about the basic nature of life and death itself. I think it is important to know that Buddhism is a religion - a faith - that stresses great love and compassion such as can only be manifested by people who have such faith, the faith to be alone with others, not just alone in a trivial sense, but utterly alone as we all shall be at the point of death when the meaning of our life will have been finally fixed.

This is the essence of what I received from my teacher, as I understood it. It may not be the most popular way of presenting the Dharma - many would rather it was just a secular moral philosophy - but it is the truth of it. What use is moral philosophy when you are dying? Or ontology? We can have all manner of rarefied ideas about shunyata and the emptiness of independent existence of phenomena, but what difference does it make? Yet we all know what aloneness is and we all know how our minds become cluttered with internalised voices so that we are never really alone, even in solitude or in the middle of the night. Shunyata is clean and free. It is the essence of a life of faith.

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