The history of zero is fairly recent. Recent because zero wasn’t needed for the most part. Counting was important to civilization, but the idea of nothing wasn’t, in fact psychologically zero implied nothingness, a state that was generally feared by many cultures. In India however, emptiness was a philosophical part of Buddhism, so it wasn’t any surprise that they became the first civilization to embrace the idea of zero, and make it a number as well. 

Today, we still use the number system that India gave the world, and zero is powerful in that system because it allows us to create large numbers without having to create new digits ie. 50 is larger than 5. Also, zero is the middleman between positive and negative numbers, giving a proper demarcation to them. Zero is very important to calculus which helps us understand the universe, and is also a critical part of the binary system used to program computers. In essence, Zero is huge.

  • But what is zero ‘in the world’?
  • Does it denote nothingness? 
  • non-existence? 
  • Can you point at ‘Zero’? 
  • For that matter, can you point at ‘One’? 

Numbers are ideas, generalized into abstractions. This is math, abstractions made to work for us, so that we can reason and exercise logic. So, what is ‘zero’?

Historians uncovered zero within Indian culture, as mentioned, and it was most likely a derivative of the doctrine of ‘emptiness’.

‘Sunya’ is the Sanskrit word for ‘Zero’, and ‘Sunyata’ is the Sanskrit word for ‘emptiness’. Emptiness is a key feature in Buddhist philosophy, and although its idea varies, basically it points towards a metaphysical feature of reality, an ultimate ground.

An American Monk named Thanissaro Bhikku, who has studied early scriptures in Buddhism, had this say about attendance to emptiness:

“Emptiness as a mental state, in the early canons, means a mode of perception in which one neither adds anything to nor takes anything away from what is present, noting simply, “There is this.” Emptiness, as given here, is not a statement of quantity or quality, rather it is a way to view reality just as it is, without imposing human based ideas upon it. Simply letting it be ‘this’. “

This is akin to Zen’s direct attendance to reality, as opposed to ideas of it, or the illusions of cognition. Zen battles the mind in how it thinks of the world in a similar way as Indian Buddhism does. Zen just ramps up the introspection by punishing the mind if it dares to move on emptiness. 

Strangely, these ancient philosophical insights have some correlation to what science has discovered about the conventional idea of emptiness, or nothingness.

Nothing is impossible

  • What is empty? 
    The dictionary defines empty as: containing nothing; having none of the usual or appropriate contents: an empty bottle.
  • What is nothing?
    The dictionary defines nothing as: no thing; not anything; naught: to say nothing.
  • What is an example of nothing? 
    Any volume of space with no matter and no energy.
  • Does nothing exist?
    not exactly.

Nothing is impossible, or perhaps I should be more clear—non-existence is impossible. Non-existence seems logically viable since we have existence, why can’t the opposite then be true?

To understand what’s going on, let’s ask – what does it take to create non-existence? 

Science proclaims that matter is made of atoms, and atoms are made of particles. If we continue to examine particles for something even more fundamental, we find something new – Fields.

Protons, neutrons and electrons (as you may remember from your schooling), are convenient ways to label parts of the atomic world—however these are just ideas. More fundamentally, particles are actually oscillations in quantum fields (which admittedly, is yet another idea, just more accepted). This tells us that there isn’t a ‘particle’ per se, but rather a bundle of energy we infer as a particle. This is Quantum Theory. 

The problem with the word ‘particle’ is the meaning of the word to us; when we say ‘there is a particle’, our mind concludes (being experiential in nature), that something ‘is there’, something is discrete and absolute. But this is not the case with an atomic particle. An atomic particle is essentially a wave, a vibration, a little bundle of energy embedded within a field. When you look at a wave on the ocean, where does it begin and end? Yes, you can measure a wave, but how you wish to distinguish it from other waves is a choice. Your choice, a choice based on the premise of knowledge. However what a ‘particle or field’ is, is much more than knowledge. 

In science, every type of particle has its own field, this is Quantum Field Theory (QFT). For instance, the photon is a particle of light, emerging from the electromagnetic field. When its field vibrates, a little bundle of energy produces what we identify as a photon. What if I wanted to create nothing? Obviously I would need to remove all particles, remove all energy, essentially make the field zero. But this is a problem. 


