Is “Nothing” Sacred?

Miyomoto Musashi 
lived in turbulent times. He sharpened his sword-fighting skills on the battlefield and 60 times in single combat.  He went into seclusion and wrote the Book of Five Rings.

His book and his story are legendary, retold in novels and films. The Book of Five Rings has been studied and quoted by martial artists for 400 years.

The first four chapters of Musashi’s book are called: Earth, Water, Fire and Wind. The last chapter is called “Emptiness.”

Emptiness is written “kara.” The same character we use in “karate” – empty hand.

Musashi says that understanding emptiness is essential to “following the Way.” To him this is the consummate achievement. Why does he think so? And what does it mean?

Musashi says: “When the clouds of bewilderment clear away there is the true Emptiness.”

He says:
“Taking emptiness as the way you will see the way as emptiness.”

The word he uses for the Way is “Tao” – “Do” in Japanese pronunciation, as in “Karate-Do”.

Musashi highlights the importance of Mushin, No-Mind, a flow state, in which an experienced practitioner of martial arts has sufficient skill to respond spontaneously to the changing dynamics of a combative encounter, and turn them to advantage, without consciously thinking about them.

Musashi also uses Munen – No thought – to describe this same flow state of spontaneous skillful action, familiar to experienced athletes, musicians, dancers, pilots, medics, and others.

The first syllable in these words “Mu” is a negative modifier in Japanese. It means ‘no’ or ‘is not’. It is like the ‘free’ in sugar-free. It is like kara in karate – it refers to the absence of something that we imagine might be there, but isn’t. We perform optimally when we learn to delete distractions.  In a combative encounter we want an absence of any obstruction to the free flow of our movement and our will, whether mental or physical, feeling or perception.

An absence of fixed ideas, strategies, negative emotions, physical limitations in range of motion or technique, the connection between parts of the body, between the body and mind, perception and will, etc., permits freedom of action.

The masters of every generation understood that training to a high level in martial arts is a matter of both adding skill and subtracting obstruction.


Bodhidharma was a Buddhist monk from India. He was a foreign missionary who traveled to China in the 500s CE; he was a scholar, practitioner and a teacher.  His went to spread the knowledge of the practices that lead to the liberation from suffering.

The knowledge he brought was at the cutting edge of religion and philosophy in his home in India, but were unknown in China. So, he went there. Maybe he was thinking:

In any place the precious teachings have not reached

Or where they have since declined

May I, moved by great compassion,

Shed light upon these beneficial treasures.

One of the texts he brought with him was a new Chinese translation of the Lankavatara Sutra.


This is a core text in the Mind Only or Cittamatra school of Indian Buddhism. The Lankavatara Sutra codified new insights that Bodhidharma introduced to his Taoist-trained disciples at Shaolin.  Chief among these new ideas was that understanding ‘emptiness’ is what will lead people to nirvana, to the end of suffering.

Emptiness – as a principle and as the means to liberation – is the unique insight and the core doctrine of Buddhism. Emptiness in the Buddhist sense does not mean “nothing.” It does not mean “nothing is real” or that nothing matters. Quite the opposite.

Buddha did not “discover” that life is suffering, or that people are never happy or that we should all be depressed.  He did recognize that lives are permeated with dissatisfaction, including mental and physical pain, desire and negative emotion. Most people can see that. His unique discovery was why it is that we suffer, and what we can do to put an end to it.

Understanding emptiness is not all that is required for liberation from suffering but it is at the heart of liberative practice.

In Bodhidharma’s view, emptiness, as expressed in the Lankavatara Sutra’s “Mind Only” philosophy, is that subject and object and action are one thing. They arise as a unitary gestalt. They entail each other and, in a sense, bring each other into existence. That non-dualism is essential to the understanding of emptiness in the Mind Only school. No ‘thing’ can exist by itself without standing in relation to other things.

In the martial example:

When you hear a Japanese kyudo sensei – traditional archery teacher – talk about becoming “one with the target,” and having “no intention” to release the arrow we can hear the instruction in Japanese martial arts that points to the non-duality of subject, object, action, will and technique. We can hear some echo of Bodhidharma’s message, over a long chain of teacher to student transmission.

