Summer 2016 /Keeping the Faith/

The Meaning of Emptiness

It was the idea of “emptiness” that drew Professor of Religious Studies Zhiru Ng to Buddhism. Now she delights in introducing students to the difficult concept.


WHEN ASKED WHAT she would save if the building were on fire, Professor of Religious Studies Zhiru Ng looks around for a moment at her office in Pearsons Hall. Like most academic offices, it is full of accumulated objects, big and small. There are two large, beautifully carved Buddhas, a hanging scroll with calligraphed

Chinese characters saying, in loose translation, “Serenity illuminates,” and a long wall of bookshelves packed with volumes and small religious items, including a painted statuette of Dizang, a figure in Buddhist mythology about whom she has written a scholarly book.

Finally she points to her bookshelf. “I think my books are very much a part of me,” she says, “because to me, meditation is learning.” But then she shrugs and smiles. “Although if there is a fire, there is a fire.”

Sentimental attachments are not a part of Ng’s world. Her world is one of transience and acceptance. Or as she would say, emptiness. Not a very heartwarming word in English, and she says it’s pretty much the same in Chinese. But for Ng, emptiness isn’t something to be avoided. It’s something to be understood and embraced, even if it takes a lifetime of meditation and study.

As an example of what she means by the word, she points to the larger of the two Buddhas, inherited along with the office from her predecessor, Professor Emerita of Religion Margaret Dornish. “Like this Buddha,” she says. “Every day it is aging and it is undergoing change, right? But we don’t see that. We see it as a fixed form. … So emptiness is not saying there is nothing, but rather that the essence of things and of our lives themselves and the events in our lives are like this Buddha. They seem to have a fixed nature, but the nature is really never, ever fixed. It is in constant change, even though the naked eye can’t see it.”

And blind faith in permanence, she believes, has serious consequences for the human condition. “I think all human beings—the way we function in life is that we assume a permanence about everything, and that is the cause and root of a lot of our suffering.”

It was these concepts—all encapsulated by the word “emptiness”—that propelled Ng from simple curiosity about Buddhist traditions to a lifetime devoted to study and contemplation. “The first dharma talk I attended was by the person who would become my religious teacher,” she recalls. “And he was talking about emptiness, which was at that time totally over and beyond my head. But I w remember, after the lecture, the friend who brought me there asked me, ‘So how was it?’ And I said, ‘I don’t quite understand it, but I’m very sure this is it, and this is something that I am going to pursue in life, and that someday, I’m going to understand this emptiness, and that will change my life.’”

GROWING UP IN SINGAPORE as a child of Chinese immigrants, Ng thought of Christianity as the religion of the educated, but personally, she found it too harsh and too culturally strange to be attractive. Her mother and grandmother, on the other hand, practiced a form of popular Chinese Buddhism known as Pure Land Buddhism that the skeptical young Ng dismissed as naïve and superstitious.

At school, she started off in the sciences, and then won a competitive government scholarship for a special program designed to produce English teachers. There, in classes of two to five students taught by British expatriates with doctorates, she fell in love with English literature. “Literature really made me explore life,” she explains, “because in English literature, or any kind of literature, I think, you’re going to raise the question of suffering. You’re going to raise the question of the meaning of life. You also raise the question of death, and the impermanence of life always runs through all their writing. And I was struck by that, but I also felt deeply that there was never really an answer.”

Then, during her last year of high school, her grandmother died, and Ng’s life changed. “When I attended the funeral, I became enthralled by the death-and-dying rituals,” she says, “because they talk about how you will be born into what is considered a pure land, and in that pure land, you have as your parents the lotus flowers.”

That peculiar image intrigued her, partly because it seemed to signal a release from the burden of filial piety, a Chinese tradition emphasizing the deep respect and devotion children owe their parents. “Filial piety is very, very much something I was raised with,” she says. “But I always felt guilt that I never really loved my parents as much as they loved me. And so, when I participated in those rituals, my grandmother’s death rituals, and I came across those verses, I was fascinated. Because how could my parents then be lotuses? And that actually started me off on my journey.”

As she continued her English studies at the National University of Singapore, she tried to learn more about Buddhism outside the academic setting. She signed up for classes with a Buddhist monk from Taiwan and was drawn deeper and deeper into Buddhist philosophy, which spoke to her as nothing ever had before.

She says: “I found, actually, in my study of Buddhism, that this is something that holds some answers for my existential questioning as to: What is the meaning of life? Why do people suffer? And how do we respond to people suffering? … I found that teaching to be very useful, but also very hard to realize. I wanted to dedicate my life to the study of Buddhism, whatever that means. So I decided after I finished my undergraduate studies that I would become a Buddhist nun.”

