To be means to inter-be

Many people think that to be empty means not existing. But it’s not true; emptiness does not mean nonexistence. 

In sutra we recite, “Form is emptiness, and emptiness is form”. 

There is a glass which is not empty because it has some tea in it. Another glass has no tea inside. To be empty or not empty, the glass has to be there – so emptiness does not mean nonexistent. 

The emptiness of the glass does not mean that the glass does not exist; it is empty, but it is there.

It’s like a flower. It’s beautiful, it’s a wonder of life, it’s the kingdom of god – yet the flower is impermanent and empty. But empty does not mean nonexistent. 

When we look deeply into a flower, we have the impression that the flower is full of everything. There is sunshine inside, there’s cloud inside, there is earth, minerals – even our consciousness is in the flower. Time, space, everything… It looks like everything in the cosmos has come together to help the flower to manifest as a wonder. So the fact is, the flower is full of the cosmos.

It’s like a piece of bread that you are about to eat. Eating mindfully, you look at the piece of bread and see that the piece you are holding is the body of the cosmos. Everything is there in the piece of bread: the sky, the Earth, the sun, the clouds. Everything.

When you celebrate the eucharist you say that the bread is the body of Jesus. And when you mindfully put the piece of bread into your mouth you connect with Jesus. Communion. Mindfulness allows the miracle of communion, of connection to happen.

In the Buddhist tradition, we say that the piece of bread is the body of the cosmos because it contains all of the cosmos within it. The flower also contains the whole cosmos, and the flower is full of the cosmos.

But why did the bodhisattva say that everything is empty? We can ask the bodhisattva: “Dear bodhisattva, you said that everything is empty but we can see that everything is full of the cosmos.” To be empty means to be empty of something. ☁️

This glass is empty of tea. Right. But it is full of air. So the intelligent question is: “Empty of what?”

Mister bodhisattva, you say that everything is empty of what? It’s full of the cosmos. And the bodhisattva will smile and say: “It is empty of a separate existence, it is full of everything else.”

But it doesn’t have a separate existence, because a flower cannot be by herself alone. The flower is made of non-flower elements: sunshine is a non-flower element, cloud is a non-flower element, and a multitude of non-flower elements come together to produce a flower. So a flower cannot be by herself alone.

To be means to inter-be. A flower has to inter-be – with the sunshine, the cloud, with everything else. She doesn’t have a separate existence.

So being means interbeing. Existing means coexisting. So a flower cannot be a flower by itself alone. It has to interfere with everything else; to be means to inter-be. 🌼        

[This transcript has been edited for readability.]

Watch the short teaching here:


  1. Understanding The magic of the interconnectedness of the World is the biggest blessing one can have. Which simultaneously makes you as strong as the strongest material and as soft as the softest cloud.
    Tay brings alive these simple concepts that transform lives.

  2. To me interbeing is one of the most comforting and joyful of Buddhist teachings. Thank you, Thay, for continuing to remind us that nothing exists without everything existing.

    1. Thank you, Susan 🙏. We are happy that you find joy in the teachings ✨

      A lotus for you,
      The Plum Village App team

  3. I find the teaching of emptiness one of the most important lessons, and it has helped me a lot get through the feelings of loneliness that were triggered by the pandemic. It has helped better understand how things sometimes “feel” empty but are not always so. Tibetan Buddhism touches on the cycles of things – creation/existence, destruction/chaos, nothingness. It rounds and rounds again, from nothing there is something. From something, nothingness returns. Thay and Plum Village have made it possible for me to process what this means in a way that makes sense, and I am so happy that it helps others too. I don’t know where I would be if I hadn’t started the path.

    1. Beloved friend,

      It brings a smile to our hearts, knowing that the teachings help you, especially now during these times of the pandemic. We are very fortunate that Thay has shared many great teachings with the world. Helping us to understand ourselves, others, and the world better.

      Thank you for walking with us 🙏,

      The Plum Village App team

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