Enough for the day: emptiness and fullness

monk with incense bowl

I love ancient words that touch upon present experiences, if for no other reason than greeting again those deep recurring human themes. Advaita is the Sanskrit word meaning “not-two”; a reference to the interconnection of all things. The Patra vessels engage the dialectic of non-duality. They span the divide between the outer world of concrete forms and individual inner realities, matter and spirit, emptiness and fullness, self and other. The space inside is as the space outside, not-two, not separable.

If we shift our thinking and see not just the physical object itself, but instead the object exposed to our, thoughts, recollections, and questionings, the “reality” of the bowl exists both within and without. Its meaning is built upon a personal framework and has myriad  potentialities. The shapes of our individual constructs of “vessel” are different because we each bring something uniquely to it, merging inside and out. As I mentioned in an earlier blog entry, the object is both what we see and how we see it.

James Hillman in his compilation of essays, Alchemical Psychology, uses alchemy as a way to develop images for expressions of the psyche. Hillman is a renowned author and Jungian psychologist whose work I’ve enjoyed reading for years. His visually rich language is an inspiration and challenge. In one essay Hillman plays with the vessel as a non-dual container for the soul in which personality is being worked. The following is excerpted or paraphrased from his writing:

Vessels both contain and separate. The moment the water from the running tap fills the bucket, the water has taken on shape. Any substance held in a basket or jug has been separated from the undifferentiated bulk simply by virtue of a container. Whatever we deal with has to be held in some way – a particular part needs to be separated out and given recognizable form. Even oceans have their shores. Vessels are the way that we embrace events, store them, style them.

Each vessel has its particular shape. Inside is emptiness. Each vessel is shaped around this emptiness. Because our Western culture declares, “nature abhors a vacuum,” we tend to abhor emptiness. For us the void in the vessel is just that: empty. We regard vessels from the outside. And when valuing the inside, it is then by measure only: how much does it hold?

In Buddhism, the void is less a vacuum than a positive force.  The inside shapes itself around the outer visible form. The “stillness” of the Chinese jar (T.S. Eliot) begins inside; the exquisite shape we see is the stillness emanating from the void. Always this specific void inhabits this specific shape.  Each emptiness has its individual shape and is contained in a quite particular manner. Your void is not my void, and hers is different again. The way a person holds his or her lacunae is already a revelation of what is being held.

Vessels expose the invisible Zeitgeist, the visible formed by the invisible.

Interiority is within all things – the garden bed that is in preparation, the poem that is the focus of attentive emotions. Keep a close watch on these interiorities; by watching we are vesseling.

Hillman’s invented word “vesseling” really inspires me. Using it in verb form makes it an action, not merely a noun denoting an inert object. Vesseling requires enlivened participation. I challenge you to consider the Patra vessel – that visibly contains nothing – as holding all possibilities. Full to the brim and beyond. May this time during the passage bring you opportunities for vesseling.


We join spokes together in a wheel, but it is the center hole that makes the wagon move.

We shape clay into a pot, but it is the emptiness inside that holds whatever we want.

We hammer wood for a house, but it is the inner space that makes it livable.

We work with being, but non-being is what we use.

~Tao Te Ching, Chapter 11, translated by Stephen Mitchell.

3 comments on “Enough for the day: emptiness and fullness

  • Reply
    Iskra Johnson

    Hi Lynda,
    This post is lovely. Hillman is one of my longtime guides, yet I had not read this particular passage before. I like this section especially:
    “The “stillness” of the Chinese jar (T.S. Eliot) begins inside; the exquisite shape we see is the stillness emanating from the void. Always this specific void inhabits this specific shape.”

    I am loving being with my (“my”) Patra vessel and practicing letting it go soon….

  • Reply
    Ann Darling

    Very thought provoking words Lynda. Hmmm – I’m mulling. I am particularly drawn to the Tao Te Ching poem at the end. Thank you.

  • Reply
    Kristin Johnson

    “We shape clay into a pot, but it is the emptiness inside that holds whatever we want.”
    Vessel #97 is no longer empty…(my trick to get family interaction). ;o)

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