If you take a container full of air, and pump all the air particles out, what are you left with? The answer is empty space, essentially a vacuum. But this isn’t truly empty. In fact, there would still be an amount of ambient heat from the container itself that would leak into the space. This leaves you with a container full of trace amounts of thermal energy, essentially something. The obvious solution then is to chill the container to absolute zero, which would do much to eliminate the thermal energy, however the environment would also introduce its own effects. Some of these would be radio waves from cell phones and other electric devices and neutrinos from the sky. These would be showering through the container, which would make it not empty again. Of course we could shield the container from this radiation, bringing us ever closer to complete emptiness, however, as you might of guessed, even this is not empty.


The reason for this is nothing short of something profound. There is a principle of the universe called the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. Basically stated, the uncertainty principle outlines a fundamental limit to the precision with which physical properties can be known. This applies to everything (and lack of something as well). This is not due to any technical shortcoming however, this is an inherent feature of the fabric of the universe, that has nothing to do with us or science at at all.

What it implies is that the universe is not completely applicable to knowledge. The totality of the universe is not a logical construction. Knowledge is our bubble we see from, what we seek to affirm, what we desire by attempting to render reality into information, to satisfy our minds. Under, between and around this desire, is what the universe is, beyond description. This is what Buddhism means by emptiness, not that it is a void, but that it is not what we try to add or take away from it in thought.

Not no-thing

Returning to our empty container, what science has discovered is that removing air particles does not remove the field that is responsible for the particles, the field remains. It remains in a near-zero energy state. This is called a vacuum state. It is ‘nearly zero’ because Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle outlines that absolutes are not inherent in the universe. Zero is not a feature of reality. To determine ‘precisely zero’ requires two factors:

  • ‘energy’ measured as zero, 
  • and energy confirmed as zero within an ‘instant of time’.

Time and Energy must be known precisely to have knowledge of a zero condition definitively. Heisenberg Uncertainty principle tell us that the more precisely we know the time interval, the less precisely we know the energy level. And the more precisely we know the energy level, the less precisely we know the time interval. It is a tug-of-war between the factors of complete knowledge. Knowledge then becomes the square peg to the roundness of the universe. 

This is a haunting of idea, one that has plagued scientists for over a hundred years. Of course they have adapted to work around the principle, mainly keeping their products of knowledge within a range of probability, but it is a fact (as far as fact-ness is absolute). You see how careful I need to be when referencing knowledge.

This is the limit nature puts on knowledge of the atomic world; not allowing for the precise and simultaneous determination of multiple physical properties. This outlines the divide between the classic macro world (in which we know and operate in), and the micro world to which our knowledge isn’t completely applicable to.

Returning to the container again, what about cooling it to absolute zero? Remember, we want to remove all the thermal energy. Can you see the problem here? If we chill the container to absolute zero, this would have the particles of the container completely still. If a particle is completely still, than we know its position and momentum precisely. This is a no-no. We are not allowed to know where it is, and where it is going and the same time. Uncertainty rears its ugly principle again.

Referring back to the beginning of this article, when the question was asked, ‘does nothing exist? The most correct answer is ‘not exactly’.

Buddhist Emptiness

As I have delved into the science of the atom, and Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, I wish to delve into Buddhist emptiness a little more as well. My reason is to demonstrates the parallel that can be drawn between the philosophy of emptiness and the findings of science.

Emptiness in Buddhism has a very elusive meaning. In fact many people get the idea wrong, even practicing monks. Emptiness cannot be taken superficially, as some may find in meditation, where your mind goes blank and you experience peacefulness and calmness. This is not emptiness. People that meditate often misconstrue this effect. They believe they’ve achieved enlightenment though this kind of experience. But this state is caused, by the mind, through the intent of concentration, and because it lasts as long as the concentration, it is necessarily a product of thought, not a deep and true realization. Remember, emptiness has nothing to do with what mind adds or takes away. 

Buddhism is not about a state of bliss, or quietude of mind, or denying a world or self, but rather uncovering the way things are—clearing things out of the way to have a realization of the truth of reality. 

This realization in Buddhism comes from three ideas:

  • Impermanence – that things change naturally, without warning. everything comes and goes. Sometimes things are good, then they are bad. But they do not last permanently in either condition. Nothing is permanent. 
  • This is congruent to the finding of the vacuum state in quantum theory. Energy in a field is always in flux, never permanent in one state over another. Never reaching zero.
  • Realization of suffering – that nothing is worth clinging to because of impermenence. This is non-attachment to phenomenon, the avoidance of stress from expectation, want and control. Existence ebbs and flows and although we can effect control, generally reality is uncontrollable.
  • We attach to idea’s of something and nothing, binary distinctions that are an illusion, illusions that are made very good use of in science mind you. But remember, science isn’t about truth, it is about understanding. If you want truth, it is apart from knowledge. How to connect with truth is your own path to seek.
  • Non-Being – everything has ‘no being’ unto itself entirely. Everything is contingent upon everything else. Interconnected. 

