Musings on the Buddhist Concept of Shunyata: Emptiness Ain’t So Empty…

Stephen Hawking was famous for saying that ‘Black holes ain’t so black,’ and so the title here is more than a little bit coincidental, and in fact quite intentional, because the meanings of the two concepts—black holes and ‘shunyata’—are quite similar. Because if the Buddhist concept of ‘shunyata’ is usually translated as ‘emptiness,’ then that is by an English layman’s choice, and is not necessarily the best choice. And if that choice supposes that Buddhism is nihilistic, and that life is meaningless, then nothing could be further from the truth.

For Buddhism, and Indian philosophy in general, in fact has a long rich and varied history, and every bit the equal of its Greek counterpart on the other side of the great divide between East and West, even if the former is perhaps more spiritual and the latter more materialistic. But they share much common ground for thought, and this is probably no accident, considering that they both shared the northern steppes for a few thousand years and probably shared a few long discussions and debates before blazing campfires, in a proto-Indo-European language, before going their separate ways some 6-8000 years ago.

So if emptiness is not necessarily empty, then what is it? Well, first of all, the word ‘shunya’ means ‘zero,’ literally, as is easily attested in almost every modern language from the Indian subcontinent throughout Southeast Asia. And if you think that it’s cute and clever that Buddhists picked up on that and made it the cornerstone of the Mahayana school of Buddhism, then I can assure you that it is much more than that. Now this is not my PhD dissertation, so I won’t bore you with footnotes and inline citations. But remember that zero did not exist in Europe until the modern era and was not born simultaneously with the symbols that we now refer to as (Hindu) Arabic numerals.

In fact, Buddhist monks probably invented the zero, several hundred years before the Common Era, in concept, if not the actual graphic circle that now symbolizes it. Because a graphic representation of it probably existed in several different forms before that, most notably a simple dot. Now that makes sense, doesn’t it? So the concept preceded the circle as symbol, in that old ‘chicken-or-egg’ dispute, and likely right at home in a Buddhist monastery—or two.

And most importantly: the concept for Buddhist philosophical purposes and mathematical purposes were virtually indistinguishable, at least originally. Thus it became the starting point for all counting systems, for both simple positive numbers and the negative numbers (and fractions) to come, and as a ‘place-holder’ for subsequent ‘powers of ten’ (or other base number, when you get tired of using your fingers), which can be represented by an exponent for the higher powers and calculations, thus proving the primacy of concept over symbol.

And so it is with our lives, and the world in which we live, i.e. reality. We were not born with a ‘Guide to the Galaxy’ in our cribs and in our hands, so we have to create our existences to best match our experiences. And the concept of zero, or ‘shunyata,’ works well in this regard, whether as starting point, or as place-holder, or as a simple symbol of purity and cleanliness, unfettered by the corrupt influences of desire, lust, hatred, greed, or anger. And this is the point of departure between our Greek and Indian influences.

Because our Western culture insists that our lives be ‘full,’ even if that means that they are noisy, cluttered, smelly, and combative. That is what passes for ‘life-affirming’ in Western parlance, even if ultimately the logical conclusion is annihilation, as we see with war, global climate change, and the massive extinction of species (viruses are not a species). Buddhism, and Asian ‘renunciative’ traditions, on the other hand, based on ‘shunyata’ in spirit if not letter, are accused of being ‘life-denying’ because of their quieter nature. Silence is a perfect example of ‘shunyata’ in practice.

And there are many other examples, even if the extension of non-self ‘anatta’ is the best example of the importance of ‘shunyata’ to Buddhism. In this paradigm not only is the self, or soul, empty of independent and eternal existence, but so is everything else, also. This is fundamental and critical to the reduction of egotism in our lives, as the primary means to remove the craving and grasping that are epidemic to our level of suffering. Or should I say ‘pandemic?’ There is no better illustration than in the Eastern and Western responses to the Coronavirus.

Because in the East zero—emptiness—can, and should, be normal, and the number of Covid cases reflects that. When the numbers start rising, then societies must lock down until that zero-ness is achieved. Western societies, on the other hand, insist on fullness and the Covid statistics reflect that. If the number of Covid cases is too high, then societies might curtail some activities, but never a total lockdown, and zero is not the goal, in fact unimaginable. So the deaths are exponential (love that zero) and the suffering is great.

In East Asia, on the other hand, it’s inconvenient, sure, but no big deal, no protests in the streets, no big fuss over masks. You do what you have to do. Weight control is an even better example of the practical applications of the concept. If you always eat to fill up, and never go empty, and are never really hungry, then you will be fat—definitely. If, on the other hand, you eat only when you’re hungry, and never really stuff the gut, then you will likely have a reasonable weight, and a balanced life. Could work for alcoholism, too. And then there’s meditation, probably the best application for Emptiness. Did you know that many alphabets have a zero consonant? Emptiness works…