150 - Zazen as the Dharma Gate of Joyful Ease
152 - Lotus Sutra 3: This Means YOU - The Lost Son Parable

The emptiness of self is a Zen teaching that may seem rather abstract and philosophical, or even kind of nihilistic, depressing, or disorienting. Why does this matter? In brief, knowing the true nature of our self is what liberates us from fear and suffering.



First I’ll give a brief overview of the Buddhist teachings on the emptiness of self, and then I’ll explore what they mean to our daily life and practice.


Quicklinks to Outline Headings (sorry for incomplete text):
The Buddhist Teachings on the Emptiness of Self
Emptiness is Not Just Another Story
Practicing with the Teaching of the Emptiness of Self
Our Attachment to Inherent Self-Nature
The Problem with Believing We Have an Inherent Self-Nature
The Emptiness of Self as Liberating
But There’s Gotta Be an Inherent Self-Nature!
Moment by Moment Practice with the Emptiness of Self
An Example of Practicing with Emptiness of Self


The Buddhist Teachings on the Emptiness of Self

The Buddha didn’t actually teach “the self is empty,” or, as some people put it, “the self doesn’t exist.” He wholeheartedly discouraged any speculation whatsoever about the true nature of self.

What he taught was anatta, or not-self. That is, a practice of recognizing each and every aspect of our experience, and everything we encounter, as not self.

This is an absolutely pragmatic teaching. The Buddha observed that the process of “I, me, and my making” led to dukkha, stress or suffering. To refrain from that activity led to relief from dukkha.

This is just about giving up attachment to possessions or pleasure or power, this is also about disidentifying with the five aggregates, or fundamental elements, that make up a human being – our body, sensations, perceptions, thoughts and volition, and consciousness.

Even when the Buddha talked about “emptiness,” or sunyata,[1] he talked about it as a mode of experience in which you refrain from adding anything to, or inferring anything about, what you are experiencing.[2] In other words, you perceive things empty of your usual stories about them. I talked about the Buddha’s teaching on not-self in Episode 14 – Buddha’s Teachings Part 1: The Three Marks and the Teaching of Not-Self (Anatta).

Later on in Buddhism, in the Mahayana, we started talking more about the “true nature” of self being empty. We celebrated the experience of the liberated self, which functions beautifully when we actually understand it and recognize its empty nature.

We say the self is empty of any inherent, enduring, independent nature. It’s empty of something we expect to be there, something that it seems like our body and mind might contain, like a glass is empty of water. Nonetheless, we live and speak and function. This mysterious unfolding of life despite, or because of, emptiness, is what we call suchness. In Mahayana we cultivate devotion and gratitude for the preciousness of things-as-it-is. Chan master Hongzhi:

“The field of boundless emptiness is what exists from the very beginning. You must purify, cure, grind down, or brush away all the tendencies you have fabricated into apparent habits. Then you can reside in the clear circle of brightness. Utter emptiness has no image, upright independence does not rely on anything. Just expand and illuminate the original truth unconcerned by external conditions. Accordingly we are told to realize that not a single thing exists. In this field birth and death do not appear. The deep source, transparent down to the bottom, can radiantly shine and can respond unencumbered to each speck of dust without becoming its partner. The subtlety of seeing and hearing transcends mere colors and sounds. The whole affair functions without leaving traces, and mirrors without obscurations. Very naturally mind and dharmas emerge and harmonize. An Ancient said that non-mind enacts and fulfills the way of non-mind. Enacting and fulfilling the way of non-mind, finally you can rest. Proceeding you are able to guide the assembly. With thoughts clear, sitting silently, wander into the center of the circle of wonder. This is how you must penetrate and study.”[3]


Emptiness is Not Just Another Story

The Theravadins warn against this kind of teaching for good reason, because, as Thanissaro Bhikkhu puts it, if you don’t diligently train in the emptiness mode:

“the mind tends to stay in the mode that keeps creating stories and world views. And from the perspective of that mode, the teaching of emptiness sounds simply like another story or world view with new ground rules. In terms of the story of your relationship with your mother, it seems to be saying that there’s really no mother, no you. In terms of your views about the world, it seems to be saying either that the world doesn’t really exist, or else that emptiness is the great undifferentiated ground of being from which we all came to which someday we’ll all return. These interpretations not only miss the meaning of emptiness but also keep the mind from getting into the proper mode… By focusing on the question of whether or not there really is something behind experience, they entangle the mind in issues that keep it from getting into the present mode.”[4]

Therefore, when we talk about emptiness, it’s essential – if this is going to be a useful and effective teaching in terms of liberation – that we remember we’re not just telling a different kind of story about reality.

