Our emptiness has two sides: the negative, problematic aspect is a sense of lack. The other aspect is being open to, and an expression of, something more than I usually understand myself to be.
When I look inside and see that I am nothing, that's wisdom.
When I look outside and see that I am everything, that's love.
Between these two my life turns.
What is the most important Buddhist teaching for us today? I believe it is the essential connection that Buddhism emphasizes between dukkha (suffering) and the delusive sense of self. Our usual sense of being a separate self - the feeling that there is a "me" inside that is separate from the rest of the world outside - is not only a dangerous delusion, it is the heart of our dukkha.
The original Pali term dukkha is usually translated into English as "suffering," but that is too narrow unless we understand suffering in a very broad way. The point of dukkha is that even those of us who are wealthy and healthy experience a basic dissatisfaction, a disease, which continually festers. That we find life dissatisfactory, one damn problem after another, is not accidental, because it is the nature of an unawakened sense of self to be bothered about something.
The claim that there is no substantial self seems very strange and counterintuitive, but today we can benefit from what modern psychology has discovered, that the sense of self is a psychosocial construct: psychological because the ego-self is a product of mental conditioning, which creates habitual ways of thinking and acting; and social because as children we develop a sense of self in relation to other constructed selves, usually our parents.
Despite these similarities, Buddhism differs from most Western psychology in two important ways. First, Buddhism emphasizes that there is always something uncomfortable about the constructed sense of self. Traditional psychotherapy is usually concerned to help us become "well-adjusted." The ego-self needs to be repaired so it can fit into society and we can play our social roles better. But a socially well-adjusted ego-self can still be a very sick ego-self, for, as long as one feels separate from others, there is dukkha.
This suggests the other way that Buddhism differs from modern psychology. Buddhism agrees that the sense of self can be reconstructed and that it needs to be reconstructed, but it emphasizes even more that the sense of self needs to be deconstructed to realize its true "empty," nondwelling nature. Awakening to our constructedness is the only real solution to our most fundamental anxiety. Ironically, the problem and its solution both depend upon the same fact: a constructed sense of self is not a real self. Not being a real self is normally very uncomfortable. Not being a real self is also what enables the sense of self to be deconstructed and reconstructed, which is what the Buddhist path is about.
Why is a constructed sense of self so uncomfortable? This is the crucial point. "My" sense of self is not a thing but an ever-changing cluster of processes, composed of mostly habitual ways of perceiving, feeling, thinking, acting, reacting, remembering, intending, and so forth. The way that those activities interact with each other gives rise to the sense of being a self that is separate from other people and the rest of the world. If you strip away those psychological and physical processes - or let them fall away, which happens when we meditate - it's like peeling off the layers of an onion. When you get to the end, what's left? Nothing. There's no hard seed or anything else at the core. And what's wrong with that? Nothing. The basic problem is, we don't want to be nothing; we don't like the fact that we lack any fixed identity. What is, in effect, a gaping hole at one's core is quite distressing. Another way to say it is that my nothingness means my constructed sense of self is not only ungrounded but ungroundable, which in turn means that my self-awareness is haunted by a basic sense of insecurity and unreality.
Intellectually, this situation is not easy to understand, but I suspect that most of us have some innate awareness of the problem. In fact, if our sense of self is truly empty in this way, we must have some basic awareness of this problem - yet it's a very uncomfortable awareness, because we don't understand it or know what to do about it. I think this is one of the great secrets of life: each of us individually experiences this sense of unreality as the feeling that "something is wrong with me." Growing up is learning to pretend along with everyone else that "I'm OK, you're OK," yet this doesn't solve the problem. We learn to ignore it - but that feeling is still there, and we become aware of it when we're not distracted by other things. A lot of social interaction is about reassuring each other and ourselves that we're all really okay even though inside we feel somehow that we're not.
