by Alan Watts
When I consider the weirdest of all things I can think of, do you
know what it is? Nothing. The whole idea of nothing is something
that has bugged people for centuries, especially in the Western
world. We have a saying in Latin, Ex nihilo nihil fit,
which means, "Out of nothing comes nothing." In other
words, you can't get something out of nothing. It's occurred to
me that this is a fallacy of tremendous proportions. It lies at
the root of all our common sense, not only in the West, but in many
parts of the East as well. It manifests as a kind of terror of nothing,
a putdown on nothing, a putdown on everything associated with nothing
such as sleep, passivity, rest, and even the feminine principle
which is often equated with the negative principle (although women's
lib people don't like that kind of thing, when they understand what
I'm saying I don't think they'll object). To me, nothing—the
negative, the empty—is exceedingly powerful. I would say,
not Ex nihilo nihil fit, but, "You can't have something
How do we basically begin to think about the difference between
something and nothing? When I say there is a cigar in my right hand
and there is no cigar in my left hand, we get the idea of is,
something, and isn't, nothing. At the basis of this reasoning
lies the far more obvious contrast of solid and space. We tend to
think of space as nothing; when we talk about the conquest of space
there's a little element of hostility. But actually, we're talking
about the conquest of distance. Space or whatever it is that lies
between the earth and the moon, and the earth and the sun, is considered
to be just nothing at all.
But to suggest how very powerful and important this nothing at
all is, let me point out that if you didn't have space, you couldn't
have anything solid. Without space outside the solid you wouldn't
know where the solid's edges were. For example, you can see me in
a photograph because you see a background and that background shows
up my outline. But if it weren't there, then I and everything around
me would merge into a single, rather peculiar mass. You always have
to have a background of space to see a figure. The figure and the
background, the solid and the space, are inseparable and go together.
We find this very commonly in the phenomenon of magnetism. A magnet
has a north pole and a south pole— there is no such thing
as a magnet with one pole only. Supposing we equate north with is
and south with isn't. You can chop the magnet into two
pieces, if it's a bar magnet, and just get another north pole and
south pole, another is and isn't, on the end of
What I am trying to get into basic logic is that there isn't a
sort of fight between something and nothing. Everyone is familiar
with the famous words of Hamlet, "To be or not to be, that
is the question." It isn't; to be or not to be is not the question.
Because you can't have a solid without space. You can't have an
is without an isn't, a something without a nothing, a figure without
a background. And we can turn that round, and say, "You can't
have space without solid."
Imagine nothing but space, space, space, space with nothing in
it, forever. But there you are imagining it and you're something
in it. The whole idea of there being only space, and nothing else
at all, is not only inconceivable but perfectly meaningless, because
we always know what we mean by contrast.
We know what we mean by white in comparison with black. We know
life in comparison with death. We know pleasure in comparison with
pain, up in comparison with down. But all these things must come
into being together. You don't have first something and then nothing
or first nothing and then something. Something and nothing are two
sides of the same coin. If you file away the tails side of a coin
completely, the heads side of it will disappear as well. So in this
sense, the positive and negative, the something and the nothing,
are inseparable—they go together. The nothing is the force
whereby the something can be manifested.
We think that matter is basic to the physical world. And matter
has various shapes. We think of tables as made of wood as we think
of pots as made of clay. But is a tree made of wood in the same
way a table is? No, a tree is wood; it isn't made
of wood. Wood and tree are two different names for the same thing.
But there is in the back of our mind, the notion, as a root of
common sense, that everything in the world is made of some kind
of basic stuff. Physicists, through centuries, have wanted
to know what that was. Indeed, physics began as a quest to discover
the basic stuff out of which the world is made. And with all our
advances in physics we've never found it. What we have found is
not stuff but form. We have found shapes. We have found structures.
When you turn up the microscope and look at things expecting to
see some sort of stuff, you find instead form, pattern, structure.
You find the shape of crystals, beyond the shapes of crystals you
find molecules, beyond molecules you find atoms, beyond atoms you
find electrons and positrons between which there are vast spaces.
We can't decide whether these electrons are waves or particles and
so we call them wavicles.
What we will come up with will never be stuff, it will always be
a pattern. This pattern can be described, measured, but we never
get to any stuff for the simple reason there isn't any. Actually,
stuff is when you see something unclearly or out of focus, fuzzy.
When we look at it with the naked eye it looks just like goo. We
can't make out any significant shape to it. But when you put it
under the microscope, you suddenly see shapes. It comes into clear
focus as shape.
And you can go on and on, looking into the nature of the world
and you will never find anything except form. Think of stuff; basic
substance. You wouldn't know how to talk '' about it; even if you
found it, how would you describe what it was like? You couldn't
say anything about a structure in it, you couldn't say anything
about a pattern or a process in it, because it would be absolute,
What else is there besides form in the world? Obviously, between
the significant shapes of any form there is space. And space and
form go together as the fundamental things we're dealing with in
this universe. The whole of Buddhism is based on a saying, "That
which is void is precisely form, and that which is form is precisely
void." Let me illustrate this to you in an extremely simple
way. When you use the word clarity, what do you mean? It
might mean a perfectly polished lens, or mirror, or a clear day
when there's no smog and the air is perfectly transparent like space.