Since then, she’s never looked back. “Sometimes students ask me why do I become a monastic,” she says, “because in the modern world monasticism really means you are tying yourself down. We have lots of rules and regulations. … But in early Buddhism, the idea of monasticism really means to go forth. It’s a path of liberation, in the sense that you put down things that are unnecessary baggage, and that allows you then to pursue this path. So it’s really a renunciation of certain patterns of thought. For some people like me, I guess, the monastic life is the perfect path to do that. Ideally in Buddhism, the monastic life should be an environment that really nurtures that kind of inner liberation.”

As a monastic, Ng continued on a spiritual journey that carried her from Singapore to Taiwan for her religious training, and then, unexpectedly, to the United States. “Originally I imagined that I would be going to maybe India or to Sri Lanka to study after my religious training, but my teacher actually was very specific. He really wanted me to come to the States.”

At the University of Michigan, she studied Indian Buddhism in the canonical languages of Sanskrit and Tibetan. Then she completed her doctoral studies at the University of Arizona, focusing on Chinese and Japanese Buddhism. In 2000, she joined Pomona’s religious studies faculty to replace the retiring Professor Dornish.


TODAY, STRIDING ACROSS the Quad or standing in front of a seminar class, Ng cuts a striking figure. With her tightly cropped hair and purple-gray monastic robes, she has become a familiar if somewhat singular presence on campus. Her classes—such as Worlds of Buddhism, Life Story of the Buddha, Religious Traditions of China, and the Lotus Sutra in East Asia—attract a wide range of students, from religious studies majors connecting the dots between world religions to Asian Americans hoping to get a better grasp of their cultural heritage to religious seekers searching for spiritual clues in Eastern thought.

“My colleagues say that they probably have fewer seekers than I do,” she says, “and I think that has to do with the way Buddhism is portrayed and understood in American culture, in the sense that Buddhism is often seen as a religion that’s less institutionalized, a personal religion, something that you could actually pick and choose from.”

But despite her evident dedication to her religious order, Ng isn’t trying to convert anyone. Buddhism, she says, is not that kind of religion. “Buddhism is really about epistemology,” she explains, “in the sense that you’re trying to unlearn how you know the world and coming up with a different way of experiencing knowing the world that involves internal transformation. I always tell my students that we wear contact lenses, but we don’t see the contact lenses, so we already have preconceived constructions of things. So it’s always very good to expose yourself to something new.”

For most of the students in her classes, those “contact lenses” are shaped by the assumptions of Western culture—assumptions about life and death, time and change that are very different from those in Buddhist thought. “Much of what I do in my courses is about unpacking these kinds of assumptions with my students so that they are aware. And I think it fits very nicely into the liberal arts setting because you are really questioning culture and questioning the way you construct knowledge, including religious knowledge.”

Indeed, at a time when many religions—from Christianity to Hinduism—are dealing with a clash between the dogmatic teachings of churches, temples and seminaries and the more irreverent, scholarly approach of religious studies programs, Ng finds that Buddhism is something of an exception. The first stage of meditation, she says, is described in Buddhist texts as “hearing”—as in hearing the teachings of the Buddhist masters—but that word was part of an oral tradition. “Now for us hearing really means reading, right?” she says. “So it means studying, in other words.”

For most of her students, this first stage of meditation—study and learning—will be as far as they go, but she believes that just wrestling with the concept of emptiness for a semester is enough to open a lot of eyes to a wider view of the world.

“When they first come across this, especially if they have never had any exposure to Asian thought, they might be a little bit perplexed,” she says. “It’s very difficult to get to the crux of it. But I think you’ll be surprised at how many of them feel that this is such a wonderful, different way of looking at things. And they enjoy the new lenses that it gives them.”

However, that is only the first step in what is, for Ng herself, a lifelong process. In Buddhist meditation, beyond hearing is contemplation, and beyond contemplation is internal transformation. That process, she says, may take a lifetime or—if you factor in the concept of rebirth—lifetimes. But Ng has no doubt that it’s worth it, not just in the end, but at every step along the way.

“It means not grasping onto anything in your life,” she says, “but accepting the fact that it is part of the impermanence, and rejoicing in the fact that there’s always that change. It’s a rejoicing that is not like happiness that brings you up and down, but it’s a rejoicing in the sense that this is life, and life itself is already enough as it is, and that it has all its miracles. And if you just open your eyes and look at this and accept the changes, you will find a lot of things that are joyous about it, and you will be much more at peace in your life.”

—Photos by Carrie Rosema