Emptiness, Death, and Coming Home

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When I was seventeen I left home. I filled a knapsack with camping gear and clothes and tied it onto the back of my little 125cc Vespa motor scooter and headed west across America. I felt courageous as I putted along on back roads that first day, freed from my emptiness roadchildhood and excited to find the adventures that lay ahead. When evening came, I pulled over into a rural cemetery and found a place out of sight where I could pitch my pup tent.

After eating a sandwich and the last of my mother’s cookies, I leaned back against a gravestone and watched the shadows of night approach. That’s when it hit me: the most unbearable fear and homesickness. I wasn’t afraid of the dead buried around me; I was afraid of the emptiness I had launched myself into. No mother, no father, no comfortable old house around me, no cozy bed, nothing to remind me who I was. I was alone in a terrifying, empty aloneness.

Zen master Katagiri Roshi describes emptiness as “the eternal heart of human existence,” and the direct experience of emptiness as “nothing to depend on.” That’s how it felt to me in that cemetery: there was nothing I could depend on, and it was scary.

Speaking to Zen students just starting out in their practice, Katagiri explains this state:

"You are scared because you see and touch the bottom of human existence, which is based on emptiness, but simultaneously your human consciousness understands that emptiness objectively. The objectivity of your conscious mind sees your life as separate from that nothing, and it makes you scared. Maybe nothingness looks like an abyss, or a black hole that will suck you in. You are in despair; you feel everything is in vain. But in that moment there is a great opportunity, because you are in the very incipient stage of tasting emptiness directly through your experience. So keep going!"

Even though at seventeen I would have had no idea what he was talking about, I did keep going.

In the following years I repeatedly came to the edge of that same scary place I experienced in the cemetery—I seemed almost drawn to it. Psychedelics and then spiritual practice kept bringing me there. And yet I was certain that beyond that edge was a self-obliterating emptiness, death itself, and when it came close I recoiled in fear.

It wasn’t until I could walk into that fear—or let it walk into me—and not recoil, that I glimpsed what Katagiri meant: emptiness is the eternal heart of human existence. Emptiness isn’t a nullity, a voidness of being. It is Being itself: clear, open, aware, and infinitely present. The experience of emptiness is indeed self-obliterating—that’s what feels scary about it—but what is obliterated has all the reality of a dream. What’s “left” is home: the true home of me, the true home of you: clear, open, aware, present. It’s not a home with walls; it’s not a place or thing of any kind, and yet it is utterly familiar, more familiar than any worldly home we’ve ever lived in.

It’s been sixty years since I leaned back on that gravestone in the cemetery. Now the long scooter ride of my life is heading into its final distances, with death my last stop. I understand how scary death is for many of us—the prospect of vanishing, the end of all we’ve known—emptiness!

Since I talk a lot about this business, I’m often asked, “But what actually happens when we die? Is there a heaven? Do we “go home” like people say? Is a divine home going to be there when I die?”

Every cell of my being assures me that it will, yes. But it’s not like we think. It’s not a destination; it’s not a home beyond, a home separate from us now in space and time. We don’t actually “go to a there”: we come to here. Death, emptiness, self-obliteration is a homecoming, not a homegoing. As Rumi tells us:

On the day I die,
when I am being carried toward the grave,
don’t weep.
Don’t say, He’s gone. He’s gone.
Death has nothing to do with going away.
The sun sets and the moon sets,
but they are not gone.
Death is a coming together…

Just as I had to walk into my fear of emptiness, the voiding of my sense of being a me, in order to glimpse the eternal heart of human existence that’s been here all along, so too do we all have to walk into the fear of death, of vanishing, to realize that the divine home beyond death has been here all along: right here, now. Death has nothing to do with going away.

We’re home, already. I believe that coming home as we die is the same homecoming that we experience in our moments of spiritual realization. Nothing moves. It’s here. We’re already home.