Meditation in Emptiness

By Dr. Tan Kheng Khoo



" In true meditation there is no meditator or object of meditation.

In true meditation there is no goal, not even for enlightenment.

In true meditation, the silence, stillness and emptiness will lead to I-am-ness

In true meditation the transcendence of I-am-ness will lead to beingness. 

Beingness is the impersonal witnessing of all events.

In true meditation, beingness will finally be dissolved to Cosmic Consciousness."

Dr. K.K.Tan 



There are many paths and meditation techniques pursued by millions of people. The most popular pursuit is to look for a guru who can perform some ‘miracles’. If he can materialize some ash or trinkets, if his teachings are irrelevant, it does not matter as most of the devotees would rather be entertained. If the guru is also healer, his teachings are taken as gospel, even though the teachings maybe that of self-aggrandizement. Devotional and social services with rituals are also easy to follow. These devotees behave like sheep. So to those who perform complicated rituals: the more complicated they are the more attractive they will be. What about the methods of meditation? They are usually of the concentration types, narrowing of the minds. These are useful for healing and for calming down the individual, but there is not much wisdom arising from these concentration techniques. The methods here are concentrating solely on one object, chanting, and reciting of mantras. They end up with the mind and the object becoming one and the practitioner does not go beyond the mind. Therefore these techniques do not lead to self-realization. They do not lead us to enlightenment. This essay is purely to discuss ways to realize one’s soul.

The Aim

Let us remind ourselves that the soul is pure consciousness, which is part of Cosmic Consciousness. However it is covered by its 5 sheaths (see essay on the Anatomy of the Soul) and attached to the hitherto accumulated karma and samskaras. These dictate delusion and ignorance around the soul. In order to realize our soul we cannot travel towards it because it has always been with us. We cannot travel to a place when we are already there. We cannot work to perceive it because the ‘the eye cannot see the eye’. We just have to Be without trying. It is like ‘waiting without waiting’. We must stop identifying ourselves with the body and mind. That is why the true path always emphasizes that the body and mind are not Self.

Spiritual Disciplines

After prolonged Insight Meditation we would have arrived at emptiness of thoughts with silence and stillness. This interval between 2 thoughts may be extended to a prolonged visit to our primordial state of voidness, which is like viewing of our ‘original face before we are born.’ But this is not yet ‘home’. We have not fully realized the soul yet. It is only a preview. The letting go must be more profound and the surrender must be total. This is at a stage when the mind is suppressed. The function of the mind is to think, and at this stage thoughts are held at abeyance, but the soul is not realized yet. In order to realize the soul one must go beyond the mind towards I-am-ness and then to beingness. Beingness may be realized through correct meditation and Divine reasoning. In this practice one must give up completely any desire, craving or expectations. Just let it be. Flow with the Tao. The practice is to be in the ‘now’. One must be always in the present, moment to moment. Trying to be steadfast on this path of choiceless awareness one must also not have any negative reaction like anger, hatred, frustration and irritations. Pride and selfishness also are insidious poisons to be vehemently avoided. Then when we finally realise our pure consciousness by non-doing, we are able then to have an inkling of the timeless Cosmic Consciousness, its immensity and bliss. This non-dual state is out of time and space. There is no good or bad, black or white or high and low. This pure consciousness of beingness and bliss (soul) appears only intermittently at the beginning, but it will become continuous as the letting go and surrender becomes total. This means that one must understand what constitutes the self. With this understanding, the self is shown to be nothing but memories. Memories are not real. Therefore, one must steadfastly remain in the present all the time. It is only in the present moment that the mind can come to an end. With this practice of merely seeing, hearing and tasting, there is no seer, hearer or taster. In this constant state of the now, the mind is silent. In this silence, one transcends the ego and the mind. The first state in this transcendence is I-am-ness. The next stage is beingness. This pure consciousness can now be continuously with us, except when we have to use thoughts for the execution of our mundane life. That means the body and mind become purely functional. There is no self performing or thinking. This is the time we can use the phrase ‘in the world and not of the world’. This state is still only self-realization and the Ultimate State of Consciousness is yet to be reached. That is another way of saying that realizing the atman one is only at the Brahman stage. The ultimate state is the Parabrahman (the Absolute) where one becomes part of the Cosmic Consciousness.

