A lot of times when conversing with family and friends, concepts are discussed which can get me thinking about the way we as humans perceive the world and how these perceptions impact the way we live our lives on a daily basis. I had one of these conversations with a friend recently about the meaning of the Daoist phrase,
“We shape clay into a pot, but it’s the emptiness inside that holds whatever we want.”
The conversation meandered along, going into what emptiness really is and how this phrase applies to our lives.
If we look at the famous Yin Yang symbol of the Daoists, we see Yin and Yang eternally revolving around each other. The Yin contains at its centre a dot of Yang and the Yang contains at its centre a dot of Yin. Yang can represent fullness and Yin can represent emptiness. When we look at the centre of emptiness we find the seed of fullness and when we look at the centre of fullness we find the seed of emptiness. This goes to the heart of the Daoist view of a relativistic universe. Everything is what it is in contrast to what it isn’t and vice versa.
Our senses are conditioned to see and register substance and fullness. We have evolved to ignore space and only define a point in space that is not empty. But how can we see fullness if it is not contrasted by emptiness? How can fullness exist if there is no emptiness for it to exist in? The reality is that all things that exist are a balance between emptiness and fullness and as a result of our flawed perception we ignore the emptiness and note only the fullness.
The Dao De Ching goes on to say,
“Therefore, the value comes from what is there, but the use comes from what is absent.”
This may be difficult to understand at first but can become clear when we look at daily examples in our world. When we listen to a piece of music, it is the notes that make it music but it is the silence between notes that make it a melody worth listening to. When we look at an object, we can only see the object in contrast with the emptiness that surrounds it. We can only define the edges of something in contrast with the emptiness it exists in. Zen art and Daoist Calligraphy show this beautifully: a Zen painting might contain a tree or a raft in the corner and this is used to express the emptiness surrounding it.
Fullness alone would be chaos and emptiness alone would be nothing. It is the interplay of fullness and emptiness that creates the universe that we exist in.
This false perception is carried into the way we relate to the world around us, with the average person reasoning in the following way:
“I exist and another person exists, but between me and this other person no connection exists as I do not see a connection.”
This is perceived this way because we as humans feel that the emptiness that exists between others and ourselves implies no connection between the two. This is an illusion of perception because as any scientist will tell you, any object that we view to be solid is just an amalgamation of atoms revolving around emptiness. We just cannot sense this emptiness unless we use specialist instruments. Following this logic, what if we are all like these atoms making up a much larger structure? We are just not able to perceive it from our frame of reference. When we see the world this way then we begin to see the interconnectedness of all things in this universe.
There is so much more I want to write about emptiness especially in relation to creating emptiness in the mind but I will save this for another blog post. If you take away one thing from this post let it be this:
Just like two waves on the sea are not separate from each other, two people in the midst of emptiness are also not separate from one another.
* I do not intend to break any rights by adding these three images, if the images belong to you I am happy to credit you, please let me know.
Shkar Sharif is the head instructor at Tiger Crane Kung Fu in London. Any other questions, ask!