Much Ado about Nothing

adapted from a talk by Gil Fronsdal, April 1st, 2002

Most of human activity is oriented around something, some thing. Externally, we may focus on material things, relationships, money, politics, and the like. Internally, the focus may be on feelings, thoughts, beliefs, identity, health, or-with particular force-things we like or don’t like about ourselves. During almost every waking moment, our thoughts are concerned with something. We may take it for granted that this is as it should be.

But we are often not comfortable within our crowded minds. When we speak of “wanting space,” for example, we express a wish not to be oppressed by people, obligations, and concerns. When the mind is preoccupied with thoughts, feelings, reactions, and judgments it can feel claustrophobic. When the mind is calm and spacious it can be relaxed and wise, even with a thought that may feel oppressive when the mind is tight.

There is much value in nothing. For example, an important element of a room is the empty space between the things in it. A room will have a very different atmosphere depending on the size and shape of its space. Four people in an elevator feel very different from four people in a cathedral because of the different amount of nothing surrounding them.

Buddhist practice could be described as a practice of creating greater space in our minds and hearts and thus a more spacious and gracious mental environment. We can bring this about, in part, by appreciating nothing. In fact, nothing may be more precious than most somethings.

For example, having few possessions can bring happiness. A classic Buddhist story tells of a king who renounced his wealth and status and became a monk. His fellow monks were skeptical that he would stay ordained without his accustomed luxury and comfort. Soon after the ordination, the monks were meditating in a grove of trees and the new monk exclaimed loudly, “Oh, what bliss, what bliss!” The other monks concluded that he had decided to return to his life of wealth. However, when they asked him why he exclaimed with joy, he replied, “When I was a king, I had guards posted inside and outside the palace, inside and outside the city, within and without the countryside. But now, on going alone to a forest, I am without fear, not agitated, confident, and unafraid. This is why I exclaimed, ‘What Bliss! What Bliss!'”

The example of the Buddhist monastic shows us the possibility of finding happiness and peace of mind with few possessions. Monastics haven’t tied their happiness to things; if anything, they are more interested in having nothing. This doesn’t mean that we lay people have to give up our money and possessions, but that we not expect these to be the anchor for our happiness.

Another area where an appreciation of nothingness can bring us happiness and peace is in the domain of identity. Asserting, defending, resisting, or denying identity or self-definition can produce unnecessary suffering. When I was in college, I did art because I loved it. One day I decided that I was an “artist.” That was the day I stopped doing art. When I had no idea of myself as an artist, expressing myself through art was natural and enjoyable. But my attempts to live the identity of “artist” inhibited that natural expression. All too often, when we enter a situation playing the identity game we suffer or cause others to suffer. Furthermore, we may limit the creative potential for something new to arise from the situation. On the other hand, to be without the need for any particular identity may free us from the compulsions of ego.

Yet another area where an appreciation of nothingness is important is preconceived ideas or judgments. Our attachment to our ideas can be as stultifying as our attachment to identity. An important element of mindfulness practice is developing “beginner’s mind,” moving through life ready to see every situation anew.

The Buddhist path can be described as an emptying of ourselves of fears, inhibitions, cravings, and other inner causes of suffering. We empty ourselves of our attachments to posses- sions, our images of ourselves, and our opinions and ideas. We empty ourselves of the need to plan anxiously, to fret, and to obsess. Ultimately, we even empty ourselves of the need to attain something in our practice such as some wonderful spiritual experience. We discover how little we need to be happy and at peace.

Another story of the importance of nothing is the famous parable of the raft, in which the Buddha described how we should relate to the teachings. The Buddha said to his monks, “Suppose a person comes to a river and there is no bridge. The person builds a raft and crosses safely to the other side. Once across, the person picks up the raft and continues the journey into the forest carrying it. What do you think-is this person using the raft appropriately?” The monks replied, “No, sir.” The Buddha then continued, saying, “The Dharma is similar to the raft, it is for the purpose of crossing over, not for the purpose of grasping.”

In some important ways Buddhist practice leaves us with nothing. Practice is sometimes described as “being nobody, going nowhere, having nothing.” An arahat or enlightened person is described as someone who “has nothing.” In discovering how to be free from clinging, fear, and the need for identity, we learn to be happy with nothing. It is as if happiness is our natural state that is finally revealed when we stop fixating on all the somethings.

Being nobody and having nothing doesn’t mean that we are passive or uncaring. Compassion and the wisdom to act effectively can work through us unimpeded when we are free of attachments to identity, opinions, and possessions.

Wonderful things can happen when we appreciate the power of nothing.