The Practice

Few spiritual practices can be said to conform to the above trying to break through from dualism to non-dualism. Shikantaza and Dzogchen are 2 such practices. However, these 2 practices will bring us only to self-realisation. No practice can bring anyone to the Absolute or Cosmic Consciousness. It is with Grace that one is allowed to return to the Absolute. That means one just has to wait at the Brahman stage without longing and restlessness. Then when we finally return to the Absolute we rest supreme. This is the eternal state beyond time and space. It is the primordial base of all existence. It is also the Unborn and the Uncreated. It is a continuous flow of Cosmic Consciousness that creates everything in the Universe. It is pure witnessing without a self.


The principle of Dzogchen is the teaching of the nature of the mind, which is ‘voidness’. The method of the path is called self-liberation, because it is based on knowledge and understanding, and the practice is to experience the state beyond the reasoning mind. In Dzogchen, the inherent state of the individual is the primordial base of all existence, which is the original condition of all beings. And this is the true condition of the mind, which is beyond the limits of the intellect, time and space. It is voidness, which is absolutely empty of all things, absent of all substance and phenomena, and there is no self in this state. This is the nature of the mind. This mind is originally purified of all obstacles and negativities, and all attainments and qualities have been realized in its perfection from the very beginning. It has the potential to manifest all forms of energy. It is beyond time and dualism, pure and perfect. If one is ignorant of it, the obscuring veils around this consciousness must be removed.

In Dzogchen not only is this primordial state of the Base void, but it also has 3 characteristics: Essence, Nature and Energy. The Essence is the void, and is the Base condition of all individuals whether they know it or not. It is pure from the beginning, and it is the basis of all manifestations of existence. The primordial state of Nature is clarity. Clarity is the very first phase of perception before mental judgment comes in. It is vivid and present before the mind comes into action. This initial state lasts only a fraction of a second and then memory and qualification enter to spoil the clarity of the state. The third aspect of the Base is Energy. All dimensions, pure or impure, material or subtle, are manifestations of one form or the other of Energy. It manifests without interruption.

These 3 bodies of the Base, Essence, Nature, Energy correspond in the path to the 3 characteristics of the mind: the calm state, movement and presence. The calm state is that when no thoughts are present in the mind. This is the interval between two thoughts and the interval between two states and it is also present in deep sleep. Movement is the arising of thoughts without interruption. These two factors (calm state and movement) are there in all beings. Presence is the awareness of the calm state and movement without judgment. These are the 3 bodies of the path. In Dzogchen’s teaching of self-liberation, one of the methods used is the practitioner ‘meditates without meditating’. Tantra is used in transforming a passion e.g. anger into wisdom. Although at the beginning there is the dualism of anger and wisdom the experienced practitioner at his high level of practice does the following. He does not suppress or transform his anger. He merely observes it without judgment and without emotional overlay. In this fashion, the anger will dissolve by itself as if it has been left in its original condition to liberate itself. That means by utilizing Presence without mental judgment, the individual does not get worked up and no action is taken. That means the Dzogchen practitioner is never distracted maintaining the state of Presence in every moment.


