“Vast emptiness, nothing holy.” With that single line, Bodhidharma destroyed the universe. He toppled everything, even Buddhism—even the message and the words themselves.
To the untrained eye, it might seem like he was inviting us into nihilism. Which is fine, really, nihilism has a lot of great points if you approach it skillfully. If you approach it unskillfully, well, enjoy your black spandex, adolescent poetry, and German techno.
Really, though, what Bodhidharma was saying is that the divisions we place between things is an arbitrary product of the mind. In reality, not a single speck of dust in the cosmos can be separate from the cosmos itself, and everything else that composes said cosmos. It’s perception that splits everything up into neat little boxes and, once that’s done, makes it easier to cling to things, thus suffer when they don’t live up to our wish-washy ideals.
“I want this (insert noun) to last forever.” Sorry, Charlie, it’s not in the cards. And, that noun you’re referring to is actually a cognitive artifact, a verb picked out of totality and solidified as something definitive.
It’s like when you follow a moving fan blade with your eyes. The blade you’re focusing on seems to stand out, while the others are all ablur. With that, it’s enticing to think that that blade is actually as clear and individualistic as it seems. Of course, it isn’t. It’s a blur as well, it’s just that we’re fixating on it and that makes it seem clear.
That said, clarity and blurriness are also both just perception. If you were born blind, those ideas would be totally meaningless to you. That means they aren’t inherently meaningful in general. That moves us to the, “nothing holy,” part.
Holiness and unholiness are both relative value judgments loaded onto that fan blade we’ve plucked from the blur, to that noun that we’ve frozen in the stream of verbs. Holy and unholy, good and bad, right and wrong, day and night, self and other, enlightenment and ignorance… all nonsense in light of emptiness.
So that’s how Bodhidharma destroyed the universe. Of course, he didn’t really destroy it; that’s just how it seemed to the dude he was talking to who was fixated on things like merit and good karma. For him to destroy it would mean that it wasn’t empty, but then he emptied it out.
That’s a stumbling block a lot of practitioners fall into with the ego. There’s the experience of the ego kind of dissolving into undifferentiated experience, so many feel that they’ve lost the ego, and that that’s enlightenment. But that’s exactly the opposite of the point Bodhidharma was trying to make.
It’s impossible to lose or transcend the ego because there is no ego, just, “Vast emptiness,” out of which we pinpoint something that we call the ego. Believing that the ego can be let go of just pushes us further into delusion. By Buddha’s account, it’s actually better to believe that you have an eternal soul than to believe that the self perishes in nibbana.
Now, I don’t 100% buy into any of this. It’s equally possible that Bodhidharma 1) didn’t know wtf he was talking about and, 2) didn’t exist. In my experience, emptiness is a principle that seems to beg conceptualization. I like to think that the emptiness in Zen and Madhyamaka was experiential, that it was the experience of that divide between subject and object crumbling and/or revealing itself to be a total fabrication.
In my personal life, emptiness is most easily grokked when we’re mindful of space. Not outer space, necessarily, but the mundane space between objects, words, thoughts, breaths, etc. If we can adjust our perspective to consider those spaces to be something almost solid and substantial, then emptiness (as an experience) is quick to occur.
A lot of people go the conceptual route, though. We get caught up in explaining it in psychological or even physics-based terms. That’s all fine and dandy, but it tends to lead to nothing more than a conceptual understanding. It’ll make you adept at debating it on social media, but not much else.
When it’s derived from concepts and then accepted as the Absolute Truth, well, I’ve never seen any good come of that. That’s when you hear people asking, “Where does compassion fit into this?” If you think you understand emptiness but still don’t know the answer to that question, then you don’t understand emptiness.