Here another modern psychological idea is helpful: repression. Although Freud's legacy has become quite controversial, his concept of repression, and "the return of the repressed," remains very important. Repression happens when I become aware of something uncomfortable that I don't want to deal with, so it is "pushed away" from consciousness. Freud believed that our main repression is sexual desires. Existential psychology shifts the focus to death: our inability to cope with mortality, the fact that our lives will come to an end and we don't know when. Buddhism, however, implies that our main repression is a little different. Fear of death focuses on what will happen in the future, while there is a more basic problem that we experience right now: this uncomfortable sense of unreality at our core, which we don't know how to deal with. Naturally enough, we learn to ignore or repress it, but that doesn't resolve the problem. The difficulty with repression is that it doesn't work. What has been repressed returns to consciousness one way or another, in a disguised or distorted fashion. This "return of the repressed" is thus a symptom of the original awareness that we didn't want to deal with.
Our repressed sense of unreality returns to consciousness as the feeling that there is something missing or lacking in our life. What is lacking? How I understand that depends upon the kind of person I am and the kind of society I live in. In itself, the sense that something is wrong with me is too vague, too amorphous. It needs to take more specific form if I'm to be able to do something about it, and that form usually depends upon how I've been socialized. For example, if I grow up in a modern developed (or "economized") society such as the United States, I am likely to understand my lack as not having enough money - regardless of how much money I already have.
Money is important to us not only because we can buy almost anything with it but also because it has become perhaps our most important reality symbol. Money not only represents the possibility of satisfying all desire, it is generally believed to be the best way to secure oneself/one's self - that is, to gain a solid identity. In more religious cultures people visit temples and churches to ground themselves in a relationship with God or gods. Today we invest in "securities" and "trust funds" to ground ourselves economically. Financial institutions have become our most important shrines.
But there's a karmic rebound: the more we value money, the more we find it used - and the more we use it - to evaluate ourselves. We end up being manipulated by the symbol we take so seriously. In this sense, the problem is not that we are too materialistic but that we are not materialistic enough, because we tend to be so preoccupied with its symbolism that we end up devaluing life itself. We are often infatuated less with the things money can buy than with what those possessions say about who we are: we identify not so much with the power and comfort of an expensive car as with what owning a Mercedes-Benz says about me. "I'm the kind of guy who drives a Mercedes. . . ."
Another example is fame. Why are so many people so obsessed with it today? It makes sense as a solution to our sense of lack - to the feeling that I'm not real enough. If I am known by lots and lots of people, then I must be real, right? In a world now so permeated by print and digital images, where the media determine what's real, being anonymous sometimes feels like being nothing at all, for one's lack of being is constantly contrasted with all of those real people whose pictures dominate the screens and whose names keep appearing in newspapers and magazines. In his book The Frenzy of Renown, Leo Braudy describes "the living death of being unknown," and he sums up the problem well: "The essential lure of the famous is that they are somehow more real than we are and that our insubstantial physical reality needs that immortal substance for support . . . because it is the best, perhaps the only, way to be." Yet the attention of other people, who are haunted by their own sense of lack, can't really fill up our own sense of lack. If you think that fame is what will make you real, you can never be famous enough, because no matter how famous you might become, the sense of lack is still there as long as you have a sense of self that feels separate from other people and the rest of the world.
This approach gives us insight into karma, especially the Buddha's revolutionary understanding of karma, which emphasized the role of motivations and intentions. If my sense of self is actually composed of habitual ways of perceiving, feeling, thinking, and behaving, then karma isn't something I have, it's what "I" am. Just as my physical body is composed of the food eaten and digested, so my sense of self is composed of consistent, repetitive choices, which eventually become habituated mental attitudes. People are "punished" or "rewarded" not so much for what they have done as for what they have become, and what we intentionally do is what makes us what we are. The most important part of the self is the intentions behind what we do, for they most affect how we experience the world and how the world experiences us. I change my karma by changing who "I" am: by reconstructing my habitual ways of perceiving, feeling, thinking, and behaving. The problematical motivations that cause so much trouble for me and for others - greed, ill will, and delusion, the three unwholesome roots also known as the three poisons - need to be transformed into their more positive counterparts that work to reduce dukkha: generosity, loving-kindness, and wisdom.
