Emptiness in Taoism and Buddhism
Taoism and Buddhism have a lot in common. In terms of philosophy and practice, both are nondual traditions. The worship of Deities is understood, fundamentally, to be an unveiling and honoring of aspects of our own wisdom-mind, rather than the worship of something outside of us. The two traditions also have historical connections, particularly in China. When Buddhism arrived - via Bodhidharma - in China, its encounter with the already-existing Taoist traditions gave birth to Ch’an Buddhism. The influence of Buddhism on Taoist practice can be seen most clearly in the Quanzhen (Complete Reality) lineage of Taoism.
Perhaps because of these similarities, there’s a tendency at times to conflate the two traditions, in places where they really are distinct. One example of this is in relation to the concept of emptiness. Part of this confusion, from what I can understand, has to do with translation. There are two Chinese words – Wu and Kung – which are commonly translated into English as “emptiness.” The former – Wu – holds meaning in alignment with what is most commonly understood to be emptiness, in the context of Taoist practice. The latter – Kung – is more an equivalent to the Sanskrit Shunyata or Tibetan Stong-pa-nyid. When these are translated into English as “emptiness,” it is the emptiness as articulated within Buddhist philosophy and practice.
Emptiness in Taoism
In Taoism, emptiness has two general meanings. The first is as one of the qualities of the Tao. In this context, emptiness is seen as the opposite of “fullness.” It is here, perhaps, where Taoism’s emptiness comes closest to the emptiness of Buddhism – though at best it is a resonance, rather than an equivalent.
The second meaning of emptiness (Wu) points to an inner realization or state of mind characterized by simplicity, quietude, patience, frugality, and restraint. It is an emotional/psychological stance associated with the lack of worldly desire and includes also the actions arising out of this state of mind. It is this mental framework that is believed to bring the Taoist practitioner into alignment with the rhythms of the Tao, and be an expression of someone who has accomplished this. To be empty in this way means to have our mind empty of any impulses, aspirations, wishes or desires that are contrary to the qualities of the Tao. It is a state of mind able to mirror the Tao:
“The still mind of the sage is the mirror of heaven and earth, the glass of all things. Vacancy, stillness, placidity, tastelessness, quietude, silence, and non-action - this is the level of heaven and earth, and the perfection of the Tao and its characteristics.”
- Zhuangzi (translated by Legge)
In chapter 11 of Daode Jing, Laozi provides several examples to illustrate the importance of this kind of emptiness:
“The thirty spokes unite in the one nave; but it is on the empty space (for the axle), that the use of the wheel depends. Clay is fashioned into vessels; but it is on their empty hollowness, that their use depends. The door and windows are cut out (from the walls) to form an apartment; but it is on the empty space (within), that its use depends. Therefore, what has a (positive) existence serves for profitable adaptation, and what has not that for (actual) usefulness.” (translated by Legge)
Closely related to this general idea of emptiness/Wu is Wu Wei – a kind of “empty” action or the action of non-action. Similarly, Wu Nien is empty thought or the thinking of non-thinking; and Wu Hsin is empty mind or the mind of no-mind. The language here bears a similarity to the language we find in the work of Nagarjuna – the Buddhist philosopher most famous for articulating the doctrine of emptiness (Shunyata). Yet what is pointed to by the terms Wu Wei, Wu Nien and Wu Hsin are the Taoist ideals of simplicity, patience, ease, and openness – attitudes that express themselves then through our actions (of the body, speech, and mind) in the world. And this, as we’ll see, is rather different from the technical meaning of Shunyata within Buddhism.
Emptiness in Buddhism
In Buddhist philosophy and practice, “emptiness” – Shunyata (Sanskrit), Stong-pa-nyid (Tibetan), Kung (Chinese) – is a technical term that is sometimes also translated as “void” or “openness.” It points to the understanding that the things of the phenomenal world do not exist as separate, independent and permanent entities, but rather appear as the result of an infinite number of causes and conditions, i.e. are a product of dependent origination.
The perfection of wisdom (prajnaparamita) is the realization of Dharmata – the innate nature of phenomena and mind. In terms of the innermost essence of each Buddhist practitioner, this is our Buddha Nature. In terms of the phenomenal world (including our physical/energetic bodies), this is emptiness/Shunyata, i.e. dependent origination. Ultimately, these two aspects are inseparable.
So, in review: emptiness (Shunyata) in Buddhism is a technical term pointing to dependent origination as the true nature of phenomena. Emptiness (Wu) in Taoism refers to an attitude, emotional/psychological stance, or state of mind characterized by simplicity, quietude, patience, and frugality.
Buddhist & Taoist Emptiness: Connections
My own feeling is that the emptiness/Shunyata that is spelled out precisely, as a technical term, in Buddhist philosophy, is actually implicit in Taoist practice & world-view. The notion that all phenomena arise as a result of dependent origination is simply assumed by the Taoist emphasis on elemental cycles; on the circulation/transformation of energy forms in qigong practice, and on our human body as the meeting place of heaven and earth.
Studying the Buddhist philosophy of emptiness/Shunyata tends to produce states of mind consistent with the Taoist ideals of Wu Wei, Wu Nien, and Wu Hsi: a feeling (and actions) of ease, flow, and simplicity, as the mind that grasps at things as permanent begins to relax. Nevertheless, the term “emptiness” itself has very distinct meanings in the two traditions of Taoism and Buddhism – which, in the interest of clarity, make good sense to keep in mind.
Meditation Now - A Beginner's Guide by Elizabeth Reninger (your Taoism guide). This book offers friendly step-by-step guidance in a number of Inner Alchemy practices (e.g. the Inner Smile, Walking Meditation, Developing Witness Consciousness & Candle/Flower-Gazing Visualization) along with general meditation instruction. This is an excellent resource, which provides various practices for balancing the flow of Qi (Chi) through the meridian system; while offering experiential support for a direct experience of the joyful freedom of what in Taoism and Buddhism is referred to as “emptiness.” Highly recommended.
By Elizabeth Reninger