The Fullness Pervading the Existential Vacuum

Leo Tolstoy and Thich Nhat Hanh on Emptiness

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​​Prior to Leo Tolstoy’s emergence from his deep existential depression, rational intellect led him to a single certain truth:

​Soon after, existentialist philosophy burgeoned from the paralysis of Tolstoy’s dictum, cultivated by some of man’s most hallowed minds. Existentialism purports to have carried the rational intellect to its very limits, delivering man to the brink of nihilism. This ostensibly leaves him with two choices: gaze off into the void until either his body or mind decay, whichever comes first, or to turn back from whence he came. Tolstoy discards the latter option, unable to live in willed ignorance:

The pursuit of meaning in a seemingly meaningless haze of cosmic dust pervades all cultures as an enduring root of suffering. When confronted with the idea that existence is meaningless, rational inquiry provides little solace. The inevitable cycle of life and death seems to swallow every trace of our existence, given enough time. Nietzsche’s response to this remains unsettling, as he himself fell into insanity; Camus suggests the only philosophical question is whether or not to commit suicide in the face of this absurdity. Ken Wilber writes that any meaning we experience is surely out of sync with reality:

​The existentialist notion that life is fundamentally empty of all meaning has been affirmed by a dauntingly broad array of revered minds. But amidst the darkness wrought by the tendencies of a rational inquiry into the meaningful life, Buddhist philosophy illuminates a path forward.

Among the most lucid and accessible of today’s proponents of Buddhist philosophy, Thich Nhat Hanh carries the inquiry not around the abyss, but dives right in to the gloomy emptiness. He accepts the idea that reality is devoid of fragmented concepts such as meaning. There is nothing wrong with the logic, it is logic itself that is wrong. To inquire into meaning logically is to segment it; to treat it as if it may be seen independently of all else. This is where the existentialist rationale falls short: not the conclusion that there is emptiness, but the understanding of emptiness itself. Finding life to be completely and inherently empty of anything allows its integral fullness to pervade everything. Hanh writes:

Existentialism reasoned its way to this emptiness, peered over the edge, and called it nihilism. From the Buddhist standpoint, this is not so, robbing emptiness — written in Sanskrit as Śūnyatā (शून्यता) — of its greatest virtues. Śūnyatā is the formless reality that gives rise to axiomatic compassion and much of Asia’s timeless wisdom. Professor T.R.V. Murti writes:

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Buddhist Śūnyatā Symbol

When the mind ceases to categorize through imposed concepts and distinctions; when there is no intellectual knife to slice up the amorphous whole, only then can you experience the luminous ether of the abyss. Meaning is embedded in every fiber of the universe. It cannot be found unless the illusory separate self is first done away with. Once the self is not outside the scope of inquiry, but dissolves into it, then the sought-after peace which underlies the search for meaning emerges. ​

Modern industrial society developed upon the tenet of rationally colonizing the outer environment. This tenet supposes that acquiring greater leverage over our physical environment will make us better off. Yet the implied subject-object duality of rational thought — by definition unsheathing that intellectual knife — cannot answer these most consequential questions we harbor. Rational thought was once, and still is largely, an unprecedentedly effective tool towards ameliorating the general human condition. However, as man’s most pressing needs evolve from conquering the exterior environment to addressing the interior, the rigidity of reason’s mental structures now impedes any further progress.

To reconfigure the mental landscape of a culture drowning in illusions of separateness, we must look towards early education. The dogma of reason drives education today. We could look towards imbuing our young with the Asian wisdom that dislodges fixed concepts; like drano for the mind. David Foster Wallace gives an initial dose in his Kenyon commencement speech:

​To see beyond the mental structures into which we are indoctrinated allows for an appreciation of rational thought, both its myriad benefits and fundamental shortcomings. When asked how he would reform the education system, J.D. Salinger’s fictional character, Teddy, adds another Western voice to the call for wisdom-imbued education:

Tolstoy is an example of a mind judged by the rational system from which he came as genius, though he was nearly hosed by the rigidity of those very mental patterns that reason imposed. His savior was faith — that land which lies far beyond reason — and through this he emerged from the existential abyss with a calm acceptance towards the boundaries of reason, and a renewed vitality for a meaningful life: ​

If you jived with any of that, feel free to peruse my website for more: originally published at

Further Reading

Thich Nhat Hanh’s quick read, The Heart of Understanding, is his commentary on the prajnaparamita heart sutra. It is a great introduction to his key concept of interbeing, a parallel to the Dalai Lama’s doctrine of Dependent Origination.

Tolstoy’s A Confession is also a fascinating autobiographical record of his bout with mid-life existential crises, containing his response to the timeless inquiry into life’s meaning.

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Interested in many things, like consciousness, meditation & economics. Sure of nothing, like how to exist well, or play the sax (yet). More:

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