Journeys into Emptiness

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Journeys into Emptiness is a book which I had an opportunity to read recently. The concept of what it is was something new to me but not really the understanding of it.

Journeys into Emptiness : Dōgen, Merton, Jung and the Quest for Transformation by Robert Jingen Gunn describes the lives of three famous people “and their quests for personal transcendence. Dōgen, a thirteenth century Japanese Zen master, experienced emptiness in wordless meditation – the practice of zazen that spread in time from the Eastern world to the West. Thomas Merton was a twentieth century Catholic monk whose experience of personal homeslessness brought him to explore the tension that lies between solitude and community. Carl Jung, raised by a pious father and a psychologically unbalanced mother, was driven to understand the structure of the psyche, including the male and female elements that exist in every human process”. (excerpt from the back cover synopsis)

The stories of these three men and their own journeys into this thing called emptiness was quite interesting to read. Gunn takes the reader down the road of each man’s life from the time they were young children right up to their later ages, explaining how each of their life journeys were filled with this quest of answering these deep questions within them initiated by certain traumatic life events. For example, Dōgen’s traumatic event happened when he was just two years old having lost his father. By seven, having lost his mother he was “struck by the impermanence” of life, and it was this even that triggered his quest. Thomas Merton’s initiated when he was still a baby…as his mother portrayed as cold and almost clinical used to observe the baby Merton writing down all his progress… It was as if he didn’t have a loving, embracing mother figure but instead someone who made him feel that he had to “perform”.

What I’d like to share with you is some of the things that I got out of reading this book. These were the visuals, the thoughts and the understandings that came to mind as I read the journeys of each of these men.

What is the journey into emptiness?

To me it basically means:

  •   It is the path towards the finding of the Self. The self with no embellishments. Our True Self.
  • I visualize it as a process of peeling the layers of an onion or cabbage one by one to reveal the core, the true essence of who we are.
  • These are the layers which have been built by our experiences (good and bad), the perceptions we have grown accustomed to, the accepted norms of society and culture – our personality (as opposed to our individuality)
  • I learned that this journey into emptiness is a process. It starts with a trigger incident that is usually traumatic in nature and most often times occurring when we are young, which starts the process. However, a lot of times it is further down our life journey that something happens in our lives which causes us to reevaluate where we are. At this point we can do one of two things – we either follow this path or we don’t. The thing is, to take up this quest to find our Holy Grail is fraught with the unknown. It is a the Zen teachings say, taking the leap from a 100 foot pole…into the darkness of not knowing. A leap of faith.
  • I feel that this journey is for all of us, whether we call it the journeys into emptiness, the individuation process – a Jungian term (Jungian terms are those specifically found in Carl Jung’s works) or discovering ourselves. I don’t know if we all need to have had some very traumatic experience to actually start this quest…I do know that some where along our lives we do meet with a situation or person that will invariably make us start with the questions.

Questions like “Who am I?”, “What is my purpose in life?”, “What does my life mean?”, “How did I get here?”. Questions which, as I am typing this, I know have flitted into my mind while still in my teens and in my twenties – different versions, but holding the same essence. Questions which hit me to the core at the age of 40, and surprisingly enough it wasn’t at the time when I was most vulnerable. It came 6 years after the fact! The questions which made me so uncomfortable that I did a 180 turn, left my job and actually started down this path to finding that something…that something I believe we all have been or are looking for.

Gunn mentions in the book, there is a danger when one misinterprets the notion of emptiness as nothingness. Emptiness is not nothingness. Emptiness is like removing all the clutter and furniture from a room, and looking into a space that is full of potential. It’s not, “There is nothing in the room”, instead it is “Look at all that space and potential in the room”. When we talk about the oneness in all of us, it’s basically having two rooms which look so different because of the way things are placed in them or the colour of the walls…but once you remove all that, we realize they are exactly the same.

Following the quest into emptiness can take us on a variety of different paths. It doesn’t have to be religious, it doesn’t need to be meditating 18 hours a day…it can literally be anything. Gunn gives examples of famous people like Da Vinci who followed his path via science, art and philosophy, Einstein in science and Beethoven in music. It made me realize that I really need to let go for these preconceived ideas which I have about what this journey is about. I’m slowly learning that it really is okay not to “meditate” every single day because when I’m experimenting with my art, that is also a form of meditation (and for those who do read this blog, you all know I’ve mentioned this before…BUT did you know that Librans can be a little uhm…thick headed? Well this one is 😉 )

Jung calls this process one which helps us heal the split in our psyche and that it is invariably what we all will need to. It is in fact a process of healing, whether we choose to or not though, is our own choice.

The question which drove Dōgen to search of enlightenment was in short, why practice. If we all had the Buddha nature within us, why do we need to do anything? Why did we have to put things into practice? And that’s true for anyone going on this journey isn’t it?

What are we supposed to do with all this knowledge and “light bulb moments” we encounter along this path? Is it just for us alone? Well…I don’t know about you but I find that knowing something and realizing something are two completely different things. I may know something but it’s only when I apply what I know, into action and within the community do I finally gain realization! And yea…well OF COURSE it’s not easy! Well…it isn’t for me, but I still persevere because though it is hard work I really don’t think I would enjoy going back to where I was 🙂

Wow..okay, terribly long post this! So I’ll just leave you with all that up there and hope that someone will benefit from this post 🙂


16 thoughts on “Journeys into Emptiness

  1. This book sounds fascinating from a psychospiritual perspective. You are correct, trauma is not necessary to trigger a search for meaning. As a therapist, what interests me is how certain people with difficult early years find a way back and ” collect” and integrate the broken pieces while others cannot – and there are those who exhibit resilience and eventually become extraordinarily successful and influential.

    Also, emptiness is not nothingness, but no-thing-ness – think about it 🙂


    1. Oo I like that no-thing-ness! It’s really amazing when even words can be transformed into something wonderful just by looking at them differently!!

      I have tried “going back” to my childhood to let some stuff go but strangely I can’t remember most of my childhood…just bits and pieces and the not so nice ones stand out!!


  2. I think I ask myself ‘Who Am I’ at least once a day, Shree, usually followed by ‘What Am I Doing?’ (and not necessarily after I’ve walked into a room and forgotten why I’d walked in there in the first place!) I have an idea of where I want to go, what I want to do, but I have no idea as to how I’m going to get there. At times, I really could do with one of those lightbulb moments you mentioned, but then, if I had one, would I be following my own path or something I’ve ‘picked up’ from an external source? I like the sound of journeying into emptiness… I’m usually found in the nothingness, so a change would be as good as a rest!


    1. Hehehe Tom..sometimes I do that too! Sometimes it’s scary…I’ll suddenly realize I’m at some place and realize I can’t recall how I got there!!

      I understand what you mean about thoughts which you wonder if it’s your own or not, but that is something I am learning to not worry about…that light bulb thought came into my mind…for some reason or another…and if it was picked up by some where else, it doesn’t matter…because it was still meant for me…you know?


  3. A lot to think about. I think we all struggle with meaning and purpose. What should we be doing and how can we best use what we’ve got are questions that probably take most of us most of our lives to figure out.


    1. True Peter. Sometimes I need to remind myself that what you said…finding our purpose and how to make best use of our life is what it’s about……you know? The daily living, the every day things and encounters…what and how we choose to meet with those, is what it’s all about.


Awesomeness is in the sharing of thoughts :)

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