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Ernest Hemingway and Emptiness

Ernest Hemmingway and Emptiness (Shunyata)

AmBud3This one is the second guest posting by Dr. Douglas Gentile, who writes the American Buddhist blog at  He has been training in multiple Buddhist traditions since about 1989.  In his professional life he is an award-winning researcher, author, and university professor. His previous guest post on the DailyBuddhism was “What Does Meditation Do?”

Ernest Hemingway and Emptiness (Shunyata)

By Douglas Gentile

In 1933, Ernest Hemmingway wrote a three-page short story, titled A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.  It’s a masterpiece of writing technique, and valuable for study simply for that.  But for such a short piece, it is a profound description of the human condition as it relates to the Buddhist concept of Śūnyatā, which is often translated as emptiness or nothingness.

Westerners often become acquainted with this when hearing how Buddhists talk about non-self or egolessness.  This is a difficult concept, and it usually gets misinterpreted in one of at least two ways.  It can sound like Buddhists think you don’t actually exist, or that Buddhism is nihilistic and that there is no meaning to anything.  This is incorrect.  Buddhism does not deny that you or anything else exists, but instead that everything exists dependently on everything else and is constantly changing – so there isn’t a solid “thing” that is you.  You are different in each new situation and with each passing moment.  Furthermore, this understanding makes it clear that everything is actually much moremeaningful than we usually realize.  If we are interconnected with everything else, then our actions matter for more than just ourselves.

Nonetheless, it is definitely disconcerting when you stare this truth in the face.  Realizing that everything you think you are is not accurate, that there is nothing solid and unchanging, and that there is nothing about you that is really “you” can be terrifying.  What happens when you come face to face with this nothingness?  Hemmingway describes three paths.  I recommend reading the story right now by clicking here.

There are three characters, the old man customer, the young waiter, and the old waiter.  Each has a different approach to dealing with the inherent emptiness of existence.

The Old Man

“Last week he tried to commit suicide,” one waiter said.
“He was in despair.”
“What about?”

Facing the inherent instability of existence, what Pema Chodron often calls “groundlessness,” the “fundamental ambiguity,” or sometimes the “fundamental anxiety of being human,” is scary.  I had a student who could easily be reduced to a terrified puddle of nonfunctionality any time she considered the fragility of her existence.  Indeed, there are whole branches of psychology (e.g., Terror Management Theory) devoted to describing this fear and our reaction to it.   The old man typifies one reaction – he despairs.

“He’s drunk now,” he said.
“He’s drunk every night.”

The old man tries to numb himself to the nothingness, and when even that doesn’t work, he leaps into it trying to annihilate himself.

The Young Waiter

“I wish he would go home.  I never get to bed before three o’clock. What kind of hour is that to go to bed?”
“He stays up because he likes it.”
“He’s lonely.  I’m not lonely.  I have a wife waiting in bed for me.”

The young waiter exemplifies another typical response – he works harder to hold onto his selfish point of view.  He clings to the perception that his way of seeing things is right and others are the selfish ones.

“I wouldn’t want to be that old. An old man is a nasty thing.”
“Not always.  This old man is clean.  He drinks without spilling.  Even now, drunk.  Look at him.”
“I don’t want to look at him.  I wish he would go home.  He has no regard for those who must work.”

He refuses to look at truth.  Although the young waiter will get old like the customer, he wants instead only to rush off, distracting himself constantly and believing that his point of view is solid.  When confronted with the difficulties of life, compassion, and uncertainty, he rejects them and cloaks himself in confidence.

“No,” the waiter who was in a hurry said, rising from pulling down the metal shutters. “I have confidence. I am all confidence.”

The young waiter is a personification of Avidyā, or ignorance. Traditionally, this is one of the “three poisons,” and is taken to mean a fundamental misunderstanding of the self as separate and solid. This is the not-knowing aspect of ignorance. The young waiter also demonstrates another aspect, however – the ignoring aspect of ignorance. He clings to his perceptions and actively ignores seeing anything else.

The Old Waiter

“I am of those who like to stay late at the café,” the older waiter said. “With all those who do not want to go to bed. With all those who need a light for the night.”
“I want to go home and into bed.”
“We are of two different kinds,” the older waiter said. He was now dressed to go home. “it is not only a question of youth and confidence although those things are very beautiful. Each night I am reluctant to close up because there may be some one who needs the café.”

The old waiter demonstrates a more mature and wise approach. He does not deny the fear that comes with the fundamental groundlessness of existence – indeed, he feels it deeply.

What did he fear? It was not a fear or dread. It was a nothing that he knew too well. It was all a nothing and a man was a nothing too. It was only that and light was all it needed and a certain cleanness and order. Some lived in it and never felt it but he knew it was all nada y pues nada y nada y pues nada. Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name…

This is perhaps a type of right view – seeing things as they are. There is nothing to hold on to, and there is nothing outside ourselves that can fix that. Nonetheless, shining a light on it helps – in contrast to ignoring it or masking it with external stimulation and diversion (“Certainly you do not want music.”) You want to stand before it with dignity, and when you do you see that it is not as scary as it first seems. In fact, it has a type of orderliness to it that can be reassuring. Some of the fear comes from the words we use – we focus on words like emptiness, nothingness, and groundlessness. Instead, we could just as easily say “freedom.” Because we are not solid, we have much more freedom to act, react, and feel than we usually believe.

He disliked bars and bodegas. A clean, well-lighted café was a very different thing. Now, without thinking further, he would go home to his room. He would lie in the bed and finally, with daylight, he would go to sleep. After all, he said to himself, it’s probably only insomnia. Many must have it.

The old waiter still feels the anxiety. He cannot sleep in the dark. But he also recognizes that he is not alone – many must have this fear. For me, here is the heart of this parable. The old waiter not only can accept his own anxiety, but he has compassion for all others and the ways in which they deal with it, and he is willing to stay open later at night in case there is one whom he can help. This is the bodhisattva ideal – that as we achieve enlightenment, we remain open to help others who can benefit from it.

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