Buddhism, shunyata and the cult of zero…

IMG_1559The Buddhist doctrine of shunyata is one of its most famous, and the one that put Mahayana Buddhism on the map, a full step beyond what was envisioned with the original teachings of the Buddha, yet well within that purview. It is usually translated as ’emptiness’ or ‘voidness’, though I prefer ‘zero-ness’, in recognition of the fact that the word ‘shunya’ or ‘sunya’ literally means just that, zero, and in the modern standard language of every Theravada Buddhist country today, still means just that, or a derivation thereof…

And if that sounds a bit spacey and abstract, it’s probably best thought of as an extended version of the Buddha’s doctrine of anatta or ‘no-self’, or no soul or no ego, i.e. no intrinsic reality to the human personality, which, according to this theory, is merely a collection of (s)kandhas, literally ‘heaps’ of transient characteristics with no permanence…When extrapolated into shunyata, the doctrine asserts that it is not only the self or soul that has no intrinsic reality, but nothing, absolutely nothing, has intrinsic reality, notwithstanding the obvious appearances of real people in a material world in which everything seems to have a certain ‘realness’ to it, which is ‘conventional’ reality, or what I would call ‘common-sense’ reality…

(It should be noted that this is not much different from the logical conclusions to be drawn from a thorough consideration of the implications of the reality depicted by quantum mechanics: things are not real, not really)

But ‘shunya’ also means ‘center’ in many of the languages of that SE Asian Theravada group that I know of, and so fits well within the meaning of the English-language phrase ‘ground zero’. And, though obviously related, this is something entirely different from any concept of ’emptiness’ or ‘void’ or ‘nothingness’, but not so different at all from the concept of ‘zero’ or ‘zero-ness’, a concept which was being fleshed-out, if not outright invented, at the very time of Buddha, in the very place of the Buddha…

(BTW the Buddha’s old stomping grounds of Pataliputra, modern Patna, was one of the largest and most important cities of the world at the time, as was Chang’an in China, modern Xi’an)…

And if the ’emptiness’ aspect of ‘shunyata’ merges well with the earlier Buddhist doctrine of ‘no-self’, then the ‘center’ aspect of ‘shunyata’ also merges well with the well-established Middle Path, almost identical in fact—almost—the concepts of center and middle, and closely related to the concept of ‘half’, because that’s exactly what a center creates—in two dimensions, just as a zero is at the center of any number scheme, which is linear, i.e. two dimensions, composed of a myriad number of possible points…

But zero created a true center for the first time, not just a half-way point between two random extremes, but a point at the middle of everything, and every conceivable point along any given line, for once any sort of count is begun, the same count in negative numbers is not only possible, but it is inevitable. And so the Middle Path becomes a central path, and this is critical, because we do not live in two dimensions…

But the role of zero is even more than that of a void, or a center, of course, as it is both a multiplier and divider numerically, usually considered its status as a ‘place-holder’, i.e. it holds the count of each power of ten as a variable count either increases or decreases in a lower power of ten, like a pitcher filling up drop by drop, i.e. one by one. So no matter how many zeros a number has, as long as it has at least a single one, then it exists, the more zeroes the larger, or smaller…

So what are the implications of zero for our lives and our world? A few weeks ago scientists announced that they had found a large amount of the missing matter in the universe, i.e. in their calculations of the universe’s mass. Of course they found no real ‘stuff’, they merely found that their equations were incomplete. This illustrates how a misplaced zero can have manifold ramifications…

In our own lives the implications are more prosaic. Have you ever heard the expression: “You need to be more centered.” In other words, you are too scattered, emotionally and/or intellectually. You are not focused. You are all over the place with your preferences and your prejudices and your half-baked opinions. I’ve heard all this, mostly echoing in my own mind…

So what can we do about it? For one thing: meditate, create zeroes, space-holders, safe havens, psychologically, while we cross borders, both internal and external, like water tanks spaced incrementally across the Sonoran Desert to ensure safe travel. For another: create parks within cities, with one big one right at the center, preferably. And then: leave space between yourself and others, neutral ground to interact, neither one stepping on the other’s turf. Relationships work better this way. Then again: leave empty space in which to work, and play, and act, and be. You don’t begin a board game with a full board. Life is better this way IMHO...

So shunyata is not nothingness, because zero is not nothing, and because there is always something there to contain and define that emptiness. In fact any perceived emptiness could just as easily be perceived as vastness, if not infinity. Let’s say you have a bowl, but there is nothing in it, so the average bloke would be excused for thinking that it is empty, worthless, and of little use for ordinary purposes, BUT…

It defines a certain space, does it not? Just like the lowly zero, which gave its name and its life to the subject of shunyata, the possibilities are endless. So is Dark Matter shunyata? Is the unperceived, perhaps unperceivable, silent majority of our common-sense universe really just a problem of perception? Was Einstein wrong in his basic assumption that the laws of physics must apply equally throughout? Is the universe Swiss cheese? I sense a physicist or two snickering. Me, I’m hungry…