Form is not form. Emptiness is exactly Form. Atoms are mostly empty space, and what is left is fields, fields that connect across the cosmos. This is not denying reality, this is supporting a larger view of it, a realization of its truth. 

Buddhist theory goes onto to describe emptiness as a lack of the Five Aggregates (Parts). Lack of:

  • Form – Material substance.
  • Sensations – sensory experience of an object; pain, peacefulness, happiness, calmness, craving.
  • Perceptions – mental forms, that which is recognized, and comprehensible.
  • Judgement – Thought constructs and held views that cause action, our summation and reactions to things.
  • Consciousness – the part of reality that knows, that is aware. That which arises with ideas of Form due to contact with the five senses.

These Five aggregates when emptied of their permanence, desire, and own- being, leave behind truth of reality. It like cleaning a dirty window, it allows you to see ‘what is’ better.

Please do not feel that Buddhism discounts our attendance to reality, it just tries to show more of it. It tries to reveal that products of thought are not the ultimate truth of reality. This is the message. The message of emptiness. 

Emptiness then is full, a fullness that is potential, a potential to be something, and is, but always more and less than something as well.

This may be confusing, and it is. Zen Buddhists work with the idea of emptiness even more vigorously, confronting its mystery with mind-numbing koan study. The study of cryptic interchanges in the form of dialogues between past zen masters and their pupils. 

What they wrestle with is ideas of duality and non-duality, as it pertains to emptiness (or doesn’t pertain). And so this is the challenge, how to teach emptiness? 

Duality and non-duality

Science is the study of the natural world. An intellectual and practical account of the nature of things. Using observation and experimentation, science investigates the behavior of our world on a variety of differing scales; from the immensity of outer space to the micro world of atoms. 

And just as a solar system has standard elements of stars, planets, moons and debris, so too does matter have molecules, atoms, subatomic particles and fields.

Science has branches of itself that stop at these various levels. And so the scientific view of the physical is very dualistic. It affirms thingness, an ultimately atomism; the theory that minute, discrete, indivisible, mental determinations are the ultimate constituents of matter.

It affirms atomism despite being faced with the conundrum that particles are waves, yet waves are not really particles. To science, everything has ‘thingness’, which is convenient for comprehension, but not a complete truth.

Outside ideas of electron, proton, neutron, quark, field, QFT, etc., scientific study has stumbled upon a more fundamental phenomena. The phenomenon shows signs that it lacks ‘distinctiveness’ or  ‘thingness’. Science is in a denial of sorts, having uncovered its own philosophically problem, then turning away from it. Which it has to do, because you don’t get funding from wrestling with Philosophy. 

Science admits to the problem its uncovered by describing atomic phenomena as ‘wave-particle duality’. It sounds impressive to the laymen, but they must cringe everytime they here it—the word ‘duality’ is the other shoe dropping for science. This is where eastern philosophy takes the baton and continues running. Leaving science behind to juggle waves and particles endlessly, because it has to keep its investigation based on knowledge. It can’t account for ‘suchness’, so it accepts an echo of it instead. The rub here is that the atomic world is not dual, it is not even non-dual, these are distinctions in knowledge, which is not the quality of ‘suchness’. 

Emptiness is fundamentally indeterminate and uncertain. But this is in no way empty, or lacking, but rather Full (with a capital ‘F’). What is lacking is the premise of knowledge, and so if that is what you seek, then your road is short and ends with a philosophical paradox.

Here’s our double-bind, we are thinkers that have the unique ability to comprehend the universe, but knowledge is a limitation in its understanding; logic and reason and all that is sensible is just the surface of reality. It’s depth is emptiness, which is better understood, I believe, as fullness. 

And so it makes me wonder, if a word like emptiness is causing confusion and wrong realization of the truth of reality, dispense of the word. I know it’s steeped in tradition, and given by the Buddha, and is the impetus of every koan in zen, but if it confuses, let it go. Burn the ancient words, just as you wish to burn conventional understanding to gain a realization. Burn it all for emptiness.