Shikantaza is the final stage of the Soto Zen practice, and it has the same background of voidness as the natural condition beyond one’ s mind. The practice here is to go beyond one’ s mind. In the latest stages of Vipassana (insight meditation), there are no more thoughts and mental chatter associated with silence and stillness. Before one embarks on Shikantaza, it is prudent to practice Vipassana first. In Vipassana, one looks at one’s thoughts at the third eye area. The pictures are looked at calmly without emotional reaction and prejudice. There is no judgment, criticism or praise. There is merely a witnessing of the memories, planning and random thoughts. When they are fully looked at, they will eventually disappear on their own. With this impersonal looking coupled with an understanding of the situation, these thoughts will die off, never to recur again. This must be done with an emotionless viewing as if they belong to some one else. Mental chatter is also a thought. It is a mental movement associated with hearing. This mental commentary can be quite torrential and incessant. Again, if one merely listens without fear, judgment and emotion, the chatter will die off like a blowing away of a storm. Then stillness will emerge. It is not a forced silence as seen in concentration exercises. The emptiness is an opening for pure consciousness to seep through. In the beginning, this interval between two thoughts is very short-lived, but once experienced and maintained, it can be prolonged to a length of time. This is now the beginning of true and real meditation. If at the same time, the process of letting go or peeling of the onion is accelerated, one can begin to practice Shikantaza. In contrast to Vipassana, Shikantaza is not to abide on any object at all. Do not look at any picture that appears at the third eye. At the same time do not listen to any mental chatter. Just ignore all these pictures and mental commentary. In this Shikantaza practice, there is pure witnessing but there is no witness. This witnessing is ‘the one who knows’. The ‘one who knows’ is the Presence that merely watches events of the mind appearing and disappearing in the background of the white sheet. Presence is also there when one is in deep sleep. It is also there between 2 states. It is the background for everything that occurs in the mind. The white sheet is Presence and is also pure consciousness. Satori is the state of break through of pure consciousness into the mind. From thence onwards the unveiling of one’s pure consciousness progresses in stages until the final satori or full enlightenment. The Zen teaching is that even after full enlightenment, the practice continues until death! Being in Cosmic Consciousness daily is like being in Nirvana every day.

Descending down to the Heart Chakra

Some people after being successful in prolonged silence, stillness and emptiness of thoughts tend to bring the focus of attention down to the heart chakra. The attention from the third eye is brought down to the front of the heart. The focussing becomes diffuse. This diffusion is allowing ‘openness’ to settle on the meditator. This openness obliterates the tight focus and then it suffuses into total emptiness. At this stage even good karma and merit must be transcended, as they may become obstructive. In order to progress on the spiritual path, one must go beyond the silent and still mind to retrace back to I-am-ness and thence to beingness (soul). When one has a glimpse of enlightenment, it is called satori in Zen. A slight glimpse is called a mini-satori. As one progresses the glimpses become deeper and more profound, and theses are the mainline progressive satoris. The final stage of practice is Shikantaza proper.

The Non-technique of Shikantaza

In Soto Zen, enlightenment is simultaneous with the wondrous practice of zazen (meditation). The practice of zazen is never ending. Even when one has reached enlightenment, one continues with the practice of zazen as before. According to Dogen, zazen is not a mere means to an end. It is the end itself. This attitude is called wholehearted zazen or Shikantaza, which transcends the distinction between religious practice and enlightenment itself. When one is enlightened, everyday life becomes a religious exercise in expressing our gratitude to the Buddha. According to Dogen, the religious observances for each day express our gratitude toward the patriarch (Buddha). In living everyday the truth, we: "do with our heart what we must do today. Who can know the death of tomorrow?"

Shikantaza Zazen

In zazen, after positioning ourselves in the sitting position, the essence of zazen is "Think of non-thinking". How is this done? By thinking beyond thinking and non-thinking. This is the very basis of zazen.

Zazen is not a step-by-step meditation. It is a practice beyond the subjective and the objective, beyond discriminating mind. There is no distinction between the clever and the stupid. To practice the proper way of zazen singleheartedly is itself enlightenment. There is no difference between the practice and enlightenment, or between zazen and daily life.

Dogen said: Shikantaza is resting in a state of brightly alert attention that is free of thoughts, directed to no object, and attached to no particular content---- is the highest form of zazen, zazen as it were practised by all the Buddhas of the past.

Although Shikantaza literally means merely sitting, it also mandates that there should not be any desire or profit and there should not be a goal of satori. The true sitting of Shikantaza is the transcending of the world and ego. Therefore the meditator must let go totally of the body, emotion and mind for it to be classified as Shikantaza. As in Vipassana the eradication of body, emotion and mind is the point of breakthrough.