Eugen Herrigel’s account of his kyudo study in Japan, Zen In der Kunst Des Bogenschiessens, Zen in the Art of Archery, presents this explicitly as Zen practice.

Bodhidharma did not use combatives as an example. But in the warrior tradition, especially in the Japanese Zen presentation of his ideas, this example is common.

References in literature and in teacher-lectures to ‘becoming your opponent’ or to “becoming one with the target” can sound absurd unless you know this source material, and understand the phenomenological insight the language is intended to convey and to cultivate in the mind of the practitioner.  It can seem like word play, but in doing the work to understand the conditional dependence of the conventional definitions we apply to our experience provides an insight that frees us from mental rigidity and misunderstanding.

The martial example was widely used in teaching samurai and others in medieval Japan who might find martial application more persuasive than abstract philosophy.

For them, familiar with Sun Tzu’s notion of “fluidity” on the battlefield as a frame of reference, the fact that qualities we assign to the identities of persons, objects and phenomena are not something those things hold on their own, but are contingent on conditions and our relation to them, and are subject to change, was not a stretch.  That is a useful idea – in training, in combat, in life, and in the practice of liberation.

The premise for the martial exponents who united Mind Only philosophy with martial prowess was that understanding reality yields skill-in-means within the conventions of this world, as well as liberation from suffering forever. This is appealing. (Whether, in the context of warrior training this is true, is a different question.)

Directing one’s mind to the fundamental insight – the nature of reality, emptiness – united for many serious practitioners their worldly objectives and their transcendent ones. This union infused everything they did with purpose.

Mind Only philosophy is a vast, exquisitely reasoned system of thought which may take a lifetime of study to master.  To try to encapsulate its teaching in one line is not possible. To point to it with pithy epigrams is customary in martial arts.



Here are four ways ‘emptiness’ has been interpreted in martial arts and elsewhere: 1. Vacuity, 2. Nihilism, 3. Non-obstruction, and 4. No-Self and Interdependence.

These categories can be described individually. In practice, in the minds of practitioners, as revealed in their actions, and in the language they use to define them, the boundaries are not completely discrete.

Interpretation 1: Emptiness as Vacuity

Musashi’s interpretation reflects Zen’s Chinese Taoist understanding of Buddhism. Musashi describes emptiness as “what is not there.”

This understanding compares philosophical emptiness to empty space; this interpretation is consistent with the five-elements division of The Book of Five Rings– Earth, Water, Fire, Air and Emptiness – a typology of the constituents of the natural world, reflecting his intent to present a comprehensive description of the universe of martial application.

The Japanese character he uses for Emptiness kara or “ku” also means sky. This reference to space, to unobstructed openness, is the way Musashi seems to understand Emptiness.

Lao Tzu, the literary source of Taoism, in his book theTao Te Ching, uses language that was later interpolated into Chinese Buddhism, and was transmitted over millennia to Japanese Zen.

This is an example of the use of the term “emptiness” in Taoism, a conception also used by Buddhists in China and Japan: “emptiness” as vacuity, a capacious, receptive “not there.”

The Tao is translated as ‘The Way” as in “the path” but also as the metaphysical “way things are” or “the manner in which things exist”:

Ch 4

The Tao is empty like a bowl.

It is used but never filled.

That is the ‘vacuity’ understanding of emptiness in Taoism.  This is different from what was meant by ‘Emptiness’ or ‘Sunyatta’ in the Indian Buddhism that Bodhidharma taught.


Interpretation 2: Emptiness as Nihilism

In The World as Will and Representation, German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer wrote:

“…to those in whom the will to continue living has turned and has denied itself, this very real world of ours, with all its suns and Milky Ways is — nothing.” 

He added:

“This is also the Prajna–Paramita of the Buddhists, the ‘beyond all knowledge,’ in other words, the point where subject and object no longer exist.”

What Schopenhauer seems to be saying in these quotations is not what Buddhism says.  There is a transitory meditative stage described as being like “water pouring into water” in which the subject-object distinction subsides, but this is not what he is referring to. “Nothing” and “No longer exist” are the terms his translator uses.

