Diving into the Existential Abyss: Leo Tolstoy and Thich Nhat Hanh on Emptiness

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

“The only absolute knowledge attainable by man is that life is meaningless.”

— Leo Tolstoy, Confession (1882), Ch. 5

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:

“…one cannot cease to know what one does know.”

— Leo Tolstoy, A Confession (1882)

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:

“To want my life to have meaning is to want my experience and my reality to be profoundly fragmented.”

— Ken Wilber, Spectrum of Consciousness (1973)

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:

“‘Emptiness’ means empty of a separate self. It is full of everything, full of life. The word emptiness should not scare us. It is a wonderful word. To be empty does not mean nonexistent … Emptiness is the ground of everything. Thanks to emptiness, everything is possible. That is a declaration made by Nagarjuna, the Buddhist philosopher of the second century. Emptiness is quite an optimistic concept. If I am not empty, I cannot be here. And if you are not empty, you cannot be there. Because you are there, I can be here. This is the true meaning of emptiness.”

— Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of Understanding, p. 17

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:

“The dialectic as Sunyata is the removal of the constrictions which our concepts, with their practical or sentimental bias, have put on reality. It is the freeing of reality of the artificial accidental restrictions, and not the denial of reality. Sunyata is negation of negations; it is thus a reaffirmation of the infinite and inexpressibly positive character of the Real."

— T.R.V. Murti, Central Philosophy of Buddhism, p. 212–214

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 may impede 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:

“‘Learning how to think’ really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.”

— David Foster Wallace, This is Water, p. 3

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:

“I think I’d first just assemble all the children together and show them how to meditate. I’d try to show them how to find out who they are, not just what their names are and things like that…I guess, even before that, I’d get them to empty out everything their parents and everybody ever told them. I mean even if their parents just told them an elephant’s big, I’d make them empty that out. An elephant’s only big when it’s next to something else — a dog or a lady, for example…”

— J.D. Salinger, Teddy, "Nine Stories", p. 298

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:

My reason will still not understand why I pray, but I shall still pray, and my life, my whole life, independently of anything that may happen to me, is every moment of it no longer meaningless as it was before, but has an unquestionable meaning of goodness with which I have the power to invest it.”

— Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina, ch. 19