Rethink Emptiness : the Prerequisite for Simple Living

Minimalist Monday has gone live for a month now. This is the first weekly series that I decided to write about. And I did so with a reason.

Simple Living is a lifestyle, a mindset, and a practice, that I deem prerequisite for a happy life. One cannot experience his big juicy life with the pressure to cash out, the lust of acquisition, and the fear of not making it. A horse cannot run wild in the green field with chained legs.

Vietnam, my country, is a developing country. Our poverty standard is twice lower than the world’s standard, yet according to it, there are many living in poverty. I grew up in a small apartment of a rundown building and early on understood my parents’ struggle to make ends meet. My mother was born in a poor family of 5 kids. Her father – my grandfather – was veteran of the Vietnam War, and before that, an orphan who, at the age of five,  swept the temple’s yard at dusk and slept alone under the Buddha statue at dawn. My grandfather, my mother, and thousands of other grandfathers and mothers needed to bring home every means possible, so that their kids wouldn’t starve, and maybe would have one more piece of meat in their bowls. That struggle is beautiful.

The society has changed, at least in many bigger cities in Vietnam, and I hope in your country too. This new society needs new mindset and new way to think about possessions. To run blindly after money is like a bug that flies idly, hypnotized by the luminous light, and ultimately burns itself dry. It is sad that very few young people understand this truth. Many spin and squint around during the day like an overly-exposed nocturnal creatures, doing what they hate, or worse doing what they neither hate nor like, to fill up their closets, fill up their rooms, fill up their wallets – only to choke themselves in the dark lust to fill in more. They are afraid of emptiness and desperately try to fill in more. Only that it’s never enough.

During my practice of simple living, it dawned on me that the love for emptiness is the fertile ground for simplicity to blossom.

Music is the space between the notes.

This was said by the famous French composer Claude Debussy – a master of music himself. Space itself is emptiness.



We often dislike this notion. We associate emptiness with bleakness. But in fact, emptiness is the ground of everything. Without emptiness, nothing is possible. And thanks to emptiness, everything is possible – this is a Buddhist teaching I learnt in Awakening the Heart by the Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh.  He explains that: “If we are not empty, we become a block of matter. We cannot breathe, we cannot think. To be empty means to be alive, to breathe in and to breathe  out.” Emptiness is the prerequisite for change. A cup cannot function as a cup if it’s not empty. Nor does a sheet of paper, a table, a bed, a closet, a room, a house. Yet we cram our precious space in every conceivable way. Thus we return home after a long day, instead of relaxing – emptying ourselves – to wake up tomorrow anew, we get stuck in our stuffs.

I live in a busy city and my house is made of cement, maybe so do you and so do many of us. We are accustomed to the metropolitan square boxes, glassed doors and grey walls. Our eyes rarely stretch beyond the traffic lights. Have you ever asked yourself why does it feel so good to stand in front of the ocean, toes dipping in the moist sand? Or to lie down on the green grass gazing the sky? Or to breathe in the smell of rice and dirt as you stand in front of a rice field that runs beyond the horizon?


Because there is space.

There is emptiness.

The ocean, the sky, the rice field, the horizon, they always bring me an exhilarating sense of freedom, of oneness, of being in direct contact with the benevolent immensity and infinity of life. So empty; yet so full – full of everything.

There is one scene in the movie “Little Buddha” when the Tibetan monks walk in the house of the child they believed to be the reincarnation of Buddha. They stand in the big, white and empty living room, look around, smile and utter that a room can’t be empty if a person’s soul is not.

When we treasure the space in our house – which mirrors the quiet peace in our soul – we began to be stingy of space. The space now is as valuable as any item we can purchase, or even more. And we start buying mindfully, bringing home stuff that makes us truly happy, stuff that re-energize us, and stuff that deserves the preciousness of our space.

Music is the space between the notes.

I admire Debussy’s remark and would like to take the liberty to expand it further:

Life is the space between the actions. And house is the  space between one item and the next. zen-simplicity-life-written-minimalist

What about you?

Simply look around.

Couple this read with one more article on Minimalist Monday.

Come back next Monday for more wisdoms and instructions on the art of simple living.

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