He refers to the Buddhist “Prajna paramita” – transcendent wisdom teachings – a core presentation of Emptiness in the Indian Buddhist literature.

The Prajna paramita literature is vast. It is crystallized in a short text called the Heart Sutra, which is a source text for the Cittamatra or Mind Only doctrine that Bodhidharma taught.

In the best of all possible worlds Schopenhauer would have had access to the Buddhist technical language that would have enabled him to understand what he was reading. He didn’t. So, like modern practitioners who chant the Heart Sutra without studying it, he defaults to accustomed usage and habits of thought and so misses the message of the Prajna paramita.

The Heart Sutra is not saying things do not exist. But it is easy to see how philosophers and the rest of us might read it that way. The Heart Sutra says:

… Form is emptiness, emptiness is form. Form is no other than emptiness, emptiness no other than form…

… therefore there is no form, no sensation, no perception, no formation, no consciousness; no eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind; no sight, no sound, no smell, no taste, no touch, no object of mind; no realm of sight… no realm of mind consciousness, no ignorance no end of ignorance… no old age and death, no end of old age and death; no suffering, no cause, no cessation, no path; no knowledge and no attainment…

The list of things negated are typologies of the constituents of reality – like the “earth, air, water, fire and empty space” of Musashi – which are used in Buddhist literature. None of these negations in the Heart Sutra mean ‘does not exist.’

This misinterpretation of emptiness as nihilism may account for why, when a retreat attendee was leaving the practice center and her bag popped open on the steps and a stack of stolen hotel towels fell out, she could sincerely say “It’s all empty any way so what’s the difference?” She was wrong both morally and philosophically, inverting the meaning of all that she was studying.

In fact, because of “emptiness” we can understand that everything we do, think or say does matter, and will have consequences for us and for others.

Some pop literature about the “true nature of reality”, or “emptiness”, also use “nothingness”, “non-existence”, “the void”, and “non-being” interchangeably and without good definitions. No wonder people get confused.

For some the definition of “emptiness” as “nothing” is supported by the famous claim that Zen is a transmission “beyond words.”

This claim had a natural appeal to people raised on Dr. Seuss, Bob Dylan, Camus, Sartre, James Joyce, Derrida and Foucault. It appealed to people trained via politics, entertainment and academic literature to devalue language as a reliable conveyor of meaning and to mistrust the validity of meaning in general.

This Zen language is prefigured in Lao Tzu. In the Tao Te Ching, Chapter 1, he says:

The Tao that can be expressed is not the eternal Tao.

Words can direct our attention to the things they refer to but it cannot be them. We know that. We also know that language can be useful and meaningful, even as it helps us to see beyond the limitations of language.

The Romantics and Existentialists also used the terms “the void”, “the abyss”, “nothing”, and “oblivion” as key descriptors of life in general and their experience of modern life in particular. No wonder some ardent deconstructionists and their disciples thought they were taking the logical next step by sitting down and doing Zen.

They may have misunderstood Zen, and even asked about it, but their Zen teachers rebuked or guided them with “There is nothing to understand!”

It is easy to get lost in the post-modernist’s epistemological swamp. It is good to find your way out.  Of the four interpretations listed here this one is philosophically incoherent and, as a practical matter, quite harmful.

“Emptiness” does not mean “Does not exist.”


Interpretation 3: Emptiness as Non-obstruction

Takuan Soho was a Japanese Zen priest who lived around the same time as Musashi Miyamoto.

Takuan advised one of the two most influential sword masters serving the samurai military government of Japan.

Military advisors at the most elite level, then and today, are selected from a large and competitive field because they bring some quality of judgment, skill, innovation or insight that the decision-makers can use.  Something that will contribute to victory.

Takuan’s advice on sword-fighting combined the spiritual and the tactical as one. This union was assumed in Japanese martial culture. From the first introduction of Zen to the samurai government in the 13thcentury by Zen monk Eisai, the congruence was recognized. After Takuan it became an integral part of Japanese martial arts lore. This union continues, at least as an ideal:



Shoshin Nagamine with Ken Zen Ichi Nyo – Fist and Zen as One 







Sakiyama Sogen Roshi, brushed this Ken Zen Ichi Nyo for me:

The four-character aphorism “Ken Zen Ichi Nyo”  conveys the fusion, through martial practice, of “Fist and Zen as One” or “Body and Mind as One.”



