Emptiness, Wholeness and Integrity (Zen In Japanese Culture)


When we explore the nature of Zen in Japanese culture, we experience three basic qualities of mind: single-minded depth, an ever-expansive wholeness and the profound integrity of existence. Through meditation practice we ourselves cultivate and manifest these same three qualities:

Emptiness, Wholeness and Integrity.

What is emptiness?

In the Zen tradition, emptiness is the basis of all phenomena. In Sanskrit, emptiness is translated as Shunyata (zero or nothingness), and in the Tibetan, it is Tongpa-nyi where Tongpa means empty and Nyi means clarity.

The word “Empty” is a word that at first glance may seem frightening. Emptiness in eastern philosophy is not a black hole, vacuum, or a void at the centre of your being. It means that the basis for all life is indescribable, un-nameable, beyond language and intellectual perception.

This Zen notion of emptiness must be understood intuitively. It defies logic and cannot be defined linguistically. It can only be felt and experienced to be realized.

What is your mind without all the conditioning, expectations, labeling and false assumptions? Shunyata - Tongpa nyi - Empty! Thus the Zen koan “One’s vessel must be empty before it can be filled”.

When Zen Buddhists talk about emptiness as the basis of our being, they don’t mean that who and what we all are is nothing as in a zero, but what they mean is that at our core we are infinitely open space that can allow all phenomena to appear and disappear and re-appear again in the eternal present moment.

Emptiness in the Zazen tradition is eternal - open - empty space that is nothing but dynamic potential. Even these words come short and fail to adequately

define. At the basic level of our being we are “empty” of definable characteristics. This means that the ground of our being is infinite, eternal and beyond definition. Our emptiness gives us the potential to experience everything and anything that can refer to thoughts, feelings and physical

sensation. In the terms of modern science, this is what the study of quantum physics is all about.

In the words of eastern mystics like myself: “You don’t have a soul - you are a soul who has a body”.

Japanese Culture

In Japanese culture empty space is as relevant as the objects it defines. Japanese art, literature, philosophy all exemplify (Illustrate) this important notion. Art equals a canvas of empty space that defines a given object.

In literature, in both prose and poetry, what is not said is as relevant as what’s being said. This is especially characteristic of the Haiku, the use of sparse syllables and tight phrasing forces you to look inward and reflect for meaning.

The prose style alludes to the subject matter creating space for the imagination to fill in the gaps.

In Japanese Zen philosophy, the “Zen Koan” reflects the Japanese philosophical approach, once again forcing one to focus inward to go beyond logic and reason. This is language that goes beyond words. An example of a Zen Koan is something like “Sitting on a whale, fishing for a minnow”.

What is Wholeness?

Wholeness is the ability to see all sides of every situation. This takes inner depth and reflection. The ability to hold two opposing views in your mind simultaneously. This is symbolized by the Taoist symbol of Yin & Yang, which is a part of Chinese culture but is ingrained in the Japanese Zen tradition (Cultural Flow). We practice and acknowledge this concept every time we practice our meditation when we bring our hands in prayer position, symbolically bringing together all opposing forces within - and we unite them together in our hearts. “The flawed vessel is perfect because it even has a flaw”.

The concept of wholeness is the concept of inter - being, all things are a part of everything. This realization is Samadi or enlightenment.

What is Integrity?

An unimpaired state of being; uprightness, purity, honesty. A resonant state of completeness or wholeness. It is the reliance on inner space and the ability to realize the ultimate reality of wholeness. It allows us to use this space and wholeness to a good end, to use our space to pause before reacting, and to use our wisdom of wholeness to know how to react. Again, this is the ability to

choose how and when you respond to life events rather than being thrown into chaos by them.

This is living with the skill of a proper intention. We decide how and when we choose to act or react in our lives, we are no longer slaves to our thoughts and emotions. This is illustrated in the Zen proverb of “Catch Bull At Four”, taking command of our thoughts and emotions. The notion of harnessing the wild bull of our thoughts and emotions and bringing them under control so they serve us rather than control us.

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Sangha Without Borders is currently physically located in London, UK