Whether or not you believe in karma as something magical, as an objective moral law of the universe, on a more psychological level karma is about how habitual ways of thinking and acting tend to create predictable types of situations. If I'm motivated by greed, ill will, and delusion, then I need to be manipulative, which tends to alienate other people and also makes me feel more separate from them. Ironically, I'm busy trying to defend and promote the interests of something that doesn't exist: my self. (And because the sense of self is not a real self, it's always in need of defense and support.) Yet acting in that way reinforces my delusive sense of self. When I'm motivated by generosity and loving-kindness, however, I can relax and open up, be less defensive. Again, other people tend to respond in the same way, which in that case works to reduce dukkha for all of us.
Transforming our karma in this way is very important, but most fundamentally Buddhism is about awakening, which means realizing something about the constructedness of the sense of self and its lack of any fixed self-identity. If changing karma involves reconstructing the sense of self, deconstructing the sense of self involves directly experiencing its emptiness. Usually that void at our core is so uncomfortable that we try to evade it by identifying with something else that (we hope) can give us stability and security. Another way to say it is that we keep trying to fill up that hole, yet it's a bottomless pit. Nothing that we can ever grasp or achieve can end our sense of lack.
So what happens when we don't run away from that hole at our core? That's what we're doing when we meditate: we are "letting go" of all the physical and mental activity that distracts us from our emptiness. It's not that easy to do, because then one's sense of lack (insecurity, groundedlessness, unreality) is felt more strongly. Meditation is uncomfortable, especially at the beginning, because in our daily lives we are used to taking evasive action. So we tend to take evasive action when we meditate too: we fantasize, get distracted, make plans, feel sorry for ourselves. . . .
But if I can learn not to run away from those uncomfortable feelings, to become friendly with them, then something can happen to that core. The curious thing about "my" emptiness is that it is not really a problem. The problem is that we think it's a problem. Our ways of trying to escape it make it into a problem.
Some Buddhist sutras talk about paravritti, a "turning around" that transforms the festering hole at my core into a life-healing spring that flows spontaneously from I know not where. Instead of being experienced as a sense of lack, the empty core becomes a place where there is now awareness of something other than, greater than, my usual sense of self. I can never grasp that "greater than," I can never understand what it is - and I do not need to, because "I" am an expression of it. My role is to become a better manifestation of it, with less interference from the delusion of ego-self.
So our emptiness has two sides: the negative, problematic aspect is a sense of lack. The other aspect is being open to, and an expression of, something more than I usually understand myself to be. The original Buddhist term usually translated as emptiness (Pali, shunyata) seems to have this double-sided meaning. I find it suggestive that it derives from the root shu, which means "swollen." There is the swollenness of a blown-up balloon but also the swollenness of an expectant woman, pregnant with possibility. So perhaps a more accurate translation of shunyata is emptiness/fullness, which describes quite well the experience of our own spiritual emptiness, both the problem and the solution.
To sum up, what our Buddhist practice works to develop is a more permeable, less dualistic sense of self, which is aware of, and comfortable with, its empty constructedness. We are reconstructed into less self-ish, more compassionate beings devoted to the welfare and awakening of everyone.
David R. Loy is a professor, writer, and Zen teacher in the Sanbo Kyodan tradition of Japanese Zen Buddhism. He is a prolific author whose essays and books have been translated into many languages. His articles appear regularly in the pages of Buddhist magazines, including Tricycle, Shambhala Sun, and Buddhadharma, as well as in scholarly journals. David's most recent book is The World Is Made of Stories (Wisdom Publications, 2010). He teaches nationally and internationally on various topics, focusing primarily on the encounter between Buddhism and modernity and what each can learn from the other.
This article was originally published in the April-June 2012 issue of Dharma World.