Takuan advised his client on what it meant to cultivate an “empty” mind, in language recalling the negations of the Heart Sutra and the instruction of Lao Tzu:

No-mind is the same as right mind. It neither congeals nor fixes itself in one place. It is called no-mind when the mind has neither discrimination nor one thought, but moves freely about the entire body and extends through the entire self.

The no-mind is placed nowhere. Yet it is not like wood or stone. Where there is no stopping place it is called no-mind. When it stops there is something in the mind.  When there is nothing in the mind it is called the mind of no-mind. It is also called no-mind no-thought.

When this no-mind has been well-developed the mind does not stop with one thing nor does it lack any one thing….

“No mind” has been sometimes misinterpreted as an instruction to “blank out your mind.”  It was understood differently when Takuan taught it. His advice was practical. It was a corrective to mental habits that stood in the way of high performance in battle.

Military training for combat in many times and places and cultures encouraged warriors to focus completely on one thing: attack and kill the enemy.

The idea of victory was fixed in their mind. This was evident for example in the ‘banzai charge,’ still used by the Imperial Army early in WWII, which focused on attacking and destroying the enemy without any other consideration. It was not an efficacious tactic in modern war, and it was not optimal long before.

Takuan advocated an alternative to this ‘fixation’ frame of mind. He counseled his clients and disciples to

“See the whole tree at once, not just focus a single leaf.”

Takuan was saying that holding any fixed idea in the mind limited the fighter’s power because it made him rigid, limiting his awareness, impeding his freedom to respond to changing conditions. Anyone who has fought a kumite or boxing match knows that attack plans have a short useful life.

This matters. It was not abstract. It was not word play. It was sound practical advice. It is used today in warrior training. Here’s how:

Combat training creates conditions of high stress, in an attempt to simulate some aspects of combat.  Under combat conditions most people experience symptoms of mental rigidity that arise under high stress: Our field of vision is reduced to a small circle right in front of our eyes, an effect known as tunnel vision. Our hearing turns off, known as auditory exclusion. We tend to lock in on one target and one objective, while missing the rest of the environment, additional threats, and the changing dynamics of the fight.

The men in the armies Takuan was advising were not dumb or poorly trained. They were undergoing physiological hyper-arousal under combat stress and needed a way to overcome it. He provided it.

In light of that we can understand Takuan’s superb advice. We can also understand that he used the negation-prefix form familiar in Buddhist literature but that he was using it differently – he was negating fixation and obstruction. This is not the same object of negation that the Indian Buddhist sources were pointing to.

The Zen advice to cultivate “No-mind” is consistent with what warriors need in the heat of conflict. But this is the critical distinction: the martial Zen understanding of the advice diverged from the liberative, religious purpose of the older, pre-martial application of Buddhist ideas.

Before the samurai applied this “No-mind” technique to fighting, before Buddhist terminology and ideas were embraced by samurai era Japan, “No-mind” had been a highly developed component of varied sequence of mind-training techniques which Buddhist monks practiced. They used it in an effort to “see reality as it is,” without mental distortion, as a means to become free from suffering – and to help others do the same.

Regardless of your judgment of the truth claims of their worldview or of the efficacy of the practice method, neither their goals, their motives nor their means were the same as those of the Tokugawa fighters.

The martial application advised by Takuan took a piece of insight from the Buddhist toolkit and applied it to war training.  It is a powerful tool. We can still use it for that purpose.

But we cannot simply reverse this process. The re-interpolation of this piece of practical, fighting advice – the cultivation of “No-mind,” from martial arts back to the religious, liberative application of inner cultivation, as if it could function as complete spiritual practice – is an error.

Practicing open, non-fixated, live awareness is essential for high performance in any demanding field, as any NASCAR driver could tell you.

Non-obstruction as a single practice path, for all its benefits, cannot lead to the fulfillment of our human potential.


