The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Almost Nothing

Words are always a problem, and never more so when discussing spirituality/meditation/cultivation.

There are many, many different types of meditation, designed to do very different things. There are forms of breath meditation whose primary purpose is to calm the body. When you do so, you may notice certain things about reality/yourself, but knowing “how to meditate” doesn’t mean you have achieved any level of insight or awakening; it’s just a technical skill.

But almost all of what I would consider real spirituality is about “knowing thyself.” This is primarily about observation; about noticing facts about yourself that you hadn’t before, and then noticing them over and over until something clicks and you start perceiving your existence in different ways than the norm.

When teaching “meditation” one of the main questions is how much to signpost; how much to point. If you tell people what they’re looking for, they’re more likely to see it, but the power of the insight is weaker than when it takes them by surprise.

That said, I’m going to “point” to something: almost nothing exists.

If you either calm the chatter of your mind or learn to disregard it (it doesn’t matter much which) and rest your awareness lightly over the sensations you’re feeling, what you may notice is that there isn’t a lot there. Mostly there’s a lot of nothing, with some sensations floating in space (which is also a construct, but that’s a later thing).

It’s an odd thing to notice, that you aren’t solid. You think of  yourself as solid: a body, but the actual experience isn’t that and that you believe it is is because you’re filling in what you “know” is there, stitching together a reality which doesn’t actually exist.

Try it sometime. Just be still, calm the mind or ignore the chatter, close your eyes, and see what’s actually there. (You can do this with eyes open, but it’s easier with eyes closed.)

You may be surprised.


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Open Thread


  1. Ché Pasa


    My practice — Zen — is straightforwardly “about” Emptiness. But Zazen — Sitting Meditation — isn’t actually “meditation” (say on the topic or nature of Emptiness), it’s “just sitting.”. No intention. Nothing. You sit. That’s it. Well, there’s posture and breathing and likely extraordinary discomfort while sitting, but none of that is particularly interesting or important. The fact of sitting — while sitting — is.

    Emptiness or the realization of it comes on its own — or doesn’t. You can’t make it happen. The realization of Emptiness can be that there is literally “nothing there.” So we come to know ourselves — better — as not just empty vessels but ultimately nonexistent as separate entities. Which leads to all sorts of other realizations that I’ll skip for now.

    Zen, we know, was developed out of Chinese Chan Buddhism which already had a long history in China, but Zen is actually very different and adapted to specific needs in Japan for spiritual serenity by the Samurai class so they could and would be better warriors.

    Zen has never been popular in Japan. It was not meant to be. Its adaptations in the West are varied. Some follow Japanese practice closely. Not so much to create better warriors — though that’s not out of the realm of possibility — but to create communities of like-minded individuals who can be both serene and implacable in whatever they seek or choose to do.

    Many Western Zen practices/purposes derive not from the Japanese sources but from Tich Nhat Hahn and the Dalai Lama. This is kind of disruptive, but there you are.

  2. Ché Pasa

    Thich Nhat Hanh (Thích Nhất Hạnh)

    I always spell his name wrong. Always. 😉 He would laugh.

  3. Purple Library Guy

    My reaction is still and . . . so? It’s sort of interesting, but why should perceiving it change much?

  4. Ian Welsh

    To oversimplify vastly, it feels good and makes it easy to let go of various problems.

  5. mago

    Reference the Heart Sutra.
    “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form. Form is no other than emptiness, emptiness is no other than form. In the same way feeling, perception, formation and consciousness are emptiness. . . “
    Surely Che is familiar with this famous Mahayana teaching, which has been widely translated and transmitted over the millennia. (I have to wonder if he hangs with Baker Roshi.)
    Just as an aside,“Crooked Cucumber “ is a great biography about Suzuki Roshi and the introduction of Zen to the Westies.
    Also, there’s nothing “almost” about emptiness, it’s absolute. Thus have I heard . . .

  6. Eric Anderson

    I technique I often enjoy (and someone please tell me if there’s an actual name for it) I simply call zooming out. I mantra until all other intrusive thoughts fall away and then visualize myself from above and begin begin to “zoom out.” Through the ceiling, expanding on my surrounding geography slowly until the earth emerges, solar system, galaxy, and on as far as my imagination can take me.

    By that point, I’m gone. There is no me. Not even a mote in gods eye.

  7. Ché Pasa


    Ha. Richard Baker was my first teacher when he was still a pup at Suzuki Roshi’s knee, long before Baker was Roshi-fied.

    Not long ago, one of my current teachers suggested I get in touch with Baker Roshi as he’s getting up there in years — aren’t we all? But I didn’t do it.

    Have you heard David Chadwick’s series of podcasts interviewing Old Timers from the Early Days of SFZC? They’re pretty cool.

    As for non-duality…. Yes, the Heart Sutra is fundamental, but right now I’m studying The Book of Serenity…

    CASE 11: Unmon’s “Two Diseases”

    Great Master Unmon said, “When the light does not penetrate, there are two diseases. Everything is unclear and things hang before you – this is one disease. Even after you have realized the emptiness of all things, somehow you feel as if there were still something there.This shows that the light has not yet penetrated thoroughly.

    “Also there are two diseases concerning the Dharma-body. You have reached the Dharma-body, but you remain attached to the Dharma and cannot extinguish your own view;therefore you lead a corrupt life around the Dharma-body – this is one disease. Suppose you have truly penetrated to the end, if you give up further efforts, it will not do. You examineyourself minutely and say you have no flaw — this is nothing but a disease.”

  8. mago

    Thanks for the reference Che Pasa. I was unaware of the Book of Serenity, oddly enough. Hadn’t heard of the podcasts either. Thanks for the tip. I know a couple of people who were part of that scene.
    Richard Baker is indeed aged, but still kicking. I’ve known him in different contexts. My ex wife—who’s still a friend—is friends with his ex wife , and they’re still friends.
    I used to cook for their Zen Center’s post sesshin parties. They always had good wine, and they knew how to have a good time—live music, dancing, animated conversations, etc. The food was decent, too. It’s been a while.

    Thanks again for your response. I gained some information and got to take a little stroll down memory lane.

  9. Ché Pasa

    Amazing. I can just imagine what those post-sesshin parties must have been like.

    Richard Baker was really very kind and generous with me for several months c. 1964-65 when I was a punk teen going through the usual (or maybe unusual) adolescent angst. I never forgot it. I was not in San Francisco, though, and never met him. We corresponded via US Mail, of all things. He gave me all sorts of Zen materials, provided instruction in the basics of zazen and the sutras and such, pointed me in the right direction, and let me know that one can practice very well without being on the cushion in the zendo; one’s life can be — ultimately should be — practice. One thing I learned from those very early experiences was not to get caught up in the commentaries. They’ll eventually fade away.

    If you’re interested, here’s a link to The Book of Serenity — 100 cases/koans to mull over:

    (27 page pdf)

    David Chadwick has a YouTube channel with all kinds of stuff, including interviews and excerpts from Crooked Cucumber, Thank You and OK and audio of Shunryo Suzuki’s Dharma talks:

    And his archive website,, has everything ever written or said or done from SFZC or Tassajara or himself or you name it back in the day.


  10. mago

    Wowie zowie Che.
    That’s a treasure trove of rich resources.
    Many thanks, much appreciated.

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