Layers of Emptiness

I had intended to post another installment of the Dalai Lama’s commentary on The Precious Garland today, but I thought I would slip this in beforehand because it has some relevance. I read on Brad Warner’s blog that Nishijima Roshi in his translation of Nagarjuna’s “Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way” (Mulamadhyamaka-karika), uses “the balanced state” for the Sanskrit word shunyata, which most of us know as “emptiness.” Some people may find it confounding. I like it.

Apparently, Nishijima is quite aware that “emptiness is the accepted translation of shunyata” but he feels it does not convey Nagarjuna’s full meaning. I think “the balanced state” is consistent with Nagarjuna’s conception of shunyata, or sunyata. But it doesn’t capture the full scope of the concept either. No one phrase or word can. I do feel that it gets a bit confusing to use a variety of different words for any single Buddhist term, but that is a personal preference. Emptiness seems good enough, as long as we understand that when we use that word in a Buddhist context, it has several layers of meaning.

Sunya, a Sanskrit word, literally means “zero” or “nothing.” In some cases, this gives the mistaken impression that sunyata means “nothingness”, but it doesn’t. Not quite. Wikipedia says, “Sunya comes from the root svi, meaning swollen, plus –ta -ness, therefore hollow ( – ness).” For this reason, sometimes “void” or “voidness” is used.

Nishijima is not out on a limb all by himself with “the balanced state.” Dr. Venkata Ramanan, in his work, Nagarjuna’s Philosophy, uses a number of definations for sunyata: as “devoidness”; “as the essential (mundane as well as ultimate) nature of things”; “as criticism that lays bare the truth of things”; “as non-substantiality, nonultimacy, conditionness, and relativity of things”; “as the indeterminate, unconditioned, undivided, unutterable nature of reality”; “as Nirvana”; “as samata (sameness)”; and “as harmony, integration, non-exclusivness.”

And they are all correct.

Another term Ramanan uses in association with sunyata, one that seems similar to Nishijima’s “balanced state”, is “the undivided being.” Ramanan writes,

The ultimate nature of man is the undivided being: In regard to the nature and destiny of the human individual, this has the profound significance that man as a specific, determinate individual is not absolutely confined to his determinate nature. As an individual, man is essentially related to the rest of the world. He is also not apart from the indeterminate reality which is the ultimate ground of his very being. and in his ultimate nature man is himself the indeterminate, unconditioned reality, the undivided being. The ultimate meaning of the sense of lack, the sense of devoidness (sunyata), which is the thirst for the real [dharmaisana or ‘seeking, longing’], Nagarjuna would say, lies in the realization of this real nature of oneself.”

Since I have not read Nishijima’s work, which I gather will be published soon, I have no real idea of how he envisions “the balanced state” as sunyata, but judging merely from the words themselves, it seems that realizing this “undivided being” fully would put one in a state of balance, and as well, on The Middle Way, the balanced path, which Nagarjuna also equates with sunyata.

The most basic meaning of sunyata, however, is in the context of “svabhava-sunya” or the emptiness (absence) of self-being. In tomorrow’s post, the Dalai Lama will talk about the emptiness of self and phenomena. The Buddha in his teachings only went so far as to posit the emptiness of self. It was Nagarjuna and the Mahayana who later extended sunyata to include all phenomena.

Nishijima’s “balanced state” coincides with one other layer of meaning Nagarjuna has for sunyata, that of samata or “sameness.”


Samata: The ultimate nature of things. The svabhava-sunyata, is also called samata (sameness) to mean the essential sameness of things in their true nature . . . The bodhisattva who comprehends the essential sameness of all beings as well as of their constituent elements holds his mind ‘in balance’ and fares with equanimity of mind.”

I have always thought of sunyata or emptiness as being the great equalizer. It equalizes all people, all races, all nationalities, all concepts – everything is equally empty. Naturally, this is meant in the ultimate sense. In the mundane or conventional sense, there are of course differences between people and things. The point is that from the higher ground of transcendent wisdom, sunyata renders these differences as incidental, or actually, meaningless. Sunyata pulls the rug out from everything that can be an object to seize and cling to, and in this way, emptiness is a tool to sever the attachments born from fundamental ignorance.

There is more to say on this subject, but this will suffice for now. Sunyata is a complex term. I also like the idea of emptiness as “openness.” We cannot fit all the things in the world into nice, neat compact little boxes. Reality is open, like space, and to approach this openness, we need to be open to numerous layers of emptiness. I suppose you could say that to understand sunyata, one needs an “empty” mind.

Ramanan quotes Nagarjuna from the Treatise on the Prajna-paramita Sutra:

The samata [sameness] of all things is not made by anyone . . . not even by the Buddha. Whether there are the Buddhas or there are not the Buddhas, the true nature of all things remains eternally sunya. This svabhava-sunyata [emptiness of self-being] is itself Nirvana.”


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