Interpretation 4: Emptiness as No-Self and Interdependence

This fourth way that “Emptiness” has been interpreted diverges most from our ordinary way of thinking.  When the Heart Sutra says “form is emptiness, emptiness is form” it doesn’t really communicate anything if you have not studied this. Here is a martial example:

Meir Shahar in “The Shaolin Monastery: History, Religion, and the Chinese Martial Arts” writes: “Douglas Wile has demonstrated that this view was shared by …16thcentury military expert, Tang Shunzhi (1507 – 1560): ”

The reason for postures in the martial arts is to facilitate transformations. Forms contain fixed postures, but in actual practice there are no fixed postures. When applied they become fluid, but still maintain their structural characteristics.

Things change. Things take shape, and shift. They are real. But they vanish and become something else.

What is it that changes? What makes things change? We can see a form – Where does it come from and where does it go when it has vanished? Is change predictable? Is it meaningful?

How do we initiate change within ourselves and how does that affect the world around us?  Given that we and the world around us are changing all the time, how do we make the best of it?

What if understanding change and impermanence are not fundamentally about losing the things we like? What if they give us the way to fulfill our humanity?

These questions are very close to the cause and effect premise of martial arts: Train well and get the results you want.

How far can we take that premise?

The mark of achievement of a fully accomplished martial artist is this: they can go beyond experiencing the immanence of every moment, beyond responding to the opportunities and dangers in every permutation of reality before they emerge, to the ability to get ahead of the event horizon – so that they can catalyze the sequence of actions that are most propitious for them and their cause.

That level of achievement is an ideal. To approach it requires an understanding of emptiness as “no-self-nature” and “interdependence” at once.

The practice of this is a highly technical, intellectually challenging technique for changing your mind and your world. The intellectual effort in this tradition is cultivated on the basis of a loving heart – you learn to see clearly that beings are suffering, you are so moved you take personal responsibility to help them, you realize that you are unable to do it with your current skills and capacity, and you vow to do whatever you need to do to get the ability you need to help them, from the bottom of your heart. It is not an intellectual exercise, but it makes use of intellectual insights to reach its goal.

I want to outline just a little bit about this, so that it will stand in contrast to martial applications that use some of the same language, but with a different understanding and objectives.

I am not speculating about this difference.  I am not drawing a conclusion from texts. I have practiced in both traditions. This is my experience of the core texts of the traditions, the practice environments of the traditions and the evidence in the statements, training and conduct of people in these traditions.

One instruction used to accomplish the transformation of the practitioner, to enable him or her to fulfill their vow to save all beings from suffering, is the Heart Sutra. It is chanted in many temples and shrines daily. It works by reason, not by merely by magical sounds or an inspiring mood. Its core is a series of negations.

To use the Heart Sutra as a mnemonic mind-training tool – allowing you to survey all the constituents of reality and one by one recognize their no-self-nature and their interdependence – you would need to know that the negations point to the fact that something that we customarily suppose is there in all those categories and things which are negated is in fact not there at all. The thing negated is an intrinsic self-nature that is permanent, unchanging, self-standing and independent of causes, conditions, parts and perceptions. Nothing exists that way.

Here is an example from the Little Rascals:

It was a hundred years ago. People were poor. A boy, like many children then, was hungry. He is in a movie, with his friends and their famous dog Petey.

In this “Little Rascals” black & white short film the hungry boy, Stymie, is looking for something to eat. A nice lady hands him an artichoke. He does not know what it is. He sits down to eat it. He has seen food that might be like this, maybe corn, which you have to open by peeling back it’s leaves, to get to the part you can eat.

He begins to pull back the leaves. Little by little, deeper and deeper, he explores the unknown vegetable. The further he goes the more dismayed he becomes. He pauses for a moment when he gets to the artichoke heart, but looking more closely he sees it too is made of leaves, and continues to peel them back until he finds… nothing! He throws the artichoke away.

