Friday, October 8, 2010


Śūnyatā is a difficult and often misunderstood term, and because we have no direct word equivalent in the Western Languages it has been sadly misrepresented by the often used concept that we have labeled as ‘emptiness.’ In reality, śūnyatā signifies that everything we encounter in life is lacking an absolute identity, is impermanent, and does not support a personal self. This is because everything we experience is interdependent and mutually arising–the idea that anything can be wholly self-sufficient or independent is the primary delusion facing all of us as we pass through our lives. All things are in a state of constant flux where energy and information are constantly flowing throughout the natural world giving rise to and themselves undergoing major transformations with the passage of time.

The problem with using such a word as ‘emptiness’ as a substitute for śūnyatā is that it implies that somehow Buddhism is nihilistic. By misrepresenting a complex term like śūnyatā, as well as the other major mistranslation of duḥkha as meaning suffering gives rise to much confusion in the West about what Buddhism is fundamentally about. I have explored duḥkha on many occasions and for the sake of brevity, we can accept that duḥkha means roughly ‘unsatisfactorieness.’ (Yes, I know that is not a word.) I don’t know who those first scholars were who chose these inadequate translations, but I do hope in the future Buddhist Teachers will stop using these highly negative and loaded words, and choose ones that actually convey the meaning more appropriately in Western language.

In the book, Crossing the Threshold of Hope by Pope John Paul II, he states; “The ‘enlightenment’ experienced by Buddha comes down to the conviction that the world is bad, that it is the source of evil and of suffering for man. To liberate oneself from this evil, one must free oneself from this world, necessitation a break with the ties that join us to external reality—ties existing in our human nature, in our psyche, in our bodies. The more we are liberated from these ties, the more we become indifferent to what is in the world, and the more we are freed from suffering, from the evil that has its source in the world.” I do not know what Sutra Pope John Paul was reading but maybe it was one of those translated in the nineteenth century. Buddha never said that life was bad, or that these attachments were ‘evil.’ This is typical of what happens in when such poor word choices are used to convey fundamental principles in Buddhism.

In the English language the word emptiness suggests the absence of meaning, as well as a personal feeling of alienation, however, in Buddhism the realization of the ‘boundlessness’ or ‘transparency’ of phenomena, at basic level, enables us to realize that all things which ultimately have no substance are trivial and not what we think they are, as our thinking is merely an overlay on top of experience. The fundamental nature of śūnyatā is before thought. Eventually, true realization of this doctrine will bring liberation from the limitations of form and appearance in this phenomenal world.

There are at least three ways in which śūnyatā can be experienced:

a) on an intellectual level

b) in meditation practice

c) as an explanation of the experience of before-thought

In theory, śūnyatā means that all constructs have no independent existence of their own, apart from reliance on other constructs. All constructs have no real, individual essences that distinguish them from all other constructs. In other words, everything in the world, both physical and mental, is interdependent with everything else in the world. The temporary existence of each is dependent on its relations with what is not it. There is no such thing as something existing entirely on its own, separate, and with no causal relation with anything else. That is, all constructs are empty of individual inherent being, also called ‘own-being’, ‘intrinsic nature’, or ‘self-nature’.

The five classifications of mind as set forth by Dòngshān Liángjie (807-869) one of the root teachers attributed with the founding of the Cáodòng House of Chan (Soto school in Japanese Zen). The study uses as its base the relative bifurcation of opposites know in the common consciousness of the delude masses. The opposites are: the absolute / the relative; the fundamental / the phenomenal; form / ground; one / many; etc.

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Kate said...

"In theory, śūnyatā means that all constructs have no independent existence of their own, apart from reliance on other constructs."

A bench is a bench because of what it is used for, and the determination we placed on it. If no one were ever going to sit down again, chairs and benches would cease to exist and they would start being whatever else we decided upon. A shirt is a shirt because I wear it, instead of cleaning things with it.

Things and even people are defined by the purpose they serve to something else. Nothing exists in a vacuum. And if it did, it would still be in a vacuum, which still gives it a relation to something.

colette said...

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