Disenchantment with Emptiness

Kakuan, a 12th century Chan master, is famous for his 10 ox-herding pictures to illustrate the path to enlightenment. The eighth picture (to the right) always seemed to me to represent “emptiness” and part of the path needed to gain enlightenment. Sure, the series went on to the 10th picture with the boy back in the market (end of post), but I always felt that secretly, the Buddhists I met were in love with the empty circle.  In fact, it is this picture you see all over the web when Buddhism is discussed, I rarely see the market picture.

“Emptiness” was something I heard chanted and lectured in Zen Buddhism. It never really resonated with me. It sounded idealized. It sounded sought after. It often almost sounded personified and deified. All that, and surrounded with all-knowing smiles and cute paradoxes. Aesthetically, it repulsed me.

My meditations were simple: watching how the mind jumped around, how thoughts came on their own, how moods, visions and feelings fluxed like thoughts. Yoga had taught me to relax the body and made these observations easier. Buddhism agreed with my insight of no substantial self and the power of self-deception. But the “Emptiness” rhetoric never did anything for me.

I thought, “Well, emptiness is what is left when I am not identifying with my grasping of thoughts.” But again, that seemed like I was trying to distill something out of reality and call it “emptiness” which again was mistaken. For me, the Zen I knew seemed enamored with paradoxes for their own sake and being anti-philosophy was not helpful to my temperament or understanding. Perhaps it was my misunderstanding, but I ignored “emptiness” (the word) and just continued my sittings.

Years later, the Aro explanation or use of the word “Emptiness” now rings very true for me and allows me to use this word in very different ways. My next post explores the Aro explanation.


  1. One of Chogyam Trungpa’s early books—probably The Myth of Freedom, but I don’t remember for sure—has a commentary on the ox-herding pictures from a Tantric point of view. I think it’s one of the clearest and simplest explanations for how Tantra differs from Sutra.

  2. Ah, hmm, it’s here: http://www.shambhala.org/dharma/ctr/oxherding/index.html

    Not quite as I remember it, but still worth a read. (One page per ox picture, you have to click through.)

  3. Thanx David. If it is not as you remember, perhaps you should write what you remember — maybe it is a revelation and will be the new popular Ox Herder paradigm!
    Can you point at any interpretations of the Ox Herder pictures that would be sutric compared to this tantric interpretations. I’d love to read them side by side – or make a side by side post.

  4. Mmm. Well, the basic point is that the series does not end with the empty circle.

    Tantra starts from emptiness, where Sutra ends there. So (on this interpretation) the two pictures after the empty circle are the Tantric ones.

    Zen explicitly goes beyond Sutra, and beyond emptiness—but doesn’t give you much help past that point. Zen gets poetic and cryptic waves its hands in an impressive, mystical, ineffable way. Tantra gives you a map—and Dzogchen gives you a toolkit.

    The Zen commentaries I’ve read on the last two pictures are generally consonant in flavor with Vajrayana.

    After becoming familiar with emptiness (the empty circle picture), you re-discover form, in its immaculate natural perfection (the tree and river picture). On that basis, you enter whole-heartedly into the everyday world (the marketplace picture) in order to benefit others.

    After puzzling a bit, I think I received this interpretation from Lama Zér-mé Dri-m´èd, my first Buddhist teacher. She studied and practiced Zen intensively for many years before switching to Vajrayana.

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