He does not know that all the leaves, all the parts of the artichoke, were the artichoke. It was real. There was no denying that. It would have functioned as food. But he did not know that. There was no little artichoke in it. There was no essence of artichoke, or any other special artichoke-ness in there. The artichoke was the parts of the artichoke.  There it was – all it needed to become usable food was for him to project upon that object his own understanding of its nature. It would then, based on its parts and his knowledge, become nourishment. That is the no-self nature or emptiness of an object.

A person who knew what he was looking at would see that. A person who relied on uninformed assumption and past mental habits could never find an artichoke inside the artichoke; there was none in there.

Just the way there is no homunculus inside a person, no separate ‘driver’ or ‘pilot’ inside – nothing other than the constituents, causes and labelling of a thing that constitutes an objective permanent, self-existent nature. That is the emptiness of a person.

Another example of this kind of description of emptiness is the instruction given by the Indian monk Nagasena in the second century BCE to the Greek King Menander of Bactria – the area of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Pakistan and Afghanistan now.

Nagasena used the example of a chariot to make his point – a real thing which exists but only as a collection of parts plus a designation from an observer. The parts of the chariot were crafted. They were brought together. They function as an integrated group in relation to one another and in relation to their environment, purpose, conditions and minds of the people who use it.

Our idea of what the collection of parts is allows us to use it. The parts will wear out.  They will separate. The parts or the parts of the parts will go their separate ways when they wear out, are cast aside, are destroyed or whenever the time and conditions are right for them to rot or break or rust or fall off, burn up or be used to make something else.  No ‘self-nature’ of a chariot other than parts and imputation is there when it all disperses, and it never was there.

It is beyond the scope of this article to delve into why this insight is at the center of the Buddhist philosophical systems. Or why the presumption that things have a fixed nature which is retained in a separate free-standing “self” somewhere within is specifically called “ignorance” or “misknowledge”.

For our purposes here it is enough to know that since everything is empty of ‘inherent self-nature’ everything exists in concert with other things, and changes, as conditions change.  That self-nature of things and beings is what is negated in the Heart Sutra list.

This truth of the claim from the Heart Sutra, that form is emptiness and emptiness is form, is evident in the transitory but very real function of our postures in kata or combat. Like our minds, from moment to moment, for as long as we exist. Like our civilization, world, everything.

The Chinese and Japanese Taoist influenced Zen martial arts are generally not using this interpretation of “Emptiness” or “no-self-nature” as the object of negation when they talk about mushin, munen or karate, as the examples in the sections on Interpretation 1. Vacuity, 2. Nihilism, and 3. Non-Obstruction, above, show.

When the Heart Sutra says “No eyes, ears, tongue, body, mind… etc.”  it would be absurd to claim that the things listed don’t exist.  So, what are all these negations negating? And what does “seeing the truth” of this do for you?

It means that you know for sure and directly that every time you do some good some good comes from it. And if you were to do harm then harm would come to you. Knowing this you would be free to act with ardor and skill on behalf of every one you know.

If there are people who are applying this understanding of emptiness to martial arts training, if they are using “No-mind” and “No-thought” and Empty-hand” at this level of insight that would be something very interesting to know more about.



The tributary streams that form our practice flowed from the era of General Sun Tzu and Taoist patriarch Lao Tzu in 500BCE China to the time of Bodhidharma’s mission to China from India about 500CE, a thousand years later.

The stream flowed for another thousand years to Japan – carrying with it Chinese Ch’an imported by Eisai and Dogen as Zen, and applied to budo by Zen monk Takuan Soho and sword master Musashi Miyamoto and many others.

For hundreds of years since their time the stream flowed on, through Japan and Okinawa, to us.  It flowed on because generations were serious about their objectives, understood the obstacles they faced, did the work and took the risks they believed were worth taking.

Their choices created our traditions.

When they trained in martial arts, in meditation and in rigorous intellectual study, they were not just practicing ‘focus’ or ‘calming down’. They were not doing mindfulness-based stress reduction.

Since their day the effect of their work has appeared in hundreds of styles, embodied in millions of lives.

The greatest among them strove to unite metaphysics, tactics, ethics and the ultimate human achievement.

That work could be our work.


Portrait of Shoshin Nagamine by Tarleton Brooks

Post by Jeff Brooks, text © 2019

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