Much Ado about Nothingness

In pursuit of wisdom, I often explore intellectual traditions I’m not familiar with. Most recently, I’ve been reading a sourcebook of Japanese philosophy, in which I found a fascinating essay by Abe Masao (1915-2006) on the Buddhist concept of emptiness or nothingness.

Abe’s foil here is Plato. In Plato’s dialogue Parmenides, Socrates argues that there must be an ultimate reality behind the unstable flux of human experience – specifically, unchanging archetypes called Forms that are located in some other dimension of existence. With due respect to Plato, Abe maintains that there is no such ultimate reality: the only world we have is the world of experience, behind which there is absolute emptiness or nothingness.

In a similar vein, Buddhism holds that there is no ultimate reality – no unchanging, individual True Self – behind our inner experience, either. Instead, the “original nature” or “buddha nature” is a potential that all human beings can live up to with enough practice (or, given the Buddhist doctrine of reincarnation, enough lifetimes).

Through his opposition to the concept of an ultimate reality, Abe seems to propose a kind of positive emptiness: not a nothingness of despair as in existentialism or fatalism, but a clearing away of the conceptual and emotional underbrush so that we can minimize our attachment to false notions and expectations. Only by doing so can we open ourselves up to fulfilling our highest human potential. Indeed, because Aristotle held that the self is an achievement, Aristotle and the Buddha might not have been very far apart on this issue, which might be a bit of a surprise!

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