What's the next thing clarity makes you think of? You
think of form in clear focus, all the details articulate and perfect.
So the one word clarity suggests to you these two apparently
completely different things: the clarity of the lens or the mirror,
and the clarity of articulate form. In this sense, we can take the
saying "Form is void, void is form" and instead of saying
is, say implies, or the word that I invented, goeswith.
Form always goeswith void. And there really isn't, in this whole
universe, any substance.
Form, indeed, is inseparable from the idea of energy, and form,
especially when it's moving in a very circumscribed area, appears
to us as solid. For example, when you spin an electric fan the empty
spaces between the blades sort of disappear into a blur, and you
can't push a pencil, much less your finger, through the fan. So
in the same way, you can't push your finger through the floor because
the floor's going too fast. Basically, what you have down there
is nothing and form in motion.
I knew of a physicist at the University of Chicago who was rather
crazy like some scientists, and the idea of the insolidity, the
instability of the physcial world, impressed him so much that he
used to go around in enormous padded slippers for fear he should
fall through the floor. So this commonsense notion that the world
is made of some kind of substance is a nonsense idea—it isn't
there at all but is, instead, form and emptiness.
Most forms of energy are vibration, pulsation. The energy of light
or the energy of sound are always on and off. In the case of very
fast light, very strong light, even with alternating current you
don't notice the discontinuity because your retina retains the impression
of the on pulse and you can't notice the off pulse except
in very slow light like an arc lamp. It's exactly the same thing
with sound. A high note seems more continuous because the vibrations
are faster than a low note. In the low note you hear a kind of graininess
because of the slower alternations of on and off.
All wave motion is this process, and when we think of waves, we
think about crests. The crests stand out from the underlying, uniform
bed of water. These crests are perceived as the things, the forms,
the waves. But you cannot have the emphasis called a crest, the
concave, without the de-emphasis, or convex, called the trough.
So to have anything standing out, there must be something standing
down or standing back. We must realize that if you had this part
alone, the up part, that would not excite your senses because there
would be no contrast.
The same thing is true of all life together. We shouldn't really
contrast existence with nonexistence, because actually, existence
is the alternation of now-you-see-it/now-you-don't, now-you-see-it/now-you-don't,
now-you-see-it/now-you-don't. It is that contrast that presents
the sensation of there being anything at all.
Now, in light and sound the waves are extraordinarily rapid so
that we don't hear or see the interval between them. But there are
other circumstances in which the waves are extraordinarily slow,
as in the alternation of day and night, light and darkness, and
the much vaster alternations of life and death. But these alternations
are just as necessary to the being of the universe as in the very
fast motions of light and sound, and in the sense of solid contact
when it's going so rapidly that we notice only continuity or the
is side. We ignore the intervention of the isn't side, but it's
there just the same, just as there are vast spaces within the very
heart of the atom.
Another thing that goes along with all this is that it's perfectly
obvious that the universe is a system which is aware of itself.
In other words, we, as living organisms, are forms of the energy
of the universe just as much as the stars and the galaxies, and,
through our sense organs, this system of energy becomes aware of
But to understand this we must again relate back to our basic contrast
between on and off, something and nothing, which is that the aspect
of the universe which is aware of itself, which does the awaring,
does not see itself. In other words, you can't look at your eyes
with your eyes. You can't observe yourself in the act of observing.
You can't touch the tip of a finger with the tip of the same finger
no matter how hard you try. Therefore, there is on the reverse side
of all observation a blank spot; for example, behind your eyes from
the point of view of your eyes. However you look around there is
blankness behind them. That's unknown. That's the part of the universe
which does not see itself because it is seeing.
We always get this division of experience into one-half known,
one-half unknown. We would like to know, if we could, this always
unknown. If we examine the brain and the structure of the nerves
behind the eyes, we're always looking at somebody else's brain.
We're never able to look at our own brain at the same time we're
investigating somebody else's brain.
So there is always this blank side of experience. What I'm suggesting
is that the blank side of experience has the same relationship to
the conscious side as the off principle of vibration has
to the on principle. There's a fundamental division. The
Chinese call them the yang, the positive side, and the
yin, the negative side. This corresponds to the idea of
one and zero. All numbers can be made of one and zero as in the
binary system of numbers which is used for computers.
And so it's all made up of off and on, and conscious and unconscious.
But the unconscious is the part of experience which is doing consciousness,
just as the trough manifests the wave, the space manifests the solid,
the background manifests the figure. And so all that side of life
which you call unconscious, unknown, impenetrable, is unconscious,
unknown, impenetrable because it's really you. In other words, the
deepest you is the nothing side, is the side which you don't know.
So, don't be afraid of nothing. I could say, "There's nothing
in nothing to be afraid of." But people in our culture are
terrified of nothing. They're terrified of death; they are uneasy
about sleep, because they think it's a waste of time. They have
a lurking fear in the back of their minds that the universe is eventually
going to run down and end in nothing, and it will all be forgotten,
buried and dead. But this is a completely unreasonable fear, because
it is just precisely this nothing which is always the source of
Think once again of the image of clarity, crystal clear. Nothing
is what brings something into focus. This nothing,
symbolized by the crystal, is your own eyeball, your own consciousness.