Being able to directly experience emptiness, to really truly know for ourselves, is what liberates. So the Theravadins are right, this is about way of perceiving and relating to reality, not a metaphysical speculation about it.

It is the human mind that imputes inherently existing, enduring self-natures not just on ourselves but on each being and thing we encounter. Things are just as they are, empty of nothing except the extra stuff we add to them.


Practicing with the Teaching of the Emptiness of Self

First of all, we expose ourselves to the teachings, whether we “get them” or not. This isn’t to accumulate new ideas, but to challenge the ideas we already have. See Episode 68 – Relating to Buddhist Teachings 2: Wrestling with the Teachings.

Then we meditate. Not to meditate on the teachings (you might do this, but I’m talking about your zazen or other meditative practice which sets aside the intellect), but to practice a different mode of perception. Enacting the teaching directly.

Then we reflect as we go about our daily lives, mindfully observing our own behavior, thoughts, assumptions. In particular, observing the impermanence – changeability – of things we identify as I, me, or mine. If it changes, if we can’t control it, it isn’t our inherent, enduring, independent self-nature.

Of course, we do this and notice okay, my body must not be my inherent self, it ages and gets sick and stops working. My achievements, like my career, must not be, because I just lost my job. Or my opinions must not be, because I just had my mind changed about something really major.


Our Attachment to Inherent Self-Nature

But despite this, we usually conclude, okay, my inherent self isn’t those things. It must be somewhere else.

We desperately want our self-nature to be inherent, enduring, independent. This self-nature is us. If I don’t actually exist, that’s terrifying or utterly disorienting.

We’re convinced there’s some elusive kernel of me-ness that has persisted throughout our life, present within us when we were a child, a teenager, a young adult, a middle-aged adult, an elder.

  • This “I” was, is, and will be the protagonist of my life journey
  • This “I” was, is, and will be the do-er
  • This “I” was, is, and will be the experiencer of pleasure, pain, happiness or misery
  • This “I” was, is, and will be the thinker, feeler, speaker, decision-maker, performer
  • This “I” understands, or doesn’t understand
  • This “I” achieves, or fails to achieve
  • This “I” is happy, or unhappy
  • This “I” is loved, or unloved


The Problem with Believing We Have an Inherent Self-Nature

Setting aside for a moment whether this inherent self-nature “really exists” or not, whether this way of perceiving an “I” behind everything is accurate or not, what are the repercussions of believing we have an inherent self-nature?

  • “I” bear credit or blame for the past, and for my present circumstances
  • “I” will receive the credit or bear the blame for my future circumstances
  • The “I” of this moment is just a tiny fraction of the lengthening narrative about my life, in which past and potential future suffering colors the entre narrative
  • “I” am defined by a set narrative that I tend to resist changing

This is just scratching the surface of repercussions… but a sense of inherent self = stress

Momentarily things may be great! Yay, take pride and satisfaction. But you’re responsible for maintaining that state of affairs in an ever-changing world full of trials and tribulations, unfairness, etc.)


The Emptiness of Self as Liberating

What if there is no inherent self to receive the credit or take the blame? What if there is no self as we usually conceive of it who is responsible?

If you’re like me, your first response to this is, “Then we would cease to function or take responsibility. Like a robot with its power turned off, we would just fall over.”

Let’s set aside that concern for a moment, how we might operate with an executive “I” hidden inside us somewhere. Let’s assume, for a moment, we go on operating more or less as usual, just without a sense of inherent, enduring, I, me, and mine.

