The Art of Emptiness 

January 25, 2012 

Is this image that of a flat piece of land set against a blue sky, or is it a table top against a wall? Our perception may allow us to recognise it as both. 

We are programmed to perceive what we expect to see. Sometimes, what we are looking at may not be what we perceive it to be. 

Which one is true? It depends on your perception. Our logical minds cannot process a “both-and” scenario and dictate that it must be “either/or”. However, truth is linked to perception and perception makes truth relative to the individual. This naturally leads to an experiential point of view, for what I have I experienced, I can ‘know’, in the felt sense, and what I have not experienced, I do not know. I may claim to know, but that is mere conception. 

In Zen, emptiness is a particularly challenging barrier on the path to ultimate awareness. It is a great test because the barrier is an illusion itself, set up by the conceptual mind, but perceived as real. There is no way of seeing this barrier as illusion other than to drop the conceptual mind. Otherwise, getting caught in the trap of emptiness is “falling into the abyss.” 

The trap is this: If all phenomena are empty, as Bodhidharma said, then there cannot be a separate self that endures. This means the subjective “I” has no permanence. Everything that is compound arises, persists, declines and ceases due to dependence on other conditions, according to the law of change. This means if everything is dependent on everything else, then one ‘component’ as an isolated entity separate from all the rest cannot be. 

This leads to the problem of perception, caused by its inherent duality of point of view. From one point of view, if all phenomena are empty, then phenomena aren’t real, and all phenomena are an illusion. This is falling into the void, the abyss. “Everything is empty! Nothing is real! I am enlightened.” In the old days, such response was usually met with a swift whack to the head from the Zen Master’s staff and the immediate question “Then who is experiencing this pain? If everything is illusion, then pain is illusion, and suffering is illusion. So who is suffering?" Conceptualising is not direct here-now experience. 

The other point of view, that phenomena are the only reality, leads to materialism, meaninglessness, and thus emptiness. Both views deal with emptiness. 

Nagarjuna, the great Indian philosopher credited with originating the doctrine of emptiness so influential in Buddhism and Zen, expounded these points of view brilliantly around 150–250 CE. Nagarjuna said: “Emptiness is departure from all views…those who adopt emptiness as a view are incurable.” Nagarjuna’s statement warns of the trap. If all phenomena are empty, then emptiness leads to nothingness. “I am nothing.” Nothingness is a negative view of life and the doctrine of emptiness. It is nihilistic and false. Western existentialists like Sartre and Camus, and to some extent Kafka, fell in to this trap, and wrote about isolation, alienation, anguish, anxiety as the human condition. 

The positive view of emptiness is life affirming, best exemplified by the humour and vitality of Zen Masters, who encourage the student to seek that “which is never born and never dies” to arrive at experiential truth outside of the concept of an independent self. If enlightenment, as a departure from all views, was a negation of life, the path toward it would not be held up by the Buddha and his lineage, and Zen, as the “supreme vehicle” or the Way. 

In psychology, too much externalisation generates a disconnect with being, which in turn fosters a gnawing sense of emptiness. Too much internalisation creates a discord with the external world and leads to a loss of energy, a losing of touch with phenomenal reality, and a growing sense of meaninglessness and worthlessness. 

In photography, all this is related to the perception of the person viewing the photographs, and also “the power and truth” expressed by the photographer. (cf Roger Mayne, English photographer: “Photography involves two main distortions - the simplification into black and white and the seizing of an instant in time. It is this particular mixture of reality and unreality and the photographer's power to select, that makes it possible for photography to be an art. Whether it is good art depends on the power and truth of the artist's statement.” 

NB: Mayne here is referring to photographs as the artist’s statement, not text). 

If photographs become too intellectual in concept and expression, it is like a head with no body. Conceptual without substance, without essence. This leads to a great disparity today between the photographer’s “artist statement” (the written text) being way too conceptual (concept upon construct), unrelated to the body of work. Generally this leads to a sense of emptiness in the work, and confusion or indifference in the viewer. There is no essence expressed. No individual power and truth expressed. 

If photographs are all heart and no head, we have a headless body. These types of photographs border on snapshot sentimentality, but lack the framework to help the body of work express a telling point of view. A point of view formed out of the lived experience of the photographer. 

The challenge of photography is to create a body of work that aligns the head and heart so essence is expressed with a power and a truth that is true to the individual photographer, but this power and truth also communicates to the viewer “here is a deeply felt point of view expressed in a visually coherent way.” This cannot be faked, imitated, or superimposed, because an imitation of life is lifeless. 

A pertinent example is the art of Chinese calligraphy, where the conceptual mind is ‘disciplined’ through years of daily practice, until there is a forgetting of technique, a forgetting of ‘self’, and there is a spontaneous flow of pure expression in the character that is written. There is great individual character in the character. There is an affirmation of life, of essence, of experiential truth. This cannot be faked and passed as lived experience. 

“The most powerful and misunderstood function of art is what we could call the critical power of affirmation. It is by the strong affirmation of truth or value or the ideal that art can exercise a critical role in respect of what falls short of the values upheld.” (Christopher Allen “Shock, Horror: Monanism, Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, to July 19” in Weekend Australian Review, February 12-13, 2011, p. 11). 

Taking a few really good photographs is now in reach of most people. Creating a congruent body of work within a framework of a point of view with the power and truth from lived experience is what makes photography such a rewarding medium. 

In the art of emptiness, Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Seascapes beautifully express the boundary of the physical and nonphysical, the internal and the external. A solid framework with a depth of expression; deceptively simple, but not so. Do you see nothing? Or are you affirmed? 

Text copyright 2012 Darren J Harris

Leave a comment

    Add comment