A new meaning for vital emptiness

We are afraid to confront the emptiness. Human beings understand it as an unattainable and negative entity. We can see this in daily life: the void of noise, the silence, although it can become therapeutic, is feared by many people and want to occupy it with words. As Confucius said, “silence is the only friend who never betrays”, an oriental point view of silence that highlights one of the great advantages of this emptiness of words: the excess is equally negative.

In this sense, Oriental philosophies and religions have an approximation to emptiness different from the West. As with silence, absence is not a negative “non-being” but a different state of matter. For example, not to speaking does not mean to stop communicating: a silence can be as positive and explanatory as a conversation.

Rethinking emptiness through oriental philosophies is not casual. The use of zero, although it has been found throughout the world, it arrived in Western cultures throughout Mesopotamian and South-Mediterranean cultures. They gave a capital importance to the absence, which had to be taken into account to count.


Void is not the absence of everything, it is another form of matter.


On his latest book, Trinh Xuan Thuan explores the interrelation between contemporary science and this vision of the emptiness in the East. It explains how the concept of emptiness is usually understood related to the end of things, but it is inaccurate because all particles of the known universe have a remanence of the primordial void. Before exiting, there was void. But what was this void? In this case, it was a generator of life and everything we know. Everything emerges from the void. Thuan relates it to a Veda text, a millenarian Hindu tradition: “At that time it had not been, nor there was non-being”. The void is not the absence of everything, it is another form of matter.

In the end, seeing that emptiness is inside everything and feeds all atoms, we can only think of emptiness as the meaning of life. This fact allows us to embrace the changes and learn to value the vital events. The delicate dynamic balances that sustain the processes of life are based, precisely, on the balance between absences and presences. We can appreciate it in the development of bacteria in a nutrient tank -emulated by the famous cellular automaton created in the 70s, “the game of life” – or in the role played by certain species in evolutionarily stable ecosystems. Without these voids, life would simply be impossible.


The emptiness of the meaning of everything makes nothing permanent, and that gives value to our realities: knowing how to appreciate things by their temporality, both pain and pleasure, will help us. The pain because it will remit, and the pleasure because we will know that it is necessary to enjoy it with more intensity. A thought intimately linked to Buddhism, which ensures that all life form is deciduous and that everything is empty of meaning and, in the end, it is the relativization and temporality of all things that allow us to get rid of the pain.


For oriental relativism, emptiness is a fertile state from which life and ideas arise.


In short, Xuan rejects all absolutes and undeniable truths. There is an existential void intrinsically linked to our atoms and origins. Everything emerges from emptiness, everything has part of this emptiness and, very likely, everything will return to the emptiness. Xuan takes us away from the absolutism of Western science and brings us closer to oriental relativism, which understands emptiness as a fertile state from which many ideas arise that are not absolute truths nor do they intend to be so. The emptiness of meaning makes a lot of sense.


Abel Cobos
Biomimetics Sciences Institute