Then finally, one may with persistent perseverance arrive at Hishiryo, which is infinite Cosmic Consciousness. This may be achieved only when one is completely empty of memories and previous conditioning. Cosmic Consciousness is not about little worldly things, but it is totally beyond the mind. It is the Sunnata of the Mahayana--- total voidness with clarity.

The Christian interpretation of the same experience by H.N. Enomiya-Lassalle, is: "Satori or enlightenment is a transrational and immediate perception of self in connection with the nondifferentiated view of all created beings--- giving the impression of perfect unity, grasping the authentic self of one’s personality upon dissolution of the empirical ego, and coming into contact with the absolute insofar as it is the source of created being." It is an experience that allows for many variations in intensity and constitution, according to the disposition of the individual; but which is invariably accompanied with joy, peace, certainty, and liberation from fear and doubt.

In Buddhist understanding, satori is a cosmic experience of universal unity opening the way to nothingness. Master Yasutani: Enlightenment means seeing through to your own essential nature and this at the same time means seeing through to the essential nature of the cosmos and of all things. For seeing through to essential nature is the wisdom of enlightenment. One may call essential nature truth if one wants to. In Buddhism, from ancient times it has been called Suchness or Buddha-nature or the One Mind. In Zen it has also been called nothingness, the one hand or one’s original face. The designations may be different, but the content is absolutely the same.

From the weak experience of the first satori one must continue with the practice and obtain numerous satoris until the ultimate one. From the experience of nothingness, one must continue and work hard to achieve the root of nothingness. This Ultimate State of Consciousness is the final enlightenment and the experience of Cosmic Consciousness--- Hishiryo. This is the true essential nature of the cosmos and all things.

In summary, Zen enlightenment means while practising zazen the yogi must try to transcend body, emotion and mind. Shikantaza is the method of meditation and is the last stage of one’s practice. This method means not abiding or resting on any object. Every kind of thought must be allowed to go through one’s mind without working at it or even recognising them. Thoughts are normally of the world or of the self, including our desires, ill will and pride. So if these thoughts are not apprehended for analysis, then the yogi would have already achieved a great deal of letting go. Even if Cosmic Consciousness is achieved the experience is ineffable, that means it cannot be told or explained to some one else. That is why a master, a Roshi, must be there on the spot to recognize the satori.

In conclusion, with a combination of these methods, one may hopefully realize oneself. Throughout the waking hours and outside of formal sitting meditation, one practices mindfulness with moment to moment awareness. This awareness must be choiceless. Then when a negative reaction like anger turns up, tantric Dzogchen is used to transform the negative emotion to wisdom. This method entails no action on the part of the practitioner. He merely observes the change of the negative emotion becoming a spent force. Presence is used for this exercise. This Presence is a mere observation of the anger without judgment or emotional overlay until the anger is spent. Then finally in formal meditation, Shikantaza is the method of practice. Shikantaza is practising to be a pure witness or mirror while meditating. The thoughts and mental chatter are not apprehended: they are allowed to pass through. There is absolutely no emotional reaction in this practice. After prolonged practice, it should bring one to no thoughts and then to the state of emptiness. When prolonged and sustained, this state of emptiness would be realized to be the True Self or the soul. This state of I-am-ness is further transcended to beingness. With Grace beingness is then finally dissolved into Cosmic Consciousness, the Ultimate State of Consciousness. It is now pure bliss, peace and non-dual. It is the Unborn, the Uncreated, and the eternal state of pure consciousness. All these words do not go near to describing the true state!


  1. Namkhai Norbu. Dzogchen, The Self-perfected State. Arkana. 1989.
  2. Yuho Yokoi with Daizen Victoria. Zen Master Dogen.Weatherhill. 1976.
  3. Taisen Deshimaru. Questions to a Zen Master. Rider. 1985.
  4. Heinrich Dumoulin. Zen Enlightenment. Weatherhill. 1979.