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Śūnyatā

As I’ve said before, someday I’m going to write a piece on “How to Translate Sanskrit Without Sounding Like a Total Goon.” After studying Buddhism for forty years, I really have started to think that the way we translate Sanskrit and to some extent Chinese gets in our way more than it helps.

Now, that’s not to say that some Buddhist concepts aren’t inherently a little difficult to grasp: after all, Gautama didn’t get to be the World-Honored One, Sage of the Shakyas, and so forth without having come up with something at least a little surprising. But sometimes I think the desire to make things seem Cool, and Interesting, and Deep, and Mystical leads to more difficulty in translation than it needs to.

So, today we’re going to consider a technical term in Buddhism that requires some thought and care to understand, and some caution when you see it. That term is Śūnyatā, or “emptiness.”

That term led to my friend Annie Gottlieb feeling like one of the paragraphs of my exegesis (there’s a word you don’t get to use every day) of the Heart Sutra just didn’t work. After I write this piece, I’ll go back and correct it, but I needed to talk about “emptiness”, and have something to refer to, before I could really do what I wanted. So let’s talk about “emptiness.”

The word isn’t all that complicated, or it wouldn’t seem so: the root word is the Sanskrit word for “zero”: Sunya. Sunyata (I’m not going to bother with the diacriticals any more), then, is just “zero-ness”.

I know: my, that’s helpful.

So let’s go back to my old familiar analogy, the game of pool. When you start out, the balls are neatly, if temporarily, racked in a nice triangle. Each time you make a shot, the balls are re-arranged, and as tempting as it is to think otherwise, it’s the exact details of how you hit the shot, the surface of the table, and the history or any flaws or chips, or changes in the balls, that determine what the arrangement of the balls will be when they come to a (temporary) stop.

Now, let’s shift our attention to my cat Kaleo, who happens to be sitting next to me right now. He’s a tuxedo cat, black and white, and he and his brother Ali’i have been with me since they were foundling kittens; the vet introduced them to my Abyssinian cat Radar while I was out of town once, because he was missing my Siamese cat Vashti, who had passed away at 17 a few months earlier. Consider everything that led to him sitting next to me, amusing me by his very presence: hundreds of cans of cat food, dozen of bags of dry food, vet visits and all; the affinity he had with Radar, so that I didn’t want to separate them; the fact that he happened to be in that vet’s office, that week.

He has probably consumed a hundred pounds of food since he came here, but he doesn’t weigh a hundred pounds — more like eight. Most every molecule or atom he has now is not a molecule that was part of the little kitten I brought home, and the cat I have today. While he has clear connections with the kitten (he still likes to hang upside down from the edge of my futon sofa), he also can’t or doesn’t do some things he used to do as a kitten. The particular arrangement of stuff that is a “Kaleo” sitting by my window is the product, the result, of trillions of little events down to the level of electrons and atoms and up to the level of the vet putting him into the same space as Radar one day in September.

But, then, where is Kaleo? No matter how much I look, I can’t find anything that is “Kaleo” except for the arrangement of atoms that persistence of memory, even persistence of vision, make out of the various tiny events that are continuously proceeding, all a result of cause and effect. Go back to our pool table, and we see the same thing, with much bigger pieces: the balls are in a neat triangular arrangement at first, then they’re scattered about apparently chaotically (except, if you watched a fast-forward video of the game, you’d see how each ball always ended up exactly where it had to go) and at the end, most all of the balls are gathered neatly into the pockets — before coming back to the nice triangle again.

This, then, is “emptiness”, “sunyata”. Not non-existence — pet Kaleo and he purrs; hit the cue ball and it clicks — but no independent existence: nothing we see exists independently of cause and effect, and there is nothing that we can point to that has some unchanging, unconditioned existence. So when we read the Heart Sutra, the prajñaparamitahridayasutra, we see that Avalokitesvara “saw (through) the five skandhas, saw they were empty of independent existence” this is what he/she saw:

  • look at the forms of things: beloved cats don’t exist independently, and neither do wars and disasters and television shows and iPods and pepper mills,
  • so nothing that comes of our perceptions of these forms can have unconditioned existence,
  • which means that nothing that comes to us as part of the mental formations that arise from the perceptions can have unconditioned existence,
  • which in turn means that when we identify those mental formations and connect them to our history, our language, our history, none of those connections can have unconditioned existence,
  • which means, finally, that our whole sense of ourselves, our sense of being “who we are”, can have no unconditioned existence.

(What about “souls”, you ask? Bodhidharma, the man Zen tradition says brought Buddhism to China, was asked just that question. He answered, “show me this soul thing you’re talking about and I’ll tell you if it has unconditioned existence.”)

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  1. [...] permanent and immutable soul.” The whole notion of a sense of self is “illusion” (Sunyata) and “consciousness” is specifically an epiphenomenon that arises as a result of [...]

  2. [...] web sites, as well as look things up in its built-in dictionary. Nice feature, but I looked up Śūnyatā and the letters with diacriticals just flat-out thwarted it: “Śūnyatā” comes out [...]

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