One of the most important teachings in Buddhism is the Mahayana doctrine of Shunyata. This doctrine teaches us that everything we experience – right down to the senses we use to experience – is nothing more than pure, radiant, empty space.
This notion is very difficult for most people to grasp. To us, experientially, most things appear to be physical, tangible, graspable, almost fixed in their solidity. But, even quantum physicists proved that reality is fundamentally empty – that the atoms and particulates that seem to comprise reality are largely constituted from empty space.
In this regard, reality is no more than empty space masquerading as solidity. It is like watching a film at the cinema. The figures on screen may look very real, as though you are literally watching this scene unfolding in the flesh in front of you. But, on investigation, we find that it is nothing more than an arrangement of lights being projected onto an empty screen.
And a blank screen.
So, behind all displays of multiplicity, color, and movement, there is always that primal, simple, changeless empty awareness lurking beneath.
Physicists were very disturbed when they discovered this about reality, because it seems to go against our most basic experiences of the world.
However, Shunyata is not just an esoteric doctrine – it is something we can directly apprehend and experience through meditation.
But, Shunyata is no less troubling when we experience it, than when we merely conceptualize it. In the same way that Quantum Physics troubled scientists and caused them to question everything they knew about reality, Shunyata has very much the same effect on the meditator who experiences it directly.
Realizing there is nothing but empty space, we become profoundly uprooted. Everything that we had relied upon, thinking it to be solid, fixed, and permanent, we soon discover to be fluid, impermanent, and ever-changing. There is nothing for us to grasp or take refuge in any more.
Everything become groundless.
Even though this groundless empty space is so essentially healing, loving, nourishing, relaxing and aware, it is such a shock to the system to discover it is everywhere, that it can actually trigger a sense of terror and panic in us. Where can I go? What can I cling to? Where is the safe house I can hold onto to keep me safe from the vagaries of the world?
The answer is nothing, nowhere, and no one.
Life is dangerous, perilous, and can be extinguished at any possible moment.
This knowledge should not be a cause for sadness – rather it should be something we rejoice in, and take delight in. Instead of fleeing the fear, we should embrace it, and learn to feel grounded in groundlessness.
This groundedness is not based on anything we are attached to or reliant upon – instead, it is grounded in the confidence of our awareness of the indestructible nature of ultimate reality.
For that ultimate reality is emptiness, and it is indestructible.
It is this groundlessness which we should be grounded in.
Knowing this can give us a great sense of bravery and pride at living at all. Even the solid earth beneath us is like shifting sand that could break or give way at any moment. And yet, here we are, courageously still living, defiantly still living and experiencing in a house filled with traps and beauty.
Through embracing this impermanence and uncertainty, we find that all things we love and cherish in life are also the most fragile. The flowers we love to see and smell die after they’ve barely bloomed; all our love affairs, friendships, and relationships could end at any moment, whether from death, distance, an ill-timed argument, or any number of other circumstances. A baby can be born from a sexual union so brief, it couldn’t even be measured as a wink in the fullness of infinity.
Everything is always coming together, falling apart, and then coming back together again.
It all comes and goes from that emptiness.
So what is there to be afraid of?
Ground yourself in groundlessness – face everything you fear to fear – and your fears will go away.