What would this be like?

We might discover our ability to respond effectively in this moment arises spontaneously, free of any stories about who we are and what we’re capable of or what we should do

We might find we’re free from fear; in this moment, we can only do what we can do. Instead of identifying with the potential suffering of our future self, we recognize that future being is the only one who can respond to their circumstances, and they will also do their best

We might find we’re more attentive, objective, generous, and compassionate, because we’re no pre-occupied with the state of our inherent self

Even when experiencing discomfort or pain, we might find we’re able to reflect, “How bad is it? Can I tolerate or survive this?” And find we have greater equanimity and resilience because we’re free from regrets or catastrophizing.

This list of benefits from operating free from a belief in an inherently-existing self-nature goes on and on. As Hongzhi said, “The whole affair functions without leaving traces, and mirrors without obscurations. Very naturally mind and dharmas emerge and harmonize.”[5]


But There’s Gotta Be an Inherent Self-Nature!

But don’t we need the self as we usually conceive of it? It must exist. How else would we think, make decisions, take responsibility, do spiritual practice, relate to other people?

If there’s no executive “I,” at best no one would be in charge and I’d lead a dissolute and aimless life, and at worst it would be like I’ve been lobotomized, right?

Fortunately, beautifully, miraculously, the answer to these questions is, No. You’ve been operating perfectly well your entire life, and it’s only an illusion that your sense of executive “I” is in charge.

This is disorienting, certainly. It takes a while to get your mind around it. Actually, frankly, you can’t get your mind around it. You can know this reality for yourself, but it’s not something you can ever get your mind around. Your mind isn’t built for that. Your mind is built for telling stories about reality, and reality is not our stories.

We know the Buddhists have been saying we’re empty of any inherent, enduring, independent self-nature for millennia.

As I’m fond of mentioning, modern science is now suggesting the same thing. In Why Buddhism Is True,[6] Robert Wright describes studies suggesting our conscious sense of self is little more than a narrative explaining what just happened, so we can make sense of things for ourselves and communicate with others as if we’re a rational being in charge of our own behavior. But it appears that a decision to do something often manifests in our bodies and minds before a conscious thought “I’m going to do such-and-such” even registers.

Even if those studies or the conclusions we draw from them prove to be flawed somehow, we can know the truth of the situation for ourselves if we examine our own, direct experience very carefully.

How often do you consciously decide to do something but then fail to follow through, as if you executive “I” isn’t actually in charge?

Are you able to control your own mind for more than few seconds at a time? Even if you’re remarkable in this regard, maybe you control your own mind for 50% of the time, but what about the rest of the time? What’s happening then?

Have you experienced being “in the flow,” where there’s no story about yourself, no sense of separation from your activity, and found yourself functioning much more freely, creatively, and effectively?


Moment by Moment Practice with the Emptiness of Self

In any given situation, then, when we find ourselves experiencing dukkha – stress, dis-ease, suffering, resistance, restriction, inhibition, distress, anxiety, depression – we can look for our sense of inherently-existing, enduring self-nature, and at the very least question it, if not find a way to loosen our grasp on it.
We look for our belief – our deep conviction, actually – in the reality, centrality, and agency of our executive “I” not for the “true nature of self.” We experience the true nature of self once we give up our belief in “I.” If we seek to directly realize true self, we’re just telling ourselves another story. This is about letting go of stories.

Which is why Dogen says, in Genjokoan:

“Those who totally realize delusion are buddhas. Those who are totally deluded about realization are ordinary people.”[7]

So, we look for our belief, shine the light of awareness on it. Explore it and its associated stories. Question it, gently and objectively, without an agenda of getting rid of it because someone told us a belief in self is wrong.


An Example of Practicing with Emptiness of Self

For example, I feel a sense of stress when I contemplate the fact that it’s been two years since the incredibly conservative political body, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, released a report saying we have 12 years to decrease our greenhouse gas emissions by over 50%, or face a global catastrophe of unimaginable scale. Two years later, the governments of the world have done almost nothing, and our greenhouse gas emissions are still increasing exponentially.

