Zero: the Middle Path between Buddhism and Mathematics…

Zero (shunya) is not just emptiness but boundlessness, capable of multiplying one (or any number) exponentially. Shunyata is the Buddhist concept of emptiness, of course, usually seen as an extension of the non-self anatta concept, which serves as one of the founding pillars of Buddhism, but which to this day is also one of the most-debated, if not quite so much as karma and reincarnation. But if shunya was there at the beginning, it only picked up steam later, finally finding a home in the emerging Mahayana school of Buddhism, the ‘large vehicle’ which incorporates such disparate philosophies as the Dadaist notions of Japanese Zen and the Kabbalistic leanings of Tibetan Vajrayana.

But Mahayana also incorporates much of Chinese Taoism by most accounts, and possibly even Greek platonic idealism, if my hunches are correct. That the word shunya means ‘zero’ is undeniable. Many Asian languages can attest to that simple fact. Its translation into English as ‘emptiness’ can be debated, though, as well as the historical fact as to which came first: the graphic symbol 0 or the philosophical concept variously described as ‘emptiness’, ‘voidness’, or probably best—simply ‘zero-ness’, with all that term implies and denies. Most recently it implies ‘boundlessness’, by Japanese translator Tazuaki Tanahashi. This is a great improvement over previous connotations of nihilism and desolation.

After all, in Western psychology ‘emptiness’ is generally considered a feeling to be avoided at all costs, and best treated with pharmaceuticals, if all else fails. American-style Buddhism has many divergences from the original, of course, and might even be considered ‘Buddha-flavored Christianity’, but that is another issue. The issue at hand is whether ‘boundlessness’ is indeed an accurate translation of shunyata or whether that is just wishful thinking, and careful marketing for the particular predilections of the Western lands. I think it is not only accurate, but enlightened, as long as it is used in conjunction with the concept of ‘emptiness’ or ‘voidness’. We are talking about ‘zero’, after all, and while that can mean ‘nothing’, it can also mean ‘infinity’, in that the simple addition of zeroes, in place notation, by definition implies an infinity in the act of multiplication, i.e. powers of ten.

While I personally wouldn’t define shunyata by that one exclusive synonym, I am happy to use it in conjunction with the more traditional translation of emptiness. The truth might lie somewhere in between, at least in passing. So this is more like the Mahayanist ‘middle path’ than the Theravada, the middle path between existence and non-existence, not simple luxury and lack. And this was India’s supreme initial contribution to mathematics, back when simple addition and subtraction were the order of the day, and division and multiplication must have been a complicated affair. It would have been with no zero, yes? The interesting fact is that we still had decimal systems even without the zero. Why? Good question.