Now, you might conclude that this is an outside source of stress and that my view of self doesn’t enter into whether it’s upsetting or not. However, although it’s true our lives will be impacted by this situation regardless of our senses of self, my experience of the situation – and my ability to face and respond to it – is profoundly affected by the state of my own body-mind. This is the amazing message of Buddhism: Your experience of the world, no matter what is going on, is profoundly affected by the state of your own mind.

When I feel stress and despair about the impending extinction of life on our planet, I am thinking:

  • “I” was born on Earth at a time when we’re about to destroy ourselves
  • “I” have ignored this problem, and contributed to it, thought about it, formed opinions on it, tried to help address it
  • “I” am struggling to find an effective way to stop our trajectory toward self-destruction by preparing people to mobilize for mass civil disobedience
  • “I” sometimes achieve what I set out to do, and sometimes fail
  • “I” am watching the breakdown of our planet’s natural life support systems and heartbreaking destruction of life, and I experience great grief and despair about it

There’s a certain utility to these stories. They are my mind making sense of my experience, and putting it in terms I can express to you.

What does it mean, in this example, to look for my belief in an inherently-existing self-nature?

Let me start by saying what it doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean everything is in my imagination. It doesn’t mean that if I do some special mental gymnastics climate change isn’t really happening, or I don’t really care about it. That’s turning the emptiness of self into a story.

What practicing with the emptiness of self does mean is recognizing there is actually no protagonist in this drama. The drama unfolds, and ultimately the only reality is this being experiencing and responding to each moment.

This moment’s “I” isn’t just a fraction of the overarching narrative of my life. This moment’s “I” is all there is.

This moment’s “I” exists in a certain place in a flow of causes and conditions. How this moment’s “I” functions is influenced by infinite choices I’ve made in the past, and what this moment’s “I” chooses to do influences the flow of causes and conditions into the future.

There is no one to blame, no one who must find a way, or else.

There’s no one in charge. If that’s sounds terrifying or disorienting, it’s because you do not yet understand what that really means. It’s not terrifying, it’s liberating.

Whew. So, despite my undeniable experience of all the stress and grief around the climate emergency, in this moment I breathe, in this moment the sun filters through the leaves outside my window. In this moment my heart is full of love for this planet and it’s beautiful and amazing manifestations of life. In this moment my compassion fills me with great determination to help. In this moment a leap into the unknown next moment feels like the greatest intimacy.

As Chan master Shitou said in his teaching poem Song of the Grass-Roof Hermitage:

“Open your hands and walk, innocent.
Thousands of words, myriad interpretations
are only to free you from obstructions.
If you want to know the undying person in the hut,
Don’t separate from this skin bag here and now.”[8]

That undying person in the hut is the one who is actually behind our lives, but don’t go looking for her or him. Just let him or her manifest each moment.



[1] The Shorter Discourse on Emptiness, Cūḷa Suññata Sutta (MN 121).Translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. https://www.dhammatalks.org/suttas/MN/MN121.html
[2]Emptiness”, by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 8 March 2011, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/emptiness.html .
[3] Leighton, Taigen Dan (translator). Cultivating the Empty Field: The Silent Illumination of Zen Master Hongzhi. Boston, MA: Tuttle Publishing, 2000
[4]Emptiness”, by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 8 March 2011, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/emptiness.html .
[5] Leighton, Taigen Dan (translator). Cultivating the Empty Field: The Silent Illumination of Zen Master Hongzhi. Boston, MA: Tuttle Publishing, 2000
[6] Wright, Robert. Why Buddhism Is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 2017.
[7] Nishijima, Gudo and Chodo Cross. Master Dogen’s Shobogenzo (in four volumes). London: Windbell Publications, 1994
[8] Leighton, Taigen Dan (translator). Cultivating the Empty Field: The Silent Illumination of Zen Master Hongzhi. Boston, MA: Tuttle Publishing, 2000


150 - Zazen as the Dharma Gate of Joyful Ease
152 - Lotus Sutra 3: This Means YOU - The Lost Son Parable